"Reading" Voguing's Violent Scripture

by on Mar.27, 2012

Some might say poetry is behind visual art, but I think it’s more so the case that voguing is light years ahead of everything.  Last summer, I wrote a couple of posts about the death drop/shablam move, in which young queers of color collapse on dancefloors in a thrilling, terrifying reenactment of urban violence.  Today I’d like to tell you, Montevidayans, about my new favorite phenomenon of NYC black and Latino queer culture and its extreme verbal/visual fluency:  Zebra Katz’s “Im a Read” featuring Njena Redd Foxxx.  Gather and behold how this video turns the page on big bling beats and delivers, instead, a thousand tiny paper cuts to your eyes and ears. It is nothing short of a primer on cannibalizing your enemies, schooling yourself in their flaws, and dressing them down through sheer minimalist precision:

“Reading” in ball culture is “the real art form of insult” (Dorien Corey, Paris is Burning).  Especially in the classroom–every kid’s training ground in racism and heterosexism–it takes ferosh verbal swagger to throw shade back at one’s perpetrator and “chop that bitch,” “slice that bitch,” “dice that bitch,” “ice that bitch,” “proofread that bitch,” “send that bitch to college,” “give that bitch some knowledge.”  A razorblade visual sense is just as crucial for channeling voguing’s particular sacredness.  To “pass” as another person, whether a straight private schoolgirl or teacher, is fundamental to this fine art.  We are dealing, after all, with your education in realness.  Don’t even act like you can’t get an F.  Two masked, braided, gender-defying dark spirits punctuate the video’s report card of carnage and incantation of death spells in a drama that evokes the potatoesque’s annihilation and proliferation of identities.  Even our shaman-warrior vocalists confess, as if cohabiting with the bodies they target, “I’ma…that bitch.”

As with the death drop, an exaltation of queerness follows Zebra Katz and Njena Redd Foxxx’s descent into dystopian hallways.  Because no other religion expresses tougher love.  Here we witness an assault on gender so total that no bitch (boy or girl) remains safe from the ball goddess; we can only pray she will strike us offstage.

13 comments for this entry:
  1. Joyelle McSweeney

    Lucas: YES! You have totally taken me to college. This is a new syllabus (get read, get ripped, get shot, stand up) and defense of the MFA– I love the way the violence oscillates, and your point about the way the masks and the truncated refrain starts to make the ‘b*tch* refer to the speakers and maybe also some kind of glamorous sublime,an exed out, iced space of astersisked black radiance. I am totally going to wear around this queer pedagogy! Yes!

    Jiyoon Lee is writing some amazing poems centered around the speaker of “Imma”– “Imma go to a war”, etc. you should drop her a line and check them out for your ‘thesis’.


  2. Megan Burns

    Stunning. I wonder if you’ve explored the “sissy bounce” culture popular here in New Orleans where some say the rappers intend to “erase sexuality” or embrace “androgyny” and how the bodies of these performers are allowed to “perform” their queerness in this space. I’m thinking too, as in the case of this minimalist back beat and underscored violence, how sissy bounce, or bounce, has its own “cutting” beat in its insistent cacophony of repetition that is then taken up by the members of the audience as they gyrate and “bounce” their back sides in an almost ridiculous and yet athletic display of agility. I’m thinking about the “death drop” in contrast to the “dropping like it’s hot” display.
    And I like the image of the leg being pulled up behind the head in this video that mimics the stance of Minaj in the opening shot of her “Stupid Hoe” video.

  3. Seth Oelbaum

    I like the transubstantiation connection between Venus Xtravaganza/drag ball culture and poetry. They both aspire to be greater than mortals. They want perfection. The exact tone, cadence, accessory. The wrong word or fashion appendage destroys it all, like the scene in Paris Is Burning where the queen is castigated for failing to carry an evening bag. What white woman doesn’t carry a purse?!

    Sometimes I think the poetry climate is too nice. There should be crying in workshops. It’s a delicate medium. The daintiness needs to be meet with harshness to produce the saintly relics.

    Job isn’t a biblical figure due to God’s kindness.

    Venus isn’t a perfect girl due to the calm and soft-spoken ball circuit.

    Rimbaud isn’t the role model of boy poets due to peaceful behavior.

  4. Lucas de Lima

    Joyelle, it does serve as a potent bit of pedagogy doesn’t it? And totally glam sublime. I love the idea of “Imma” poems, “Imma” herself being already mutilated and deprived of proper punctuation.

    Megan, I really like sissy bounce- I saw Big Freedia play once in Brooklyn. I think all these cultural forms address heterosexism and spit back its aggression in really interesting ways, particularly if you think about the larger context of mainstream hip hop. Nicki Minaj being the exception to the rule. The visual echo of the leg had not registered until your comment! I love the tension of that image.

    Seth, I agree! A certain level of prickliness should be key to the workshop. We should always insist on total aesthetic immersion, accessories included, even and especially when it results in pain. This is part of what I was trying to get at with my power bottom post from way back.

  5. Lucas de Lima

    You guys should consider donating to the “Ima Read” Foundation Zebra Katz set up at a pro-literacy organization:

  6. Lara Glenum

    Did I say I love this, Lucas? I love this!

  7. Adam Atkinson

    I’m interested in how things like “Paris is Burning” reading culture get to artists like Zebra Katz–not because I doubt the capacity of queer culture to burrow its way into anything. Rather, I wish they were wearing their reference points the way drag queens do, so I could “read” the reference’s journey in its very presentation. Thoughts?

    Thanks for posting.

  8. Lucas de Lima

    Adam, thanks for the question. I wonder what makes you wish for more reference points? I think it’s exciting that Zebra Katz refuses legibility and maybe leaves some people in an uncomfortable place by depriving them of the usual signifiers. That’s what makes his “passing”–itself a voguing tradition, as I mention–such an effective attack on identity.

  9. Lucas de Lima

    Maybe his response would be to “read that bitch” more closely!

  10. Adam Atkinson

    Ha! Indeed. I’ll admit: Zebra Katz is way, way new to me, and I love the video. I guess what I’m asking for isn’t for reference points; rather, is Zebra dragging/passing? Your post identifies some markers that seem really appropriate, but how are the markers being mobilized? Or buried? Is this an incidence of ball culture worming its way somewhere unexpected? I’m not arguing for any one answer at this point, and you make a fantastic point that perhaps my difficulty placing an answer on sight could be, in large part, the whole idea.

  11. Adam Atkinson

    It’s a pretty massive paradox to demand that somebody “show you” they’re passing. But there you are! I suppose that’s what I’m interested in.

  12. Lucas de Lima

    I think we are all dragging and passing! Just as our bodies are always in flux, our identities are always in crisis. Gender performance to the maxxx.

    If I had to say what other ball markers are, I’d point to his intonation, head bobs, and his queer alliance with Ms. Foxxx. They’re not targeting each other as straight boy vs. girl but rather some offstage irritant. When he says “oh” right after she says “I don’t like that bitch,” you know it’s a tag team.

    If you’re curious there’s a great article on Pitchfork about the scene Zebra Katz is coming from, and in it he explains his approach a bit. But of course I see this as a very Jasbir Puaresque example of queerness as assemblage rather than naming, representation, identity.

  13. Adam Atkinson

    Thanks for the tips on ZK! Awesome stuff that is way helpful and illuminating. Putting the pieces together…