Picturing Black History

Photographs and stories that changed the world

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Transcript: Love Is The Message, an Interview with Sai Isoke

Sai Isoke
My name is Sai Isoke, I use all pronouns, and as far as research goes, I would say right now I’m a recreational researcher. I don’t have any research affiliations with any universities or organizations at this time, I actually work in Student Affairs. So kind of, you know, flip the script a little bit, but I do have a background in academic research at Ohio State, actually, I was a Masters student and a PhD student for some time in Women’s Gender Sexuality Studies at OSU. So the work that I was doing, there was about blackness, it was about queerness, it was about pop culture and more film and music specifically, there’s the saying, like, you don’t know where you’re going unless you know, unless you know where you’ve been. I’ve heard it so many different iterations. But the intention of it, meaning you have to know what’s happened in order to know what’s happening now in order to know, you know, where you need to take it in the future, and so, to me, all of that knowing involves context and the only way we get context is through history through studying these stories through paying attention to our current and how that’s connecting to the past, and giving ourselves space to understand any implications for a future, right. So context is king, I always say that there’s no better context then histories and I’m not specifically talking about histories through textbooks, or even through classes and seminars, but oral histories, stories you get from your family, random, you know, YouTube videos that you might find that have some kind of experiential knowledge, people just sharing their own experiences, and their own, you know, and their own thoughts and stuff that’s all a part of history for sure so, yeah, context is king, history is context. Pop culture is significant, number one, let me say Yes, I hear this a lot with people being like, it’s just pop culture, it’s just radio. It’s just, you know, whatever, YouTube videos viral. But the way I see it is that pop culture, can at any point serve as kind of like a Zeitgeist for what is happening at that time. Right? So if we even think about how on what is it like XM radio, you know, Sirius XM Radio, like, you can go to stations, they have stations solely dedicated to the 80s, to the 90s, to whatever, right. And so to me, that shows the significance of pop culture and time. The connection to history is that pop culture is often telling us what is happening historically, at the time, and through a lot of technology, and through a lot of changing technologies we have more access to pop culture than we’ve ever had. I mean, it’s literally at our fingertips, the way I can watch a YouTube video of, you know, a Malcolm X interview in like five seconds, if I just Google it on my phone, is wild. I think about this every day I’m like that’s so wild but yeah, it just shows like, if you go look at what 10 songs were hot in 1988, you can kind of get a picture of what was happening at that time, right? Was it party culture? Was it some kind of, you know, rebellion against something? Was it love? Was it you know, like, you can you can, you can see it through that. So and that’s just, I mean, I’m using examples of music, but it’s the same thing with films. It’s the same thing with comic books, even, you know, like, there’s all kinds of ways that history is just threaded through the art that we create that becomes, you know, inevitably popular, that becomes culture. Firstly, I’m a recreationally researcher right now so anything I do is for the love of it. So I love disco music. I’m a person who was raised by parents who were I would say, like older than the average age of a parent of someone my age. So what that meant was, I was getting a lot of oldies like I pretty much didn’t hear current music until I like preteen teenager, I was just listening to a lot, whatever my parents listened to, that’s what I was listening to and so I started to get a feel for a few disco records and things like that, and it just always made me feel good. So I was really into it. And so as I got older as I’m in college, and then in graduate school and seeing these threads of like, this particular genre of music legitimately existed, to make people feel good, it existed to make people dance, it existed to give people kind of a break from what was happening in their lives and so when I was doing more research and found out that the nucleus of this music it was black, queer, and brown queer people, I was like, Whoa, like as a queer person myself. That was the best news to find out. It was the best research and inquiry I could have because it was just very, very affirming. The photos that I chose in doing this article were in a way affirming photos, you know, the first photo I chose was Grace Jones and so Grace Jones is kind of like at the intersection of gender, I would say, because at the time, she was so androgynous nobody really knew what to do with her. She’s, you know, a person who we would look at and say, well, that’s a black woman, but she’s really tall. And then on top of that, she’s also very outspoken, she does what she wants with her sexuality and that makes people uncomfortable, but then it’s also really attractive, and we don’t know what to do with that. So I feel like she is really a good example of the time of disco and just the possibility, I felt like disco was like riddled with possibility always and so when I saw this picture of Grace Jones looking super ethereal and just like the center of attention, all I saw was possibility for black women bodies for blackness for any, you know, implications of queerness. It was all there in this picture. The second picture here, oh, it’s a picture of Sylvester. So Sylvester, also known as the Queen of Disco, right, some people will give that to Donna Summers, some people might give it to Diana Ross, but Sylvester the original Queen of Disco was not someone who we would consider you know, who we would say was born a woman right? Was very queer, very much so playing with gender at every single point and Sylvester, I mean, if y’all haven’t heard the songs of Sylvester, go ahead and listen to it, because it’s just gonna make you feel good. I mean, and so when I saw this, this picture here of Sylvester receiving this award this plaque, I was like, This is it, you know, this is, and you wouldn’t think that someone who is as progressive in their understanding of their own gender and their own sexuality would be considered to be popular. Right. But again, in the realm of disco, and what disco provided there was that possibility, and Sylvester is like the main point of that possibility. So I definitely wanted to bring that in. Again, I would highly recommend Sylvester songs to go listen to, you can just start with like the Spotify page, the first five songs that they always populate, you know, those are always good, and then the last picture I think this is the last picture is a picture of Disco Demolition night. I chose that picture because I actually wanted to illustrate the audacity I mean, it was it was such an audacious thing you know, demolition disco night, which I write about in the article. And it was so much so threaded with hate. It was threaded with misunderstanding, it was threaded with trying to assert power, these white cishet men saying, “Oh my God, all these black queers and all these brown queers, they’re taking, you know, they’re, they’re taking this attention, they’re on the radio, they’re inspiring movies, they’re doing all this stuff,” and they don’t understand it, right. They don’t understand the the tight clothes, the flashy jewelry, they don’t understand the being out till 4am, you know, dancing to a song that’s 17 minutes long, they don’t understand it, because that’s not their lives, and from that you get something of course, this particular night is very specific to the person who kind of led it. But I think the overarching theme to me was when I saw this picture was just like, it’s amazing what hate will do, you know, they literally blew up records on a baseball field. Why? Why, you know, why did you do that? So I thought, it’s just absurd, and so this picture to me illustrates that absurdity, because people, you know, I think when I was younger, I heard the story through, I don’t think I was watching a VH1 documentary or something and I was about 15 or 16 years old, and I heard someone reference like, oh, they blew up a bunch of disco records at this White Sox game. I was like, no one blew up, disco records, who blows up disco records? First of all, who’s blowing stuff up? Like, what? Why is that a thing that we just do casually? You know, but I think I just could not conceptualize the fact that someone would actually do this. So and in getting older and researching why this happened, it made so much sense and it’s incredibly sad. So I wanted to show that with that picture. Pleasure in itself is revolution, it’s resistance. It’s everything that we need and I think especially black people, we get robbed of that we get robbed of the ability to experience pleasure as our revolution as our healing modality. Right a lot of the time we get kind of funneled into fighting into strife and that’s you know, there’s a time and a space for that 100% and often because of the energy of those two things we do leave out these moments of pleasure these moments of reprieve and I think disco literally existed to provide that. It was like look we got we have a little bit more space and time to do some things let’s dance like let’s just dance and black people we’ve always danced we’ve always listened to music we have always done that. But I think disco was doing that in a very particular way that was confusing for a lot of people interesting to a lot of people and so yeah that possibility of pleasure for black people is really important so yeah it’s 100% there for sure. Even though disco as an industry and I allude to this in the article just go as an industry may have died right? It wasn’t necessarily the cash cow that it was for a few years right there was no Saturday Night Fever being consistently articulated in pop culture anymore. So the industry of course, you know, died bell bottoms went out of style. Nobody was buying disco balls. Nobody wanted to hear a 17 minute song, the industry it stopped making money, but the music itself gave way again, like this word that’s just going to be threaded through this whole interview is possibility. So the music itself gave way to house music, another genre also at the nucleus of black creativity.