Photo by Ayanna M. U’Dongo. Album art from With The Key[Sissies]:The Very Best of Deep Dickollective (Far right: Juba Kalamka)
Should anyone currently in the game tell you that they are the world’s — the Bay’s, New York’s — first gay — queer, trans — rapper, smile politely and know better.
This thing happens every five years: queer rappers emerge, achieve some sort of critical mass (enough to inspire a few trend pieces, perhaps a documentary), and sadly, are subsumed into other art scenes, or life in general. Sans commercial recognition, they’re forgotten by the next generation of queer rappers and their fanbase and especially the media, who love the oh my god look at this gay who has somehow emerged in this most homophobic of genres! angle better than many things. Here at AHDM4U we’re not not-guilty — the subject of the interview you’re about to read let us know that, contrary to the thrust of our last issue’s piece on out Baltimore rapper DDM, Maryland has seen queer hip-hop in the not-so-distant past.
In the interest in fighting cultural amnesia, we chatted with Juba Kalamka, Bay Area performance artist and member of the 2000s-era East Bay group Deep Dickollective, comprised at one point of 11 beautiful queer men who formed the project after experiencing pushback from the Bay’s so-called progressive spoken word scene. They were hardly under-the-radar — in 2003, the group took home the Best in the Bay award from (Caitlin’s alma mater) the San Francisco Bay Guardian for “Best Hip-Hop Group”.
Born in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood — Martin Luther King Jr.’s symbolic Northern center of the civil rights movement and, as Kalamka points out, site of massive riots upon King’s assassination — Kalamka started performing in the late 1980s, and founded the PeaceOUT World Homo Hop Festival, a yearly gathering of LGBT-identified artists that continued until 2007.
AHDM4U: What are your earliest memories of hip-hop?
Juba Kalamka: My earliest memories were of hearing the few formally identified as “rap” records that made a national impression on black radio from around 1979-81. The typical stuff: Sugarhill Gang, Jimmy Spicer, Sequence. My mom was a big Gil Scott-Heron fan, and I became one as a little kid in the mid-1970s after hearing his stuff at the fish fry fundraisers organized by the Afrocentrist school I attended, and seeing him on Saturday Night Live around the same time. Interestingly enough, I didn’t make any real connection to [hip-hop] until Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five’s (GMF) “The Message” dropped in 1982, as most of the songs I’d heard up to that point were party jams that weren’t activism-oriented, as I understood what that was.
AHDM4U: Tell us about your first experiences performing hip-hop? Where did you perform, for what kinds of audiences?
JK: I first began performing hip-hop with a West side [of Chicago] crew called Raw Material in 1988. The members were a couple of guys who were a bit older than me that I played baseball with regularly. I later performed in a couple of crews that were offshoots of that group until late 1989. The talent show gigs were cool. All the others excepting [opening for longrunning Chicago group] Grand Mother’s Funck show kinda sucked as there was little or no regard for rap groups at the time. Many of the shows were token gestures by someone’s uncle who ran a club to get a kid to shut up and go away (smile). [AHDM4U NOTE: The “smile” ‘s were Kalamka’s own additions — they mainly serve to throw shade throughout the interview, so we ruled they stay.]
In mid-1991 I began performing with a group called He Who Walks Three Ways that I founded with a club kid-promoter named Duro Wicks, who I’m friends with to this day. Duro was hosting a hip-hop open mic on the near-Northwest side of town that later expanded into an extremely popular weekly event where 200 different soloists and groups performed from January to August 1992. This was also the first context in which I regular got paid for performing and promoting. From 1991-1994 we opened for a few major label acts: Arrested Development, Volume 10, Del The Funky Homosapien, Souls of Mischief, Common. 15 year-old Kanye West did beats for one of the last demo/EPs we did. His mom, who I met through my ex-wife, was chair of the English department at Chicago State University while I was a student there. It was an amazing learning experience for me and a very special time in Chicago’s hip hop scene. I got an education on both what to do and not to do as an indie promoter and performer (smile).
AHDM4U: How do you think your experience compares to that of queer rappers coming up today? Has hip-hop changed in regards to LGBT acceptance?
JK: I think my experience differed largely because the mechanisms that drove indie cultural production were in nascent stages and were largely antagonized by mainstream music industry, which eventually saw their potential and has largely co-opted many of the paradigms it was adamantly against previously.
My experience was different from that of my peers in the late 1990s-early 2000s because I’d been an emcee long before I came out, so the idea of being an out performer carried a waaay different meaning. It was about getting free, having fun, self-actualization. I had been through all of the carrot-on-a-stick game of trying to get signed and had learned about how record deals are by nature designed to exploit, so I wasn’t interested. I’ve never had any idea that the relative or conditional acceptance of queer rappers by straight rappers would mean anything other that homonormalization for queer performers in a gay married kinda way (smile). Still black/non-white, still women, still poor, still disabled, still trans- and gender non-conforming and the like.
That said, I’ve never been waiting for hip-hop cultural narratives to change, because they reflect as opposed to generating all the –isms I described above. That isn’t to say there aren’t scads of people who participate in hip-hop cultural production of all sorts who have different sets of relative privileges, but I think it’s important to acknowledge how much bigger this is than a rap record and the way the overculture discourages thoughtful, deconstructionist dialogues on real power and privilege and how they function.
AHDM4U: Do you think we are at an ascendant moment when it comes to queer hip-hop right now?
JK: That would depend on what you mean by “ascendant”. If that means there’s a larger content mill and as a result a need for more grist, then yes, there are more opportunities for openly LGBT/queer identified rappers to climb the ladder to the plank to jump into the mill. If you mean that there’s some door to mainstream commercial viability for said performers that exists now that didn’t in 2002, I’d say no, not at all.
The mainstream music industry is a bottom-line business, and that’s been never been truer than it is today. An easy shorthand way to think about it: If I have say a Drake, who’s visual aesthetics mirror that of young gay party boys, or a Lady Gaga, who’s cribbed queer culture to death with great success, why would I bother with an out queer rapper and attempt to wade/market through the homophobia of the general audience, let alone my own? There have been out queer rappers for years, all different kinds. It’s still indie music. Mainstream audiences — straight, gay whatever — have never supported indie music on a wholesale basis. It’s about lifestyle culture. Nobody wants to be a weirdo; Most people want to be in the group that’s talking about last night’s American Idol ep around the water cooler or in the cafeteria.
Most LGBT folk, in my experience, like their “gay” as straight as possible, whatever they think that looks and sounds like in a particular moment. And that’s their right. And it’s the right of any artist to try to fit in at any given moment should they choose to. But it’s not something I’m interested in.
I should be honest and say, with regard to my former group Deep Dickollective, that no matter what we said or did, our relative normativity was a part of our appeal for many people. Had any of us been stereotypically queeny or femme-y, gender non-conforming, visibly disabled, working class, we wouldn’t have made the bit of impression that we did. We might not have lasted as long as we did as a group, even. It did what it did though (smile).
AHDM4U: Why are we constantly saying “first gay rappers”? Why is it so easy to forget the history of gay hip-hop?
JK: Capitalism encourages that in order to keep selling and re-selling shit to the masses and making them feel like shit if they don’t have the “new” whatever. It’s like Sarah McLachlan shilling the Lilith Fair in the mid 1990s as if it was the first women’s music fair, when Michigan Women’s Music Festival had been around since 1973, and other iterations of similar events before that. I think that most people understand intellectually that everything is derivative, but don’t and can’t deal with that as a functional and creative reality if they are trying to fit into a star-making machine. I for one, love that Janelle Monae’s vocal yelping and ad libs sound just like Foster Sylvers … though her publicists might be loathe to point that out (smile).
AHDM4U: Tell us about your role in creating PeaceOUT Homo Hop Festival? Why was it discontinued?
JK: Pete King, who was the chair-president of the old East Bay Pride in Oakland (1996-2003), approached me about doing a hip-hop event after he heard Deep Dickollective. I told him no, because I was tired of Pride festivals shitting on local performers and paying washed up new wave and disco acts $15,000 to come and grace us with their presence for 15 minutes. He understood, and was honest with me that he really didn’t dig rap records but felt that what we were doing was significant and politically important and that hip-hop performance should be an element of EBP because it was, to Pete’s credit, absolutely community and activist-oriented.
My former bandmate Tim’m West had organized an event at Stanford University called “Cypher 99” in 1999 that had elements of hip-hop, spoken word, and visual art. He organized Cypher 2000:ONE in 2001 with UK DJ Mister Maker as a part of East Bay Pride. I came into EBP in 2002, and organized what became PeaceOUT – which was incidentally, a name that Pete came up with. The event continued to develop and reached its peak around 2005 or so, coinciding with the release of Alex Hinton’s documentary Pick Up The Mic. EBP closed after the 2003 event, so Outpunk Records owner Matt Wobensmith split the costs of the 2004 event with myself, and largely underwrote the 2005 and 2006 events. The 2007 event was completely produced by myself.
I’d planned to do the event biannually after 2007 but the economic difficulty as well as the lack of interest made me scrap those plans; I was running Deep Dickollective, Sugartruck Recordings, working a job, completing grad school, and raising a kid with my partner, so I was hella busy as well. It had become way easier to promote and sell product through the ‘Net – and performers could quickly get the relative large-scale corroboration they sought from a MySpace page [as compared to] a show (or series of shows) with 100-odd people in the audience. Additionally, I think it had become clear to many people that PeaceOUT (and it’s sister events in London, England, Atlanta and NYC) was not a Star Search-like road to mainstream music industry acceptance and validation, so that affected the interest as well.