An interview with Cha’ves Jamall is less like an interview, and more of a conversation between artists. Reading this year’s Paper interview with Jamall and written by fellow queer artist and writer Michael Love Michael would give you that feeling, but Jamall’s actual physical presence exudes a glamour, a power, a vulnerability, far beyond his almost thirty years.
It’s a feeling of familiarity and safety that Jamall has to give to those around him, likely because it’s an atmosphere he had to create for himself from a young age. Growing up in poverty as one of the only black kids in his mostly white and affluent school in Indiana, and with a struggling, depressed mother, Jamall’s fantasy world was something to grab onto that wasn’t also attached to pain. This concept is one almost every artist can identify with, but especially those who’ve ever felt like an outcast, had to process significant trauma, or found themselves trying to overcome declining mental health.
The multidisciplinary artist produced “Queen Black America” this year, which explored the queer black identity in its rawest forms. His work, which moves between mediums with a complex dynamic of ease and vigor, is playful, biting, honest -- essentially something you don’t want to miss if you’ve ever wanted to flip all the negative energy in your life right off in a cute way.
After moving back to New York after a year and a half in Paris, which allowed him the space to create what would eventually become “Queen Black America,” Jamall has a new outlook on artistry, specifically queer artistry. After fucking up some French words, we talked about producing art post-depression, the difference between persona and reality, his dalliance as a sex worker, and the commodification of black culture.
You do so much as an artist. Do you have a favorite medium?
I love all types of mediums. Like photography, sculpture, sonic installation, performance, [and] poetry. I love them all. Before Paris I kind of did them in pockets. The music project was here, like, my art was here. After living in Paris, I decided that I really wanted to create a pop project that featured all those places in the room that I hope to occupy.
So what are you working on now?
So much. In fact, you’re catching me at a funny period. I just started working with a producer on an episodic show. Actually, two of them. One is a sci-fi piece and one is a thriller, all driven by queer characters that are dynamic to me because they’re based on my life and the people in it. I’m also juggling working on my first EP. In the spring I’m going to go on tour with an artist called Ms. White. Me and Rick [Marcello] have a collective called FagMass. Last year, we did an event called FagFest. It was wonderful. I just love queer artists in the same room. In terms of the queer community, sometimes we get lost… I feel like there’s a difference between being gay and being queer.
In a lot of ways you feel like cis white men are the leaders of gay culture, which is the most visible. Queer culture is a rebuke, a separation of that culture. When you look at gayness, it seems like another box like heterosexuality; the same restraints and the same rules in different ways. Queerness is: ‘you know what, no, I’m going to animate life however I want to.’
Tell us a little more about your upcoming EP.
I’m going to start releasing some singles. What’s really wonderful about the music climate now is that you don’t have to release an album, you can just release a string of singles. I have a video that I did for the song called “Invoice” where I talk about my sex work. I used to do erotic massages as a means to an end.
Yeah. And that was really wonderful. I’ve never talked about it in an interview. That was a really weird nuanced part of my life. When I was doing the sex work, I was really caught in the middle of poverty, caught in the middle of my mental health, caught in the middle of producing the work that I wanted to produce and having this vision for myself, and feeling like I could get there but it was trapped in the weeds. Sex work offered a really interesting dynamic to my life. I was able to take control of something. Like, ‘for this much, I’m worth this much. I can make $200 in an hour and that’s going to help me pay my bills and my rent. I can make that work.’ But then at some point you get to this place, especially when you’re struggling with depression, you start having a dollar amount assigned to you. You start really understanding: ‘Am I owning this or am I enslaved by this?’ “Invoice” is very much about that. It’s my first single. It’s coming out at the top of the year. (He starts to rap the chorus for a better idea). It’s very much about the duality of how I felt. It’s about the commodification of black bodies and black trauma as a means for monetary and cultural gain.
Do you feel like when you put more of the sadness and depression into your work that it became more authentic than the work you were doing before? Or just different?
I couldn’t write music until I said something honest. I couldn’t actually write anything until I started writing poems about how I was feeling, and I wrote this song called “Field Trip.” Ever been in a relationship that you should not have been in? You were there because maybe you were lonely, maybe you were horny, whatever. As an artist, sometimes I feel like a spy on assignment. My duty is to uncover different places of human ailment and then present that and report back. What happens in a relationship is that vulnerability takes place, and so that’s the true nature of being a field trip. It’s like I’m a spy and I’m tripping in the field. (He then proceeds with a few bars of the song).
My project right now is about commodifying trauma. I feel like gatekeepers--white America--don’t want to hear my story because it’s not glamourized or packaged in this kind of way. What I try to do with my music specifically, and also my persona, how I view my sexuality, my “cool currency,” is by making something that is so shimmering and wonderful, but lacing in the verses [with] speaking a lot of honesty. The chords are typically very melodic moments that you can enjoy and we’re all dancing along to, but hopefully if you start really interacting with my music, you’ll take a moment and be like: “Wait. Why do I like this? And why do I like the things that I like?”
All artists really struggle with their persona, right? Their alter ego that they use for performance. How do you feel like you make the separation between that persona and yourself?
That is such a question. That is what my work is about. Right now, the work is about that friction. I don’t really know how to do that just yet. I don’t know if I’ll ever.
Dakota is a poet, journalist, and right in the damn center of the Kinsey scale. Follow her on Twitter: @Likethestates.