Picturing Black History

Photographs and stories that changed the world

A collaboration of     and    

Transcript: Sai Isoke, a Picturing Black History Interview

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, and so house music, right, we talk about Frankie Knuckles, we talk about all kinds of other DJs and producers who took disco music, made house music made this different form of dance music and I mean, we’re coming off of the hills of Beyonce just releasing, what is it Renaissance Part One, like, and even Drake with his house music album. You know, I think it is really interesting the ways that house music in particular gets replicated. Because of that, again, it’s that feel good feeling. It’s that all you can do to this music is dance, you’re not thinking to this music, you’re not crying to this music, you might be because you’re releasing but the point of the music is not to evoke any kind of sorrow. It’s to evoke pleasure and fun and a sense of relaxation. Even if we look at how people were dancing to disco music and how people dance to house music. There’s no structure, you know, we’re not necessarily expecting everyone to bust out in four-count to disco music, it’s just whatever you want to do. It’s whatever you want to feel and the same thing with house music. So I think disco music 100% set the tone for house music, which I feel, set the tone for a lot of different cultures within not only music, but what we would understand to be like black created music. One thing about the role of remixes, right, like remixes were largely a house music thing, like you remixed the song to have that, you know, elements so that it was you know, it was popping in a different club in a different way. And I think about even house music and the importance of house music within the queer community specifically, I’ve been to queer clubs all over the United States, and the one thing that they all have in common is at some point, there’s going to be a house music song. Even on hip hop night, there’s going to be somebody’s song that is a house music song that has that up tempo beat that just yeah, that house music that disco vibe. So it set the tone and it’s still it’s still very much here. So yeah, the industry, not so much right. But that is what industry does at every turn. But the culture of it the intention of it 100% alive. So unfortunately, when it came to disco industry did not give way to any kind of financial revolution for black and brown, queer and trans people. It was commodified. It was taken, it was prepackaged to make white people feel comfortable with it. You know, i.e. Saturday Night Fever, black, brown, queer and trans people were left you know, left behind and the creation of the music again, you don’t get people like Sylvester you don’t get people like Grace Jones who exist in this genre in this time without it being created for those purposes. Right. So if you want to think about the ways that disco music was in clubs, it was in dance clubs and like secretive dance clubs, because they were queer clubs. before it got popular. It was us it was it was us, it was 100% is it’s definitely there. But again, I think it’s unfortunate that the ways that we’ve come to understand disco post, you know, disco is dead movement is that it was some cheesy thing where it was just everyone wearing large white lapels and platform boots and listening to the Bee Gees no disrespect to the Bee Gees you know, I get down to the Bee Gees too but like, you know, that is what I think the image of disco is and it’s not to me I mean I think about disco I think about Sylvester I think about Nile Rodgers, and Chic, and if we even want to talk about that right like Nile Roger is not a queer person but a black person who was really producing so much disco music and just creating like everyone, it doesn’t matter who you are you have heard Le Freak by Chic like that is it’s just it’s a thing, and you can see even today when that song comes on, people get happy, people get happy, you know what I’m saying? But to bring this point back to the blackness, right? And the implications for queerness at least right? I actually a few years ago, went to the Cher concert, I went to the Cher concert because Nile Rodgers was opening I went for Nile Rogers, and so I get there, it’s me and my friend we’re both black and brown, we’re queer, we are ready to party to some Nile Rogers to Chic we get there. You know, they’ve they’re opening no one is in the stadium. People are like trickling in, right, and at some point Nile Rogers has this moment where he introduces himself to the crowd. He’s like, Oh, I’m Nile Rogers, you might have known me from producing, and he goes on his list of songs that he produced, you know, and the crowd was just like, unimpressed. I was like, this is the problem. This is this is the problem. You know what I’m saying? Like, you would not know that a black person was behind David Bowie’s Let’s Dance. Right? Like it’s, an unfortunate thing, but that’s something that happened for someone like Nile Rogers, who wasn’t even queer. So we think about that, think about all of the forgotten people, the queer and the trans folks, black and brown, who created the genre who were so responsible for making it dope for making it you know what it was and just 100% forgotten. Definitely where I start is with Sylvester all day and the times that I’ve taught on disco, that’s the number one person that I start with. So You Make me Feel is a great song. My favorite is I Need Somebody to Love, I love that, Dance, Disco, Heat is a common one that people will listen to. I would also point folks into the direction of the house music people that came right on the hill. So Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy, and yeah, there’s a few. There’s a few other names that I am that I’m forgetting. But actually, if you listen to anything by DJ, Frankie Knuckles, you’ll hear the disco influence very closely and very quickly, actually, full disclosure, I was a person who, when it came to being in class, and learning about history, was very bored with it. I honestly didn’t pay attention too much. I got by, you know, I passed all my classes, I did the assignments fairly well, because at the end of the day, it was reading and regurgitating what you read, right. But I think it’s very important for students to know that stuff like music stuff, like films, comic books, these are also texts, right? These are not necessarily texts in the literal sense that these are words written out on a page and, and things like that. But these are ways of knowing and ways of learning, and so they all have their own power within them. People like have learned a lot, I’m trying to think of some of the things that I’ve taught with, for example, I’ve taught the film Daughters of the Dust, right, and I had students who were like, this looks a lot like Beyonce’s Lemonade and I was like, that’s because that’s where she got it from. Yeah. You know, so we were able to have fun with like, okay, well, I love this album, there are all these motifs in this, these videos and stuff, I don’t really know where it’s coming from, and then okay, it’s like, where is this coming from? And they were able to get into the themes and motifs of Daughters of the Dust, which was very much not only about black femininity, but also had some implications of queerness with a few of their characters and like, we’re talking about, you know, the black south, we’re talking about Gullah Geechee, it was rich, you know, it’s like rich with all kinds of experiences of blackness that are different than maybe what is number one is going to be present in a textbook and number two, the stuff that’s going to get kind of reproduced during Black History Month and it’s different than, you know, the tale of diaspora by way of solely slavery. It’s like, these people had lives and, desires and thoughts and feelings as well right? So that was a film that shows that right? But these are things that, that film helped for my students, and for me, it helped break that open for them. Right. I think visual texts are very important to do that. They help you you know, break up a lot of what’s being written about what’s being talked about in your families, you know, as you’re a kid, and you’re hearing all kinds of stuff, and you don’t really know what it is, I think films can through visuals can give you an idea, and then from there can, you know affect you in a certain way and I think that happens with music. I love comic books, and that is another way to that some folks will feel like, wow, I just didn’t know about this, especially if you’re able to get comic books that speak to the specific time that they’re written in or anything like that, right? There’s a visual aspect. There’s all kinds of things with comic books. Let’s see, I’m trying to think of some of my other favorite mediums. I listen to a lot of podcasts, so that is something I encourage students to get into, because podcasts are, first of all, there’s so many podcasts, if you just Google something that you’re interested in podcasts, and like comic podcast, something is going to come up, and you’re going to learn something. But yeah, it’s just overall important to know that all of these things, especially with the increased accessibility of them, I think that’s the piece that instructors and teachers can forget, when we are saying stuff like, you know, the pop culture doesn’t, it doesn’t matter. It’s not real, it’s not in the textbook, it’s not official, where’s the source coming from? All of these, you know, make sense, but when we think about the accessibility, are we are we doing a good job at actually facilitating students learning, if we’re not paying attention to the world that they have, you know, access to now, there’s all kinds of things that folks can get into, I encourage students to go to galleries and go look at some photos, or look at some paintings that you might have never looked at, you know, there’s always something you can learn, there’s always something that’s gonna lead you to something else, and you just never know what you’re going to be interested in. So it’s important, we got to get out these textbooks, guys, especially because let’s think about who’s writing the textbooks, right? Like, there’s so many things that are left out of textbooks, I actually grew up in a household that was very black, very pro black, I’m wearing a Malcolm X cap on my head right now, I read that book, I read the autobiography of Malcolm X when I was nine years old, that was not assigned reading from my school at all especially at nine, but the household that I was living in, you know, I’m seeing pictures of Malcolm X, I’m seeing all kinds of stuff, these are conversations I’m having with my dad, and he was very clear to be like, that’s not the history, you don’t get history from school, you know, you get it from here and so it was like I had, you know, I had to do what I had to do for school that day. But you know, 3:30 came, and I was sitting at the dinner table, and it was him talking to me about actually, you know, real history and, and things like that. So it’s important to know, it’s not just in the classroom, it’s not just in a textbook that was written by people who have no interest in actually affirming the vastness of blackness. The first time I heard about Black History Month was for the purpose of telling me that it’s every day. You know, that was definitely a thing, because you know, you go to school, you’re young, you go to school, and all of a sudden, everything is red, black and green, and there’s Kente cloth on the, you know, on the whiteboard, and it’s just crazy, and so yeah, I remember my dad, you know, sitting me down to be like, this is a farce, you don’t need permission to celebrate your history, you know, and it’s not just funneled into one month, you celebrate it whenever you want. So, you know, I feel like the way that I celebrate black history is number one, by being alive and number two, by having, you know, the interest and doing my due diligence, like, I’m not a perfect person, I’m not a perfect researcher, there are things I miss all the time. That’s why I’m just constantly Googling and researching and trying to figure out, you know, trying to try to know where to go with things. But yeah, Black History Month, because it still exists and because it’s a thing that especially when I think about, you know, like my nieces and my nephews who are young, who are in elementary school, and one is going to pre-K, you know, I think about the ways that that’s going to, they’re going to interact with Black History Month. To that, I would say, there’s always more that, you know, schools and people can do, I’m 100% tired of corporations taking on Black History Month, I don’t want target selling me a Black History Month T- shirt. I just don’t want it. You know, if we’re thinking about the ways that people get introduced to their own culture, if we’re thinking about black younger people, if we’re thinking about people who, you know, maybe aren’t black and Black History Month is a time where they are given a lot of information around black history, and that’s the way they you know, interact with if that leads them to some more efforts, whatever it is, you know, I think if we’re going to have it, it has to go deeper. It does have to go to these stories that no one’s really talking about. We know who Martin Luther King is, you know, Rosa Parks is, you know, we know who Malcolm X is, we don’t know all of Malcolm X that’s the problem, we don’t you know, there’s very many manicured version of Malcolm X that we get, and there’s more that can be talked about there but we don’t talk about black feminist theories. We don’t talk about Barbara Smith. We don’t talk about Audrey Lorde. Like, it’s just, yeah, there’s a lot that we don’t talk about. If there’s a Black History Month, we can just go deeper and deeper doesn’t always mean, we got to go to the tragedy, right? I think Black History Month can sometimes get funneled into tragedy or victory. It’s like, what was the bad thing that happened? And then how did Black people get out of it? You know, and those are great stories to tell., again, context is king. We have to know where we’ve come from. We have to know what’s happening to know what’s happening now to know where we want to go. But I think that there’s no mistake in the ways that it’s been funneled by social media, by pop culture to be tragedy or victory, and there’s so many things within that where black people have just existed, we’ve existed, we’ve lived, we’ve discovered, we’ve been curious, we’ve been people, we’ve been humans, we’ve made mistakes, we’ve, you know, done all kinds of things, because we are alive, and we’re human. And yeah, the more we understand, and the more we know, the more I think it’s on us to make that accessible, whether it is through a Black History Month, or just through everyday, like I said before, Unfortunately, our stories haven’t been told with the richness that they deserve to be told again, they’ve been funneled into certain narratives, to make it palatable for whoever to make it palatable for white people to make it palatable for, you know, educators so that they’re not having to have uncomfortable conversations around race, around history, around the wrong that was done in this country, and in the diaspora, right. So there’s not enough richness. So when we’re doing this work, and we’re talking about these stories, we’re sharing these stories around the clock every year 365. It’s an opportunity to kind of unearth that richness, it’s already there and I use the word unearth, because it’s already there. It’s just about telling the story. It’s kind of like telling the story, sharing these stories, doing this research is always that we are kind of like digging it up, and the more we do that, the more it just exists. It doesn’t have to be sensationalized. It doesn’t have to be this big to do. It’s like this is just it. This is, you know, when I think about different cultures who have that richness, who don’t have to have a month who don’t have to, that is the piece, right? It’s just that the history has been there for anyone to partake in at any moment. And so for black people, yeah, we are still in a space, we’ve come a long way as far as like having our stories and things expressed and shared, and stuff like that. 100% I mean, I think there’s I know more. Obviously, I know more now than I did, you know, even five years ago, like there’s just constantly more and more learning that we can do, and so it’s just making sure that our stories our existence on this planet, is fairly told and they can only be fairly told if all of it is told.