I am only speaking for myself; I am one person of over 20 performers in the Carnival Kings. Please don't make anyone else accountable for my words other than me, and please do it directly with me, not through the grapevine.
I am a member of a drag troupe...The New Orleans Carnival Kings. My troupe members and I went to IDKE XI in Tucson, AZ this past weekend; IDKE is the International Drag King community Extravaganza, an annual convention where there are a few opportunities to perform, lots of workshops, films to see, art to appreciate and people to get to know.
The Carnival Kings, as a group and after much dialog on the subject, opted to perform our weekly show theme song: "Put On" by Jeezy feat. Kanye West at Dragdom on Friday night. After discussing our piece with the Tucson drag kings, and in particular the host city liaison, we were encouraged to write a brief disclaimer that would be read prior to our piece being performed. The disclaimer read:
The following piece contains a song written and performed by artists of a different ethnic background than those of these performers. However, this musical genre is an integral part of our culture in New Orleans, and is performed not in a spirit of mocking or hate, but emulation and celebration.
We ask that you judge us not on the color of our skin, but on the passion for performing that we display.
The Carnival Kings
New Orleans, LA"
Our performers took the stage (Tucker Hardley, Kris Lique, Shane Cockring, Dirk T. Sanchez and Rod T. Bagger), and while the piece was loudly applauded both before and after, around 12 people opted to protest the piece during the performance by standing up in front of the stage with their backs turned. Among them were two members of the Crescent City Kings, our brother troupe in New Orleans. It must be said that both protesters are seemingly "white" and have done rap/hip hop acts before themselves while performing in New Orleans, making this the height of hypocrisy in my eyes.
The following day, a special "pre-Town Hall" meeting was held. We were given 10 minutes to give our side of the story about why we did that particular piece, and I think we made all the points we could make within that small time frame. We were then witness to a round-table discussion, largely around us as we only got called on once to speak, where people both supported and objected to our act. While it was tremendously difficult, the Carnival Kings handled themselves with grace and dignity, earnestly listening to other viewpoints but ultimately certain of their own. The Carnival Kings were accountable from the beginning that this piece would possibly be controversial, but that it was done with respect and love for our culture; we knew people may not understand.
What we hadn't expected was the blatant disrespect that would be displayed during the act itself; people protested it without even seeing it. One IDKE board member walked into the auditorium, saw people protesting and joined right in...without hearing the disclaimer or even seeing the piece from start to finish. They turned their backs to the stage, not even pausing long enough to see the act in its entirety before objecting. I was grateful that only a couple of our performers noticed the protest from the stage as they were performing; how disrespected they must have felt. We had already seen acts earlier in the show that were "Caucasian" performers performing to non-Caucasian artists...why were we the only ones protested over the ENTIRE weekend? I have my theories, but here are a couple.
Set the performance aside for a moment...I know rap scares some people, or otherwise angers them. I have heard the arguments for years...that rap is misogynistic, homophobic and hateful in general; I've heard that it perpetuates stereotypes of black culture. I've heard older people describe it as "noise", and not music at all. Rap always turns heads and gets people thinking, no matter who is performing it. So first, I think we were protested because we were performing to rap.
Second, I think we were protested because of our perceived race. We were a group of seemingly "white" performers performing to music created by Jeezy and Kanye West, performers from a different ethnic background than those of the kings performing the piece that night. To this, I can only say how sad I am that my performers' rich ethnic backgrounds were reduced to a color...white. Au'Tumn is Italian and Cherokee, and Anna is largely German. Our show coordinator, Jenna, is Italian, Irish and German...I am Irish, Creole French, English and Cherokee. I won't belabor the point by describing all of our ethnic backgrounds; you get the point. To call us "white" or Caucasian belittles our rich ancestries and perpetuates the "black/white" stereotype that you can only be one of the few main racial options in America...black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Arabic, or Native American. Furthermore, if you happen to fall under "white", you must apparently be ashamed of yourself, and acknowledge how much privilege you have just because of your skin color. Not only this, but you must refrain from doing what you want because you come from a place of privilege. Had any one taken the time to have a conversation, a real and true conversation, with any of the Carnival Kings who were on stage that night, they would never associate the word "privilege" with these girls. Some of them come from startling poverty and acute discrimination; four are unemployed as I write this.
This is a bold statement that will no doubt raise eyebrows among some, but I have thought a lot about my life and my experiences and I feel confident in saying this...my skin color hasn't been a much of a comfort or privilege in my life. I'm not going to pretend to make others feel better about themselves or me...to my knowledge, I have not received special treatment for being white. I did not grow up prior to the civil rights movement, when people who looked like me were given the best seats on a bus, better food, cleaner water, higher paying jobs, or a stronger education. It was only because my mother worked herself to absolute exhaustion and put herself in outrageous debt that I didn't realize how poor we really were back when I was a kid. No one has ever told me or given me the impression that "You got this job/seat/respect over that other person because you are white and they are not."
Am I saying such situations don't exist? Of course not! This is not a perfect world, and it can be a cruel, unjust place to those who are perceived as different. But that is not my experience, and to pretend that I have enjoyed privilege when I have not is disingenuous. To judge others by that place of perceived privilege is just as bad as ignoring the reality that not all of us experienced that privilege.
Should I shy away from doing music that I love because someone, somewhere got beaten down by injustice? I don't think so. Should we be mindful of others' experiences and be ready for a civil dialog about it? Of course, and we were. Was the protest and ensuing dialog as civil and fair as we would have liked? Not at all.
Third, I believe we were protested and not other kings who did similar music because we are not as accepted or intimately known as other troupes. We don't appear to be the kind of drag kings IDKE wants attending the conference; at least, they don't want to hear from us on stage. I have a sneaking suspicion that the only interaction some of these other performers want with us as far as IDKE goes is to sit us down in workshops to "teach" us how wrong we are about everything. How privileged our skin color makes us, and how we should do nothing but "white" music. This is a shame, because I believe we are the kind of kings IDKE should be reaching out to; there are so many troupes and performers who have either never heard of the conference before, or just don't think it represents them accurately. "'The L Word' of the drag king world" has been used to describe it by kings who don't feel welcome there.
We had far more positive feedback about our piece than negative, and for that I am extremely grateful. However, it still somehow didn't take the sting out of the judgement we encountered by people who couldn't even give me the names of the kings involved in the piece. To call these performers anything without even knowing their names, to judge their actions without understanding their culture is abhorrent.
Will we go back to IDKE? Probably, though I will have my work cut out for me trying to convince them that it's worth it. For most, it was their very first IDKE and they were heartbroken at the rejection and judgement they encountered, when they expected dialog and mutual understanding. Will New Orleans actually bid for IDKE XIII? I don't know. It would be an IDKE unlike any before it, but again, can I really look these Carnival Kings in the eyes and tell them that we should throw a party at our own expense for the community we just left this past weekend?
I don't know that I can sell that to myself, and that's saying something.