Fabulous: Sylvester James, Black Queer Afrofuturism and the Black Fantastic

Reynaldo Anderson

Harris-Stowe State University (US)

DOI: 10.12801/1947-5403.2013.05.02.15

Although in some circles disco singers like Donna Summer or Gloria Gaynor would be remembered as the “Queens of Disco”, these views obscure the impact of Sylvester James. Born in 1947 in the Los Angeles community of Watts, disco performer Sylvester’s influence on disco and present day electronic dance music is incalculable. Sylvester James emerged in the wake of a confluence of forces that would shape popular music and culture for the remainder of the 20th century. In the aftermath of the civil rights movement, the emerging women’s movement and gay liberation movement, Sylvester was influenced by African American blues, women of the church, hippies, drag queens and other members of the gay community (Gamson 2005). Sylvester’s hits such as “Dance (Disco Heat)”, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Do You Wanna Funk” became anthems of disco aficionados for a generation. Sylvester personified the excesses of the 1970s and the experimentation that characterized changing social norms. However, what is less understood is how Sylvester, his androgynous lifestyle, and gay identity contributed to the notion and formation of “The Black Fantastic” or the “sensibilities generated from the experiences of the underground, the vagabond, and those constituencies marked as deviant . . . [that are] inevitably aligned within, in conversation with, against, and articulated beyond the boundaries of the modern (Iton 2008: 16). Moreover, how did the performance of Sylvester stand at the intersection of Afrofuturism, black queer politics, and disco as an antecedent to electronic dance music? This essay will use an Afrofuturist hermeneutic informed by a black queer subjectivity to examine the aesthetic sensibilities and political significance of Sylvester James in relation to the rise and decline of disco in popular culture.

Disco’s emergence as a popular music was the result of a convergence of historical currents within American popular culture that would later go global after the civil unrest and discontent of the 1960s. Disco’s roots or pre-history originate with the sounds of Motown, and before that with African-American blues, jazz and R&B, and parallels the emergence of funk music in the 1970s. Early disk jockeys such as Walter Gibbons, DJ Kool Herc, Frankie Knuckles and others revolutionized the use of then contemporary technology, breaks, beats, sound systems and turntables to influence the energy and erotic expression of dancers in nightclubs that catered to African-Americans, gays, Latinos and others (Lawrence 2008). Sylvester’s early influence in music was the black Pentecostal church along with his participation in gospel choirs, although he would leave due to homophobic bias and ultimately relocate to San Francisco (Gamson 2005). San Francisco’s countercultural community was fertile ground for Sylvester’s lifestyle due to its high concentration of members of the gay community, experimental secular movements like vegan and ecological based organizations, intellectual or literary institutions, and faith traditions ranging from Asian influences such as Zen and Hare Krishna to spiritual organizations devoted to Satanism (Glock, Bellah and Alfred 1976). Moreover, radical organizations for gay liberation were headquartered in the Bay Area along with others such as the Black Panther Party whose leader Huey Newton mandated recognition of gay rights. Soon after his arrival, Sylvester joined avant-garde performance art group The Cockettes and participated in performances in the Palace Theatre performing parodies of popular culture (Gamson 2005). Sylvester would later form the group The Hot Band and the Four As, both of which had limited commercial success. It was with his formation of the group Two Tons of Fun, with singers Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes, that he would gain widespread acclaim and commercial success during the mid-to-late 1970s, especially with the hit song “You Make Me Feel”.

According to the popular narrative, the popularity of disco began to wane during the advent of the Reagan and Thatcher administrations of the 1980s. The rise of the New Right, in reaction to the liberation movements of the 1960s and early 1970s, sought to reassert patriarchal norms of white heterosexual cultural “values”, opposing the too black, too gay, too female culture of disco that culminated with the anti-disco movement launched by rock DJ Steve Dahl (Lawrence 2003). Also, by the end of the 1970s African-American youth culture was moving away from disco and its perceived white pop makeover especially illustrated by the movie Saturday Night Fever, despite the fact that most of disco’s top acts were black performers such as Sylvester, the disco act Chic and many others (Lawrence, 2003). Moreover, the New Right’s fixation with disco as representative of the corruption of capitalism, coupled with the institutional Left’s ignorance of the relation between politics, the body and pleasure, and the genre’s seeming disengagement with class stratification, all contributed to the music’s decline in popularity (Lawrence 2003). Yet it was the AIDS epidemic that was initially articulated as the “gay” disease that closed the final chapter on disco’s demise in the late 1980s. In spite of this seemingly apparent collapse of disco and its transmutation into other forms such as northeastern US house and techno music, with its dystopian futuristic themes, it was during this period that the seeds for contemporary Afrofuturism and its accompanying aesthetic perspective in relation to a digital turn in culture that was reflected in the growing influence of networked software, database logic, technological influence, deep remixability, and neurosciences that began to emerge in the 1970s and 1980s (Manovich 2013, Negroponte 1995, Pisters 2012). However, previous analyses of dance music culture tended to privilege other institutional forms of critique such as that provided by cultural studies.

For example, the discipline of cultural studies was perhaps the first to analyze dance culture. Yet, as Angela McRobbie (1990) has noted, the study of dance culture was primarily undertaken from the vantage point of the heroic-tragic frame of analysis and tended to support the predominantly heterosexual male researcher’s class models at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Also, the tendency by scholars to criticize utopian frameworks as escapist, arguing that such escapism is ultimately restrictive of individual freedom and thus leading to totalitarian governance, ignored the need and desire for peoples to share states of being in forms of interchange and expression that seek to recover an impulse or longing in various cultural forms (Brown 2010). For example, performers like Sylvester and other disco artists frequently articulated and experienced what could be referred to as an emotional experience similar to that of religion in their performances, and this behavior would be replicated a generation later with rave and techno performances (Gamson 2005; Gauthier 2005). Furthermore, within the framework of the Black Fantastic, there is need for more analysis of the relationship between race, sexuality, gender, technology and the utopian impulses of those individuals marked as “deviant” pertaining to cultural artifacts or performances that correspond to what is now understood as Afrofuturism.

What is presently called Afrofuturism was originally a philosophical techno-cultural vernacular perspective that was engaged in a heterodox form of cultural production originating in socio-spatial temporal practices of black urban dwellers in North America after World War II. The recently popularized term “Afrofuturism” was coined in the early 1990s by writers Mark Dery, Kodwo Eshun and Mark Sinker; however, their early articulation of the phenomenon was limited largely to music, art and speculative fiction. In the 21st century, current expressions of Afrofuturism are emerging in the area of metaphysics such as cosmogony (origin of the universe), cosmology (structure of the universe), speculative philosophy and philosophy of science (Eglash 2002; Gaskins 2011). Previously, in the 1950s, Herman Blount (aka Sun Ra) and his business partner Alton Abraham engaged in a critical urban utopianism via the vehicle of black experimental music that drew upon a distinct black cosmology and “traditionally black affiliated musical forms (such as spirituals and the blues) to instrumental choices that combine[d] African folk percussion and electronic sounds . . . directed both backward and forward to suggest a radical break from the tyranny of an oppressive present” (Sites 2012: 576). Although performers like Alice and John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and others would parallel and contribute to the experimental expression of black music of the time, it was Ra’s critical heterodox form of extraterrestrial utopianism that would later aesthetically influence musical groups like Earth, Wind & Fire, George Clinton and his groups Parliament and Funkadelic in the 1970s.

Traditionally Afrofuturism is largely identified with black speculative fiction, music traditions and utopian or dystopian impulses (Zuberi 2004). A dominant expression of Afrofuturism lies in its aesthetic expression and appropriation of technological and or African cultural artifacts, to reimagine or reinterpret the past present or future. Moreover, the musical, literary and poetic works of Sun Ra, Ishmael Reed, Octavia Butler, Amiri Baraka and Samuel R. Delany, among others, are considered foundational artifacts to Afrofuturist discourse. Furthermore, the previous works of scholars like W. E. B. Dubois serve as forerunners and contributors to an Afrofuturist perspective to assemble concepts to interrogate the “double-consciousness” or structural and psychological alienation experienced by the “Souls of Black Folk” and a multiplicity of forms related to futurity (Dubois 1903; Eshun 2003). Finally, an Afrofuturist “uses extraterrestriality as a hyperbolic trope to explore the historical terms, the everyday implications of forcibly imposed dislocation”, and how African/diasporic subjectivities “are constituted from slave to negro to colored to black to African to African American” and Afro-Latin to Afro-Caribbean or Afro-European (Eshun 298–99).

However, what is less understood is how Afrofuturism is related to the cultural production of one of the musical genres that Afrofuturism engages with: disco music. McLeod writes that “music, in general, connects listeners to fantasy, pleasure and an ever elusive future. . . . Music takes us outside of our bodies and place while simultaneously reminding us of our location and what it means to live there” (2003: 337). Moreover, previous Afrofuturist scholarship lacks analyses on black queer performance. Although there is some analysis of the speculative fiction of Samuel R. Delany, there is a dearth of scholarship in relation to black queer performance in disco or electronic dance music culture, in particular analyzing the former as a response to the processes of urban cultural practices, techno-genesis or the co-evolution of humans and technology, in a politically contested public sphere. By “black queer” performance I am suggesting an identity, understood as a sexuality that does not conform to Western notions of heterosexual expression. Black queer identity rejects binary assumptions concerning gendered-identity metanarratives that are primarily composed of desire for the opposite sex, as encoded in heteronormative gender performances and sexed bodies (Butler 1989; Wilchins 2004).

Figure 1. Sylvester as an Egyptian Princess. Cover artwork for Do Ya Wanna Funk by Mark Amerika.

Sylvester appropriated contemporary music technology and theatrical production techniques, initially reinventing his persona via jazz and blues, performing briefly under the pseudonym Ruby Blue with the avant-garde group Cockettes, and later adopting parodies of noted personalities like Coretta Scott King. At one point, Sylvester appeared as an Egyptian Princess on the cover of his 1982 album “All I Need”. Additionally, as Sylvester embraced disco and it’s technological, futuristic liminality or rituals of imagined identity and dance performance he moved away from androgynous appearance to secure a more commercial recording contract. Sylvester’s ability to reimagine or reinvent himself extended to the range of his voice, which he could perform in falsetto or baritone. His vocal dexterity allowed Sylvester to move away from disco, partnering with Jeanie Tracy and Maurice Long as the C.O.G.I.C singers to record ballads, soul, and gospel influenced music. The partnership reflected a similar religious background expressed through the African-American musical tradition. Sylvester’s friendship with San Francisco’s first openly gay elected official Harvey Milk further demonstrated that his performance was consistent with the notion of “The Black Fantastic”, by participating in deterritorializing political and cultural arenas that disrupted and blurred the distinction between segregation and integration and that would sow the seed of remixing the largely heterosexual post-civil rights black public sphere by defying assumptions of the racist white gaze. The black queer futuristic performance of Sylvester James not only demonstrated the ability of the artist to reimagine and influence popular culture and the political sphere, impacting internal and external communities, but simultaneously created new discursive spaces. However, despite the fact that performers like Sylvester and other black artists contributed to the notion of a “Black Fantastic” and can subversively impact the political, cultural and social aspects of the public sphere, they are still functioning within the context of the “new politics of containment”, that ultimately relies on the visible representation of African Americans to “generate the invisibility of exclusionary practices” (Collins 1998).

Author Biography

Dr. Reynaldo Anderson currently serves as a member of the Executive Board for the Missouri Arts Council and as an Assistant Professor of Humanities and Teacher Education at Harris-Stowe State University. He was recognized by Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri in 2010 for his leadership in the Saint Louis community. Finally, Reynaldo publishes research in regard to several dimensions of the African American experience, social media, rhetoric and the African Diaspora and recently participated as a visiting lecturer at the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration (GIMPA) in Accra, Ghana.


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