M.Lamar is a brilliant singer/ songwriter/ composer cutting a radical swath through the mishegoss of race and sexuality, utilizing a mixed media of art forms, including opera, heavy metal, goth performance, sculpture and video installations. The self-described nonbinary Negrogoth recently played the male, pre-transition role of transgender actress Laverne Cox’s character Sophia Burset on hit TV show Orange Is the New Black…which was a perfect casting, being that he is the identical twin brother of Cox. I got a chance to sit down with him recently for a think tank about our experiences and perspectives as black men, one queer-identified, the other on the fence, what it’s like to realize you’re black and how that narrative redefines itself, and how the gay community might be it’s own worst enemy when it comes to procuring equal rights, respect and representation for all. Check out the interview below, and you can see M.Lamar in person this Saturday, March 19th in NYC at Ecstatic Music Festival: M.Lamar, Charlie Looker & Mivos Quartet. (Above pic by Eric McNatt)
Paisley: When did M. Lamar’s Negrogothic journey begin?
M. Lamar: I moved to New York in 2006. I was a solo person…a solo performer. It started off with me doing solo shows with my boyfriend Sabin. He did the projections, animations and illustrations for me. Then I started bringing in other contracted people. But it wasn’t this sort of collaborative thing. Slowly over the last nine years, it grew into this low budget M.Lamar enterprise. I’ve been able to find scenes that interest me in New York, like the Metal and Post-Metal scene. I’m working now with these two composers who are classically trained, but also in metal bands, to do string arrangements for my new album, along with Charlie Looker– who did the Badass Nigga remix. But, I was born in Mobile, Alabama. I left when I was 17 to go to college…took a Greyhound bus straight to San Francisco!
Same for me! I grew up in Detroit, and at 17 I came straight to New York…I was totally ready! Growing up in Motown, at that time, was the place to be, if you wanted to be somehow connected to the auto industry. My father worked for Chrysler, but my mother had another vision for us. She had a plan that made sure that we would not want be in the the auto industry.
How many siblings do you have?
I have one brother now. My eldest brother was murdered during my sophomore year in high school. That was really hard for me and my mother. It was her first born. He was found dead in an alleyway, and they never found his murderer. My mother didn’t want this to happen to me and my brother Conrad, so she kinda implanted in our heads that Conrad would become a lawyer and I was to become a doctor.
I think my mother had that idea when me and Laverne were like 6 or 7 y/o, but by around 8 y/o, it was clear that we were both artists.
Lol…I was always referred to as the ‘creative’ one. But when you’re a child, you want to please your parents. So, I just went along with what she said I should be. I lust played the role for a while.
So, you went to school to be a doctor initially?
No…not exactly. When me and my brother were in our pre-teens, we went to a co-ed elementary school. When he was about to go to high school, my mother found a private college preparatory school that started at grade 7, and went all the way through the 12th grade. It was ALL boys, Catholic, and Jesuit. She thought this would be a great way to keep us out of trouble…on the ‘straight’ and narrow.
Was your brother queer?
No. I always thought he was, but he’s had the same girlfriend forever. He just had a baby, and got married. It’s total textbook heteronormative mapping…haha! Me?…not so much. I was actually excited to be around all these boys. I wasn’t sexually active yet; but by eighth grade, I was in it to win it!
I’ve never ‘come out’ as anything. I went to the Alabama School of Fine Arts. I’ve always dated men and women. I was dating this girl, but she also knew I was dating this guy piano player. I just had this radical kind of openness. I’ve never been interested in defining myself.
My mother had his plan to make sure that me and my brother were very independent…and that meant possibly getting away from Detroit as soon as possible. There were five black kids in the school I went to…and I didn’t notice that we were the minority!
You didn’t notice?
I didn’t! This was a school in the heart of Northwest Detroit.
Which is a very black city.
Yep! There were about 650 students at that time…and us five black kids.
IN THE MIDDLE OF DETROIT??? So, these white people were making sure their kids were not around black people!
We were in the center of the city, but at the same time, we were on an island, insular. It was an excellent college preparatory school. I didn’t feel any signs of prejudice or racism. No one ever used the N word (at least not to my face), or made me feel less than.
So, at what point did you realize that you were black?
Haha..that was my next question for you! But actually, nothing derogatory came until I started getting a little more swish in my way, and then I started hearing all the gay slurs. But that kind of rolled off my back. I didn’t feel threatened.
Your friends were all white?
Hmmm…with me, I knew early on that I was black. I’m from Alabama. My mother grew up in the 1950s and 60s as a black woman. Being black was very palpable. She would always tell these horror stories of when schools became integrated. Very early on, when I was like six years old, she would talk about how schools were segregated. Teachers could talk to black students ‘any old way’. Once schools were integrated, that had to stop, because they were in the presence of white students. When there were white teachers around, they didn’t have the awareness of racial politics. There was no longer a candidness that one could have previously talking to black students. All my friends were white too, but my mother was very suspicious of that. She was terrified. I remember the night I was moving away to San Francisco. I was in my room with a white girl who was just a friend, and my mother was wondering if I was gonna get this girl pregnant, or even be killed for being with this girl. It was a very different time. So, I was always very aware of my blackness.
Were you ever afraid of being black? Did you feel that someone might harm you?…’cause I never felt that. My mom made sure that we were insulated. But now, I feel like she lied to me because she made me feel like anything was possible…we’re all the same. She kept the harsh reality of the real world at bay.
My mother always said, ‘you have to work harder…you have to be better than everybody else’. In that sense, I’m fortunate. Having grown up in that southern racial context, what she said was a great gift.
I don’t want to imply what my mother did was a negative, but I definitely think it could’ve been a bit more racially balanced…the way she tried to prepare us for the real world. When I came to New York, I immediately gravitated towards what seemed to be a familiar context…the white and gay scene.
Was it a queer scene? Was it about that?
No. Being queer nowadays tends to maintain a more assimilated connotation. Back then, to be queer was more marginalized and radical. It was very underground. The gay community in the late 80s and 90s, up to about the Chelsea area, was primarily white, with a sprinkling a black queens. But, I felt comfortable in that scene…to an extent. I always felt that white gay guys could go up to pretty much anyone they found attractive. It seemed like they had this privilege, this access to choose whomever they wanted to date or have sex with. The playing field was greater for them. I didn’t feel I had that. I felt that people loved having me around as long as I was entertaining, funny, the jokester. After a while, I wasn’t comfortable being in that position, doing ‘soft shoe’. When I finally felt like making a move on a guy, thinking that he was into me, I would always get, “Oh, I don’t like you like that”.
So, you’re making a distinction between the queer scene and the gay scene? Where did you feel you fit?
I always went straight down the middle. I guess it was that independence thing that my mother instilled in me. I had no problem moving to New York on my own, or London, or Berlin. I didn’t have a problem hanging out in the white bars, even though I knew most people there had no interest in me. It was all good until I’d get my wires crossed, thinking someone liked me in more than just the friendship way, and that just wasn’t the case usually.
I kinda realized very early on that there was no place for me in gay land. I was lucky to find the goth and metal music scenes. That world allowed me to look how I wanted and not have that be my identity. I’ve always had a wonderful sex life [laughs]! I have a longtime boyfriend. But in gay land, I was never getting my needs met sexually. I don’t define myself as gay…in a good way. It wasn’t about a boyfriend always. In the scenes I was in, people just hooked up randomly. It could be with a boy or a girl. It was all good. I always had game too [laughs]!
That goes back to what I was saying about ‘entertaining’. Not that you’re a joke, but you are affable.
Sure! I was never interested in entertaining faggots to the exclusion of my sexuality. I wasn’t going to perform in gay or queer context. With regards to my sexuality, I was never interested in the mainstream. I’ve always liked strangely gendered people. When I was in San Francisco there was a genderless, radical queer world that was connected to the Rock scene, and everybody queer that I knew was in a band. That was really great for me. It was always about finding myself in a music scene that was radically open. Now, that scene has moved more to Oakland, Seattle and even Los Angeles, strangely. LA is kinda more interesting than San Francisco now…who would’ve known [laughs]!
Are you that Badass Nigga?
Yes! I created that. There are certain things that are in me. It’s not a ‘ready-to-wear’ ideology. It’s something you create for yourself. You have to hand construct it…from the ground up. If I had to say one thing to the queers of the world, or anyone, I’d have to say that there is no ready made identity for you out there. Make scenes for yourself. Or find scenes and reconfigure them to suit you.
That sounds great! You are a singer and performer. You travel to places where you have been invited and perform in front of people who want you there. So, there is a built-in acceptance that goes with that invitation. But that’s not day-to-day life. How do you navigate being ‘you’ on the streets of NYC everyday?
The way I look on stage is the way I look all the time. It’s very empowering. Of course people look at me all the time. I would love to write a queer performativity book about George Clinton (singer and creator of Parliament and Funkadelic bands) called The Incomprehensible Negro. One of the things I’ve always admired about him is that for thirty plus years, George Clinton was George Clinton, 24 hours a day! I’ve always imagined myself in that model. I think of myself as this creature that’s moving through the world as themselves. People sometimes recognize me from various things I do, and others wonder ‘Who is this strange Negro?’. But I have to walk through this world with a certain confidence or attitude.
We have a lot of similarities! But, one thing that I’m always conscience of is when I walk in a room, I have this feeling that I have to disarm people, assuage their internalized prejudices, return to that soft shoe performance.
I’m not interested in making people feel comfortable. I’m into scaring people! My work is about a certain level of discomfort. It’s about a level of confrontation with regards to white supremacy in this country and my awareness of that. I want people to always be aware of my awareness to the history of white supremacy at every moment. Malcolm X talked about how we have to free our minds in terms of how we think about ourselves and other black people…how we encounter or surveil other black people in a way that white people have historically surveilled us. I try to give all black people a lot of love, even when it’s not always reciprocated. I am not coming to them with that same internalized racism. I proceed in a very free way. I want ALL black people to be free!
So what happens when you’re black and gay and there’s organizations like GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) that tend to speak with a broad stroke on behalf of all gay people. Are we as black men represented and painted equally with that brush?
I have no interest in GLAAD! None at all! I don’t think they service communities of color in any way…gay or trans. But I never defined myself as gay. I always thought of being ‘gay’ as something for bourgeoisie white people. And, all apologies to black people who define themselves that way..that’s fine. Everyone can define themselves however they want. I’ve chosen to reject gay as a term for myself. I’m interested in the behavior of sexuality. I think of gay culture as having always been tied to white culture. GLAAD has no interest in anything beyond celebrity culture. Their media campaign seems to be about using the right words…policing language. I’m also not interested in a revolution that centers around sexuality. Sexuality is one part of an identity that constructs a person, but there’s also race, class, what your values are…more importantly, what you believe in. I’m an underground artist that is not controlled by corporate means. I mean, I kinda long for corporate money, ’cause that’s cute [laughs]! But one of the things I admire about the voguing ballroom culture, for instance, is that you have these black and Latino queer people making spaces for themselves. Did you ever gravitate towards that world?
I did! Not only did I gravitate towards that scene, I also snatched a couple trophies [laughs]! But I don’t wanna veer off onto my illustrious ballroom days…just wanted to get that on record!
Well, I can’t comment too much on that scene. I’ve been to only one ball. From the outside, it seems like a family that is formed out of a response to white supremacy. And I think we as members of black families are responsible for raising all black people. I keep waiting for an article to appear in The New York Times to address the phenomenon of Donald Trump and the inevitable backlash that would occur after eight years of Barack Obama- the first black president. That there would be a white supremacist backlash and the Republican Party would of course nominate someone like Trump who is completely running on a white supremacist platform. I keep waiting for a comprehensible essay to be written about that history.
For a lot of people who are not white, but are gay, GLAAD seems to mean very little to them. But for cis people, heteronormative people, organizations like GLAAD appear to be the saving grace for ALL gays. There is so much prejudice and segregation in the gay community. There is so much hatred, internalized and externalized…hiding under the aesthetic umbrella of words like preference. You can log on to pretty much any gay social media site/app and you’ll still see hate speech like: ‘No blacks, No Asians, No fems’. Where did this come from? Are we born with these innate prejudices or is this part of nurture…part of one’s experiences or environments? You yourself have dated mostly white men. How do you reconcile this, especially when you are the pro- black, Badass Negro? Isn’t this more or less black gay-triarchy?
I haven’t dated white men exclusively, but yes…it’s complicated. Have I internalized white supremacy into a form of desire? Absolutely! We all have our struggle. I’m attracted to all kinds of people. I’m currently in a longtime committed relationship with a white guy and we’re profoundly in love. It just happened. It’s outside of racialized fetish.
Were you hesitant at first, concerned that he might be looking for a ‘Mandingo’ man? We’re you cautious that he might like you solely for your blackness?
No. This was not going on with him. It’s funny because he had a calendar of nude men on his wall when we met, and the open page featured a black model. So, I asked him, ‘Are you a negrophile?’ He was totally confused. It turned out that there actually was only one black guy in the whole calendar. Anyway, he has never dated a black man before me. Him being with me definitely wasn’t a racialized fetish thing, and it wasn’t a transcendent come-up for me to be dating a white guy, which also can happen. I believe in love…like Cornel West’s Love Warriors theory– the ability to love in the face of animosity…the death of restrictions due to race, gender, sexuality, etc. There’s all kinds of fascisms that go on in the gay community…ageism, body-ism, racism, along with racial fetishization. You lived in Berlin. You can talk to me about that.
Haha…yes! I moved to Berlin mainly because I knew that here was a place where my options and odds of hooking up were exponentially greater! For the first time in my life, I wasn’t waiting for someone to say, ‘Okay’. I felt empowered. I wasn’t under some delusion that they were loving anything more than my big black cock. I went there with that knowledge of how black men are desired there. I was gonna pillage the village…unapologetically. And if something deeper came along, with that special guy, I was open to that too!
Of course! But in the world of fetishization, the odds of something deeper happening is pretty much non-existent. Love and mutual respect, or levels of admiration lay outside of all that.
Listen…I think I’ve done it all…pretty much. As someone who has traversed this planet singularly for most of my life, I was held accountable to no one but myself. It was important for me, as I explored my sexuality, my journey, to find a way to make my blackness part of my sexuality…in a way that worked for me…where I was back in control. Jada Pinkett said it best in that rant she did on YouTube, in response to the lack of diversity in the nominations at The Oscars, especially for black actors. She said, “I can’t help but ask the question… Is it time that people of color recognize how much power, influence that we have amassed, that we no longer need to ask to be invited anywhere?”
I do everything myself. I make my albums myself. I’m currently working on a film by myself. I have two book projects where I’m partnering with other people. But, I’m all about making the shit happen myself…being in control of the means of production. What’s ironic about Jada Pinkett Smith is that she and her husband do have a production company. Why aren’t they making movies with black directors, black screenwriters? They have enough money to commission black screenwriters to write content for us.
So, how do we go about switching it up? In today’s world, social media plays a huge role in what is ‘liked’. The public can now make realtime commentary on what they feel is worthy of attention by clicking a button. This sends a direct message to marketers, directors, etc. about what they want to see more of. You can’t ignore that influence.
This is where critiques about marketing and capitalism have to come into play. When we’re talking about how many ‘likes’ someone gets or how many clicks something gets, we’re talking about how someone can get funding for their website or project. But then we have to talk about if we value something beyond markets, beyond how many likes something gets.
If you’re of a certain age, it might be plausible to think outside of that construct. If you’re a millennial, and it’s all you’ve ever known, it might be more complex.
I think, in terms of the masses, it may not be plausible. In terms of what I do, I’m making works for the weird people…those who don’t fit in anywhere. Coming out into a gay world wasn’t the answer for them. What I do speaks to the marginalized of the marginalized. Do I get a hundred likes for everything I put up?…probably not. But it’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon. In our current social media society, it’s all about the sprint. My sister Laverne always jokes about putting random things up on Instagram, just to see how many likes she can get in two minutes. I don’t have that same situation. I’m not saying that she values herself on that. It’s just a joke. For me, it’s about the long haul.
But even for you, as much as you try to stay underground, perhaps counterculture, appealing to the disenfranchised, you’re adjacent to your twin Laverne Cox. Because of that connection, you too benefit. You get a little more attention.
Laverne’s a very mainstream person. When she first started going in that direction, I was frightened for her and the scrutiny she would receive. A lot of the work she has done for herself, and as an actor, is about being a better human being. I love her, and I wouldn’t wish that scrutiny on her or anybody. Everything about me is going to turn off her mainstream fanbase…and that’s by design! Sure, people might look over at what I’m doing because I’m her brother, but what I do is not designed to cross over to the mainstream. That’s not my goal. I’m not looking for that sort of fame or recognition.
When Time magazine did the Transgender Tipping Point story with Laverne on the cover, it was an apparent revolutionary moment for the transgendered community. But that also gets a bit tricky…painting all transgendered people with a broad stroke. It once again places individuals in a category that tries to narrowly define who they are, diminishing their individuality, their personal journey.
I completely agree with you on that.
There has been this current trend to feature trans people who, to the outside world, are cut from a similar cloth…perhaps a more accessible look, liberal gender expression or demeanor. Most recently, Jazz Jennings came out as transgendered at 7 y/o…making her the youngest, publicly recognized trans person ever. Do you think that sometimes one can be influenced by what they see in the media as ‘pretty’…that can perhaps skew their decisions? I remember when I first came to New York I was very androgynous. I met this trans woman at a costume store in the West Village, and she she said, “One day you’re going to be a beautiful girl”. To this day, that statement has stuck with me. And in some ways, for a long time, I tried to be that girl. I tried to present as my perceived gender. I was a drag queen for a while, and when I lived in Berlin, I secretly lived as a transsexual for five years…only a few people knew. Most people just thought I did drag, but I ended up working in a transsexual brothel for about four of the five years. I was that close to full transition, and then I kinda decided to leave Berlin and the idea of transitioning as well. I guess my point is that perhaps not enough media attention is given to the incubation period. It all seems to happen so quickly nowadays…and that just seems dangerous.
So you think there’s a sort of whitewashing about the journey of trans people?
I think Laverne has been quite candid about her journey. I think the problem is more with a person like Caitlyn Jenner who didn’t emerge from a scene. I think it’s a generational divide. Everyone can now transition…there’s no grey area.
But are they transgender because they feel organically misgendered, or because it’s the current trend? And if you are transgender, it seems counterintuitive that you should have to change everything about your exterior to be who you really are. Can’t one be transgender and not look like a super model? Can’t one be transgender and remain exactly the same on the outside? Shouldn’t we be abrogating the binary when it comes to expressions of gender aesthetics?
I’m on record as saying that a lot of people who are transitioning are buying into strict normatives about gender, a very binary model. They are going for a passing masculinity or femininity, or high-butch masculinity or high-fem femininity. I’ve never been interested in any of that. I am Negrogoth- a term I created that allows me to exist in a nebulous space.
Shouldn’t that be the ultimate message?
I agree! When you see people transitioning on Instagram in like two days and you comment on it in an impugning way, the assumption is that you’re being transphobic. My position is that this gender revolution that is currently happening should open up space for all kinds of possibilities. Hormonal or surgical procedures are not necessarily the thing for every person. People like Laverne Cox, or Janet Mock, or Caitlyn Jenner conform so well to what’s on magazine covers that there’s not a revolution happening. I’m interested in things that look differently than like Beyoncé, or a style icon, or a beauty icon. My sister worships Beyoncé …that’s no secret. But being enamored of people like Beyoncé or a Kerry Washington in the confines of white supremacy is not a radical thing because they’re light skinned and fit the ideal beauty construct.
How do we go forward?
Hopefully, we’re moving towards a radical openness, where people feel free to do whatever, and not be ostracized. Even drag has been commodified! When something becomes a thing, it automatically has limits.
It’s interesting that you bring up drag. I think a show like RuPaul’s Drag Race has taken drag to a radical level, in the sense that Ru shows all the girls in their boy drag as well. Previously, most drag queens would never present themselves in a swaggering stance, outside of their feminized personae…especially not in the daylight [laughs]!
Yes! Most recently it’s been ‘look at how hot that guy is out of drag’…that’s radical! On one level, you’re right! On another level, it’s reinforcing this binary girl/boy. What if there’s this nebulous place as well? RuPaul understands this deeply. She has that famous quote: “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag”. I think she’s a genius!
She is! In one of the recent podcast episodes of RuPaul: What’s The Tee, she talks about how everything she’s ever done, she made for herself. It wasn’t presented to her on some silver platter. She created the work for herself! This really clicked in my head. We have to create our own projects, spaces, opportunities, etc. Being passive, resistant, and feeling victimized only reinforces failure.
That’s right! RuPaul is a black man that does drag. Any black man who makes it to 55 y/o in America, and is thriving, is amazing! I admire that. God bless the child who’s got his own (Billie Holiday)! And how one gets his own is by making it. There needs to be a headline…Black Queer Capitalism…us at the helm, making things for ourselves. The marketability of blackness in mainstream culture has to have an authenticity. One of the things that RuPaul does brilliantly is give you flavor in the black vernacular, but then she’s also able to flip to anchor woman style. RuPaul’s talent is about reading culture.
I think people are hungry now for something other…something different than what the masses are consuming. Bounce music artist Big Freedia (recently featured on Beyoncé’s new single Formation) has done that well. She carved out a niche. You’re doing the same. You cannot be a prisoner of hope without engaging in a form of struggle (Cornel West).
I think once you get caught up in the mainstream, there’s a death. It zaps your creativity. I’ve been out here all by myself. It’s allowed me a lot of freedom. I value my freedom! My power has been in developing my work, being committed to my vision. There’s always gonna be a basement somewhere where I can do something….and hopefully the world eventually comes around. I’m on a committed journey to love myself and my blackness. I’m good!
You can check out M. Lamar yourself on March 19 in NYC at Ecstatic Music Festival: M.Lamar, Charlie Looker & Mivos Quartet, March 26 Toronto, Ontario at Ratio Space, San Francisco April 14 at M. Lamar with Hunter Hunt-Hendrix in Destruction, Los Angeles April 15&16 at M. Lamar: Funeral Doom Spiritual, and Copenhagen, Denmark April 22 at International Performance Art Festival,