Towards A Black Joy Manifesto

Image courtesy of Black Joy Parade, Oakland, California

For as long as I can remember street culture has been a geographical site for culture making, joyfulness, collaboration and solidarity. Growing up it was there that my peers and I could see and be seen, where creatives of colour could access and participate in culture. It was there that we found ourselves laughing wild amidst severest micro and macro aggression. It was there that we found joy.

All creatives find joy – no matter how fleeting – through engagement with an audience, with each other, and with their art. For Black people this has historically meant in alternative, underground and street venues because mainstream cultural institutes – with all their exclusive and systemic gatekeeping – limited inclusion.

This September curators Amal Alhaag and Rita Ouédraogo coordinated a weeklong series of artistic interventions to piece together a Black Joy Manifesto at Metro54, a platform for research in contemporary arts and urban culture based in Amsterdam.

Image courtesy of Black Joy Parade, Oakland, California

The event was titled A Funeral for Street Culture and it looked at fashion, gender, and cultural appropriation to think about what remained and what could be derived from those remains to find hope in the fairly grim mood unleashed by the harsh realities of 2020 – Covid-19 and the global protests and unrest against the indignities of police brutality in the United States.

Black joy is resistance, it is revolutionary, it is radical. Black joy is playful. Black joy releases endorphins. Black joy is laughter, medicine, anarchy, self-preservation, justice. It is energizing. It is defiance. Black joy is beauty.

Serena Angelista, from the power series We’re out Here

If A Funeral for Street Culture gives us a space to mourn what is being commodified, appropriated beyond recognition (even to its death), then the audacity to set out in search of A Black Joy Manifesto reminds us that we can still find communal joy despite the circumstances, despite the setting.

It all reminds me of one of Toni Morrison’s more famous quotes. “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do.”

Distraction is most definitely an effective function of racism, it keeps you busy proving your humanity, your intelligence, your qualifications, and your worth.

The collateral damage must then be the endless soul rape that siphons joy. Racism functions as derailment from one’s true purpose and artistic aesthetic, but it also derails the journey towards joy. Racism kills joy.

Violette Esmeralda

The panelists at A Funeral for Street Culture were asked to elaborate on their strategies for remaining joyful, their experiments with reclaiming joy. Can joy be wrestled back from the long arms of the institution and the dominant culture? One conclusion reached was that authentic elements of joy and street culture would always elude appropriation. And those bits salvaged would each time blossom into the next iteration of Black creativity and street culture.

Most of the participating artists approached Black joy as a communal phenomenon that ironically can be located in the funereal, because in Black culture mourning and joy and mourning and rebirth are closely related. The loaded question asked of the audience of young artists, activists, thinkers and purveyors of contemporary street culture was where can joy be excavated in a world that has been burning for centuries?

In other words, what brings joy?

Authentic Black joy is neither performance nor metaphor. It cannot be mediated nor appropriated by an outside eye and is therefore subversive, disruptive. I was interested in seeing how Metro54 was planning to present commonalities between joy and death without succumbing to theoretical and performative Black death spectacle and misery.

One of the panels featured Lee Stuart, brand director at Dutch streetwear label Patta, Malique Mohamud, author, designer and hip-hop futurist, and Roberto Luis Martins, curator/researcher.

Over a “communal toast” they discussed the disappearance of urban cultural expression. Stuart: “I don’t believe in the death of street culture. I think it is just ever changing, ever evolving, shape shifting”.

Violette Esmeralda

I found myself in full agreement with him on that. He went on to say that you just have to look around you to spot the newest form, the innovations. It’s about being open to it, recognizing it. With his contribution disavowing death, Stuart was able in part to reconcile the juxtaposition between A Joyful Black Manifesto and A Funeral for Street Culture.

The audience was then invited to “joke … and cry about the disappearance of the streets as a queer and radically joyful shared and free space” during a series of wakes.

Artists Lydienne Albertoe, Serana Angelista, Jeanine van Berkel and Cengiz Mengüç designed a series of posters as an ode to street poster culture. Titled We’re out here, the stunning works take up space and take back space to reiterate how dope, smart and creative street culture truly is.

Black joy is unstoppable. It is freedom, triumph, relief, release, resilience and playfulness. It is political. It is a fundamental political act. It is celebration and refuge. It is invigorating. It is straight up health and well-being. Black joy is frolicking on a beach or in a field of flowers. It is self-preservation, healing, rejuvenation, rebellion, autonomy. It is revelry, vitality, solidarity. It is loud, too loud. It is respite.

Under a recent Instagram story, Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy: An American Memoir, Long Division and How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, lovingly encouraged us to “Find joy by any means necessary.” And just like that, Malcolm X entered the chat. Black joy is necessary by any means. It is of paramount importance.

Jeaninevan Berkel Street Whispers

Black joy appears also to operate on the level of epigenetic telepathy. Whenever I have found myself in a dark place it has always been the communal hilarity of the diaspora-defying inside jokes on Black Twitter that have sparked inconceivable and oft inappropriate belly laughs. Those moments always lift me up a level or two from the inferno. This humour of instantly understood, made-up words parallels that of my own Black family’s intergenerational stand-up comedy. We’re still laughing about an incident from three generations ago when, at the funeral reception for Uncle Edward, his octogenarian secret lover showed up to pay her last respects and broke the silence with a plaintive wail. Just bump your head or drop your ice cream cone and expect one of the aunties to shout out “Poor Eddie!” and instigate a contagion of laughter. This diaspora and generation transcending humour is about laughing until you’re crying, laughing at your own mishaps and misfortunes, and even laughing and crying at the same time.

Canon populating platforms like Metro54 are an important repository for creatives, for interdisciplinary projects, both online and those organized and born outside of the electronic environment. Those creatives are joined by artists who are so futuristic that they de-centre the dominant narrative with joy, humour, happiness. That joy cannot be captured, consumed or appropriated and needs no approval from privilege.

Jeaninevan Berkel Street Whispers

Even though we’re surrounded by Black and brown death spectacle and a world on fire, Black people and people of colour do not constantly have to make art that specifically depicts the larger racial, socio-economic, neo-colonial struggle. We can frolic in a field or meadow just like @AshyMalik whose viral Instagram and Tik Tok feeds asks his tens of thousands of followers, “Y’all ever try frolicking?”

It’s not simply about artists pointedly refraining from making their art do the work of their politics. It’s about the fact that we can manifest happiness and joy just because.

A day of joy just because. Elisha Greenwell and Amber Lester organized precisely that. This year marked the third annual Black Joy Parade event in Oakland, California. Twenty-five thousand people gathered to dance, vibe, eat, party and cheer on nearly 8000 participants who strolled through the streets of Oakland celebrating Black culture’s influence on the past, present and future.

So, to realize and assert that we too deserve to be constructing projects and making art about visual pleasure and joy, we must embrace the theme of joy while recognizing that in this context it is always political.

by Cole Verhoevev


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