“Whites are obsessed with this image of black cock. You only have to look at any porn channel to see that. I take that black cock and give it back to them. Anally.”
I sip on a glass of ruby port as I listen to Alabama-born, Brooklyn resident M. Lamar talk about his work. I know the piece he’s referring to because I’ve watched it: Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche Part Two: Overseer. It’s the one where he inserts the severed handle of a whip into the anuses of three prone white men. This homosexual plantation dynamic is also explored further as Lamar, dressed in a black cloak, tongue kisses a bare-chested white man who was formerly in the role of whipcracker.
The first time I experienced Lamar’s work—and it is that, an experience—was the video for Badass Nigga, the Charlie Looker of Psalm Zero Remix. I saw Lamar sitting in front of a white man who was kneeling in a pillory, reading a copy of Toni Morrison’s horror classic Beloved. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and The Cornel West Reader soon followed.
The same way my grandmother knew my best friend’s marriage wouldn’t last five years was the same way I knew I had to reach out to this artist. As I listened, I thought: I write Southern Gothic and this is the soundtrack. I heard my ancestors whisper in Gullah; I felt a hot wind tinged with the heat of sweat and smoke.
Lamar is an artist who has opera and metal composer, performance, video, sculpture, and installation narrative to his credit. His themes? Radical racial and sexual becomings. His trained counter tenor winds through operatically-laced Negro spirituals all the way to horror-film-inspired Goth rock metal.
One of the first questions I ask him is: “Have you ever been interviewed by another Black person? Another Southerner?” He says most of his interviews have been with whites; white women, specifically. I’m the second to ask for an interview. When was the first? Last week.
Blacks are late arriving to the M. Lamar train, but he enjoys a staunch following in the US and in Europe, sometimes playing to all-white audiences. He’d just finished a gig in Copenhagen when we spoke. “Support from Blacks is hard to get for edgy work,” he says. It’s true. Deep down, so many of us are conservative in our viewpoints, especially when those topics are anti-heteronormative or Satanic in nature, as in Negro Antichrist.
He calls on the healing power of music, hearkening back to a time when Blacks had no other place to take their painful disenfranchisement, the “inherited post-traumatic stress disorder” from slavery except the church. There was no therapy, no couches, only singing and shouting and crying it all out.
Talking with Lamar about this shared PTSD—this blood memory, if you will—is engrossing. As a Black Southerner, listening to Trying to Leave My Body was such a powerful experience. It was as though I could finally begin to believe my pain was shared—and that sharing the pain, by nature, lessens it. “Being Southern never leaves you. I’m not sure I want it to.”
But Lamar is convinced that the violence against Blacks, even the violence shown to our children in spankings and whippings, is unnecessary. “We’ve accepted this violence as part of the Black experience for too long.”
Lamar constantly plays with the process of becoming emancipated—completely irreverent and completely free: from worry, from concerns on how we are perceived by others, without destroying ourselves.
So how do you get closer to free as an artist, even as a person? “You must have a deep, critical analysis of white supremacy—the imperialist patriarchy—and how it affects you. Then respond accordingly. Go against the grain. Allow yourself to be complicated. Radically reinvent yourself…give birth to yourself.”
Lamar had a gospel choir director who said you couldn’t always resolve dissonance in your life, but you can in music. Lamar creates this dissonance in his work, letting the audience hear and feel it, as a hope that it can bring us closer to resolution and to resolving our painful past with a strong, healing future. Lamar explains it like this: “We have to wear the lynching tree, carry it on our backs to show we can step up to the constant challenges the world gives. Ultimately, it’s about survival. It’s intimidating to be Black and to take history seriously. Music comes from so much pain.”
While Lamar has been invited to create installation pieces and sculpture, he admits his love is primarily a musical one. But that could change. Lamar can spend a year writing a libretto, letting the funk of a slave ship inspire him. “Getting deep in the funk” is essential to his creation process, as is incorporating scale perversion, a little twelve bar blues, along with philosophy, opera, whatever inspires. Media seems to limit minorities, sometimes relegating them only to society’s perception of their history, as if everything has to be completely authentic for it to be Black art. Why can’t we be about imagination, or research, or training?
Lamar has the training. He studied sculpture in Yale’s M.F.A. program before dropping out to concentrate on music and performance, graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute.
What’s next for Lamar? He plans to continue his exploration of the pain of exploitation and fetishization, but add, no—build on this history. He has a film forthcoming. He’s moving toward exploring afrofuturism, a vision of our rebirth, seeing ourselves as we will be: free, irreverent, defiant, beautiful.