Strike A Pose? Voguing, Ballroom & Cultural Appropriation
, November 11th, 2013 09:31
Niall Connolly explores some of the more thorny issues surrounding cultural appropriation of music and culture from strongly localised or marginalised communities - in this case, voguing and ballroom in the US
Photographs by Chantal Regnault
My name is Niall Connolly, aka The Niallist, and I am a UK-based music producer, DJ and writer. In the past I have released my music through some notable labels (Dissident, Eskimo/Radius, Lo Recordings) but am now channeling all my efforts into the alias CUNT TRAXXX, aka CVNT.
CVNT is directly inspired by the American ballroom/vogue scene, and in particular artists like Vjuan Allure, Kevin Prodigy, Divoli S'Vere and MIkeQ, and also very much by the dancers themselves. The word "cunt" is used frequently in ball culture, as a very positive term, the subtle difference being it is an adjective and not a noun. Its connotations of femininity, superiority and unique style are why I have chosen to use it, and I have just released my fourth EP as CVNT, the Statement EP, through the Belgian label Body Work. Apart from making music and DJing, I write about vogue culture and music at my blog CVNTY.
Post-Miley Cyrus, and amidst the raging debate about "cultural appropriation", a lot of pertinent issues are being ignored in a rush to paint everything as either "good" or "bad", "acceptable" or "unacceptable". I don't believe this extreme polarity is doing anyone any favours, especially when it is adopted by people who do not have sufficient knowledge of a culture to actually decide what is or isn't acceptable, which is what happened to me very recently.
It had to happen sometime I guess: I have been accused of "cultural appropriation" of the voguing/ballroom scene. The OP, Angus Finlayson, has since been in touch with me to apologise, and to admit that he was mistaken in his original accusations. I have accepted his apology, but have decided to write about this because it raises some very interesting issues, elements that are only a small part of the overall "cultural appropriation" story, but which should be discussed anyway.
Firstly, this is not to deny that cultural appropriation happens, or even that I am completely guilt-free myself. No, I am not a Black or Latino/a or from a major city on either of America's East or West coasts. I am a white, able-bodied cismale, living in Manchester, England, though I am an Irish national (not to be confused with "Irish-American" or "Irish-anything else" - as a culture we Irish have our own pretty huge history of appropriation by others).
Cultural appropriation definitely happens. There has been a lot of discussion on social networks over the last few weeks about the "masked DJ" craze in Jersey Club, a perceived "cashing-in" on this relatively new, localised US scene by anonymous, white acts like Yolo Bear, DJ Hoodboi, Trippy Turtle and more, some of whom are from Europe. This debate was sparked by a Facebook post by Dirty South Joe, and has been raging steadily since, with some originators of the Jersey Club sound rightly apprehensive of having their hard work ignored in favour of anonymous Johnny-come-latelys not from their world hoovering up their gigs and hype. I am guessing that this ongoing discussion was in the background when Finlayson wrote his original tweet.
So no, this isn't to deny cultural appropriation, but to ask for a more nuanced, less knee-jerk approach to the term when required, and also to question the credentials of the people claiming cultural appropriation, where necessary. Of course, it seems obvious to me that this sort of logic should be applied to every and all accusations of cultural hegemony and discrimination (which, in itself, might be a luxury of my own white privilege) but right now the term "cultural appropriation" is in danger of being appropriated and used to police culture by people who actually have no qualifications, or right, to do so.
So what are my qualifications?
Well, first things first: the "ballroom" scene here in the UK is pretty tiny, though it is growing and developing. I use "ballroom" in inverted comas because a) it's not the same as the real ballroom scene, which is happening mostly on the US East Coast and in its major cities, and b) knowing the history of the UK's own appropriation of Black American culture, it's likely that a vogue scene in the UK and Europe would be a bit different from the established American scene.
I've been a passionate fan of house music since the late 80s, when I was given some tapes by my older brother, and a DJ since the mid 90s. I helped organise, and hosted, my first vogue/drag ball in 2010, the Menergy Fierce Ruling Divas Ball in Glasgow, in association with the fashion house Che Camille. That was three years ago, at the very start of what could be called the voguing renaissance here in the UK. I have also DJed at vogue balls in London (Horse Meat Disco's Vauxhall Is Gurning), Liverpool (House Of Suarez Ball) and also our own annual ball here in Manchester, Vogue Brawl, which started in 2011. I'm co-founder and House Father of the queer collective Tranarchy, and we host club nights and outlaw parties with a very heavy drag/performance-based element.
As I have mentioned, the voguing scene in the UK is relatively small and fragmented, but it exists and I am very much involved. I can count on one hand the club nights repping ballroom in this country, and then half that number for any articles or press coverage the UK vogue scene may have gained, but it is there. The fact that this scene is still relatively underground and unreported - and also happening away from the usual centres of British dance music reportage - means that many people, music fans who consider themselves to be clued-up, simply don't know about it.
There is something else at play here too though, I feel, but I will admit to this being highly subjective, even if it is something that worries me. That is the appropriation of gay cultures by hetero-normative cultures who, for whatever reason, de-gay the culture they are appropriating. I have seen this happen before on the house scene, most specifically with "nu-disco" (another genre I have been heavily involved in) which quite often stripped away the "camp" and OTT elements from disco music to make it more palatable for the house music consumer. This is despite the fact that it is those very "undesirable" aspects of disco music which are the 'gayest', but which more often then not get left on the re-edit cutting room floor. Arguments about this process making the music more "groove-based" are tenuous, and definitely wouldn't wash on the majority-gay dance floor at a club like Horse Meat Disco. Sorry, but gays don't need straight people to tell us how to dance, and similarly, we don't need straight people policing what makes gay culture "genuine", especially people who don't know or have no involvement in particular gay subcultures. (This is not to say any of this "de-gaying" has been done with deliberate anti-homosexual malice or phobia. However, the effect is still the same.)
Vogue as an artform has had its own complex history with appropriation, most obviously in the form of Madonna's 1990 smash hit 'Vogue'. The common objection to Madonna's song is that it was a straight, white ciswoman temporarily adopting the tropes of a predominantly Black, queer & trans* culture to further her own career, before discarding them when they had served their purpose. There is a lot of truth in this assertion - there's actually very, very little real voguing in her video, and what's with a list of white film stars in the middle rather than black queens? - but at the same time the bigger picture is much more complex and less cut and dried. To this day, the track is still played, in various forms, at vogue events around the world, it still acts as the talismanic anthem for the scene, albeit in a new, reclaimed way. As DJ Sprinkles mentioned in our epic interview on CVNTY, some of the people the song was perceived to be fucking over were actually big fans and wanted to revel in its cultural moment.
Apart from that though, voguing, by its very nature, is appropriative (although, as the power structures involved are radically different from those of mainstream culture, it does not carry with it the pejorative stigma usually attached to the phrase). The category of "realness" is testament to this, as are the many fashion-based house names used in the scene. Anyone who has seen Paris Is Burning should know this, as they should also know that the basic philosophy of drag - that all aspects of life are performative - lends itself very readily to all kinds of appropriation.
However, that's not to say "it's cool go out and appropropriate vogue!" DEFINITELY NOT. Just as those making the accusations should be examined, those who are the targets of these claims should be too. I have no problem with people questioning my involvement in vogue culture. But what is annoying is when, through lack of knowledge, it is assumed I have no involvement in vogue culture. To re-iterate, cultural appropriation does happen and it sucks. It is happening to ballroom in the States: clubs putting "ballroom" or "vogue" in their promo materials, when the truth is there's no-one voguing in these spaces. And the same goes for 'serious' DJs and fans too. Similarly, throwing some Ha tracks in a mix does not a ballroom DJ make, just as listening to a MIkeQ mix and reading an article or two does not an expert make.
And I can speak from experience on that one. Since getting involved in the world of vogue, I have discovered it to be more vast and complex than I ever thought. I am still exploring it, discovering and learning more and more, to the point where I think it will never end. And I have no problem with that. To me, voguing is the ultimate physical expression of the brilliance of house music (and, by extension, dance music) as well as being a beautiful art form in its own right, invented, developed and spearheaded by the marginal communities that gave birth to and shaped house in the first place. I find just watching the dancers move hugely inspiring in my own music-making process. Of course, it is intrinsically gay too, so I feel it speaks to me on deeper level than just "I like it".
I don't know if there's an easy answer to cultural appropriation (ultimately I believe culture is porous and not exclusive, so it is going to happen). But I guess the first step is just to ask the people involved in the scene what they think, and the second is to be open and who you are and what you are about. I am wary of anyone claiming to be an expert on this culture (as it really is so vast that opinions are going to differ), though of course there are those who know huge amounts and who I try my best to learn from. We recently held a screening of Paris Is Burning through Tranarchy, in association with the Lesbian Gay Foundation and BHA (formerly Black Health Association), and afterwards held an open mic discussion of the film and its flaws with involvement from the brilliant speakers Stephanie Davis, Adam Beyonce Lowe and Khalil West. Opinions differed and questions remained unanswered, but ultimately the discussion did nothing to dampen my deep love and admiration of that film. In fact, seeing it criticised made me love it more, flaws and all. Discussion and questioning is a healthy process, as is criticism. Anything that spreads awareness and serves to educate is great, which is why I would ask people who are going to use the term "cultural appropriation" to think about why exactly they are using it.