Since the first time I saw Abdu Ali Eaton a couple years ago at Hangfire in Savannah, he has been a beacon of unapologetic blackness in my knowledge of artists and activists on the East Coast. His work stuck out to me not only because his live performance got the club psyched, but because he was so present and honest. More recently I’ve been struck by his encouraging posts on Facebook directed at fellow black folx and POC—not only because its clear Ali is bent on energetic, grassroots work in his own community, but because the issues he calls out in solidarity for are so raw in their expression and experience.
They often carry very visibly the true weight of white supremacy and heteronormativity as elements in Ali’s life. His music, too, carries this painful presence of the work he puts in to “be”—an artist, a person, a human, a queer person of color.
Ali’s set at QuoLab was with Savannah-based musicians Vinay Arora and AnkleSOX, DJ Leo from Atlanta, and Ali’s tourmates, Djyliens and :3LON, both from Baltimore. As people collected in the house, we hoped more people would show up, but Stopover music festival running downtown on the same night kept the crowd small (you’ll get more from me on that in a separate article with way more sass than required for this feature).
“Come closer, its an intimate show,” Ali said over the mic as he called us all to move to the center of the room. “Hold hands,” he instructed us, “unless you don’t want to—it should be consensual.”
We held hands while Ali spoke about the complexities of solidarity, both encouraging us to keep going and discouraging us from losing sight of our selves in the process. As we stood up and “I Exist” started playing, we danced and screamed together. How much energy it must take, as a touring artist, to lend so much of your personal experience to an audience that genuinely?
How has being a touring musician changed your understanding of black diaspora in America?
Touring has allowed me to see that the African Diaspora is rich in the US. I also realized that our struggle is the same struggle across the country and that black and brown folk share the same strife in Oakland, LA, as we do in Baltimore. There def needs to be more solidarity in black and brown communities in America tho. Fuck the religious differences, gender differences, sexuality differences, class differences, etc.; we need to come together as black and brown minorities to stand up against the oppression ignited by white supremacy and classism. Separatism amongst minorities is a huge issue in my eyes and something that we should focus on combating and see it as a number one priority. It also inspired me to reach more black and brown folk across the globe. I want to connect with afroworldians specifically in Brazil and South Africa because I see the same fight for QTIPOC visibility in those countries just as I see in Baltimore or other black cities in the US.
When he’s not touring, Ali is working in Baltimore on several projects including Kahlon and Earthseed. But his voice and his music stretch outside the city in more ways than one, because his work articulates a larger picture of black diaspora. He wrote in CityPaper about being tempted to relocate after a brief stint in New York and returning to Baltimore, saying:
“I felt weighed down by unambitious peers, family woes, and Baltimore’s fucked social, political, and economic structure. It’s hard to LIVE in such a space and being a black king-queen in Charm City ain’t easy. A city where in 2013 the unemployment rate for black men between the ages of twenty and twenty-four was 37 percent. A lot of punk or indie/electronic white bands seem to get on constantly, and most of the creative outlets/platforms like galleries or publications are full of white people in high positions which is crazy in a city that’s predominantly black. So many 'fuck yous' in my face constantly, it seemed. So I said fuck you too and left.”
Ali returned to the city grateful for its “realness” and “unruly” behavior, for being a place he could grow. Unfortunately, the struggles he faced in Baltimore 2015 were just as applicable across the US and have been forever for black people and people of color. And it always comes down to this: White folx can always do more to center black folx and people of color in their work. There’s really no getting around it, unless you can legit find a way to justify cultural/systemic violence for hundreds of years. (You can’t.)
Do you see the challenges you experience in Baltimore reflected in the communities/cities to which you tour?
The same shit we go through as black and brown people in Baltimore is the same shit POC are going through in Oakland, LA, Brooklyn, DC, NOLA, etc. The class violence or even police violence against POC across the country is a national crisis. When I was in Oakland, I gagged and got very emotional as I witnessed the grief and struggle of POC. Not just because it's the same as in Baltimore, but it's a shame that miles away, niggas dealing with the same shit. Like, it's crazy. This country hates us. I just don't see any real economic progression for POC; ironically, even though we have a black president, all that shit is a disguise. The same poverty I read about during slavery times, post-slavery times, the Jim Crow era, the crack era, etc., is the same shit I see now. It's just in a different outfit. So yea, touring has just made me realize that the struggle is synonymous across black and communities across the US.
Do you see the way you externalize yourself and the way others articulate that externalization as being totally separate from one another? Do they intertwine at times?
I am who I am and what I do is who I am. You see it how you gonna see it, but my reality is my truth.
“I’m Alive [Humanized]” echoes “I’m alive, I’m alive, don’t be surprised,” as images of a peaceful Ali with comrades fade across the screen. They’re laying hands on the artist as refrigerator magnet-like words appear with the sound of his voice: “Humanized.” “Pedagogy.” Ali goes on to say this is the “Pedagogy of me.” Throughout the work, Ali’s writing blows open the frame of QTIPOC as depicted in the media with ingenious word play. But that’s not to say the actual message, or Ali’s truest intention, registers with the people who hear it (including myself, and especially other white folx). At one point during the show amidst the chaos of a song, Ali bumped into me. He later apologized for doing so, saying calmly as he sat down that he “hates doing that.”
I could commiserate so easily. In a separate but similar vein, I hoped the other folks at the show felt the similarly understanding and reflective when Ali announced the song he was playing was only for black folx and POC as a reflection on the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Savannah’s black community is Savannah, but within the DIY scene, it feels there’s often little space carved out to uplift black people and people of color specifically unless its being done by other POC.
Do you feel like your community has control over the way it is articulated within the media?
I really want to stress to my black and brown peers the importance of creating our own media platforms. That's the only way we will be able to dictate our culture via media. We did it before and can do it again. We can't rely on most media because most media is dictated by white people. So we can not depend on most media institutions that exist today to liberate our image/communities.
From what I can gather via the small experiences I’ve had putting together shows the past two times he’s come through Savannah (along with various forms of help from ally and bangin' DJ C-Powers) Ali relies on the same forms of insulation that are so necessary to being outspoken about oppression while maintaining your truth. Like surrounding yourself with people who align with your truth. Last time, Ali was here was on tour with Kilbourne, a similarly outspoken Jersey club DJ who has often spoken about the importance of a club scene that centers QTIPOC. He was reading “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” I remember him holding the book and telling me it had really solidified some of his abilities to express the phenomena he was experiencing and had experienced throughout his life as a black queer person.
As usual, Ali’s music came with the hardest beats—so I was surprised to hear his feelings about working with other musicians for live events. In the end, Ali’s music tips the scale at just going for it—and that’s clear in the way he projects himself and strives for his truth at all costs.
How is performing with DJs different than playing the tracks yourself? Do you feel like your work is more complete when you have the opportunity to perform with them or is it just a different kind of experience?
I rarely perform with DJs any more. I like the look of being a one man band, but if anything, I like the idea of having an actual band vs a DJ. If something is going to back me up, it's going to be a whole instrument ensemble. I low key kinda want to have my own band, but I am very picky and don't want anyone who ain't going to bleed for the music and stay committed.
:3LON and Diljyns joint set proved why the artists are all touring together. After leaving QuoLab, the I’m Alive tour was headed to New Orleans and all the madness of SXSW, a place Ali noted as simultaneously corporate and a great opportunity to network via unofficial and DIY events. A couple days later a photo of :3LON and Ali popped up on my feed with the caption:
“GODDAMN I LOVE NEW ORLEANS! … FEELIN THE BEAUTY OF ALL THIS BLACKNESS N THE ESSENCE OF JAZZ IN THE AIR! BOUNCE MUSIC BEING PLAYED EVRY FIVE SECONDS N PPL IN THEIR SUNDAYS BEST IN PIMPED OUT CARS! UGGGH LOVIN IT!”
Not too long afterwards, there was another post from :3LON calling out white folx for being latent in their solidarity with black folx and POC making artwork and music in Baltimore while promoting a local event. Even from the road, their truths, music, and truths told through music ring true.
Rainé is an agender trans person and drag princex with House of Gunt. They co-facilitate QuoLab, a queer safe(r) space in Savannah, GA.