Blackness, Identity and Individuality

In her first article for One Quart Magazine, Nicole Willis narrates glimpses of her life story and relates it to structural questions about blackness and identity. This is an emotional, poetic and informative narrative

In her first article for One Quart Magazine, Nicole Willis narrates glimpses of her life story and relates it to structural questions about blackness and identity. This is an emotional, poetic and informative narrative

Tytti Roto

That New York City Work Ethic

At the height of my procreating moment, mother of two children under two years of age (almost as they call it ‘Irish twins’), I was at Roni Martin’s former studio in Kruununhaka off Liisankatu with producer Didier Selin. As I had become accustomed, I was writing lyrics and immediately recording them, not really improvising too much. I’d developed this ethic that ad-libs were something that writing partners assumed from women singers or black singers –– or soul singers or house singers; I wanted to nip that in the bud. It was the sample age where whole tracks could be created around the riffs of singers, riffs would take on lives of their own. Writing credit? Another story.

A few years earlier I had refused to be recorded doing any ad-libs in the session of Swords, my guest collaboration with Leftfield in their London studio. My collaboration with the group Repercussions, that led to a major label signing with Reprise/Warner Brothers. The group were friends who studied at Columbia University and had not had a singer/songwriter in their line-up. At that moment, we had just been dropped by the label and I spent a couple of years playing punk bass badly, bartending and partying on Ludlow Street. In the early years of performing in New York at Groove Academy events, organised by our management, the Giant Step folks, I experienced a crippling stage fright. It wasn’t the notion of performing on a New York stage and the poignancy of that. I had always lived there, born in Brooklyn with a brief break in London in 1985.

When one is a native of the USA or New York, there is this inherent drive and ambition, a competitiveness that is in the DNA. Nothing is easy and you extend. A work ethic taught to me at my first job after graduating high school was, ‘learn to not take criticism to heart, use it to your benefit and change, otherwise someone else will get the job’. It was in *FOOD SERVICE*, lol; see Sethical on YouTube. I took that with me everywhere I went, including in television and film production, which I did very briefly, but felt approbate of it. Although, I would rather sleep at least a solid 7 hours a day.

Every single thing was done with pride.

Blackness In New York City

In Repercussions we had this amazing luxury of time to do long rehearsals per week, so that those songs which we had few of were ridiculously tight, with complex segways and solos set to exact bar structure. However, I was consumed by stage fright. Hmm, the insecure child never grew up – and out. Only later would I begin to fathom the elements of surviving a series of hard knocks, ones that were never addressed directly. The anxiety and anger. The being used to feeling alienated to the point that I felt; this is where I belong, stranger in a strange land, not completely accepted or loved.

It meant that in a city like New York, the North East of the United States, a place that attracted the famous and talented, those public people who would bravely make their feeling of benevolence invincible – like Sammy Davis Jr or Josephine Baker – that all African Americans could not escape the psychic injury, of being the descendants of slaves. In New York especially, a quilt of diasporas, new arrivals soon learnt, nothing was worse than being black. Craving a justice that they would never have, some brown people were continuously combative, hypersensitive and self-destructive. I can’t really imagine that the individual could have avoided that implosion, that readiness for rejection on a daily basis, the anxiety. New York, and the United States for that matter, is a place where an individual of any ethnicity, will appoint themselves the town crier, regularly on the subway or from passing cars and public places. Throwing out words of discouragement, anger and betrayal.

It meant that in a city like New York, the North East of the United States, a place that attracted the famous and talented, those public people who would bravely make their feeling of benevolence invincible – like Sammy Davis Jr or Josephine Baker – that all African Americans could not escape the psychic injury, of being the descendants of slaves

The disruption a manifest of social and class injustice, the illusion of race and contempt inbred in the divided. The diasporas would often focus on their differences, such as language, country of origin, and draw energy from the easy mark, the African American, that had been duped of justice, that is continually denied an equal chance, that received no reparation and was running at a deficit.

Our deficit has rebounded however, a wealth. Ask what the United States is known for and what comes to mind is Popular Culture. Land of Jazz, R&B, Rap & Hip Hop, Rock & Roll & therefore Pop Music, Break Dance. Who do you think of? In my 53 years, some of the most revered intellectuals, politicians, musicians, writers, athletes, thespians, songwriters, composers and generally cultural innovators who are African American spring forth. I could name names but one doesn’t have to reach repeatedly into the hat to come up brown. With ingratitude, cultural appropriation becomes standardised and the very same who take part, want to continue to oppress.

I could name names but one doesn’t have to reach repeatedly into the hat to come up brown. With ingratitude, cultural appropriation becomes standardised and the very same who take part, want to continue to oppress

Looking For The Cure

Upon joining the group Repercussions in 1989 at age 26, I had begun to explore spiritualism and considered studying philosophical theism a few years before at Hunter College. I had moved back to New York from London a couple of years prior and realised I’d need education and better job prospects. I accumulated a number of books of scriptures, regularly did Tarot card readings, meditated, looked for something bigger than myself to relieve emotional pain. Unless I were to become a minister, I don’t know how this would have lead to work, but it was, anyway, an interest.

A great amount of the lyrics from the album Earth & Heaven were of Christian spiritual inspiration. I searched for depth of meaning in coincidence, karma and the lack of justice, wondering how to break the cycle of absorbing any environmental affront, feeling less than (as per say now), a vanity or self worth that served as a protective barrier. I just couldn’t understand the disappointments that I experienced, why I did not receive a reciprocation as I continued to look in the wrong places. There was no unconditional love, and surroundings had placed me in a no – win position.

Some independence of spirit, heart and mind would have remedied that, but I had no idea and I repeatedly searched outside myself. Bouncing from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, experienced in that daily rejection in Sunset Park & Borough Park. My sister and I were followed by gangs of Italian American teens while we walked home between the neighbourhoods, to make us remember that we were unwelcome. We then brought our two dogs with us when we thought we’d walk home late, an intimidating looking German Shepherd and a Husky/Malamute mix. This was in the late 1970’s. They soon stopped following us. The Howard Beach racial incident would happen some years later in 1986. I remember a sigh of relief, that this wasn’t going to happen to myself or my sister anymore. There was no surprise, just an absorbing of the regularity of these kind of occurrences. So when I finally ended up back in a black community in Flatbush, with my stepfather and his wife, sisters and brother, I should have felt comfort.

But I was already, as Saul Williams would say, ‘Niggy Stardust’. Barber-cut short back and sides dyed red, Converse All Stars (in the 1980’s), skinny leg, pinstriped, acid wash jeans and yellow leather boots with buckles and laces, I was the Beverley Road super-freak. So when the neighbours in my building on East 17th Street laughed at my attire, I began my club-kid attitude of looking down my nose and thinking, ‘well, they don’t know what’s cool!’

But I was already, as Saul Williams would say, ‘Niggy Stardust’. Barber-cut short back and sides dyed red, Converse All Stars (in the 1980’s), skinny leg, pinstriped, acid wash jeans and yellow leather boots with buckles and laces, I was the Beverley Road super-freak

They Don’t Know What’s Cool

I started to take the bus to Borough Park to stay at boyfriend Dmitry Brill’s apartment every time my dad nagged me about what I did with my hair or anything, really. We’d start a band with Spike Priggen and I became the vocalist, although I would have liked to play my Rickenbacker 4001 bass. Teenager. Dmitry’s neighbourhood had a Hasidic vigilante that just couldn’t figure out what a New Wave black girl and Russian-via-Ukraine kid were doing in there. Once as an experiment, we stood in front of the apartment building under the false pretence of taking the fresh air, to see what would happen. The vigilante rolled up in a car and shined a high beam light in our faces and asked us what we were doing there, in broad daylight. When we said we lived there, they refused to accept that answer and continued to ask questions, albeit from across the road, for a good half hour. In the 1980’s the police AND vigilante couldn’t have been as bold as in 2017 with physical attack, with the so-called victory of the Civil Rights movement a mere 20 something years before.

Regularly I could hear Dmitry’s mother shouting on the other end of the phone at him, as he abandoned his expensive New York University education to go to Mudd Club and buy/sell records (then DJ). He’d give a translation after he’d hung up, telling me with mixed horror and amusement, mother said ‘tell that black bitch to go home, we’re coming over now!’ Racial injustice was a thing that brown people were to become accustomed to in the way that young women and female children would soon expect to receive attempts or successes of assault, sexist comments and objectifying of their bodies. So standard that one eventually did not speak of it.

Racial injustice was a thing that brown people were to become accustomed to in the way that young women and female children would soon expect to receive attempts or successes of assault, sexist comments and objectifying of their bodies. So standard that one eventually did not speak of it

However in 2003 I was there in Helsinki, drawing fondly from the slang and phrases my stepfather had used through my childhood in Brooklyn of the 1970’s. He had been a very young parent, not quite out of his teen years, when my brother had been born. There is memory of being perhaps 5 years of age, with our portable turntable in our room and his 45’s, asking him what dances he did in his so called youth. He showed us how to do the Madison and Boardwalk and with tremendous brown folks pride, us 5 and 8-year-olds got the steps immediately.

Stepdad was the bright light, always liked to hang out with us and chat. As a teenager, I distinctly remember sitting on our balcony during a thunderstorm and just having a laugh with him, my sister and stepsister. It had been one of those New York summer days, inferno-like, and you just sat there in the humidity, risking being struck by lightening to cool down. It was perfect company, listening to Kendall telling stories, perhaps about his upbringing on Dean Street in Bedford Stuyvesant with that Brooklyn accent or just chuckling about having watched the B-52’s perform Rock Lobster on Saturday Night Live. He would listen to Rapper’s Delight on the car stereo, broadcast from WBLS and after a couple of weeks would burst out with the lyrics and a laugh. For him it was like, ‘what the heck is this?’ But that thing, that characteristic of brown folks in the United States, great mimics. When very young, we’d have Al Green impersonation contests with my aunt as judge. I recall often winning. Perhaps my aunt had favoritism, but being a cuckold’s burden, maybe she would want to give me a little extra love.

Tytti Roto

Black White Girl

We were living in East New York, or what is considered by some East Flatbush. Kids in the neighbourhood called me ‘white girl’ for being light skinned. Loads of smirking, teasing or ignoring, including from cousins and family members. I was terrified to attempt to learn to ride a bicycle, in the case I would fall off, make a mistake and be emotionally bullied. Hence I didn’t learn until I was 21 years old. Besides I never owned a bike, like my eldest brother, or the gold earrings that my eldest sister was gifted. Nor was I encouraged to go to college, or pursue my dream, to become a ballet dancer. I begged for lessons but there was never any extra for me. I summed up at the time that there was never any extra, period, which was probably more the case. Besides my sister had secured a full college scholarship, all her own doing.

However, rejected on the block by child peers and passively rejected in the home, I’d grown accustomed to something being not quite right and absorbed it with anxiety and depression. I would hear stories of how my elders didn’t have food sometimes, or toothpaste and toothbrushes or were beaten, uninformed about the birds and the bees. A brutal patriarch would reign terror in the household and the matriarch could not manage to protect the children, they were teen parents with their own template who knew some obvious things should not be repeated and yet…

One day a game of Run, Catch & Kiss resulted in me being fondled by a neighbourhood boy on my bust area that hadn’t even begun to develop. I stayed indoors for a month in shame and mental trauma. A few years before a hospital stay for the results of a Baker’s cyst on the knee had clarified some things for me. My stepfather would not visit me there as the Caribbean nurses sneered at him, knowing that I was not his biological child. Siblings didn’t visit either. My mother thought I was a real academic and encouraged me to do some school work during the time. The stay seemed to go on forever, culminating in an unnecessary surgery to the knee that left a large scar, it was exploratory. My mother told me to cover it up and I felt ashamed.

I was mother’s love child who was the favorite, praised for being so wordy and clever. As the affair came to an end, her interest in me did as well, and I longed for her to hug me as she did when I was three. Silence in the home. It took me a great deal of my adult life to realise that I felt rejected by black people, white people, the immigrant populations, diasporas. I let my freak flag fly and went clubbing. It’s taken me perhaps the last decade to learn that I was worthy of love and that self acceptance and love is paramount, with all this experience finally kind of settling like pollen or dust.

It took me a great deal of my adult life to realise that I felt rejected by black people, white people, the immigrant populations, diasporas. I let my freak flag fly and went clubbing

Ain’t Been Black Since The 80’s

But I sought the company of like-minded people, who liked Die Doraus Und Die Marinas, Brian Eno, Velvet Underground, Scritti Politti, or The Smiths, New Order, David Bowie, Adam & The Ants, Haircut 100, The Marine Girls and then groups like Heaven 17, Simple Minds, Prefab Sprout, the list goes on, sounds of youth that now look like a bad brat pack movie. All super British, white stuff. Subway rides into ‘the city’ would be a new Keith Haring experience on a daily, although we were yet to know his name. Clubbing, I’d meet all kinds of people and we became a community of multi-ethnicity. Within it people of colour barely rallied together. My dear friend Andrea Rose Clarke always highlighted the phenomena of the brown eclectic and did encourage us to unite, but more or less we were disbanded; Jean-Michel was hanging with Andy and one brown girl we knew well, Joy. All the bouncers from Europe fucked black girls, all the black bouncers fucked white girls. Fact. All the intellectual musicians were hanging out with Alan Vega doing drugs. Everybody, in fact, doing them. British boys. It was like that 90’s trend in NY, brown man with a Japanese woman, for that matter any man with a Japanese woman. Latinos, well, preferred to identify as white, in spite of browness. Some were not really brown, so…

In America, we have the one drop rule. Any amount of African heritage makes you black, whatever variation. As Jay-Z stated in the lyrics of “The Story Of OJ”;

Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga
Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga
Still nigga

Not that this a problem, if it weren’t for the continuous reminder from the other that to be anything else is better. This is the climate of the United States. A country built on slavery. What becomes the question is what does blackness entail? Does it make us indebted to the ideas of blackness, the stereotype? Or are we, like anyone else able to define blackness as individuals akin the other?

I’m not any less black. But I don’t get real specific about what I listen to needing to be black based, whom I know needing to brown, what I read, eat and sleep. Imagine if you told a white person, you must listen to classical music and country rock, associate with only groups in variation of your so called ethnicity, eat, drink, sleep, shit … white!

So the black experience, who says what that is if not each and every one whom is black or brown or any shade and variation of brown?

As I walked past the mainstage at Flow Festival, I listened to a youthful MC, stating the canonical jargon about women; referred to by their genitalia, cars, jewels, drug use. The notion of ‘real nigger’ became a double entendre, the definition for the artist on the stage and the real; actual ‘nigger’; vile slur. I often conclude that some artists wear blackness like a genre costume, like a Goth, Emo or Metalhead. Can we talk about what we want to talk about? Kanye already said something to that effect and I second it. One has to celebrate the braveness of say a Frank Ocean, who risk upon risk reveals sensitivity, sexual fluidity, alternative music influences. But maybe that’s a trend these days anyway. Yet Frank will talk about sports shoes and stuff, can we escape? Are we even allowed? And then there’s Tyler, The Dragon <3. Remaining in the United States may make it difficult to dissipate the anger, to make your art an expression instead of a reaction, to be unique.

Does one explore the depths of their experiences to define their individuality in the midst of our blackness?

You try to get your African friend to understand how African Americans feel. They don’t but they may get the same lack of understanding from us. People of colour in the United States do focus on their differences because all Americans have been brainwashed to do so. This is why we have this tremendous white supremacist movement going on. Because those followers believe that their whiteness should automatically put them in some superior position. Being without education, health care, respect for service work with a minimum wage rise, they in-fight. They don’t understand the seriousness that the immigrant applies fulfilling the ‘American Dream’. They would rather dwell in a fantasy world of conspiracies and hidden enemies. What is at the base of this is that race is a created illusion, denial of Jim Crow, denial of the paradox of the 13th Amendment, the sad ignorance of believing that a person of colour is inferior, denial of the terror of, fetishizing and immortality projected on the black body that warrants the use of excess force.

What is at the base of this is that race is a created illusion, denial of Jim Crow, denial of the paradox of the 13th Amendment, the sad ignorance of believing that a person of colour is inferior, denial of the terror of, fetishizing and immortality projected on the black body that warrants the use of excess force

So, if you can imagine, the 1970’s in the United States, this idea that the Civil Rights Movement was a ‘success’ and that we were to be treated equally, and yet the contempt lingered. We had playground songs about combat between the races, and people distinctly lived (and still do) in quite separate communities. As an African American child, a white person in your neighbourhood or home was like a ghost or a UFO. Just something that never happened. You had no comprehension of what they would be like and most certainly interaction would not be positive. Whether at the movie theatre or mall, it just never happened that races mixed, or shared any sense of community.

Eventually my parents divorced and with my mother, we moved around a lot, all over Brooklyn. Then I learned what it was really like to be lone and slightly brown or high yellow, in a non-black community.

I was an out-of-place teen who as a younger child was sarcastic and precocious, only to grow into silence. Kendall and his second wife Joy had saved me from malaise, but I never overcame that feeling of alienation. I’ve spent my entire life being an outsider to the point that that is what I seek out to feel comfortable.

Tytti Roto

When Convenient For The Purse

I’d listened to the Soul Investigators instrumental recordings on vinyl and had been impressed how much they sounded like The Meters or something from back in the day. The fact that the following collaboration we did would become the album which as a recording artist I would become most known for, I had no idea.

So Keep Reachin’ Up was released in 2005 with album artwork featuring an exotica theme photo I’d fought hard to be used and the audiences were thoroughly convinced that it was an old record. Concerts were offered and we went. In the heart of Northern Soul, Newcastle was a destination. We played at venue which could hold less than 200 people, not many showed. It was probably the notion that the album was indeed new, that threw prior fans off. They didn’t expect a relatively youthful 42-year-old and a band of young Finns to play this music. The record collector types that take second loans on the mortgage to buy a 45, were weakened. The MC at the venue asked me just before showtime how he should introduce me. He said something to the effect of “So should I say, ‘From Georgia, the Blues singer, Nicole Willis’”.

It was that terrible red flag, that thing, how you get slapped back into the reality that, no, you didn’t safely get out of the box or the square hole. You will always be the square peg. Dude could have simply Googled it but he didn’t bother. It was just like The Story Of OJ.

When you permit yourself to be commodified, your blackness to be so, you lose track of who you are. Some gaps fall out of your story

When you permit yourself to be commodified, your blackness to be so, you lose track of who you are. Some gaps fall out of your story. Yes, I was born in Brownsville but I also lived in East New York, Sunset Park, Borough Park, Midwood, Flatbush, Midtown West, Lower East Side, Boerum Hill (both of the latter twice) & Fort Greene as well as Kennington in London (twice). I listened to Eric B & Rakim & De La Soul with my Scottish friends, discovered Snoop Dogg’s first single with my Jewish American boyfriend, watched The Birthday Party with my friend from the Beastie Boys. This was my New York and youth. People will act like you crawled out from under a rock, that they can shape your past like clay to suit their diorama, but I won’t allow it. There was nothing obscure about it or me. I’m not a found, dusty, old record in the vinyl store. I am unique, an individual who is also black.

 

Nicole Willis & Banda Palomita play Funky Elephant Festival Helsinki, this Saturday 9th Sept.

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