summer in martha's vineyard
six years ago. i am 20. an undergrad at oberlin college. major in black studies and visual arts. i study betye saar, carrie may weems, robert farris thompson. i study art. i make art. my world as a human, as a visual artist explodes. i obsessively pour myself into west african altar-inspired installations. i utilize photographs and sculpture, music, performance and light. tell stories. with every medium i can find.
but. i stayed away from film. there were certain classes at oberlin I stayed away from. those art classes full of rich white kids who owned the fanciest, finest equipment since their teens (classes like film and photography)-generally repelled me. those kids knew what "film noir" meant. those kids already knew how to shoot on 16mm. they knew clever jokes about terentino and coppolla. they studied BIRTH OF A NATION for its technical achievements. they loved woody allen. now and then- i feel a tiny pinch of regret. i was afraid to fight for a place in those classes so. i stayed away from film.
six years ago, somehow i end up at the martha's vineyard african american film festival. i'm not a connoisseur of film, but i go. why not? at the festival, i see some good films, some so-so ones. some very high quality films, some very very low budget ones. Most of them are dripping with drama-a side effect of the burden of representation. for example, there are NO romcoms about BLACK LOVE so THIS ROMCOM will explain EVERYTHING about BLACK LOVE. or, AIDS AND HIV ARE SO IMPORTANT IN THE COMMUNITY and NO ONE IS TALKING about it. THIS FILM WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING. The hunger for blackness in representations in film and tv is so great-it left no room for subtlety. and the audience's hunger (including my own) is so great-we eat every morsel served. laugh at bad jokes, look past plot holes. because we have to start from somewhere.
then. in that dim, carpeted room, siw years ago- a short film called "Pariah" lit up on the screen. this film was unlike any i'd ever seen. the images. the colors. brown skin accented in oranges and blues, reds. rich, vibrant. characters. complexity. humanity. and most striking and rare of all it's qualities I found SUBTLETY. subtlety in a film festival sea of hammed up sex jokes and slapstick. in an ocean of black actors over acting and attempting to speak the way black people on tv are supposed to speak. i found subtlety.
yes. being black and queer drew me into the story. but. this film told a story that was very different from mine-still i saw myself in it. the seed was planted. it took me another three years. but. once i saw that film-i knew i could no longer stay away from the medium.
six years later, august. my film Vow of Silence is accepted into the Martha's Vineyard African American Film Festival. so my producer Brenda and I drive up to martha's vineyard.*
*an aside about "the vineyard", or "the yard" as it is called by some. Yes. it is where bourgie black folks go to summer. yes. it is where the obamas, the clintons, kennedys, and other wealthy folk have gone to summer. yes, it is where my bourgie family goes to summer. it can be a very silly place. sometimes i didn't understand why people would spend the insane amount of money, time and effort it takes to get and stay there. but sometimes i get it. the light through the trees. brown skin on the beach. quiet. sometimes, peace.
on a clear and bright august afternoon- we drive through the trees of oak bluffs. in a beautiful theater, we watch people file in. mostly older Black folks. the room goes dark. after an hour or so-our film lights up the screen. i stand and walk to the back of the theater. there is something strange about being nervous at a screening. the work is already done. what are you afraid of? a technical glitch? the speakers clipping on the score. someone standing to leave. as the film plays, i bite my nails-listening closely for laughs or scoffs of protest.
our first "straight" audience. I wasn't sure how it would be received. but. nothing goes tragically wrong. people laugh at jokes. they are still when the story is still. and when the screen cuts to darkness, i am full. this feels like a beginning and an end all at once. my parents, some of their friends were there. graduating from howard. completing this film. being so proud and feeling so right about the work you've done. there is nothing like it. the audience was very generous. "thank you. thank you for art." One woman said to me. and that was. Everything. because that's what i wanted all this time. to see blackness in art. to see our films go beyond entertainment. that's what i saw in the pariah short six years ago. art inspires.
My body buzzing with joy-i tiptoe out of the theater during the final q&a. when i opened the door to that gorgeous august breeze-spike lee stands at the door. I awkwardly tell him, "hello" and scurry away. later on, everyone i tell this to will say FRANtiCALLY- "why didn't you tell him about your movie?" "why didn't you tell him he inspired you?" and i will wish in my heart that he had at least seen the piece and given me a moment of advice, of encouragement. well. he didn't. and i didn't approach him because he probably wouldn't care. and that's all right. i saw him. and that was affirmation enough for me.*
*an interesting connection- spike lee was dee rees' advisor at NYU on her thesis project. a film called pariah.
*another interesting connection-the DP on pariah, an EXCEPTIONALLY talented guy by the name of Bradford Young- became my inspiration to study cinematography at Howard. I find out some years later that Young also studied at howard and I have the opportunity to meet him in my second and third years in the MFA program.
after the screening, we celebrated brenda's birthday. brenda ate her first lobster, and bought a GALLON of clam chowder. yes. a gallon. on my birthday, i drank lots of beer. the next day-my sister laura and i decided to go sober* for the rest of our vacation.
*sobriety. I love beer, i love most alcoholic beverages. i also have a voracious appetite for anything i love. so. i have to be very conscious about when i do and don't drink. not drinking has been a great experience for me. it forces me to connect with people and have a good time on my own. i am myself. i have more energy. i lose weight. less anxiety. it's always worth it. I recommend you give it a go.
i read books! i buy and read a very effective book about female ejaculation. i read A VIsit From the Goon Squad (which is now one of my favorites). i play frisbee in the ocean. my sister kate teaches me how to scale a fish! i make tuna tartare and shrimp bisque. i fall in love with the ocean. i fall in love with the sun. i love myself. then i get ambitious.
it's been months since i've written a song. "don't go" was the last i wrote on the heels of graduating with my mfa in film. since then-i've been depressed. really fucking depressed. why don't i have a job? how did i get to be eighty thousand dollars in debt? what am i doing with my life? "write a song about THAT." a good friend tells me. but. i can't. i can't write a song about anything. i'm stuck. i don't know if i'm a filmmaker or a musician or just a creative person with no job or prospects and too much education. i record covers. i drink beer late at night. i cover my windows with black cloth so i can sleep in. the dc humidity, the self loathing, the fear-it all feels like an endless steam room. i'm swimming in it. so. now that i am sober, in martha's vineyard, and dusted in sea salts. now that i have a moment away from the city, how about i FORCE MYSELF to write A SONG A DAY?
SONG A DAY
my song a day challenge begins with a song i wrote called "sirens." i am not naive. i am not surprised when a cop kills an unarmed black man. i would not be surprised if someone told me it happened every day. what hurts me is the fact that all of this becomes normalized. that incarceration is normal. poor education-normal. no access to fresh vegetables-normal. addiction-normal. gentrification-normal. i've benefitted from the privilege to live most of my life in a neighborhood with very low police presence and no gunshots. but living half-time with my partner in Anacostia over the past two years-i've heard shots once every couple of weeks. i never felt unsafe there (probably due to my class privilege)-but the police always scare me. every time i woke up in the middle of the night-it was common to see red and blue racing across the white walls, sirens blaring down the street. but. i got used to it. it became normal.
one night-i woke to the sound of gunshots. i nearly fell back into sleep when i heard a woman wailing. crying. i didn't know who she was to this person-but i could tell someone she loved just died. i didn't sleep the rest of the night.
the next day, i wrote "greens". i'd been working on that one for a while. spending time in the garden. drinking juices. understanding more every day the significance of physical health. i am perhaps not the picture of health. but. i appreciate that raw energy that comes from fresh, home-grown foods. and. now that i'm in my LATE TWENTIES-i find myself building a more sustainable love with my partner. i see the woman i love and imagine the future. that feeling makes me smile so wide. it makes me silly.
3. HOLD ME
The third day. You know that moment when you're making love and you climax and everything is electric and sensitive? then you get that feeling when you want to pull away. you've done it! now you just want to allow ecstasy to dissolve back into real life. then-your partner says "hold me, we're not going to stop now. hold on to me. i got you." that's the feeling i wanted to use as a metaphor for a relationship in general. my fear of commitment. my fears of letting go. having someone to pull you closer right at the moment when you're pushing away. having someone to say "i am GOING TO LOVE YOU". That's the feeling i tried to capture.
I finished "hold me" late the night before. i was exhausted. i started feeling stupid about my songs. why am i doing this? are these songs even good? i wanted to meditate. i wanted to go to the beach. so i thought about the people i love the most-my best friends. mostly thought of my bestie taylor. and i wrote a song about us as kids. doing things we would love to do if we were kids together. i find myself writing from the perspective of a child often-maybe because i was pretty lonely as a kid. i think a lot of baby gays are lonely as kids. there's a part of your heart and dreams that you don't see in your friends, you don't see on tv, or in books. so a song like "let's" allows me to relive my tiny days with the amazing people and connections i've made in my adult years.
5. BLUE LIKE
Day five. I don't think it's cool to be sad. but i get sad a lot. so sometimes-i try to use it. write sad songs. sad stories. be mysterious. be dark. be pessimistic. embrace it. i wrote "blue like" to sort of make fun of my own blues. when my girlfriend tells me im good at being sad-it makes me laugh. she's right. it's silly and it's also true. but i ended the song with the lyric "blue like sky"-i suppose in an effort to see the beauty in it. blue is a gorgeous color. sometimes it's dark and cool, and sometimes it's full of light and hope.
6. IT'S BEEN A LONG TIME
I'm not sure how much explaining this song needs. It's pretty literal.
Asha Santee is an amazing human and i love her so much. she is love. she is also my peer-a fellow artist. Asha and I are an awesome team. Asha is a BEAST on the drums, keys, vocals, and as a producer. On the drive back to DC from MV-I told asha "we were going to finish this song". I wrote the words to switch in an effort to capture the joy of being with a partner who is versatile. you can be gay, straight, queer, whatever you want to be. but i think everyone should try to switch every now and then. I don't mean that in terms of sexuality. i'm referring to power. giving power, and taking power. we wrote the song with the idea that we would take turns singing, allowing the form and content of the song to speak to the concept of the switch.
i love this recording, but asha and i are really excited to build on it in the future. add some more production. maybe compose a visual piece to tell the story.
once i completed the seven songs in seven days- i released my song a day project on bandcamp. https://bsteady.bandcamp.com/
to my surprise- i sold more copies of this ep than my previous e.p. entitled rainwater. i assumed it was because of the videos i posted of each song. the interactive nature of the project-allowing people to watch it grow each day. or maybe i just have more awesome support than i did six moths ago. or both. either way-my work as an artist really started to bare fruit with my song-a-day project. i could say definitively "people are listening to my music", "people support my music". that's a big step for me.
so this was my summer: