Sometimes on a legendary night like the closing of the Garage When the crowd is calling down the spirits Listen And you shall hear the footsteps of all the houses who walked there before
— Malcolm McLaren, "Deep in Vogue"
Late this evening, Prancilla sent me an email telling me that the legendary voguer and New York nightlife star Willi Ninja passed away yesterday after a long struggle with HIV disease. He was 45 years old. Severalotherbloggershavetributesup to this truly remarkable dancer and personality, who reflected the brilliance of Black and Latin@ diasporic and gay syncretic dance and cultural forms in his practice and persona as Diva and Ballroom voguer (legendary).
Most of you are probably familiar with Willi from his key appearance in Jennie Livingston’s 1991 documentary Paris is Burning, which examined the ballroom scene of New York City in the late 1980s. Livingston’s film was in many ways a case of being in the right place at the right time: She captured almost by accident the vibrant yet ephemeral world of Black and Latina/o LGBT people and their celebrations of self-transformative identities right as that world was being changed by HIV and shifts in popular relationships to voguing as an art form.
Shortly before Livingston’s film debuted, voguing and the challenging world of ballroom culture exploded as a trend, first through Malcolm McLaren’s ballroom-inspired 1989 album Waltz Darling (with its single featuring Willi, “Deep in Vogue”), then of course through the queen of appropriation herself, Madonna, with her white-washed cover of the voguing phenomenon, "Vogue." Yet Madonna’s attribution of Classic Hollywood Cinema stars to the voguing phenomenon was misplaced, for both voguing as practice and the ballroom culture as an expression of sophisticated Black and Latina/o urban forms of cultural syncretism were in fact grounded in more contemporary and immediate aspects of race, class and glamour: popular magazines, fashion, the city, and dance music. As much as I love her, Bette Davis really had very little to do with it.
Of the voguers featured in Paris is Burning, Ninja stood out for developing a particularly athletic style, featuring difficult positions and limber movements, quick pose changes and, of course, irony and attitude. Ninja parlayed his talent into teaching models and socialites, appearing in music videos, film, and on television (including Marlon Riggs’s groundbreaking Tongues Untied and How Do I Look?), recording dance music, and hosting nightlife events in New York City. You can see his music videos here and here, and listen to one of his tracks for free here (after the long queeny intro, which is worth listening to as an example of the Black/Latin@ gay accent). This song, “Hot (for you),” is also available for purchase on ITunes. He follows several other prominent stars of Livingston’s feature that have succumbed to HIV disease, including fellow legends Angie Xtravaganza and Dorian Corey.
I first saw the brilliance that was Willi at a benefit screening of Paris is Burning in San Francisco in 1990. I had just moved west, and felt a strong identification with the film, not only because I had been marginally associated with the scene through friends from New York City, but also because of the powerful and rigorous vision of self-identity and social critique that Paris is Burning offered gay men of colour. Livingston’s film turned out to be controversial for many str8 critics of colour, not the least of which was bell hooks, who panned it. Alternatively, the film received vast praise from post-structuralist theorists working on gender and sexuality, most prominently Judith Butler. Those debates seem very distant, like the echo of conversations from another place and time.
In the end, of course, Livingston’s film has had incredible staying power, as a vital and important documentary that, almost in spite of itself, serves as a platform to hear the voice of a particular marginalised subculture at the height of its fruition. What Livingston’s film does, for me at least, is preserve a peculiar moment in time that includes and envelopes me: the dancing, the music, the scene all bring back strong memories of being young, angry, scared, and joyous in the late eighties, growing into ourselves as peculiar expressions of class, race, and sexual identity in a dark time, of HIV disease, drug use, homophobia, and economic insecurity.
While on the face of it the gilded halls of Prestigious Eastern U. had little to do with the Harlem ball scene, in my mind and the minds of my cohort of young queens of colour at PU, they were closer than one might have suspected (not the least of which were the connections some of our crowd had with the scene itself in New York). From the snap-pivot to language/argot to the centrality of dance and dance music to shade (learning and deploying) to reading to the highly conscious awareness of appearance and the power of verisimilitude, we were engaged in our own version of ballroom culture, the stakes of which would be as disastrous and tortured as what befell the Harlem voguers after their fifteen minutes of fame were up.
The strange refraction of race and class and gender through education and privilege and identification was a process that resulted in a lot of damage, but drew some of closer to those we had “left behind” while driving others away, towards a peculiar expression of assimilation. While our str8 compatriots either bought into the promise of non-offensive racial identity ("incognegro") or alternatively festishised Malcolm X and began wearing leather amulets with images of Africa on them, "the children" (New York slang for LGBT folks of colour) were listening to Shep Pettibone and Kraftwerk, dancing, and shopping. We were accused, as the voguers of Paris is Burning, of not taking our political responsibilities seriously. However, the real difference was between methodologies of activism, one of insouciant joy versus banal sobriety, irony versus deadly dull seriousness. Being gay and of colour meant, at least in the eighties and at least for myself and the people I knew, recognising one’s essential alterity from standard notions of race and community, and struggling to figure out a way to accommodate such differences in one’s life and politics in an engaged way, a process central as well to the ballroom scene. We children were interested not in returning to ancient origins or, alternatively, the sixties, but in living in the moment as creatures of modernity and the city, in creating new communities that acknowledged who we were.
For my summer class, I screened Paris is Burning, and Prancilla came to class that night to discuss the film with students. I don’t remember the nature of the conversation, but what I do remember is the joy of discussing this moment with my doublegood girlfriend Prancilla, and the connection and bond between us that it spoke to, both as viewers and gay men of colour. How, in some ways, and in a manner very different from, say, Tongues Untied, Paris is Burning was a cinematic expression of ourselves and the moment of our emergence as gay men of colour, playful and ironic and pissed off at the world and fabulous and full of attitude. Willi Ninja, along with the other queens on Livingston’s celluloid, speaks to us and through us, and is thankfully forever preserved in his brilliance and temporality.
I mourn tonight Willi Ninja, another sister passed on, a true legend, a talented and accomplished artist. I’m going to put on a little SalSoul and Larry Levan, sit back, have a smoke, and think of Willi, Angie, Dorian, and all the other great LGBT legends who have made us who and what we are, who form on some essential level part of ourselves.
Pop, dip, and spin, girl! Work it, Miss Thang!
Through memory we honour their presence and contribution and keep them, and ourselves, alive.