avery r. young. Photos courtesy of the artist
The Second Annual Hip-Hop Theater Festival is taking place at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, through May 6. Windy City Times recently talked with one of the scheduled participants, avery r. young, about influences, sexuality—and Vanilla Ice.
Windy City Times: Your performance style is described as 'Sunday mornin' jook-joint.' What exactly does that mean?
avery r. young: Sunday morning jook-joint is how I describe how things come out of me. 'Sunday mornin'' [ reflects ] my upbringing in a Baptist church, where I listened to [ artists like ] Walter Hawkins and Aretha Franklin. At the same time, I had uncles who listened to the blues, and I was exposed to Millie Jackson, Redd Foxx, Rick James and B.B. King. For me, it's a combination of saint and sinner. You know that one point in The Color Purple where Shug Avery made it back to church? [ Laughs ] That's it.
WCT: You've just said a lot about yourself.
ary: [ Laughs ] I'm just answering the question. It speaks to the Mahalia Jackson but it also speaks to the Millie Jackson.
This writer, Kevin Coball, has written that I am 'the James Baldwin of house and the James Brown of poetry.' With the juke joint, there's a certain energy, and there's a certain energy with the Baptist church. There are buckets of sweat with the juke joint and buckets of sweat with the church—so I'm just buckets of sweat all the time.
WCT: I hope you have a towel with you. Looking at your MySpace page, I noticed a collage of musical acts, including Lauryn Hill, Alexander O'Neal, Sade and even The Doors. Have all of these musicians influenced you?
ary: Oh, yeah.
WCT: Well, who has been the most influential?
ary: I'd have to say Nina Simone. I have music that's all over the place, [ and ] her music is all over the place. She wasn't ashamed to present ( through her work ) everything that she came in contact with. She wasn't ashamed to let you know that she was from the church, that she had classical training [ or ] that she played in blues clubs. She was tender, but also resistant. She was a revolutionary and human. She wasn't afraid to let you know all that. Every time I listen to her, I'm always inspired. At the end of the day, though, she lived to improve her craft—and that's what I strive to do.
Also, Gil-Scott Heron has been a really big influence, along with James Baldwin and James Brown.
WCT: Let's switch gears a bit. How big a problem do you think homophobia is in hip-hop?
ary: Homophobia is a problem that [ transcends ] hip-hop. As someone who considers himself a hip-hophead, an Afropunk and a househead, I think that hip-hop is full of many people and perspectives.
Homophobia is a problem in country music; it's in music, period. It's across the board.
I'm going to be who I am, regardless of where I am. I can't worry about other people's hang-ups. Is there a problem with homophobia? Yes. Is there a problem with homophobia in hip-hop? Yes, but it's in a lot of other stuff, too.
Homophobia is based on ignorance—and there's ignorance in a lot of [ areas ] . I have dear friends who are part of the hip-hop game, and my sexuality is never in question or is something that needs to be defended. However, there are some who don't rotate like that, and you honor them and they honor you. Keep it respectful.
WCT: Let's go to something basic. What is hip-hop?
ary: Hip-hop is a culture that speaks to the creative politics of urban people. Hip-hop is where James Brown and Gil-Scott left off.
Rap is the music of hip-hop. Hip-hop is a culture; it has [ its own ] politics and language. And like every other culture, no one person is representative of [ it ] . And there's ignorance among those who listen to hip-hop and rap; they'll say that Mos Def is hip-hop but that Mims is rap. It's all hip-hop. Regardless of the content, it's the context that's important.
When people come with their feelings about hip-hop, I ask them what they own. I listen to everyone from Lil Wayne to J-Live to The Family Tree. I have hip-hop from Johannesburg [ South Africa ] and France.
WCT: Yeah, but do you have Vanilla Ice?
ary: I'm aware of Vanilla Ice. [ Laughs ] I will say this about Rob Van Winkle [ Vanilla Ice's alter ego ] , to be fair: A lot of people trip on him, but he's just [ one person ] who fell victim to hip-hop becoming a commodity. He was given some money and he danced around like a Black boy so people thought [ he was ] cool. It worked for Elvis. [ Laughs ]
This is America. We've always had an issue with authenticity. As long as we can dress it up and put some blush on it, we can digest it. But when we get the real shit, we can't handle it.
avery r. young will be featured on May 5 in 'Shorts: A night of Excerpted Works.' See www.mcachicago.org for more info. Also see www.myspace.com/averyryoung.