The kids are back in school, which means that every day, when school lets out, some of them head to the The ArtsCenter in Carrboro for the AfterSchool Arts Immersion program taught by Durham poet and musician Shirlette Ammons. As the center's youth arts coordinator, Ammons has little time for breaks on a weekday afternoon, but on this Wednesday, she and I slip out to the front patio to chat about one of Ammons' many artistic endeavors.
A few blocks east in Chapel Hill, hundreds of people have started gathering at the Peace and Justice Plaza for the "Taking the Dream Home to Chapel Hill" rally, which coincides with a nationwide observation of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
Down there, they're talking about civil rights. Down here, we're talking about, well, women going down on women—more specifically, the song "Dandelion (Eatin' Out)," Ammons' musical collaboration with German feminist emcee Sookee. The two have been touring and performing together since Sookee opened for Ammons' March release party at The Pinhook for her Twilight for Gladys Bentley LP.
Ammons once responded to a YouTube commenter who mistook the song's meaning for simply "a girl cheating on her girl" by explaining that the song is a "push against hetero-normative ideas of pleasure." The original version is featured on Twilight for Gladys Bentley, but it was given a fresh take by Chapel Hill producer Apple Juice Kid after the album was mastered. Ammons subsequently reached out to Sookee to jump on the mash-up.
"It's not just the fact that we're both queer," says Ammons. "It's more about the fact that we both have similar politics behind what we do."
Sookee, a self-described "subcultural activist" who also goes by the gender-neutral handle "Quing" (queen and king), works with youths across Germany, leading seminars and challenging some of the pervasive homophobic ideas and policies put forth by the German government. Her three-album discography spans from her 2006 debut LP, Kopf Herz Arsch (Mind, Heart, Ass), to 2011's Bitches, Butches, Dykes and Divas. She craftily bops around issues ranging from sexism to racism to homophobia—in both English and her native German tongue.
Ammons admits that not everything about her and Sookee's song is rooted in gender politics. There's also some tongue-in-cheek winking to such a sexually charged song as "Eatin' Out," which makes the song easier to perform.
"We both posed this whole idea of pushing the margins of the margins," Ammons says. "Like, how do we create music where we don't have to leave part of ourselves behind in order to get down to it? We go to the club and we dance to music that's misogynistic or homophobic—cats are calling each other fags or calling women bitches. But when you're in the moment, you just put your politics in the background so you can have a good time."
The margins may have been pushed too far recently when the hip-hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis won an MTV Video Music Award for Best Video with a Social Message for their song "Same Love," which champions gay rights. The next morning, well-known, openly gay rapper Le1f tweeted, "News just in: gay people don't care about your video about gay people." A day later, West Virginia University's student publication, The Daily Athenaeum, published a student's op-ed piece with the headline, "The parallels between Macklemore and Martin Luther King Jr."
The former was a passionate reaction to a backward moment in pop culture. The latter was a specious comparison between an overhyped rapper and a civil rights icon. Why couldn't a queer artist get one of those MTV moonmen? What about the parallels between queer artists and public servants?
Ammons agrees with Le1f and describes Macklemore—a straight white male—as someone who is "co-opting the moment," usurping the LGBT community's right to tell its own story in the struggle for civil liberties. That role belongs to rappers, practitioners and activists—and quings like Ammons and Sookee.