Catching the Incurable Contagion: Black Los Angeles' Disco Queers | KCET
Catching the Incurable Contagion: Black Los Angeles' Disco Queers
To Catch. Catch (transitive verb).
To capture or seize especially after pursuit.
To Catch. The Incurable. Contagion.
A disease-producing agent.
To Catch. Catch (verb). To grasp and hold on to.
Something in motion.
To Catch. The Holy Ghost.
Contagion. An influence that spreads rapidly.
To Feel. The Spirit.
A shout. A groove. A motion.
Emotion In motion.
To be. Transformed again.
The body succumbs.
To(o) something else...
- Kai M. Green with some help from Merriam-Webster.com
Ishmael Reed calls it Jes Grew in his 1972 novel, "Mumbo Jumbo:"
In Reed's novel, the Jes Grew virus is a personification of ragtime, jazz, and physical freedom. The initial virus carriers were Black artists in the 1920s, but it infects more than just Black bodies. The virus or the spirit is a separate entity that sought to be caught so that it might manifest itself as text via the body.
In the novel, the Jes Grew virus of the 1920s is eventually suppressed. The novel closes in the 1970s. Main character, Professor Papa LaBas gives his annual Jes Grew lecture at the University at this time. Jes Grew of the 1920s is history now, but Professor Papa Labas posits to his students that this 1970s moment is much like that former moment in the 1920s and perhaps Jes Grew will once again seek and catch bodies so that its texts might be manifest. In order for the virus to take, it needs bodies to move with music or as music.
The 1970s is a decade popularly imagined in the U.S. as a bell-bottom funk, disco soul trainin', free lovin', psychedelic drug induced state of being, that occurred in lava lamp lit living rooms or outside. Living out loud and out of the closet. These were the disco years and how fitting that Reed's novel would suggest the 1970s as the decade for Jes Grew's return.
The power of Black music and sound to ignite spirit-shifts and movement, both physically and psychically has been documented in numerous popular and academic works. This is especially true when it comes to the study of gospel music. Gospel sound seeps into other genres like funk, R&B and disco, and usually it is because the artists has in someway come from out of the Black Protestant church and carried that sound with them.
Archbishop Carl Bean founded Unity Fellowship Church in 1982, a Black LGBT affirming church, located in South Los Angeles, on Jefferson just west of La Brea. In 1985, Archbishop Bean and members of Unity Fellowship Church founded the Minority Aids Project, the first community based HIV/AIDS organization established and managed by people of color in the United States.
Archbishop Bean is a prime example of an artist with gospel music roots who transitions into a new genre, disco, yet carries that sound into the new. Archbishop Bean came to California in the 1970s after having spent years in New York and Chicago as a professional gospel singer. During those years, he sang with the "Gospel Chimes" and the "Gospel Wonders," and the Alex Bradford Singers. He also had a theatrical career where he performed in plays like Langston Hughes', "Black Nativity."
Archbishop Bean left Chicago and the Alex Bradford Singers in order to pursue a solo career. He was working in a department store in Los Angeles and singing lead in the group Universal Love, which was signed to ABC Records. After hearing Archbishop Bean sing on the "Gotta Be Some Change" album (Carl Bean and Universal Love, ABC Records, 1974.), producers at Motown reached out to him to record "I Was Born This Way," which reached number 14 on the Billboard disco charts. "I Was Born This Way" was first recorded by Black gay disco singer, Valentino, 1975. It was then re-recorded and re-released by Carl Bean in 1977. Both artists recorded on the Motown label. The song was written by Chris Spierer and Bunny Jones.
In my interview with Archbishop Bean he spoke about the relationship between disco and gospel. He says, "If you really listen to the back beat of disco, it is the rhythm of the Black shout ... Most of us that were successful ... Most of us were recruited out of Black gospel music."
Disco music became a site of convergence. It was where the sacred and the secular met. It was also a space of reconciliation for many Black queers who experienced the Christian church as a site of violence and alienation. The church was a place where Black queers might be at once be damned to hell and embraced as vital members of the congregation, often times serving as leaders in musical and other administrative positions.
Some Black queer disco singers like Archbishop Carl Bean and the popular Sylvester left the church and its homophobia, but they carried with them the music -- that gospel spirit -- and the ability to use music to facilitate movement. They may have changed genres, but that gospel funk -- the shout, that body-moving elixir -- would not be left behind, only transformed.
Black queer studies scholar, E. Patrick Johnson, examines the ways in which Black gay communities reconcile and challenge the imagined distance between the sacred and the secular in his essay, "Feeling the Spirit in the Dark." He writes:
When the infected, and infected refers here to Black queers who are members of churches that do not affirm LGBTQ identities, refuse to acknowledge their homosexuality as illness, exorcism may take place in multiple ways. There are people, church clergy and lay members, who literally attempt to rid the person of the "sinsickness" through prayer and a command to "come out!" If removing the demon from the body doesn't work, sometimes the response is denial and silence. Another response to a gay demon that refuses to leave the body may be exorcism that materializes as a literal removal of the queer body from the church.
Many like Archbishop Bean left the church because of homophobia. Later, of course, he would open the doors of Unity Fellowship Church in order to create a safe space for Black and other LGBT people of color. This place of worship was affirming while also maintaining a culturally Black Pentecostal style of worship. Here was a place where a Black queer person could bring their whole selves without fear of exorcism of a spirit within the body or fear excommunication from a whole church community.
Like Archbishop Bean, disco icon Sylvester was raised in Black Pentecostal church, Palm Lane Church of God and Christ in Los Angeles. He was a popular gospel performer in California, but left the church in order to pursue performance of another kind. He first began performing with the drag trope the Cocketts in 1970, but he would eventually leave the group to begin his solo career.
Sylvester went on to produce disco hits like "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" and "Dance (Disco Heat)" (1978) with his two back up singers Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes, also known as The Two Tons O' Fun.
Sylvester was not only known for his blatant embrace of homosexuality, but also his gender transgression. Sylvester as a solo artist, never saw himself as doing drag. According to Alice Echol's book, "Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture," "When the guest host Joan Rivers of 'The Tonight Show' asked him if he wasn't in fact a drag queen, he replied, 'Joan, honey, I'm not a drag queen. I'm Sylvester!'" He was simply being Sylvester. His androgynous-to-effeminate stylings -- what he wore and also his choice to sing in higher keys usually designated for women -- were challenges to normative notions of Black masculinity in sight and in sound. His being Sylvester was also a challenge to what Echol defines as "The Gay Macho," which has the ability to mask homosexuality in its adherence to heteronormative performances of masculinity.
Listen to Sylvester's 1978 hit You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) and it will give you a sense of the ways in which the gospel shout was evoked in disco music performance.
Did you catch that?
Contagion works in multiple ways, illuminating the spirit that can move or be moved. Contagion can imply an illness or a virus that has the ability to harm populations of people. At the same time, what one group may think of as a virus, as in the Jes Grew virus from Reed's novel, another group may believe it to be the source of liberation, just waiting for someone to catch it and spread it.
BLK magazine is one of the sites I examine in my dissertation, "Into the Darkness: Black Queer Los Angeles (Re)Membered" in order to better understand the ways in which Black LGBT folk created and continue to create and struggle over Black and simultaneously queer space and place making projects in Los Angeles, 1972-present.
In January 1989, the second issue of BLK magazine (tag line: where the news is colored on purpose) was published. BLK was a Black lesbian and gay magazine created and edited by Los Angeles native, Alan Bell.The first issues of BLK magazine always made it a point to highlight the deaths of Black lesbian and gay persons. Eventually this kind of memorial would have it's own section in the magazine called, Black Veil. The second issue's cover story was entitled, "Remembering Sylvester: The Icon of a Whole Generation of Gay Men Passed Away December 16th, 1988." Bell writes:
Bell articulates Sylvester's queerness which was viewed as such even by some within the Black Lesbian and Gay communities. Despite, and sometimes because of Sylvester's gender variance, people loved him. There was something about his ability to make people loose it on the dance floor. To loose is to unhinge. To loose is to provide the opportunity of freedom movement. To loose is the gift Bell attributes to Sylvester and his music. This loosening through disco sound and glam, was a loosening of a strict gender binary code, but it was also about dancing, allowing the body to be in motion. According to Bell, disco was something that gay would never be able to get out of their blood, and perhaps something they would not want to get out. The language here is no doubt telling of the times and the ways in which HIV/AIDS was killing folk all over, but especially Black folk who were often times abandoned by families and churches because of the stigma related to HIV/AIDS, death and homosexuality. For many in Black communities and outside, the deaths of Black queer bodies were not of note or newsworthy because they were homosexual and/or Black. But Bell's use of play on the words contagion and testing positive, bring a certain kind of revaluation of Black queer life in the face of rampant death.
Though Sylvester had died, just like Jes Grew there was a spirit that had been caught. That spirit that was loosed escapes even death. Much like Jes Grew, disco is articulated here as a virus, but the kind that is radical in that it might be able to be suppressed but never fully contained. Sylvester's actual death does not preclude the reproduction of his spirit, his sound, the beat that facilitates movement is indeed, incurable.
Contagion manifest itself in multiple ways here. One is the reality of a disease, the HIV/AIDS virus that kills people -- this becomes for conservative Black churches in the 80s synonymous with homosexuality. But the second kind of contagion is the kind of spirit that we think of when we think of the holy ghost or the gospel shout, which allows a loosening in the body and the spirit a possible means towards libratory transgression.
Black Queer people and Queer people of color have created and continue to create space and place for themselves in hostile environments that are unable to fully hold Black and Queer simultaneously. Like Archbishop Bean's Unity Fellowship church, Jewel Thais-Williams' club The Catch One, provided and still provides a space for Black LGBT folk in Los Angeles to bring their full selves. The Catch One first opened in 1972, an alternative to clubs like Studio One which had a reputation for asking women and Black people for 3-5 forms of idenification in order to enter. The Catch One is a physical place in Los Angeles where one can go to catch the spirit, and will be celebrating its 40th year anniversary at the end of this month (For more information go here) with many events and opportunities to feel the Black Queer spirit and be loosed.
A version of this article was first presented by Kai Green at the 2013 Experience Music Project presented in Los Angeles.