Artistic Resilience: The Black Gay DJ in the AIDS Crisis

Kevin L. Tarver
Kevin L. Tarver

Imagine being a black gay young adult living in New York during the late '80s. The streets are talking about this virus called HIV that's been affecting your friends and family. The sexual revolution is over due to fear. Escape is needed and refuge is found in the only place you feel accepted: the gay club.

Yet, within this space you occupy from late night to early morning, intimacy feels dangerous, and no one feels as safe as they once did. Nonetheless, you long for that great escape into abundant love and recreational drugs, but feel untouchable. You're frustrated and angry. How do you cope with all of these emotions? How do you communicate them? Who can give voice to and provide the escape you desire?

Before long, you find yourself lost in the thumps and thuds of house music, and all your troubles begin to disappear. The emotions you had bottled up inside spill out once you hit the dance floor. Who's responsible for your sudden release?

Enter the black gay DJ.

Black gay DJs, or disk jockeys, were activists. They were mood-manipulating maestros. Their activism came in the form of masterfully selecting the right tunes to sway the crowd and promote movement. They worked to bring about social justice and unity amid the AIDS pandemic.

The role of the activist is to speak out against stigmas and injustices. When we think "activism," we often think of boycotts or protests -- bearing signs with clever slogans and throats raw from impassioned shouting. But at its core, activism is any means of influencing the people to create positive social change.

As a black gay man, activist and blogger, I'm always looking to learn about activism and advocacy in the face of stigma and trauma. And I found it at Sacred Ministry: The Black Gay DJ During The AIDS Crisis, a workshop in Atlanta this month featuring Johnnie R. Kornegay III of The Counter Narrative Project (CNP).

#ArtIsResiliency was the hashtag of every social media entry posted by CNP in June 2016. CNP, an organization that seeks to mobilize black gay men, created this campaign to celebrate African-American Music Appreciation Month and LGBT Pride Month. CNP sought to showcase black music and its importance as a form of resiliency -- and activism -- for gay black men.

Trauma is something that many African Americans deal with almost daily, and thus we've developed ways of coping that allow us not only to survive but also to thrive. Add sexual identity to this and the stigma that follows, and we have an even greater need to adapt to, cope with, and navigate the world and its many injustices. The ways in which these situations are handled is what comprises resiliency -- and one of these ways is activism.

In a period when urgency about sexual interaction was at an all-time high and many felt untouchable and lonely, the black DJ had the arduous yet rewarding task of alleviating club patrons of their frustrations and other emotions as they hit the dance floor.

Kornegay's lecture pulled inspiration from Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton's book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey (1999), which provides an extensive history of the disc jockey's influence in shaping the music industry as we know it today.

Flyer promoting the <i>Sacred Ministry</i> workshop
Flyer promoting the Sacred Ministry workshop

Kornegay pointed out that it was the black gay DJs of the '80s and early '90s who were the founders of house music and also ushered in a new wave of sound and mix to a mainstream crowd. Until then, house music had been underground, a well-kept secret within the gay black and Latinx communities in New York in clubs such as the Warehouse and the Garage.

Kornegay filled in Brewster and Broughton's gaps in gay black music history by showing clips from Josell Ramos' 2003 documentary, Maestro. My personal favorite from the presentation came from a clip featuring DJ Antonio Ocasio. In the clip, he describes a memorable night of clubbing at the Garage. It was inspiring to hear the music and see the raw energy of the crowd combining to made the club feel sacred.

It was ministry through music. DJs such as Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy were ministering to their audiences. Attending the gay club was like attending a revival, but instead of prayer and worship, club goers quoted lyrics to house music as if it were scripture. Instead of speaking in tongues and catching the Holy Ghost, men and women engaged in break dancing. Tensions were high and the black DJ relieved them with each beat. Their rhythms made it safe for partiers to feel connected and free again.

It made me think of the poem Heavy Corners by famed poet and gay activist Essex Hemphill, in which he urges his brothers not to allow loneliness to kill them. There was great fear in the late '80s to early '90s that was ruled by HIV and AIDS. Those infected felt like lepers and unloved. The need to be loved, desired and touched was strong. Essex wanted to make sure that gay men were loved by all and did not allow themselves to dance alone. The black gay DJ aided in fulfilling Essex's call to action.

To the black gay DJ, everyone was the same once the music turned on. The emergence of house music unearthed what was once underground and sacred to LGBTQ people of color and made it mainstream for the masses to consume. Unfortunately, this mass consumption of the black gay sound in more mainstream clubs proved to be the decline of the black gay DJ .

It wasn't shocking to learn that black gay music and culture were accepted by the heterosexual mainstream long enough to sample, then replicate. Kornegay explained that, after a while, it was no longer fashionable to be associated with homosexuals. Though the art was heavily revered, the people behind the art were no longer noticed. Money changed everything, and as gangster rap emerged on the scene, the sound also changed.

But to this day we hear the influence of the black gay DJ. Nowadays, most of the DJs identify as heterosexual, and some don't even know that their EDM (electronic dance music) sound is heavily influenced by the likes of Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy and Larry Levan. Today's DJs will likely never know that these black gay DJs were on the frontline, working tirelessly every night to alleviate their audiences of the frustration, anger and fear sparked by the AIDS crisis.

Nonetheless, the sound hasn't died, and neither has the purpose of the black gay DJ and other DJs of color.

For most of us within the black LGBTQ community, the gay club is still the only safe space we have -- or at least it was. It's the place where many of us escape the everyday trauma we witness as a group whose lives are made to feel frivolous. It is unfortunate when tragedies like the Pulse nightclub shooting tarnish our view of what it means to feel safe as a community.

We'll continue to fight. We'll continue to dance. We'll continue to be resilient in the face of injustice, and the black gay DJ will continue to lead the charge. Art truly is resilience.

Kevin L. Tarver is a freelance writer, gay activist and content creator for Established on July 15th, 2010, documents experiences that often go undiscussed within gay culture, especially within the African-American gay community.