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Sydette Harry

“So Do You Want To Fight or Nah?”—Identity Rage, Performance, and the Shaky Ground

Sept 15, 2017 at 10:30am


Content warning Sexism, racism, trauma and corresponding discussion of lived experiences

SYDETTE: (vocalizing)

SYDETTE: I pray. Inside myself. The pain. The ruin. The fire. The body's ache. My streets turned to the side with their eyes open. Singing... Look what I have lived to see before my death. My city. Why is it that after destruction the victors can think of nothing better than to remake the causes of destruction? I prayed that I could understand. As if some measure of human empathy, some connection, could make me understand this suffering. What do I do? What do I do when I myself finally feel this rage of war? Bubbling inside of me? What do I do? (weeping)

SYDETTE: Bring it to me! Bring it to me! Bring it to me! I thought if I had found some measure of human empathy, I could comprehend, if I could bring civility, then I would understand. But this is pain. This pain must be met with more pain. This injustice, by injustice in kind. Stop talking. Stop talking. Do you see what I've gotten from crying and begging and pleading? Stop talking! Put your faith in power alone. Go forth. Rebuild. Take what is left of us and be strong. And when you are strong, when you are ready, come back. And destroy. Burn these bricks to the ground. Let them bleed. Let them die in their streets. Let them lie in the center of their children's... (laughing bitterly)

SYDETTE: Why was this done?

(hip-hop beat)

SYDETTE: What is this? Hello, everyone. My name is Sydette Harry. And I gave a content warning, but I would like to give it again. I'm talking a little bit about the story of my life. And it contains racism, sexism, and I have a bit of a foul mouth. As well as a mic... As well... I would like to set up... In the beginning, I have no answers. This is not the keynote for answers. So if you're looking for answers, Yeugh. Can't help you. There are lots of spoilers. I am gonna be talking about music and things and... This is how I took care of myself. I want you to take care of myself. I'm talking about my life. But my life is a little heavy. And if you need to, I want to say from the stage, as the person giving it, if you need to get up and walk out, please do that. I also need to put this in, because this is really important. But give me one second. Okay. So... This was a monologue from Charles Mee's Troy 2.0. All of the artists I was talking with were talking about the internet. Oh! And... Hecuba was part of creating myself.

SYDETTE: In 2004, it was the start of the Iraq War. The theater department of my college decided that they wanted to make a commentary as the universities tend to do, and they did the Trojan War. And my professor at the time was like... You are regal and you are tall, and you should be Hecuba. And I was also watching my father's final applications for remaining in the country be denied. My father would be deported the next year. And Hecuba was how I helped with creating myself. So the song that was playing... I'm gonna go back one so that you can hear a little bit of it... Is called Rockaway, by Beres Hammond. And these are pictures of where we are. I love this song. Because it is one of the few songs where I've actually heard my neighborhood said. And it is also said in the voice of my people. I am a West Indian immigrant. That is the Enmore Martyrs’ Monument. And that is my last name. I'm not sure if these are my family members, but as is appropriate for a Guyanese, the sign is machete. This is Rockaway. We're coming on the five-year anniversary of Sandy. This is where I say... I may cry. You may cry. Let's cry together. It is okay to have these emotions. But this is about performance and how we get through. As well as the current fad of critiquing identity and identity politics. And performance and performativity. Also, when I'm emotional, I tend to speak fast. So if I do this, let me know to slow down.

SYDETTE: So intersectionality. Intersectionality comes up. We're all using it wrong. Started by Kimberlé Crenshaw as a discussion of a legal phenomenon where someone who wanted to apply to sue for discrimination was told that she could sue as a Black person, or as a woman. And standing in a Black woman's body, that is not something I can separate. So before I completely veer off, I wanted to get into Kimberlé Crenshaw herself—in 1993, when I was 9 years old—puts into text the problem with identity politics. That it frequently conflates or ignores intergroup differences. In the context of violence against women, this is problematic, fundamentally because the violence that many women experience is often shaped by other dimensions of their identity, such as race and class. Identity politics is about what happens to you because you are a thing. Feminist efforts to politicize experiences of women and antiracists efforts to politicize experiences of people of color often try to claim that these experiences are mutually exclusive terms. Specifically in a legal framework, if I'm stopped and treated unfairly, I live in a body where I don't know if that's because I'm a woman, I don't know if that's because I'm Black, I don't know if that's because I'm fat, I don't know if it's because I'm tall, I do know that I am suffering that oppression. And I do know that being a combination of those things often multiplies those oppressions, and if there was a point where I was one or the other, it might lessen. I don't know exactly how that works. Or I spend time having to figure it out. But…you gotta be what you are. Only thing I'm missing is a black guitar!

SYDETTE: Now, this I put in because of the quote. And I love Slash. I've loved Slash all my life, and I had to say that in public. As well, Rihanna. I love her. And she is Basian-Guyanese. I'm Guyanese-Basian. Something I've seen in social justice circles—this action is performative. Or you're putting on a performance. It's virtue signaling. I want to bring in some of the theoretical critiques before I kind of throw them out the window. But the background on this... I tend to think of J.L. Austin and the concept of “speech acts,” where speech is considered a performative or an act, when it results in a change of status. So the heteronormative example is often: I now pronounce you man and wife. That is a speech act. Because you weren't married. He says this thing. You are married. But it also expands to: You are now deported. You are sentenced to 25 to life. You don't get help. That creates a material change on your life. Derrida, who at some point, I think, if you do philosophy, you have to go through, and I'm sorry, having been there with you... As well as Butler and others have expanded the idea to... It's all performative. Usually they focus on gender. But that every act is performative. As a performance, so as a performer, theater person... That's good to know, but I'd like to throw it out.


SYDETTE: This is one of the most recognizable Reggae samples ever. It's by a woman named Sister Nancy. She's a Jamaican artist. And this song is almost 40 years old. And she ended up in New Jersey. The story I've heard multiple places—and it's also in the wiki—she spent the first half of those not knowing she could get money from this. She was an accountant in New Jersey and heard it come on in a Reebok commercial and she went... Hey! What's going on? How do I get money from this? But also from that. That is music that I grew up with. And this idea of... If you hear that beat, usually you can pick out the West Indians, because we will start running towards the dance floor. Or singing, or old drunken dancing with cups. And it talks about... Sometimes all you want to do is be. I wanna be a DJ. I wanna be the best. And to be honest, she achieved it. It's one of the most sampled pieces of Reggae ever. She never got paid for it, until the last 20 years! So why now?

SYDETTE: This has changed a lot, since Elea asked me to do it. And up until the wire... I am a Black woman. I am a first generation survivor of deportation. I am a survivor of hurricanes. And I'm Black. In America. Right now. And I'm a woman. I can't speak for everything, but there are moments that make me uniquely qualified to talk about right now, and it's hard. And it's hard for a lot of us. And there are a lot of things that come up with answers, and people telling us... Well, you know, if you try to talk, and what is this... And I wanted to talk about performance, because I wanted us to start thinking about audience. I wanted us to ask the question: Who is this for? And this is a book called Spill. It's by one of my dear hearts, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, scenes of black feminist fugitivity. And it's inspired by Hortense Spillers. But the beginning has this beautiful poem. And it is: This is not about them. And I would like to make a moment where it is not about them. It is about us. This is... The fire is finding the love-lost women. The worth-it women. The ones fire is blazing, the brash blues women. The black-eyed women. The wiry women with the guns. The fire is becoming the sun. Our work is not done. So this came in funny, but you can read the lyrics.

SYDETTE: So one of my favorite performances comes from The Bible. Or The Saint. My favorite saint is Saint Thomas, the builder. And this is the incredulity of Saint Thomas. It is a painting by Caravaggio. Thomas being the apostle who, upon being told that Jesus had arisen, said he needed to poke him in the wounds. He is also the apostle that inspired all of the apostles to go with Jesus to the crucifixion, to defend him, and when he got there, he ran away. He is also the apostle, upon being charged with spreading the faith, went to India. And as the builder, he was famous. A king gave him money. Lots of money. And told him to build him a castle. He gave away the money and said, “I've built you a castle in heaven.” My favorite saint's a troll.

AUDIENCE: (laughter)

SYDETTE: I like a little smart-ass in my performances. But we're under attack. We've been under attack. Some of us have been under attack our whole lives. And we are dealing with people who are new. Who are constantly going... Why did we get here? How did I get here? How do I deal? How have you dealt? And my response to this, when I'm very snarky, is to play Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley's Welcome to Jamrock, welcome to where everybody else has been living. But I appreciate him, because he puts out albums when I need them. So the title of this talk is: Do you want to fight or nah? And this is what I've been using. It's about imagination. If we're gonna fight, we have to support each other. But we also have to imagine differently. What's gonna be at the end of the fight? And we also have to think about what that means, when we are looking at our audience. So... We are going to listen to some Jay-Z. I told you, hip-hop raised me. And if you follow hip-hop, you know why Nas had to be at the top. Because if I'm talking about Jay-Z and I'm trying to go back to Queens, I want them to still keep me. And we're gonna play a specific section of a song that is gonna be divided into two parts. And I'm probably gonna cry after the second one. But I want us to listen to this. So it is hard rock, swearing. Can you turn it up a little? Because I want people to be able to hear lyrics. Thank you. And this line is important. Okay. I don't want you near the speaker when I turn it up, because it'll blow out your ears.

JAY-Z [“99 problems” clip]: But a pussy havin' no goddamn sense, try and push me / I tried to ignore 'em talk to the Lord / Pray for 'em 'cause some fools just love to perform / You know the type, loud as a motorbike / But wouldn't bust a grape in a fruit fight / And the only thing that's gonna happen is I'ma get to clapping / And he and his boys gonna be yapping to the Captain / And there I go, trapped in the Kit-Kat again / Back through the system with the riff-raff again. / Fiends on the floor scratching again. / Trying to play the boy like he's saccharine. / But ain't nothing sweet ‘bout how I hold my gun. / I got 99 problems, being a bitch ain't one.

SYDETTE: One of the things about being an artist in a group that's not represented is you begin to cobble together an identity from performances. This is a line that's problematic when we analyze it, but it's a line that I have used as a guarding point for quite some time. Because of what happens when it's said through the experience and the voice of me. As a woman. It comes with the multiple layers, as all word play does. Hip-hop, very close to Shakespeare. And I love the play with words. And Jay-Z I like a lot. He's a fellow fire sign. I'm protective of him, even though he's got so much money. “99 problems but a bitch ain't one” comes from the idea of: if you're a bitch, you're a punk. But when you say that specifically as a Black woman, in the contents of that verse, it talks about how people who don't want to examine the interdifferences, as Crenshaw mentioned, often don't want to investigate how much they lean on those oppressive systems to be replicated in our groups. So yes, we want to dismantle this. We want to address that. But when I ask you, "So what about me as a Black woman? How will I survive this?" There's a lot of it that goes, "Um... Uh... Race... Well... It's not ready!" Because when I decide that I'm going to violently defend myself, you're gonna turn right back to that system and say I'm a problem. You turn right back to the system to say... You're too loud. You're too angry. Don't punch a Nazi! We have to speak with civility. I'm punching the Nazi. I support punching the Nazi. Because if all I have is my choice to defend myself, or to let you yap, or for you to feel good, and you're going to go right back to the system that is oppressing me, that put me here... I got a lot of problems. But if that's gonna make you call me a bitch... I be that. Also, I'm not going to be the kind of bitch that sits down and lets myself be degraded. I'm not saying I'm gonna win the fight. I'm just saying I'll show up. And I'm saying that whatever I am, I'm worth defending.

SYDETTE: I used a specific mix. That is the Linkin Park mix. And the lead singer of Linkin Park committed suicide. If you had told me when I was 16 that at 33 I would find out that the lead singer of Linkin Park had committed suicide and promptly fall on my floor in tears, I would have laughed at you. I listened to the music and looked at the time period and this was during Hecuba, deportation, and this specific mix had something. And we're gonna play his part and we're gonna talk about it.

LINKIN PARK [“Points of Authority/99 Problems/One Step Closer” clip]: Shut up / Shut up when I’m talking to you! / Shut up / Shut up / Shut up / Shut up / I’m about to break!

SYDETTE: I think... That is the part we often don't talk about. While we're being strong, while we're saying I can do anything, you have this mix, with this voice. That is everything you say, just... Is telling you to shut up. I need time to breathe. I need relaxation. I need a break and I'm not getting it. And the last thing we hear is "I'm about to break!" And admittedly, my musical taste had to change and evolve. But dang it... Numb is still a good song. So I didn't understand how much that had gotten me through. And then Chester Bennington committed suicide. And it was really important for me to talk about him, and to talk about this. Because as we go through it, there's a lot of... We have answers. And we know what's gonna happen. And this doesn't take a toll on you, but it does. It does. And as people who often think that they are healers and taking care of themselves... And give so much to the world... You can break. Even though I would have been a snob about it, or a little bit embarrassed about it, this man probably saved my life. And he did not have enough for himself. After all he gave everyone else. To see a way forward. And that's something I don't have an answer for. But it's something I want you to remember, and I want to introduce into our questions of what we're doing. Because we can break. And often in a society that says we're not human, it is important to think about that. So rest in peace, Chester.

SYDETTE: Can y'all take a deep breath with me? So... Where do we find our fun? Where are the performances we find our fun? One of them that I love is Wesley Snipes in Blade. But here be spoilers. There is this amazing backlog. But the story is that Wesley Snipes plays a character who is something called a Dhampir, a half-human, half-vampire hybrid. All of their strengths, none of their weaknesses, but he ages like a human and he is trained to fight vampires. But it means he can't live in the human world. Because he admits vampires exist. And vampires do not wish him... Because he's not a full vampire. So this is someone fighting for a better world that they have no existence in. And he has this great line. The world you live in is a sugar-coated candy topping. There is a deeper world, a darker world underneath. And for me... This is 1998. So I was 13? It was a lot like the experience of being in a very prestigious private school, when I was coming from Far Rockaway. One of the most underresourced neighborhoods in America. I went to one of the most private schools in New York City. And we prepared for it the way honestly most people prepare for war. It's 5th grade. You go to school for 14 months straight. Your only day off is Sunday, Christmas, and New Year's. You get six hours after your regular school day. All day schooling. Physics, debate, art, culture. We are being prepared to be the leaders of schools that traditionally didn't want us. And were started because they didn't want us. And we are going to, essentially, war. And you have that in your mind. You're not a part of this world. You're gonna have to be better than them. You're gonna have to be a leader. But the goal is to make a better world on your back. How do you find joy? And one of the reasons I love Blade is the moment he smiles. Who here has seen Blade? If you have not seen Blade and you can stand blood, please see it. It's one of the better superhero movies. His entrance—everyone is bathing in blood and it opens, and there's Wesley Snipes, a tall dark-skinned Black man, and he's ready to fight. And he smiles. One moment he makes an arc. And he says... If you cross that line, I got you. We have to find those moments of joy.

SYDETTE: The other is Pacific Rim. I love this movie. I love it a lot. I am running a little bit behind on time. But Stacker Pentecost and Mako Mori. Spoiler. This is about people who operate mechas, and who is ready and who is not ready to be the best mecha operator. She is the only survivor of an attack on Japan. He is one of two men who has operated a mecha by himself. And they're shown to have a relationship, and it's Idris Elba, who is beautiful, but he's highly sexualized. And you realize halfway through the film he's raised her as his daughter, as his teacher. He learned Japanese to raise her, she is trying to impress him, and they have a family relationship, and he is constantly telling her how to come down, because she has the same sense of vengeance. And if you dive deep into the other stuff, you notice... When his father was stabbed, he walked to the club of the owner where he was stabbed and burned down the club. And there's a bond there of people of color having personality traits. Not just the two people of color. And she is not sexualized. There was a lot of feminist reviews of it that said... Oh my God. It doesn't pass the Bechdel Test. She's the only woman. And she's often subordinate. It was shot by del Toro. There's a beautiful thing—she's doing the exact same moves as Charlie Hunham. Foregrounded. And people watching this saw her doing the same moves and could not see her. And the actress is the only one of these actors—Idris Elba is 6'2"—who made it through the piloting of mechas series without crying. They had to wheel Idris Elba off the set. And she got through it by having the theme of Our Neighbor Totoro hummed to her. How you get through is how you get through. It's not the same for everyone. It's important. And like I said, I don't have answers. I trained in opera for a while. And there is a value.

SYDETTE: This is Tosca, and this is Leontyne Price.

(music playing)

SYDETTE: Italian opera is big. And it's a lot about exploring yourself and getting loud. And you can do that. You can show where your lines are, and you can tell people how you're suffering. And it is... I'm running a little late. But that has a value. And if it works for you, if that works for your mission, do it! It is how you have to get through. But there is also... The goddess! Jessye Norman. She is... The preeminent Wagnerian soprano. She is the one to me. You may have others. I will tell you that you are wrong and go on about your day. If you've ever dealt with Wagner, you know it's the man who made the Ride of the Valykries. It feels less like music, more like an assault. It's blaring and hard for you to hear through this. It's in German. And she makes it beautiful. Look at doing that with the sound. There's someone who defined her as... Oh, she's an example of how good our mongrel culture is. And I'm like... No, that is grace. A friend of mine who heard this... It's about grace. There is talent and dedication that someone can make what is honestly pretty heavy music that light, that effortless, over an orchestra. And we're often encouraged to make it effortless. Do you want to make it look easy? And it ends up with one of the most racist composers in the modern canon—their best singer is a Black woman. From the South. And it's important. Because... This is Bam. And this features Jay-Z, and it features Damian Marley, who is also in here, and it features now Muma Nancy. She got her money and she changed her name. She took her place. She's not a Sister. She's a Muma. What got us here is what got us here. People will tell us that identity politics are bad, that we don't need them, that it's wrong. But if we have to survive, we have to survive. And if you don't want to fight as hard to take my identity from me, as I fought to make it, you gotta deal with what I'm gonna do. Do you wish to fight me or nah? And if you want to save the world, if you want to deal with the fact about what happens when people we thought would be there aren't... We might have to fight some people. Do you want to fight them, or nah? I'm a little over. But... This is emotional, and I feel that it is responsible to end with something that closes.

(music playing)

SYDETTE: Selah. It is an original translation of the Bible. And we don't know exactly what it means. In West Indian culture, modernly, it is used as a sense of affirmation. Of goodwill. There's some assumptions that it is used as a way of sending people off and giving you a space to say amen. We make great things. And what is playing now is a song by Selah, Emeli Sandé. She's a British singer. And there is no answer here. But all there is—is an invitation to be honest. To be true. It's gonna take a lot. It's going to hurt. I cannot promise you we'll win. But if you're here, if you're watching this later, if you are looking at the slides that I've put to keep this open... You want to try. And you think it's worth it. And that is beautiful. And that is something we can do. I can't promise you a victory. I can't promise you that anything I say from now or after is right. But we're here. My faith rises up. Even while pulse dropping. It's never forgotten. Sun and the moon and the stars, open, watching, selah. They been watching, selah. The they been watching, selah. Selah. They been watching, selah, selah. Selah. I don't know what's next. I can't promise you anything. But I want to work. And I hope you do too. And if you are willing to work with me today, I hope that you can go forward. I hope that you are loved. And I hope that we find ways to take care of each other. And if we've got to fight, we've got to fight. But... I am happy to do this with you.


Sydette Harry

Black and white silhoutte of Sydette

Sydette is a cultural critic, writer, and currently the Editor of Mozilla Network. She has been published in The Establishment, dissent, Salon, and can be found on Twitter as @Blackamazon.