The Influence of Black Gay Disco Legend Sylvester Is Everywhere
There is no black gay artist that opened up my imagination about who I can be while affirming who I am like Sylvester.
Photo by Anthony Barboza/Getty Images
Black queer artists like Ma Rainey, James Baldwin, Nina Simone, Lorraine Hansberry, and Essex Hemphill have all made it a bit easier for me to dream. I was born in a perfect era as a feminine black gay man interested in being apart of pop culture and music to have a fighting chance of making a living off of that desire. The dreams I’m dreaming are large, but tangible. They are made possible because of the legacies black gay artists before me have left.
However, there is no black gay artist that opened up my imagination about who I can be while affirming who I am like disco icon—often referred to as The Queen of Disco—Sylvester.
Sylvester performed as a drag artist early in his career and covered blues classics by Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. He was known on underground drag circuits as the queen with the beautiful, soulful voice able to mimic the jazz and blues legends of the past. In the late 1970s he became a sensation with “Do You Want to Funk” and “Dance (Disco Heat),” which turned the world into a discotech and every discotech into a pulpit. His background singers Izora Armstead and Martha Wash would later get their own fame as disco sensation, The Weather Girls (1982’s “It’s Raining Men”) in their own right. But for a moment in time, they spread their glitter-riddled gospel all over the world.
I saw Sylvester for the first time in his music video for “Mighty Real (You Make Me Feel)” and I was astonished: a brown black man adorned in flamboyant, Studio 54-ready garb making love to the camera. Sylvester looked like a fantasy, but he insisted he was real—mighty real. He was not a clever sidekick or an odd spectacle for the straight gaze. He was the focal point of the video. He was the star. In that moment, a dream was born inside of me that allowed me to imagine myself as a star too.
Sylvester had one of those powerhouse voices that is becoming more and more rare to hear in mainstream music today. It was the voice birthed in black church, and raised by R&B and rock ‘n roll. It’s a voice like Patti Labelle, Rick James, Luther Vandross, or Chaka Khan. It’s reckless, but in control. There’s a gospel and sensual quality to how these vocalists attack a song. They sang high notes, wore sequins, and changed lives.
I was at the awkward age of 13 in middle school and I was being bullied for liking weird things and having feminine mannerisms. I was sure that if I cried in front of all of my peers, my eyes would cry pink and glitter and everyone would finally know with certainty my big queer secret. I just had to make it home. When I finally did and closed the door to my room, I played my mother’s Sylvester vinyl that had “Body Strong” on it. I listened to the song as I cried. As I sobbed, I looked at Sylvester’s album covers: this glamorous, androgynous black man with dark skin beaming with joy on some covers and on others he possessed an eloquent stoicism. In my dark room, I began to dance and weep, which I now find to be the queerest practice ever. Black queer life is often this constant exercise of finding jubilation and camp in the face of tragedy and melancholy. Our protests are often mistaken for parades.
In a culture that often deems the feminine black gay man as the humorous sidekick to the main character or the assistant (a hairdresser, make-up artist, or wardrobe stylist) to the superstar or diva, Sylvester offered the idea that that the black femme queer folks don’t just create the cool culture or assist in cultural phenomenons—we can be at the epicenter of it all. As Sylvester once sang on the lush groove “Stars,” “You are a star. Everybody is one.”
In 2018, we’ve arrived at the beginning black queer cultural reckoning of sorts. With artists like Mykki Blanco, serpentwithfeet, Nakhane Touré, Abdu Ali, and Fusilier creating their own universes in music and pushing the aesthetic expectation of black forward, it’s imperative we remember artists like Sylvester who broke ceilings so we can declare the sky as the limit. An artist that was one of the first to boldly declare their gender and sexual identity, as well as claim the spotlight and microphone.
Remembering Sylvester should also include remembering how he left us and what was done to his legacy. Sylvester died in debt in the winter of 1988 due to complications from AIDS. Many of our cherished black artists die penniless and often leave the public memory, but just like Sylvester suggested and deemed us all stars. Artists and lovers of art that have benefited from his legacy, can and must remember to honor him and remind the world he is a star. That he has influenced a new generation of artists to be themselves, push cultural boundaries, and knowing that artistic excellent is often an odd thing. Which means it is okay to stick out and make people uncomfortable.
I often dream about what Sylvester might think about the world we live in today. How would he feel about Pose on television? How would he feel about the rising of so many black queer artists working of the camera (or microphone) and behind the scenes? How he’d feel that he birthed a generation black gay men like me that dream dreams that are big and ambitious. My hope is he would feel mighty real.
Myles E. Johnson is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him onTwitter.