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M. Lamar Sings the Modern-Day Blues

The underground artist on why it’s impossible for him to sell out

M. Lamar minces no words describing who he is and what he stands for. “I’m a negro, gothic, devil-worshiping, free black man in the blues tradition,” he tells me over the phone at the end of July, a day before the closing of his show “Funeral Doom Spiritual” at USC’s ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives. Or, as he sings in an older video piece, “I’m a badass n***a with a bad attitude.”

Lamar is a multifaceted artist who takes pride in telling complicated stories; his live shows, installations and film projects come from a place of radical mourning for America’s legacy of violence against black people—often by using his own physical form or operatic voice. “Within the U.S. tradition, my work traces back to the blues,” he says. “The blues is a transgressive art. The freeing of the slaves made blues possible.” But Lamar’s work is not just about oppression itself; it is an exaltation of the black American ability to survive. In “Funeral Doom Spiritual”—which felt like a retrospective despite Lamar’s youthfulness (he was born in 1984)—videos with titles like “Deathlessness” and “Up From the Grave” figure him as an individual attempting to flourish amid an inherited history of institutionalized trauma. His work identifies state violence against black people as a necessary condition of the country as we know it and finds narratives in the complicated mess that presents—especially in 2016 as more and more people begin to wonder how much racial progress there’s really been.

A native of Mobile, Alabama—and twin brother of Laverne Cox, one of the stars of Orange Is the New Black—Lamar talked to MEL from New York, where he’s working on his first full-length feature film.

What do you make art about?
That show’s about a lot of the current unrest in the world, in regards to black people being shot by police officers and things like that. For the last decade, my work has focused specifically on black death, but also black becoming and black rising. Rising from the dead or rising through history. It’s also about creating one’s self. How do you create yourself in the context of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy?

When did that become the focus of your work?
When I moved to New York 10 years ago, in 2006, Sean Bell was shot 50 times by the police here. I was just devastated. I was aware of police violence and lynching and histories of the black body, and that’s something I’m constantly trying to draw parallels between. So that particular manifestation of the horror against the black body felt like a new iteration but not a new violence. At the time, I wrote a song called “Gangbang 50.” That was my awakening.

Why do you think the Sean Bell murder had such a particularly strong impact on you?
I’m so moved by his story because he was just a guy who was at a club the night before he was going to get married. Before that time, about ten years ago, I was more of an irreverent, punk rock, negro kid. I was railing and very angry. But then I fell in love. And that encounter with love made [Sean Bell’s shooting] hit me. He was moving into a different part of his life. He was unarmed. He wasn’t doing anything but these police officers did this orgiastic release of their weapons onto his body.

Why would you need to shoot any unarmed person 50 times? It was so violent. That was the beginning of me connecting that violence and the sexualizing of the black body during lynching: the cutting off and pickling of black testicles, photographs taken of black testicles and sent through the mail as postcards. I’m interested in the cannibalistic relationship particularly white men have to black men’s bodies that’s both sexualized and violent. Sean Bell getting shot 50 times by the police was that moment when that relationship became really clear to me in my consciousness. We had it with lynching. We have it with the police using these phallic weapons in a way that’s completely irrational.

How do you begin to undo that cannibalistic relationship?
A lot of the sorrow I feel is because there is no answer to this. But we have to speak about it; we have to rail against it. I think the Black Lives Matter people asking to disarm the police are absolutely right. They shouldn’t have weapons if they’re doing this with their weapons. Disarming the police really means a lot to me.

You speak of your art as a way to create spaces for people to mourn. Is that the main objective of what you make?
I feel I’ve been called to speak to the emotional state of black people. Myself, firstly, but hopefully also to other people who have been in mourning for generations and centuries. What does it mean to be in constant mourning? [Author] Claudia Rankine recently said in The New York Times, ‘‘The condition of black life is one of mourning.” This state of mourning is constant, and there’s something universal to that. If you think about what people go through in Yemen, go through in Pakistan, Somalia, there’s always a bombing. Often, a U.S. drone is doing the bombing. What is it like to be in different states of mourning amongst an unjust axis of power?

How do your projects begin?
As an artist, I’m like, “What can I do?” There was a time and place where I was on the front lines of protest, but right now… I don’t want to be arrested. I’m not interested in being killed. Even though I began practicing visual art through painting and sculpting, music is the practice I’ve engaged in every day. It’s the kind of classical technique that I feel is important in trying to speak to a spiritual dimension; a technique worthy of lifting the spirits of the dead. I feel and continue to feel it’s the craft worthy of all the lives that have been lost in these ways.

I start there, trying to create a space of mourning, sorrow and loss. In a way, these pieces are about catharsis. There’s the performances I do and then the installations. It all begins with voice and piano and from there the work grows into these new forms and the videos are filmed and installed and archived. I’m working on a feature film about all of this stuff. It will use a lot of the footage I just showed in L.A. and also other footage that I’ve shot. It’s getting edited together right now. I’m here, so I’m just trying to use whatever gifts I have in the service of creating these spaces of mourning.

Have you always felt a sense of the deep sadness you explore in your work?
I’ve always felt deep sadness and unexplainable mourning. My grandma growing up in Alabama and she witnessed all sorts of horrific things. I trace these lineages in my own biography and I think they inform the feelings I’ve had since childhood. I don’t know.

There was this 16-year-old boy [named Kalief Browder] in Rikers Island for three years for stealing a backpack. Typically, they arrest you and try to get you to plead guilty because they can’t take all of the cases to court. But he didn’t plead guilty because he was like, “I did not do this.” There’s video footage of him being brutalized by a guard at Rikers Island and I believe two out of the three years there he was in solitary confinement. When he finally got out, declared innocent or whatever, he was embraced by Jay-Z and Rosie O’Donnell and was seemingly on his way to having a life. And then he committed suicide.

What’s so horrifying to me about the story is that there is no evidence of him being suicidal before his incarceration. It’s one thing for police officers to murder people. But there’s also the psychological and emotional damage done to people who then take themselves out, who can’t survive the pain and the horror of what’s been done to them. I just relate to that as someone who has been deeply suicidal for reasons unknown to me as a child. I connect that directly to a history of white supremacy and police terrorism.

Photo by Eric McNatt

After President Obama took office, there was this liberal hope that we were “post-racial” in America. It’s unfortunate that sometimes achievement can be used as distraction in terms of racial equality.
On one level there’s Barack Obama and Oprah, Serena Williams and Michael Jordan: Alpha Negroes. But then there’s Alton Sterling and all these people in prison… White supremacy’s relationship to the black body is the thing that needs to be understood. It is not inconsistent that white supremacy holds up these excelling black athletes for the fact that they’re succeeding with their bodies. Or Beyoncé and her incredible body.

There’s nothing about Beyoncé that transcends her physical body in the spiritual realm. I only speak of that within the context of the radical black tradition, and so much of that is about the evocation of the spirit. So much of the black music tradition has been about dealing with that spirit. Someone like Beyoncé is just dealing with the libidinal, body aspect of it, which is also part of the tradition. People like James Brown dealt with both the body and the spirit.

There’s deep, existential longing you hear in James Brown’s voice. You just don’t hear the screeches and squeaks of James Brown’s voice in a singer like Beyoncé. Prince also combined body and soul in a deep way… These sorts of artists aren’t available in a popular realm right now because of advanced capitalism.

Why do you think that’s the case?
Advanced capitalism only has room for Beyoncé’s heightened figure to negotiate markets and aesthetics and body-liness. I don’t want to take away from the empowerment a lot of black women feel with the experience of Beyoncé, but I think it’s important to always connect that history of the violence and pornographization of the black body to the black bodies that get exalted. There’s still Eryka Badhu, an artist who is super deep, but she’s not celebrated in this broad way by corporate, global and imperial forces. With Beyoncé, it’s very easy to do that. She’s designed herself to be consumable in that market and be seen by the Western, capitalist, patriarchal apparatus. That apparatus can’t see a lot of people and things.

Online today there’s a lot of performative wokeness or vain attempts at seeming deep.
We have corporate apparatuses and forces really trying to capitalize on this moment on the ground. There’s distance between what’s happening amongst black people organizing in small rooms with one another and protesting than what’s happening on the internet. The virtual world is a very different thing than what’s happening in real people’s lives. You can never divorce what’s happening online from the fact that these are corporately owned entities. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately; I really do believe the revolution won’t be televised, or tweeted, or Instagrammed. We have to be aware that capitalism is always looking for new ways to sell itself. But it’s not to say that someone like Beyoncé isn’t going to be affected just like any other black person by seeing countless black lives being killed. It’s deeply troubling.

Your work exists largely outside of markets, which I believe is one of the reasons The Material Art Prize awarded you their latest grant.
With an artist like me, it’s like, “How do I have enough resources to continue my work outside of markets?” On one level, I would be suspicious if markets were suddenly open to me. I would be thankful, because I’d be able to pay my rent, but the nature of what I do is not commodity-driven.

Do you believe “selling out” is even a possibility in today’s society?
I believe in artists trying to survive. I don’t know. I think there are certain people who are made for corporate entities. We all have our place in the world. The world has a need for Beyoncé. I can’t imagine her being emotive in a way that’s stirring. It’s not in her. What she’s doing is maximizing what she does have, which is a very marketable look. She’s white enough in terms of her skin pigmentation and black enough in terms of her vernacular and connection to hip-hop. She’s the perfect black commodity in that sense.

It’s not possible for someone like me to sell out because it’s not in me. It’s not inherent to my instincts. My instincts as an artist aren’t about manipulations of market or how to make products enticing for the market. But I believe in survival. I get lots of attention, but I think there are clear reasons why I don’t get more attention.

You embody black radicalism not often seen or heard in the mainstream. A lot of people, especially white people, must feel uncomfortable talking to you about your work sometimes.
I’m a marginal artist in general, for black people and white people. There’s a conservatism in mainstream black communities that can’t really deal with stuff the way I deal with it. I’m a strange artist in that I’m a pro-black, lover of blackness and black people, but I’m very interested in transgressive European traditions that date back to Marquis de Sade and then novelists like Kathy Acker.

Within the U.S. tradition, my work traces back to the blues. The blues is a transgressive art. The freeing of the slaves made blues possible. They said, “We will not sing songs about Jesus anymore. We will do the opposite. We’re free.” There was an embrace of a certain kind of hedonism, and I feel deeply connected to that history. I don’t think a lot of bougie folks in general, especially black people, can really hang with my level of transgression and the punk rock sensibility that run throughs my own personal history. I come out of a goth-punk-metal scene with a certain irreverence. It’s a lifestyle. My recent installation has only been reviewed by black women. And I’m moved by that, deeply. At this stage in my work, a lot of forward-thinking black women see my work.

It’s often accepted by the mainstream to be pro-black, pro-queer, or pro-sex, but less so to live as all of those at once.
I’m not interested in the notion of telling my story in a way that’s easily digestible. You must know who my sister is.

Yeah, Laverne Cox is your twin sister.
She’s able to tell her story in a very digestible way to mainstream, corporate culture. And I think that’s by design… If you look at her career versus mine, it’s the mainstream corporatization of an identity and a presentation of that identity in a digestible way. Again, I have deep love for my sister.

She’s in her lane.
Yeah, she’s in her lane. When she told me she wanted to be on TV, I was like “You should go do theater.” I’ve never wanted to audition for something. My thinking was, “I’ll find this theater and do my own thing.” Everyone is built differently, to do different things.

The difficult thing about my journey, in terms of monetizing and surviving, is that I refuse to talk about being gay, for example, in a very speaker’s tour, white liberal kind of way. I refuse to dumb down my identity, or even to allow some university to make it more digestible for their audience. I won’t call myself genderqueer or whatever terminology people bring up. I’m a negro, gothic, devil-worshiping, free black man in the blues tradition. That’s what I am. I’m not going to adopt new gender terms to make myself recognizable. I’m not interested in being any particular thing other than what I am. That’s the point of me. The point of me is this certain kind of complexity to my identity. That’s as much a part of work as any song or film I would write.