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Five Artists Tell Us About the Lasting Influence of 'Paris Is Burning’ 25 Years Later

Cakes Da Killa, Ghibli, and more on how Jennie Livingston's 1991 ballroom documentary impacted pop culture and LGBTQ communities.

by Max Mohenu
Aug 12 2016, 4:55pm

Jennie Livingston

At the rate mainstream pop culture's been going the last few decades, the early gay underground figureheads should have a mountain of invoices for all the times their culture has been borrowed without acknowledgement.

It's hard to dismiss the importance of Madonna's "Vogue" in the realm of club history, being that this timeless hit brought vogueing into a more commercial sphere. Unbeknownst to many who idolize her however, the song is void of a narrative that's ethos dates back to the 1960s, when the Harlem ballroom scene first gave African and Latino queers a safe haven to craft early blueprints of identity and performance. Even when dissecting the work of FKA twigs, an artist whose homages to the scene in her live sets walks a fine line between appropriation and appreciation, one could argue her actions perpetuate the continuous smudging of QPOC stories and imagery for white consumption.

No matter how you slice it though, gay themes and lingo deemed trendy today simply aren't a new thing. Almost all these elements are acquired from iconic looks, phrases, and legacies depicted by director Jennie Livingston in her 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning. Set in New York City during the 1980s, the critically-acclaimed but controversial film chronicles the lives of prominent members of the ballroom scene, navigating race, gender, and sexuality, all while bringing trophies and accolades to their respective "houses."

There's no denying the lasting cultural, political, and socio-economic impact of Paris Is Burning on mainstream pop culture, and most importantly, the LGBTQ community. For queers artists with visions modeled after those of pioneers like Octavia Saint Laurent or Willi Ninja, this movie played an important role in informing their evolving careers. With the film celebrating its 25th anniversary next week, we spoke to five artists from different cities and backgrounds about how Paris Is Burning has influenced their creative expression, and helped shape their communities and personal views.

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Mister Wallace, New York-based rapper and Banjee Report member:

"When I was in high school, my first encounter with ballroom culture and voguing was from clips found on a now defunct YouTube channel. My cousin, who was active in the scene in Atlanta, sent me clips of the kids voguing down in Atlanta and NYC. It spoke to me instantly. As a black queer growing up in the whitewashed suburbs of Chicago, I was longing for any type of visibility or representation. The dance and the culture around balls was magnetic and it was only a few years after high school that I found myself walking as an [member of] House of Ultra Omni in the Chicago scene.

Till this day, one of my favorite videos is a Southern-style vogue video, which features one of my favorite dancers, my mentor Shaun J. Wright. My new single "IT GIRL" samples the classic track "The Ha Dance" by Masters At Work, and the music video tells the story of a street kid whose ambition drives them to get dolled up and perform. My life and the lives of other black queers have been touched by this culture and subsequently Paris Is Burning. Rest assured I know the world is burning and black queers are both the torches and the flames."

Bryndon Cook, Starchild & The New Romantic and guitarist for Kindness and Solange Knowles:

"My family is from the south, so needless to say, the ballroom scene in New York seemed a bit removed from Mississippi church culture. I slowly learned how close the spirit of dance, freedom, and black queerness was connected, albeit quietly. Paris Is Burning was on BET, playing on a small TV set in my cousin's room in McComb around 1996. I heard angelic voices, both soft and hard, declaring something foreign but near to me. I watched it alone. Those images never left me.

As I grew older and eventually moved to NYC, I found out how the spirit and experience of that imagery had slipped into the consciousness of my musical peers Dev Hynes, Solange Knowles, and Adam Bainbridge, and influenced our own freedom. I want people to understand how important it is to have that true document. To me, that document is partly a certificate of freedom and a declaration of independence. It was a part of history that a lot of people needed to see and we are indebted to its preservation. The film's place in the pantheon of black connectivity is so potent because it stands neither as past or future, but as a monolith to itself."

Ghibli, Edmonton-based producer and founder of Manicure Records:

"Like a lot of people born after the release of the movie, my knowledge of vogue and ballroom culture is hyper-specific in some places and totally lacking in others. Also, living far from New York and other centres of vogue culture makes it difficult to stay in the loop. As with most subcultures however, documenting and recording the history is extremely important, especially when done by active members of the scene rather than interlopers. After watching performances online for years, attending [NYC's] Vogue Knights for the first time two years ago was probably one of the best and most influential nights of my life. It felt comparable to Catholics going to the Vatican for mass.

I think ballroom and vogue culture important for so many people because it showcases and hones in on the aggressive,"fuck y'all I'm the best" kind of attitude that marginalized people need to use in order to survive on a day-to-day basis. It comes from the need to form a community in order to stick together, proving to your peers that you do deserve your tens, and then battling it out with them to see who really is the best. To survive as a queer person in this world, you need to have this fucked up aggressiveness inside. Performing at balls is a way to express that inner fire healthily, even if you're not aggressive in your everyday life."

Cakes Da Killa, rapper and Qween Beat member:

"Ballroom culture is an important physical manifestation of the obstacles and triumphs gay and trans people of color face surviving in a heteronormative society. This celebration of resilience and creativity adds a magic to lives filled with daily criticism and trauma. The key players become individuals who influence mainstream culture, but rarely are credited for their impact. Our history is constantly whitewashed to crossover to mainstream consumers, so seeing it in its essence spoken from the pioneers' own lips, sweat, and playful shade in the movie is powerful.

Like many butch queens, ballroom swag has had a huge influence on my musicality and confidence. It was ballroom commentators like Kevin JZ Prodigy and Gregg Evisu who made me fall in love with riding a beat. I have Paris Is Burning to thank for my introduction to the culture. Being a member of Qween Beat, a collective founded by MikeQ, I work to keep the sound and legacy of ballroom alive and progressive. We crafted our debut album, Qweendom, to bring the ballroom sound to more people, while keeping it rooted in the legacy of Paris Is Burning, and the pioneers who laid the foundation of the scene."

Shaun J. Wright, Chicago-based DJ and former member of Hercules & Love Affair:

"In a sense, Paris Is Burning offered me clarity about certain aspects of ballroom culture as a teenager secretly viewing it in my best friend's bedroom, before I ever walked a ball. Sneaking into [Chicago] black queer clubs like the Generator and Prop House at such an early age gave me more of an appreciation for the culture. But the movie was the first time that I witnessed a true reflection of myself in popular media, of the people that I knew, and a vernacular very similar to the one we utilized. However, I was aware that the documentary was not the actual culture itself. I knew it was just a small glimpse into a culture that was decades old and much too complex to be captured on film because the culture was still flourishing around me.

Upon joining the House of Escada, it was a prerequisite to begin walking the category "Butch Queen Voguing Like a Femme Queen." I studied the legends and current stars of performance via VHS tapes shared through underground networks of friends and house members. VHS tapes progressed into DVDs before YouTube revolutionized the way that ballroom culture was disseminated. At the forefront of sharing ballroom content is Ballroom Throwbacks, a team that has been pivotal in spreading the culture globally in an unprecedented manner along with creating original entertainment. In terms of artists today, when I witness the soul-stirring artistry in Kiddy Smile's latest video "Let A B!tch Know" or Mister Wallace's 'It Girl," I am reminded of the ways in which ballroom culture has morphed from its NYC roots to a queer diasporic phenomenon."

Max Mohenu is on Twitter.