Before voguing made it’s mainstream debut via Madonna in 1990 and the classic Jennie Livingston doc Paris is Burning in the same year, voguing was a dance pioneered by black drag queens in the 1960’s NYC Harlem ballroom era. The dance itself began as an admiration of the lifestyle of the rich and the famous, the fifth ave steppers and high fashion magazine models and their poses- hence the name. By the 80’s, as shown in Paris is Burning, the dance evolved into a form of shade and was used to distinguish who was legendary and who wasn’t. One such legend was Willi Ninja, the mother of the House of Ninja who not only mastered the dance form but aspired to take voguing from the ballroom to the real Paris and make the real Paris burn. And did he ever.
Androgynous Rhythm and Blues singer Jackie Shane rose to fame in the early 1960’s in Montreal and amassed a huge Toronto fan base. While his rise to fame could be credited to his Canadian following, Jackie was born and raised in Nashville Tennessee and grew up around music. The home of country music developed a growing jazz movement in the 1950’s and in his teenage years, Jackie lived with Nashville’s Queen of the Blues Marion James.
“Models pose in clothes. People live in them” was the mantra of revered fashion designer Willi Smith. His designs pushed the boundaries of fashion from as early as 1976 creating affordable street-wise clothing that rejected the notion “we the rich can dress up and have fun, and the rest can dress in blazers and slacks”
Patrick Kelly was a Mississippi born fashion aficionado who rose to fame in Paris in the 1980’s for his eccentric yet elegant women’s designs. His creations were worn by the likes of Princess Diana, Bette Davis, Grace Jones, Jane Seymour and Madonna to name a few. He was adored in the Paris fashion world and was the first American to be voted into elite Parisian fashion designers society Chambre Syndicale joining the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld and Christian Lacroix among others.
With all that’s happened to the Black Community lately, I’ve been feeling a void. A void for justice, for racial harmony, for more queer-positive role models of colour… From the Michael Brown murder to the proceeding Ferguson Riots and Black Lives Matter movement to the epic failure of the Academy Awards in their decision not to nominate more actors and directors of colour; it feels like the etchings of a new Civil Rights Movement. One in which not only minorities, women and the disabled have a voice but also the LGBT community- specifically our Transgendered brothers and sisters.
So my contribution to this new unified movement is to shine a light on some queer specific black brilliance. Lately way too much of my time has been spent feeling jilted about the outright racist bullshit that’s happened and continues to happen in our society. So this month I’ll be spotlighting black LGBT identified powerhouses that left a unique mark on the worlds of fashion, art, music, political activism and mainstream culture.