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A #GrantRose Valentine’s Day: A meditation on “Mr. Robot” power couple Whiterose and Grant

The illustration features a still of White Rose and Grant in a cemetery. The picture is set in a red heart frame surrounded by the outlines of white roses. The background is white and red HTML on a dark grey computer screen.

It’s Valentine’s Day, everybody. Everyone’s got their obligatory Valentine’s Day post, but I’m going to do things a little differently. You might say, I’m going to hack Cupid’s Day and inject a conversation about one of the breakout couples from Mr. Robot, Whiterose (BD Wong) and her loyal assistant/lover Grant (Grant Chang).

I finally had a chance to catch up on Mr. Robot a few months ago, and I realized how it slyly stacks its deck full of characters on the sexual spectrum. Tyrell (Martin Wallström) fell into the fanatical side of love with Mr. Robot, and while the show never portrayed Mr. Robot as purposefully leading Tyrell on, fanfiction writers could certainly find moments within the show to insert an alternate narrative of Mr. Robot using Tyrell’s fanaticism to Mr. Robot’s advantage.  Darlene (Carly Chaikin) slept with FBI agent Dom(Grace Gummer) to try to help Elliot reverse the damage Mr. Robot’s caused. In previous seasons, Trenton (Sunita Mani) showed feelings toward Darlene and Angela (Portia Doubleday) has an intense makeout session with Shayla (Frankie Shaw).

All of those portrayals of sexual representation are cool in my book. But my favorite coupling out of everyone is Whiterose and Grant. Their time together evolved in this recent third season, culminating in Grant having to make the ultimate sacrifice. Technically, though, Whiterose decided his fate for him, citing Grant’s unchecked jealousy surrounding Whiterose’s interest in Elliot as an element that would get in the way of future plans. 

Season 3 was basically a vehicle for Whiterose and Grant’s storylines. One of the consistent parts of the season was that it was literally not about Elliot; every other main character rose up to compete for the title of main character, and honestly, any character on the show could easily have their own spinoff. Whiterose and Grant certainly took this season and ran with it, and I was ready to go on their ride towards world domination. There large chunks of the show where I was actively rooting for them to win, to be honest.

I wanted to see what a world would be like under Whiterose’s thumb. Technically, if the season’s allusions to Whiterose’s influence in our presidential election are any indication, we already are living in Whiterose’s America. But while it’s hell living in it, it’s fun to see society from her lofty, expensive perch, where she’s outfitted in the finest of Rich Aunt fashions, drinking her champagne in the fluted glass handed to her by her one and only Grant, who’s dressed in the finest suit Tom Ford can muster. It’s a dream world of excess and financial debauchery, and in these times, which resemble the 1980s in terms of the juxtaposition of wealth in the media (like Dynasty and Dallas) amid rising costs and and an impending deficit, it’s a relief from our economically poor lives to watch how the other half lives (and makes life terrible for the rest of us). It’s a perverse fantasy, but it’s a fantasy nonetheless, and Whiterose and Grant sold it in spades.

It’s also a great character touch to show how devoted and in love Grant actually is with Whiterose, and the show makes our voyeristic time as viewers even better by showing that Grant’s love is not one-sided. Despite Whiterose’s ultimate dispatching of Grant, we do see how she does truly care about him. In Whiterose’s world, a world in which she gets rid of anyone in her way regardless of their station or their worth as a person, it means something to see her shedding tears and saying her final goodbyes (albeit while relaxing in her bubble bath with champagne) to a man who has meant so much to her. She has narcissistic tendencies, sure. But no one can say she didn’t actually love Grant. The only wedge between them is her greater love for her ultimate mission; to take power from Evil Corp’s Phillip Price (Michael Cristofer) and destroy him where he stands. 

As far as character development goes, Whiterose and Grant are about as enigmatic, engaging and fun to watch as you can get. Again, you really want a show just about them and their machinations. But of course, just because I love their characters, that doesn’t mean I’m not without awareness of the thornier aspects of their representation, Whiterose in particular. Whiterose is probably a cause for contention among trans viewers, since Whiterose is identified as transgender, yet she’s played by a cisgender man.

Wong himself said to Vulture’s Matthew Giles how he initially resisted taking the role, not wanting to take the role from trans actors. He also didn’t want the character to be another stereotype of an “evil trans person.” According to Wong, he was told creator Sam Esmail did meet with trans actors, but didn’t hire any of them, wanting Wong instead. As Esmail himself told Buzzfeed’s Ariane Lange, Wong was his first choice for the role.

For Esmail, stated Wong, the character opportunity Whiterose presents is a chance for Esmail to show the dynamics of the gender power struggle in business.

“There’s a great challenge in being a powerful woman in a powerful white man’s world,” said Wong to The Hollywood Reporter‘s Chris Gardner. “I think that it’s part of his choice to make her a person who needs to be gender fluid to get what she wants.”

To his credit, Wong doesn’t give himself a break when it comes to the type of role he’s playing. “There’s a lot of things we can discuss that are connected to it. There’s also the casting of me in this part, which is not cool to trans people,” he said. “Like Asians, trans actors don’t get a lot of opportunities. There are arguably mitigating factors in this particular role because there is gender fluidity and she has to interface as a man and as a woman.”

Pajiba’s Riley Silverman rightly takes Wong and Esmail to task for utilizing a cis male actor for a transgender part. For Silverman, the role of Whiterose smacks of cis-privileged hubris and appeals primarily to cisgender viewers, like Silverman’s friend.

“I no longer blame my friend for being so excited about the character. Or for applauding. I feel like that was exactly what creator Sam Esmail was going for,” wrote Silverman. “He wrote Whiterose as the kind of character who with-it cis viewers would pump their fists at and say yeah, just like I imagine he did himself when he was writing her.”

But while citing the holes in both Wong and Esmail’s rationalization of a cis male playing a trans woman, Silverman still has sympathy for Wong and the real reason he took the role, which he explained in Vulture.

“I feel kind of like, as a minority with limited opportunities, I did not have the luxury of being able to turn down this role based on my wish that in an ideal world a trans actor could illuminate this part with ‘authentic trans insight.'” he said. “I will also add for whatever it’s worth that Whiterose does have both female and male personae. So I did basically cash in that chip I got as a minority at the beginning of the game, decided to accept the role, and I also accept the responsibility and consequences of that.”

“In this, I do legitimately feel empathy for BD Wong,” wrote Silverman. “He’s not Scarlett Johansson, who could have simply turned down Ghost in the Shell. He’s an actor who is successful but still likely needs to take most jobs that come his way, aware that even if he’s working steadily now that tap could be turned off at any time. But I also legitimately wonder whether he would accept that same excuse from someone like me if I were cast as a radical reimagining of Song Liling in a new adaptation of M. Butterfly. And I wonder, if that happened, if I would take that part.”

It’s an interesting conundrum when the actor knows their presence as the character is problematic. But it’s equally problematic that there aren’t enough complex roles for everyone in Hollywood. The drought of meaningful roles forces some actors to take roles they’d rather not, such as Wong taking on this role. I’m sure he saw it as a once-in-a lifetime opportunity; there aren’t too many times you can play a character on a critically-acclaimed show that premiered at SXSW of all places. But, as Wong well knows, accepting the role takes an opportunity away from a trans actor. What could a trans actor have added to the role if given the chance? Why didn’t Esmail reconsider the ramifications of casting a cis male in the role, especially after he saw trans actors for the part? I don’t have the answers; we need to ask Esmail these questions. Thankfully, the character of Grant is devoid of these serious representation discussions, seeing how he’s played by a cis male.

While Chang doesn’t say much as Grant, he emotes through his body and especially his eyes, giving Grant a quiet sturdiness, a sense of patience that–while worn thin sometimes from Whiterose’s deliberate nature–is built from his trust in Whiterose. He also commands the presence of a leading man from midcentury leading men like James Shigeta as well as an undercover machismo that he sublimates for the sake of Whiterose’s dominant personality. But on occasion, it comes through, like when he wants Whiterose to just act instead of monologue and plot, or when he convinces Whiterose to finally let him take the reins of a mission, asserting his more traditionally masculine personality when it comes to romantic societal norms. However, despite his simmering frustration at not being able to assert his masculinity the way he’d like due to Whiterose’s position as the mastermind, he still finds power in letting her lead. He’s a man’s man in some ways, but he’s also highly attracted to strong, take charge women.

When it’s all said and done, Whiterose and Grant were, for me, the most engaging part of Mr. Robot Season 3. It was the first time I could have done without Elliot’s storyline, since in some ways, he was actually slowing things down. For the latest season, the drama was centered around Whiterose’s next move, and how she’d employ her best guy to carry out her deeds. But that doesn’t mean I’m avoiding the conversation to be had about Wong playing a transgender character, something he feels quite uncomfortable about, despite agreeing to take the role. As Wong said to Vulture, Whiterose acts as an opportunity to open dialogue on transgender characters and trans representation in the media. However, one element of that conversation should include if the conversation can be advanced if cisgender actors keep shutting trans actors out of roles, effectively shutting them out from their seat at the table.

What do you think about Whiterose and Grant? What do you love about them and how do you feel about Wong taking the role of Whiterose? Give your comments below!♦

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3 of the most jaw-dropping moments from the “All the Stars” music video

A closeup of Kendrick Lamar sitting in a red tailored suit among brightly-dressed men in a shanty town at sunset.

It took me a full day, but I’ve finally seen the music video for SZA and Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther song, “All the Stars.” As someone who saw Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” music video when it premiered during primetime television back in the ’90s, I thought I’d never see a music video rival it as the most unapologetically black music video ever. While Beyonce might have won 2016 and 2017 with her Lemonade visuals and Southern Gothic aesthetic, I think “All the Stars” tops it and even “Remember the Time” as the most awe-inspiring music video I’ve seen in years. Marvel, you’ve completely undone yourself with this entire Black Panther franchise; I hope y’all at Marvel understand exactly why the outpouring of creativity and love is overflowing for this movie.

If you haven’t seen it yet, I implore you to drop everything you’re doing and watch it right now. Real talk: this music video just might make you cry.

If there’s a way to frame an entire music video and put it on my wall, I would. This music video is not only gorgeous, but it’s a love letter to Africa–a homage to the continent’s rich past, vibrant present, and a future filled with possibilities. It, like Wakanda, shows a glimpse into an Africa the West hasn’t seen; an Africa that is seen without the lens of colonialism and imperialism.

I might have had my DNA test done to reveal exactly what parts of Africa I come from, but at the end of the day, I’m still an African-American who is divorced from many of my ancestors’ cultures, so unfortunately a lot of the references in this video have gone over my head. Thankfully, my DNA test has allowed me to start researching my various peoples and their cultures and, particularly for this video, there are posts outlining many of the video’s cultural elements. But even with my limited knowledge, there were three moments out of the many that stood out the most to me.

1. The ocean of hands

Kendrick Lamar stands amid a stormy backdrop on a boat that sails on a sea of hands ushering him to Africa.
Kendrick Lamar stands on a boat that sails on a sea of hands ushering him to Africa. (YouTube/screenshot)

There was something so eerie, haunting, and strangely calming about this opening scene featuring Lamar on a raft in the middle of a sea of black arms and hands. What I immediately thought of was the Atlantic Slave Trade, which trafficked at least 10 to 12 million Africans from their homelands to the New World. That stretch of sea is filled with the ghosts of my ancestors, and to see Lamar riding the waves of their hands reminded me how even in death, they made it possible for me to survive.

I also saw the haunting sea in reverse; it was as if those same souls that were lost centuries ago were able to find their way back home in the afterlife. Despite their tribulations on earth, they were able to find peace. From that point of view, it’s as if those same souls are guiding Lamar back to the lands of his ancestors. There was so much said in that scene without Lamar ever saying a word.

2. The Dandies

Kendrick Lamar sits in a red tailored suit among brightly-dressed men in a shanty town at sunset.
Kendrick Lamar sits in a red tailored suit among brightly-dressed men in a shanty town at sunset.(YouTube/screencap)

I’d written about the political importance of Africa’s dandies before in my Black Panther fashion post, but to keep it brief, the dandy movement is one that reclaims African pride by turning Western/colonial fashion inside out and repurposing it as both a form of wearable protest and a sign to the world of Africans’ humanity. To see the dandies put on display like this warmed my heart–the sartorial excellence of course is fun, but showcasing movement’s political relevance in this way has only made the dandy movement stronger, and as far as I’m concerned, that can only be a great thing.

3. The goddesses

Kendrick Lamar stands on the flooded floor of a golden room looking up to four gigantic women, the goddesses of the temple.
Kendrick Lamar stands on the flooded floor of a golden room looking up to four gigantic women, the goddesses of the temple. (YouTube/screencap)

The final shots of the music video have Lamar in what looks like an temple comprised of imagery and symbols of several African cultures  standing in awe of giant women clad in gold. Clearly, these women are the goddesses of old, and Lamar is paying his respects to them. For me, these women represent the lost goddesses of African religions. When I say “lost,” I don’t mean they’re lost to the world; there are many who still worship the gods and goddesses of the Yoruba and Igbo people, for instance. What I mean is that they’re lost to me. The slave trade made us African-Americans lose everything, including our religions, and seeing these women act in place of those goddesses made me realize that the music video was, once again, bringing us black viewers–and Lamar–back in touch with our roots. These goddesses act as messengers to the rest of the world that Africa is the motherland; Africa is meant to nurture, to uplift, and be respected and honored. Lamar seemed like he got the message. But if it still wasn’t clear to some viewing, the music video cuts to SZA’s hairstyle, which is in the shape of the entire continent. It was a stylistic and elegant version of a mic drop.

Overall, the entire music video left me feeling hopeful and, honestly, a little misty-eyed. This is the Africa I’ve always wanted to see portrayed. This is affirming on a gutteral level, more than I thought a music video could ever be. I’ve come away from it feeling like I’ve retained a chunk of my cultural identity that had been lost. As much as it is a cliche to type, I can honestly say I feel seen. This music video is definitely 2018’s version of “I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

How did you feel after watching the music video? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

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How model Halima Aden empowers by being true to herself

Halima Aden on the cover of CR Fashion Book

Model Halima Aden is giving black Muslim girls the visibility they deserve. Dec. 24, she tweeted out how she’s achieved success without sacrificing who she is.

“You can walk the red carpet, walk in fashion shows, and still be a cover girl while remaining true to yourself!” she wrote online, along with posting several of her high fashion covers for Allure, Vogue Arabia, Grazia, and CR Fashion Book.

Born in a Kenyan UN refugee camp to Somali parents fleeing their home country in the early 1990s and relocating with her family to Minnesota when she was seven, Aden has always paved the way for more inclusion and diversity in beauty and fashion. When she competed in the 2016 Miss Minnesota USA pageant, she was the first contestant in America to compete while wearing a hijab. She’s also the first Muslim model to dress conservatively and wear a hijab while working.

“To understand the importance of representation you have to ask people who’ve never felt like they were represented fairly,” she told Harper’s Bazaar. “For me, anytime I saw somebody who dressed like me in a movie, the character was someone oppressed. There was a narrative to it that didn’t match mine. Same thing with the news. Every time I saw somebody who looked like me, chances were they were doing something bad. Now, I get to represent my community to the majority.”

Read more of her story at the Harper’s Bazaar link above.

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Get the “Finesse” look with these popular ’90s brands

Bruno Mars and Cardi B have changed the game with their In Living Color tribute video for the “Finesse” remix. Yes, I’m gonna be that bold and write such a claim, solely on the fact that the video made it concrete that ’90s fashion is here to stay. ’90s fashion has been havinng a resurgence for a couple of years now, and between 2017 and 2018, late ’80s and early ’90s fashion have become an even stronger “cool kid” calling card, especially since brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Nauticaa are making tons of money with their vintage or vintage-leaning lines, like Tommy Jeans, Fila Heritage, and Reebok Classic and Nautica’s Lil Yachty collection, which brings back themes of ’90s Nautica. It’s either highly ironic or highly masterful that Bruno’s 24K Magic plays right into this trend.

So how can you get the look? Well, one way is to scour your local thrift stores and/or garages. Another way is to get ’90s-esque fashion from affordable (or at least “reasonable”) stores like Forever 21, Zara, Macy’s, J.C. Penney, etc. However, if you’re looking to go completely authentic while buying brand new clothes (and you have some expendable dollars to spend), here are some clothing choices from choice brands that were huge in the ’90s, but now use their ’90s cred to make boutique items.

One of the breakout fashion stars of the “Finesse” music video is Cardi B’s multicolored bomber jacket. It’s hard to tell if it’s actually vintage or if it’s of today, but regardless, it brings back tons of ’90s memories.

One of the ’90s brands that was big on multicolored jackets was Cross Colours. Believe it or not, Cross Colours is still in existence, making awesome jackets and shirts. Take for instance this colorblocked hooded jacket. 

This jacket immediately takes you back to the early ’90s, which was not only big on bright colors, but also Afrocentrism. It’s more evident in some of Cross Colours’ other jackets, but this one also carries the same themes of Afrocentrism, with the emphasis on red, black, and green, the colors of the Pan-African flag.

Throughout the ’90s, particularly the mid-’90s, stripes were big. Striped hoodies in particular seemed really big. I couldn’t tell you why stripes were so popular, but they were; perhaps it’s because it seemed more modern than the deconstructivist/’80s art deco patterns that were slowly fading out. Stripes are a lot more streamlined than the busier patterns of earlier years, and maybe that hint of futurism poked at the burgeoning world of the internet. I don’t know, but it’s a theory.

In any case, the quintessential striped hoodie is showcased in rare form on Bruno as he exudes swagger and, yes, finesse, as the leader of this music video.

I feel like I’m a bit too young to remember Karl Kani as a name brand–the self-proclaimed “Originator of Urban Fashion” was established in 1989, one year after I was born–but that name was huge in the ’90s nonetheless, and judging by what the brand currently has for sale, it would seem that one of their specialties was the striped hoodie.

This hoodie, the Marcy Ave. Rugby Hoodie, has all of the things you want in a striped hoodie. It’s got bright colors, tons of interest, and it’s got short sleeves, perfect for that layered look Bruno is rocking in the above screenshot.

I wish hats could come back in style. One of the things I miss from the ’90s is the plethora of hats people wore on a semi-daily basis. The most popular proponent of ’90s hats was the titular character of Blossom, but hats were everywhere and on everyone, even on puppets–remember Jody from The Puzzle Place? She was a huge hat person. (The prime combo in the ’90s was the sun hat-flowery vest-long skirt combo. So much fabric, but it looked so cool.)

Between bucket hats, sun hats, baseball caps and all other manner of hats, there’s no way you can really go wrong when compiling a ’90s wardrobe. For this post, however, we’re focusing on the multicolored baseball cap, as shown on one of these dancers below.

Karl Kani comes correct again with their multicolored baseball cap, aptly called the “’90s Hat.”

This hat is pretty self-explanatory. It’s multicolored, it’s bright, it’s bold, and it screams ’90s. What more can you ask for?

The next component of quintessential ’90s fashion is mom jeans. I don’t know if they were called “mom jeans” back in the day–I just remember them as “jeans.” These jeans were not just popular with moms–they were popular for all women, even young teens. Just take a look at the fashion on the covers of The Babysitters Club books. They’re all wearing mom jeans.

Nowadays, mom jeans are coming back with a vengeance. Check out the stylish mom jeans on this dancer below.

Luckily for us, Jordache, the preeminent fashion jean brand, is still making mom jeans along with their more modern cuts.

The “Cheryl” High Waisted Mom Skinny Jeans are part of Jordache’s vintage line, and these pants give you everything you were asking for in a classic mom jean. It’s stone washed with a tapered leg, it’s got the classic high waist, and it looks like it’s just on this side of “cute.” It seems like the best mom jeans are just on the border between “cute and fashionable” and “horribly ill-fitting.” Just my opinion, anyways.

The last element of ’90s fashion I’m discussing in this post are the puffy sneakers. For some reason, sneakers are the mos vivid memories I have of ’90s fashion outside of all the Disney stuff I loved as a kid and the fashion tragedies I was subjected to (to this day, I hate stirrup pants). Perhaps it was because I was so connected to Michael Jordan’s career, like so many kids my age were, but I distinctly recall when the Air Jordans came out and the subsequent hype surrounding those shoes. Preceding that was the hype surrounding the Reebok Pump shoes. To this day, I still want both a pair of Air Jordans and Reebok Pumps. I still could get both, but I don’t feel like shelling out the money for it.

In any case, puffy, chunky sneakers were all the rage back in the day. Case in point–Bruno and his crew’s sneakers.

There are many routes you can go with ’90s sneakers–you can go to Nike, Fila, Reebok, and several other brands to get that right ’90s look. I chose to go with Reebok, since Reeboks had been my sneaker of choice in childhood (or, rather, my parents’ sneaker of choice for me.)

The Men’s Classics EX-O-FIT Clean Hi S and the Women’s Classics Freestyle Hi has that ’90s look down. To me, these sneakers are unisex, since a foot’s a foot. Also, Reebok tends to give the men’s sneakers more of a classic ’90s look, whereas the women’s side focuses more on fashion colors (too much more, I think). But regardless of which way you go, Reebok knows that its audience loves the early ’90s silhouette that made the brand famous, and it keeps that silhouette going, even in some of their more modern shoes.

After you get your ’90s wardrobe down, all you got to do is get some gold doorknockers or a chunky gold necklace, and you’ll be dripping in finesse, too.

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Liu Yifei stuns in new “Mulan” promo shots

Disney’s Mulan is headed in the right direction finally, at least with casting its main star. Say hello to our Mulan–Liu Yifei, star of international films The Forbidden Kingdom, Outcast, and The Chinese Widow.

Liu, otherwise known as Crystal Liu in the States, has gotten the royal treatment from Disney, including a Mulan-themed photo shoot to celebrate the casting news. The photos, which Liu posted to her Instagram page, give a tease as to what Liu might look as a cinematic Mulan–of course, she’s wearing high fashion in these photos, but you can see she definitely knows how to work a camera and pose with a sword (she is a model and ambassador for fashion houses like Dior).

Mulan is expected to come to theaters in 2019. Hopefully we’ll know if we have a bisexual Li Shang by that point, if we even have Shang at all–at last check, the film is planning on totally rewriting the role into a new character, which is not only annoying, but a missed opportunity for some LGBT representation. But for now, let’s bask in the cool photos; I’ll save that axe to grind at a later date.

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Respect must be earned: BTS’ journey towards gaining its stripes in black America

EDIT: This article is OVER 9000!

This article in its final form has been published at Reappropriate, with some extra additions to make the post even more engaging, and once the readers latched on to it, it went VIRAL!  Thanks to everyone who made the Reappropriate version of this post go viral, and thanks to Jenn at Reappropriate for publishing it! Much appreciated. And if BTS ever reads this, Monique noona writes out of love.

When I first wrote my article about BTS coming to the AMAs, I was quite excited to see this infamous K-pop group I’d heard so much about in the days leading up to the awards show. I was very happy that they got the chance to perform on a big international stage like the AMAs, which will, I think, only serve as the biggest stepping stone yet towards K-pop’s eventual domination of the American airwaves. As I wrote on Twitter after viewing BTS perform (and seeing the crowd, especially the fans, whipped up into a frenzy), it felt like what seeing the Beatles for the first time must have been like.

So far, BTS has been on a roll since their big AMAs debut; they’ve already hob-knobbed with R&B it-boy Khalid and have already released a track featuring Desiigner and Steve Aoki,”Mic Drop”. Everything’s going well. For BTS, anyways.

The rest of K-pop, however, still has a lot of hurdles to climb if they want to get to Beatles-esque levels in America. While there are many reasons K-pop hasn’t yet made it to top-tier status in the States–language barriers, stereotypes about Asian performers held by music execs, general American disinterest when it comes to international music that isn’t British or Canadian–the biggest reason is because K-pop, as a whole, has a race issue.

Throughout K-pop’s history, there have been instances of anti-blackness, whether it’s intentional or unintentional, such as wearing blackface in a way that’s similar to the ganguros of Japan, who self-identify with the black rapper image so much that they darken their skin, blurring the line of wayward appreciation, fetishism, and straight offense. There has been colorism, such as some members of groups poking fun at other group members’ tan skin. There’s intense fetishism, one of the defining traits of K-pop. It colors how K-pop idols–K-pop male idols specifically– interact with black men; an association with a black man can be perceived as getting an “all clear” or a “black card” without a true understanding of the culture they love and mimic. It also colors how the male idols interact with black women. Yes, many K-pop idols, male and female, love Beyonce, Rihanna and Tinashe, and some male idols even claim to prefer black women as romantic interests. But are black women–rappers, dancers, and fans–seen as just hypersexual objects or are they seen as legitimate collaborators in a larger conversation in music and culture?

The other overriding factor of K-pop is the exoticism of the Black Rap Image, such as dressing in the “black rapper” style, affecting a “blaccent,” and mimicking notable rapper mannerisms. As shown by such has-beens like Iggy Azalea, being blatantly fake will only get you so far.

In short, K-pop has a credibility issue as well as a sensitivity issue. Can K-pop fix these two problems and get firmly on the road towards American domination? It seems like if there’s any group to do it, BTS is definitely the one most prepared for the task. Through a trial-by-fire in the form of a reality show three years ago, BTS has gained the knowledge necessary to possibly become the first K-pop group to actually go beyond the mimicry of other acts and develop a brand that openly and honestly respects its black musical forefathers and foremothers in a way that could win over black America, and by extension, the rest of the country.

Fakery Versus Reality

Screencap from BTS’ “Drop the Mic” music video

It is unclear what people expected from BTS when they arrived for the AMAs. But from every interview they’ve done for the week they were in L.A., it’s apparent that they succeeded in winning hearts. With how they presented themselves, winning hearts and changing minds were their top priorities.

From what I’ve learned about BTS so far, it seems they’re a K-pop band that understands the racial hurdles the best. They came with the knowledge of how the Asian diaspora is stereotyped in America, especially if you’re trying to make it in the music business.

BTS group leader and rapper RM (formerly known as Rap Monster), seems particularly astute to what the stakes are, since not only did he have to act as the English-speaking spokesman for the group during their time in America, but he also knows enough about America’s stereotypes against Asian performers to comment on how the AMAs treated the band with respect.

“The AMAs didn’t treat us as a curious novelty from Asia, but showed us respect and treated us as an important part of the show,” he told Metro UK. “They put our performance right before Diana Ross, and we were introduced by the Chainsmokers, who are very popular in the United States. It was clear in many ways that they knew a lot about us and had prepared for our appearance for a long time.”

RM is different from what many Westerners perceive the K-pop idol to be. Aside from being highly intelligent–he has an IQ of 148–he’s introspective and, as you’ll read later in this post, actually seems to apply the lessons he’s learned from some of his more haunting mistakes. Also, his journey in the music industry, coupled with his personality, has imbued in him an “anti-mainstream” sensibility.

On top of that, he also has a rap cred that’s hard to come by if you’re a singer or rapper that has come up through idol school. Unlike some of the other members of BTS, RM and fellow groupmate Suga cut their teeth in Korea’s underground rap scene. If you work your way up from the grimy bottom, you’re bound to learn some things an idol class won’t teach you, both from personal experience and self-education. He’s already had to prove himself worthy to be called a rapper because of his decision to join a boy band; he’s already taken on other rappers who have tried to start beef through his cover of Drake’s “Too Much,” which features RM talking about being perceived, as reported by Noisey’s Blanca Méndez, “a sell-out.” In fact, many of the songs RM has written for the rookie band feature “the inner conflicts that Rap Monster, Suga and J-Hope have as idol rappers.” His 2015 mixtape continues the thread of exploring the duality of himself and his inner and outer conflicts.

It’s this grounding in underground rap that could prove to be part of BTS’ secret weapon for breaking out of the confines of Korean popularity and into the international stratosphere. What will also come in handy is an experience other K-pop groups might not have had–a military style bootcamp on the history of hip hop and rap from none other than one of the legends of rap, Coolio as part of a 2014 reality series, American Hustle Life, in which the boys get on-the-ground training from legends in R&B and hip hop in LA, the home turf of West Coast rap.

Screencap of RM with Warren G in the music video for “P.D.D. (Please Don’t Die).” Warren G produced the track for RM after getting to know him through the reality series “American Hustle Life.”

As Méndez wrote in 2014, one reason many Americans–particularly black Americans–don’t really see it for K-pop, at least initially, is the amount of fakery that defines its performers. That fakeness comes down to not understanding blackness at all.

Though Rap Monster and his groupmates may be relatively well-versed in current hip-hop music, it’s hard to understand the music without fully understanding the culture. It’s even harder to do so in a place so far from the source, especially since, for a country that consumes and repackages hip-hop culture as much as it does, Korea has some serious issues with anti-blackness.

As it stands now, K-pop is a touch-and-go situation for many American pop and rap fans, especially if you’re black. Because Korea’s homogenous culture can perpetuate an ignorance of (or in some cases, an unwillingness to learn about) black stereotypes and offensive words (such as the power of the N-word and blackface), and because of the K-pop machine’s rigorous M.O. of flawlessly copying without completely understanding of the culture its imitating, there’s a weird, virulent strain of fetishism, exoticism, and anti-blackness running throughout K-pop as a cultural entity.

Even BTS, early in their formation, couldn’t escape some of the same egregious mistakes that have befallen other K-pop idols. The group has had their own brushes with the N-word, which had courted extreme controversy. A younger RM would run off at the mouth about how talking black was “a talent” he was good at. Up until their education with the actual rap greats themselves, BTS was like any other K-pop group: problematic. Some fans even labeled them “racist.”

But what’s the difference between abject racism–which is apparent in Korea as in the rest of the world–and plain ignorance? Ignorance certainly isn’t an excuse for bad behavior, especially since there are several K-pop idols who were actually born and raised in North America and should be adept at understanding the racial implications of playing black, as it were. But ignorance is certainly something that has to realized and reckoned with.

Much of K-pop, from my viewpoint, is similar to watching a non-white boy discover rap for the first time. Everything about it is cool. It’s a culture that seems so cool, that the kid becomes obsessed with knowing every lyric (even the bad ones) and mimicking every cool movement. The kid doesn’t realize he’s parodying the culture he idolizes. The only time he does realize this is when he goofs in front of an actual black person in public. Whether he gets beat up over it or simply lectured to depends on the black person he goofs in front of, but regardless, the boy comes out the other side a different, and hopefully more aware, person.

BTS got a similar wake-up call during the first American Hustle Life episode, in which they found themselves in front of Coolio for the first time

As Méndez wrote:

Coolio gets right down to business, asking BTS some basic questions about the origins and history of hip-hop. Whether it’s because they’re nervous or clueless or both, the room goes quiet. But it’s not long before Coolio is interrupted by class clown V, who chimes in with a “turn up” that makes Coolio pauses his pop quiz to get the kid in line. He asks V if he even knows what “turn up” means, to which V replies, “Let’s go party?” Some of the other members chuckle, the others shake their heads in embarrassment. Coolio is not amused. He orders V to do 25 pushups, and the group’s eyes collectively widen. Shit just got real.

“Do you even know what that means?” is a fair question to ask of k-pop stars, or idols, who often talk the talk without really knowing what they’re talking about. This is not to say these stars aren’t genuine or talented artists, but the k-pop industry is about selling a package. Idol groups are formed by finding raw talent and the right look that can be preened, polished, and trained to deliver that package. When forming a hip-hop group, it’s not as important to know and respect hip-hop culture as it is to be able to sell it.

The group continued their education with rapper/producer Warren G, one of the pioneers of the West Coast hip hop scene and renowned vocal coach and music consultant Iris Stevenson, who served as the inspiration for Sister Mary Clarence in Sister Act 2.

Yes, if you watch the reality series, it starts out rough–the boys are “kidnapped” by the guys who will eventually become their L.A. brothers from other mothers–and a lot of the series is edited for laughs. But surprisingly, there are big chunks of the series that do show that the boys are taking their lessons seriously and actually come away with a deeper appreciation of the artform and for the people behind it. It’s especially apparent when the boys who took Stevenson’s singing lessons come away visibly changed–not just because of the new skills they’ve learned, but because of Stevenson’s patience, kindness, and maternal spirit. They respect her as a master of her craft. To them, Stevenson, or “Iris seonsaeng (teacher)” as they called her, is one of the newfound fans they hope to impress the most.

Warren G is another seonsaeng they hope to impress throughout their idol journey. Coolio acted like the hardnosed drill sergeant and quizzed them on deep hip hop history that they should know if they plan on being R&B/hip hop stars. Warren G, on the other hand, calmly taught some of the more nuanced aspects of the racism and negative stereotypes that hip hop is wrongly defined by. He also taught them the true meaning of hip hop.

As RM told HipHopPlaya in 2015:

I wanted to ask Warren G a lot about hip-hop. Like Warren G stated, things like ‘shooting guns, doing drugs, robbery’ aren’t things that are hip-hop itself, but a negative side that’s included within hip-hop. It’s like an uninvited guest that shoved its way into hip-hop, but people said that that’s hip-hop. He also told me that hip-hop is something that’s open to everyone despite what race you may be or what language you may speak. I heard a lot of great things from him besides those as well. Although it may seem like a very obvious thing, but the weight of it just felt different when Warren G said it. And after everything he would say, Warren G attached “It’s all Good.” When I heard those words from the side, then my mood felt really good. Should I compare it to the feeling of a grandfather telling good stories next to you (laughter).

RM espoused on more of Warren G’s teachings in another interview, to the point where he actually taught the interviewer a thing or two about hip-hop:

Interviewer: You recently released a collaboration song with Warren G… But I had the thought that thoe who are more interested in Rapmon than in Bangtan would really enjoy that song. How was it like working with Warren G?

RM: There are two things that Warren G told me that I will never be able to forget. The first is, hip-hop is open to any one. Despite what your race is or where you’re from, hip-hop is a type of music that is always ready to give you space for anyone who enjoys hip-hop. So, don’t restrain yourself behind any type of prejudiced thought, and the other one was you’re doing well, so no matter what others say, believe in yourself and do what you want. Although it’s something that anyone says, I think it touched me even more because he was the one to say it to me. He has a habit of saying, “It’s so good.” But I think that it became a sort of spell. Someting like Hakuna Matata. ‘It’s so good’, when I think of that phrase lately, my hearts becomes at rest a bit more.

Interviewer: Although hip-hop is a genre of music, it seems like a type of religion and philosophy. Just what is hip-hop? Just what is it that guys seem to go crazy over it?

RM: Defining hip-hop is the same as trying to define love. If there are 6 billion people in the world, then there are 6 billion definitions of love, and like that, each definition of hip-hop is different for each person. Of course, it’s possible to give a dictionary definition. In 1970, there was a person called DJ Herc in South Bronx. At a party that he was hosting, he set breaks on a beat and during that break, someone would be rapping, someone would be dancing, and someone else would be doing graffiti… That’s how hip-hop was born, and they call that the 4 elements of hip-hop, but dictionary definitions like these is something anyone knows, but to explain that spirit… In one word, it’s something that can’t be explained. It’s a way that expresses me as well as being a meaning for freedom and rebelling. Because it’s something where people play and have fun with, it can have messages of peace and love placed in it. If you compare it to a Pokemon, it’s like a Ditto. Personally, hip-hop to me is the world. The world that I’m living in… It’s difficult, right? To be honest, it’s still hard for me too.

Interviewer: Maybe it’s because I don’t know much about hip-hop, but there are many aspects of hip-hop culture or clothing that I’m unable to understand easily. The hanging gold necklaces, gun fires, images like that… I also don’t really understand the term ‘swag’ that is used often.

RM: The culture of shooting guns and doing drugs is not the actual self of hip-hop. It’s just become a by-product that appeared around hip-hop music, it’s not the actual self of hip-hop. Although there’s a certain image that pops up clearly when you think of hip-hop fashion, that’s also becoming something that’s more broad. Look at A$AP Rocky or Kanye West. They don’t wear pants that drag around any more. To understand ‘swag’, you need to understand what kind of meaning ‘making it on your own’ has in hip-hop. Making it on your own is a very cool and important concept in hip-hop. I’ll use Jay-Z as an example. Jay-Z was a drug dealer. He’s someone that sold drugs on the rooftop of a very large stadium called Barclays Center, but he succeeded and bought that building. After buying that building, he dressed up in hip-hop and then went up to the rooftop and looked down at that building. Then they took a picture of that and posted it. After seeing that, everyone died. Kya… Just how cool is that? Jay-Z had a song a long time ago that was called ‘99 Problems’, but he raps “I’m someone with a lot of problems, but I don’t have any problems with women? [actual lyrics]”, yet he ended up marrying Beyonce later. Isn’t that amazing? Starting off as a drug dealer, becoming the best wealthy person, and marrying the most amazing woman in the world. I think that gives dreams and hopes to men. Showing that off and revealing it to the world is called ‘swag’. Even when they show it off very openly, you can’t hate or dislike it. Because they started from the bottom and made it on their own.

Screencap of RM in his “Do You” music video.

Whether RM was interested in black music and black messages outside of rap is something I don’t know. But it’s definitely apparent that everything shifted for RM in particular after his time in LA with rap greats and, to be blunt, actual black people (the group would regularly be immersed with average black denizens of LA, whether it was while touring Warren G’s neighborhood, chilling with their LA mentors/big brother figures, or befriending a random guy on the bus).

For instance, when RM put out his mixtape, a series of songs that reflected his own inner turmoil, loneliness, and stress from rival rappers doubting his credibility, he cited India Arie’s “Just Do You” as a source of inspiration.

“It’s a song that gave a lot of comfort to me when I felt confused,” he said to HipHopPlaya. “I believe that the message of this song gave a lot of influence towards this mixtape. That’s why the song that represents the entire message for this mixtape is ‘Do You’.”

India Arie is a deep cut even by American standards–even though she was once mainstream with her 2006 hit, “I Am Not My Hair,” her positioning has since become more indie and low-key–but she’s an especially deep cut by Korean standards, especially in K-pop, which only uses people from the Top 40 charts, like Beyonce and Rihanna, for reference.

It also seems that the RM of now is definitely not the “black is a talent”-spouting RM of the past. At some point between then and his time in LA, RM put out a video apologizing for his past mistakes, regretting that some of his words might have caused his fans pain. He said he had to come to terms with the fact that his words might have been hurtful, and seemed resigned to having to accept that he can’t change the past; all he can do is go forward. Most importantly, he said he holds himself responsible for what he’s done.

Finally, it seems a K-pop group is understanding the sensitivity they need to take when diving into the world of black culture.

Along with learning cultural sensitivity, it would also behoove K-pop as a whole to know about issues facing black people today. What with Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling, #BlackLivesMatter, and police getting off scot-free after killing black men and women, there’s a lot that K-pop can (and should) comment on. To be real about it, the stars of the K-pop machine, out of any Asian group aiming to make it big in the States, should be at the forefront of supporting black lives–the lives of their fans–regardless if they’re traveling in America or if they’re on a game show back home in Korea. If a group plans on indoctrinating themselves in a culture like blackness, it doesn’t do well to just focus on the marketable aspects.

What many stars and management execs don’t realize is that to adopt blackness in any form is also to adopt the issues that affect black people. Black people didn’t gain their unique swag just by happenstance; the ways we express ourselves come from centuries of finding alternative ways of keeping our dignity through unspeakable horrors, of figuring out how to express ourselves in sly, inventive ways. Our culture comes from the little we were able to retain from crossing the Middle Passage. Blackness is, in a nutshell, achieving greatness amid struggle and constantly finding ways to achieve success in a society that hates you. Through pressure and stress, unexpected diamonds were created. But our diamonds–our culture–are things we are not willing to have mined without reciprocation. To get in the vicinity of these diamonds, you have to earn it.

Interestingly enough, BTS seems aware of even this fact. The group is dedicated to having the socially-conscious aspect of their brand down. They makes sure most, if not all of their songs, deal with things socially relevant to their audience.

“Our song lyrics are not 100 percent based on our personal experiences. However, a lot of the lyrics have been influenced by our experiences,” said Suga to Soompi’s E.Cha. “…We’ve tried hard to tell the stories of our generation and our age group in present-day society.”

Much of that deals with topics that aren’t normally expressed in K-pop. As Billboard‘s Tamar Herman wrote when describing RM’s single with Wale, “Change”:

“Though most K-pop acts shy away from politicizing their music, or even touching on seemingly controversial topics, the Rap Monster-led K-pop act has addressed politics and cultural issues in their songs on multiple occasions, with a particular focus on youth-related issues such as mental health, bullying and suicide. The atypical approach has made BTS fan favorites in the U.S., leading to them becoming the highest-ranked K-pop act ever on the Billboard 200.”

Speaking of that track with Wale, “Change,” which was released this March, not only features RM’s commentary on Twitter bullying, but it also features Wale commenting on the state of black America, such as the amount of police shootings and injustices there have been against black people. As Herman wrote, “With the duo currently criticizing the ‘alt-right,’ Twitter’s ability to ‘kill,’ ‘racist police’ and declaring ‘no faith in the government,’ the unrestrained hip-hop track is one of the most progressive songs yet from the socially aware boy band BTS.”

Screencap of Wale and RM in their “Change” music video.

According to what RM told Teen Vogue’s Taylor Glasby, the collaboration was Wale’s idea, which shows the power of BTS’ relevance.

“When he suggested the collaboration, that was a real shock,” he said. ” thought about it, [and was] like, should we do a party song? But I wanted to something different. The title is ‘Change’–in America. They’ve got their situations and we’ve got ours in Seoul, the problems are everywhere and the song is like a prayer for change. He talks about the police, and problems he’s faced since he was a child. I talked about Korea, my problems, and about those on Twitter who kill people by keyboards.”

The group also has a good cause attached to their name. The band has partnered with UNICEF to create the LOVE MYSELF campaign, which will “be used to protect and support child and teen victims of domestic ad school violence as well as sexual assault around the world.” The two-year campaign will also “provide an education to local communities for violence prevention.” Another arm of the initiative is #ENDviolence, a joint global campaign between BTS, [BTS management] Big Hit Entertainment and the Korean Committe for UNICEF, which is “primarily aimed at protecting children and teens from violence and encouraging preventive measures.”

Overall, the partnership with UNICEF has cemented BTS as a standout group among other K-pop groups thanks to their philanthropy.

“The members expressed their willingness to become the first artists in Korea to raise funds as part of a social fund for global campaigns and to donate a portion of their income from album sales and 100% of all profits from the sale of goods to numerous social programs–inclusive of violence prevention against children and teens as well as support programs for the victims of violence,” states the website.

Setting the precedent

BTS performing at the AMAs. (ABC/Image Group LA)

It would seem that BTS is on the right track towards learning from K-pop’s past mistakes and heading into the international realm on clean, even footing. I’d certainly love to know more about their education process when it comes to getting immersed in the finer points of black cultural history, since, despite the show’s goofiness, it seemed the band really took their LA bootcamp experience to heart. At the very least, a leader like RM can keep the group on the straight-and-narrow path as they break down more glass ceilings in America.

But BTS could also set a precedent for other K-pop groups, if everything goes right and if BTS is heavily committed to earning their stripes with black audiences. The group has the potential to be that special group that teaches their fellow K-pop idols a thing or two about what true respect for hip hop looks like.

Just take what one of the black LA mentors they became the closest to during their hip hop bootcamp, artist and musician Tony Jones, said to Soompi in 2014.

I thought every other group and artist in Korea that did K-Pop was like that and that talented. I was wrong. Not to talk about any other group, but they’re just different. BTS has so much to offer. They really studied hip hop culture. I want to meet the person behind them because the producers and the directors are finding the beats, and everything they’re doing is really American. I also really think that they can come over to the U.S. and do music if they can learn English in the future. They’re that good. They’re that talented. Afterwards, people were like “Look up BAP, look up EXO, or G-Dragon,” and all these groups. I checked them all out, and it wasn’t the same for me, you know. They’re talented as well, but it wasn’t the same reaction that I got.

…They took from New Edition, from Boys to Men, they also took from A$AP Rocky. They just took everything and put it together. I don’t know if that was the plan or the boys were that talented but it’s lucky they came together. It’s brilliant. I really think that K-Pop will blow up more and it won’t be a local thing anymore. It’s going to grow because of BTS.

…Those boys and the staff really studied American culture and they do it very well. I’ve seen people from different countries try to mimic it and try to replicate it and try to rap the same, sing the same, and act the same, but it’s not happening. Those boys really studied and really got good at it. They’re all talented from top to bottom. There’s not a weak link in the group. So it’s very interesting. They’re really good.

Warren G is right–anyone can rap. But not everyone has the dedication to the craft or the willingness to learn about black history and culture. This could also be what separates BTS from its more formulaic K-pop cousins and propels them into the stratosphere. If that’s the case, hopefully the other groups will get the hint.

What BTS’ success in the States depends on, ultimately, is how black America views their journey to the people they are now. Initially, I was immediately charmed by how professional and committed BTS conducted themselves during their AMA press week leading up to the AMAs performance. After diving into the world of K-pop, I won’t lie and say that I haven’t come away with some emotional calluses. The world of K-pop can be a Matryoshka doll of racism, colorism, fanaticism, fetishism and exoticism, surrounded by a core of complete and (sometimes genuine) ignorance. To dig through those levels as a black American can be tiring. To try to put it in perspective–to put yourself in someone else’s cultural shoes–can be even more tiring. Throughout this post, I’ve battled with myself as to if I was giving BTS too much wiggle room or not enough. I did what every black person interested in BTS is going to have to do–judge the group based on where they started to where they are now. From where I’m sitting, the group has had its hard knocks, but they’ve learned and taken responsibility, and taking responsibility for your worst mistakes has to count for something.

Where they started was rough, speaking honestly. But the potential for BTS comes out of how they’ve grown from their initially problematic start. It appears they’re working on making peace with their past transgressions and, thanks to their mentors, have truly understood what it means to make great hip hop. As RM said, even if there is a dictionary definition for hip hop, the true spirit of hip hop can’t be explained. Hip hop isn’t about affectation and it isn’t about pretense. It’s about being real and being true to who you are.

Is BTS’ education on black America done? On the contrary: it’s far from over. In fact, it’ll never be over for the group, who are bound to make a new set of mistakes the more they fight for U.S. dominance. They will always have to learn more about their black audience and unlearn anything else they need to unlearn as they gain American popularity. But being true is probably the biggest lesson BTS has taken away from their experience, and it shows in a new, broader-reaching, and more culturally responsible sound and outlook. If being true to themselves is something BTS can learn, then the rest of K-pop can learn, too. ♦

FURTHER READING: Hip Hop and its Complications in BTS’ ‘American Hustle Life’ | CriticalKpop

What it’s like to be gay and in a gang

Some gay gang members are open about their sexuality, but others remain in the closet, fearing they could endanger themselves or the status of their gang.
Devin/Pexels, FAL

Vanessa R. Panfil, Old Dominion University

There are many stereotypes of and assumptions about street gangs, just as there are many stereotypes and assumptions about gay men. Pretty much none of those stereotypes overlap.

In movies and television, some of the most recognizable gay characters have been portrayed as effeminate or weak; they’re “fashionistas” or “gay best friends.” Street gang members, on the other hand, are often depicted as hypermasculine, heterosexual and tough.

This obvious contradiction was one of the main reasons I was drawn to the subject of gay gang members.

For my new book “The Gang’s All Queer,” I interviewed and spent time with 48 gay or bisexual male gang members. All were between the ages of 18 and 28; the majority were men of color; and all lived in or near Columbus, Ohio, which has been referred to as a “Midwestern gay mecca.”

The experience, which took place over the course of more than two years, allowed me to explore the tensions they felt between gang life and gay manhood.

Some of the gang members were in gangs made up of primarily gay, lesbian or bisexual people. Others were the only gay man (or one of a few) in an otherwise “straight” gang. Then there were what I call “hybrid” gangs, which featured a mix of straight, gay, lesbian and bisexual members, but with straight people still in the majority. Most of these gangs were primarily male.

Because even the idea of a gay man being in a gang flies in the face of conventional thought, the gang members I spoke with had to constantly resist or subvert a range of stereotypes and expectations.

Getting in by being out

Male spaces can be difficult for women to enter, whether it’s boardrooms, legislative bodies or locker rooms.

How could I – a white, middle-class woman with no prior gang involvement – gain access to these gangs in the first place?

It helped that the initial group of men whom I spoke to knew me from years earlier, when we became friends at a drop-in center for LGBTQ youth. They vouched for me to their friends. I was openly gay – part of the “family,” as some of them put it – and because I was a student conducting research for a book, they were confident that I stood a better chance of accurately representing them than any “straight novelist” or journalist.

But I also suspect that my own masculine presentation allowed them to feel more at ease; I speak directly, have very short hair and usually leave the house in plaid, slacks and Adidas shoes.

While my race and gender did make for some awkward interactions (some folks we encountered assumed I was a police officer or a business owner), with time I gained their trust, started getting introduced to more members and began to learn about how each type of gang presented its own set of challenges.

Pressure to act the part

The gay men in straight gangs I spoke with knew precisely what was expected of them: be willing to fight with rival gangs, demonstrate toughness, date or have sex with women and be financially independent.

Being effeminate was a nonstarter; they were all careful to present a uniformly masculine persona, lest they lose status and respect. Likewise, coming out was a huge risk. Being openly gay could threaten their status as well as their safety. Only a handful of them came out to their traditional gangs, and this sometimes resulted in serious consequences, such as being “bled out” of the gang (forced out through a fight).

Despite the dangers, some wanted to come out. But a number of fears held them back. Would their fellow gang members start to distrust them? What if the other members got preoccupied about being sexually approached? Would the status of the gang be compromised, with other gangs seeing them as “soft” for having openly gay guys in it?

So most stayed in the closet, continuing to project heterosexuality, while discreetly meeting other gay men in underground gay scenes or over the internet.

As one man told me, he was glad cellphones had been invented because he could keep his private sexual life with men just that: private.

One particularly striking story came from a member of a straight gang who made a date for sex over the internet, only to discover that it was two fellow gang members who had arranged the date with him. He hadn’t known the others were gay, and they didn’t know about him, either.

Becoming ‘known’

In “hybrid” gangs (those with a sizable minority of gay, lesbian or bisexual people) or all-gay gangs, the men I interviewed were held to many of the same standards. But they had more flexibility.

In the hybrid gangs, members felt far more comfortable coming out than those in purely straight gangs. In their words, they were able to be “the real me.”

Men in gay gangs were expected to be able to build a public reputation as a gay man – what they called becoming “known.” Being “known” means you’re able to achieve many masculine ideals – making money, being taken seriously, gaining status, looking good – but as an openly gay man.

It was also more acceptable for them to project femininity, whether it was making flamboyant gestures, using effeminate mannerisms, or wearing certain styles of clothing, like skinny jeans.

They were still in a gang. This meant they needed to clash with rival gay crews, so they valued toughness and fighting prowess.

Men in gay gangs especially expressed genuine and heartfelt connections to their fellow gang members. They didn’t just think of them as associates. These were their friends, their chosen families – their pillars of emotional support.

Confronting contradictions

But sometimes these gang members would vacillate about certain expectations.

They questioned if being tough or eager to fight constituted what it should mean to be a man. Although they viewed these norms with a critical eye, across the board they tended to prefer having “masculine” men as sexual partners or friends. Some would also patrol each other’s masculinity, insulting other gay men who were flamboyant or feminine.

Caught between not wanting themselves or others to be pressured to act masculine all the time, but also not wanting to be read as visibly gay or weak (which could invite challenges), resistance to being seen as a “punk” or a pushover was critical.

It all seemed to come from a desire to upend damaging cultural stereotypes of gay men as weak, of black men as “deadbeats” and offenders, and of gang members as violent thugs.

But this created its own tricky terrain. In order to not be financial deadbeats, they resorted to sometimes selling drugs or sex; in order to not be seen as weak, they sometimes fought back, perhaps getting hurt in the process. Their social worlds and definitions of acceptable identity were constantly changing and being challenged.

Fighting back

One of the most compelling findings of my study was what happened when these gay gang members were derisively called “fag” or “faggot” by straight men in bars, on buses, in schools or on the streets. Many responded with their fists.

Some fought back even if they weren’t openly gay. Sure, the slur was explicitly meant to attack their masculinity and sexuality in ways they didn’t appreciate. But it was important to them to be able to construct an identity as a man who wasn’t going to be messed with – a man who also happened to be gay.

Their responses were revealing: “I will fight you like I’m straight”; “I’m gonna show you what this faggot can do.” They were also willing to defend others derided as “fags” in public, even though this could signal that they were gay themselves.

These comebacks challenge many of the assumptions made about gay men – that they lack nerve, that they’re unwilling to physically fight.

The ConversationIt also communicated a belief that was clearly nonnegotiable: a fundamental right to not be bothered simply for being gay.

Vanessa R. Panfil, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice, Old Dominion University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Danielle Brooks’ capsule collection for Universal Standard hits the minimalist sweet spot

High-impact, minimalist fashion is one area that plus size fashion hasn’t gotten right yet. So often, the focus is on accentuating hips and boobs, when some people just like utilizing clean lines and color (or the lack of) to create a fashion statement. Enter Universal Standard, Danielle Brooks and their collaborative Tria collection.

Universal Standard is probably the only inclusive fashion brand that’s addressing the lack of minimalist style for plus sizes, style that is usually geared towards smaller ladies. Brooks loved this about the company, and decided to go with them for her first capsule collection.

“The reason I chose Universal Standard to be the first company that I design for is because they symbolize the fact that all women, no matter their shape or size, want and deserve to wear beautifully made, fashion forward clothing. They stand for everything I believe in,” she said to PeopleStyle.

For the collection, Brooks, designed three pieces with a particular brief in mind: “If you could design three pieces that you always wished you had in your closet, but could never find, what would they be?”

Brooks decided on an upscale pair of overalls, a shirt dress, and an oversize cowl sweater.

Universal Standard/Instagram
The Brooks Overalls | $120

“The overalls were a no brainer. For years I have looked for a pair of overalls that weren’t too baggy in the crotch, that presented some type of wow factor and that weren’t too long in the body. This one will be sure to satisfy every woman who has felt like me,” she said.

Universal Standard/Instagram
The Danielle Shirt Dress | $110

“The shirt was inspired by one of my fashion icons, Solange Knowles,” she said. “Too often, I’m not able to wear the cool unique statement pieces that I see because they never run in my size. This piece will have people asking you, ‘excuse me, where did you get that?!”

Universal Standard/Instagram
The Dani Sweater Dress | $190

“With this [sweater], you are able to dress it up, dress it down, wear it off the shoulder, and even rock it as a chic hoodie. It’s what every woman will be looking to wear for fall,” she said. 








Which piece would you love to own? Talk about it in the comments!

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