Idol is described as ‘A daring and unapologetic examination of religion, pop culture and Black representation’ and is performed by Leeds based artist Jamal Gerald.
The evening was presented as a religious experience, and began with the pouring of rose water onto our hands as we entered the auditorium to the sound of two black, uncredited and unintroduced, performers singing and playing percussion. The female performer would later give a stunning performance on electric guitar.
The set was a series of tables dressed as shrines, the one in the centre bearing a small statue of the Madonna and child surrounded by framed photographs of black performers such as Prince and Beyonce, but as I was seated at the end of a row I couldn’t see most of them. After the initial genuflection to the shrine, the ceremonial greeting of the performers and the lighting of candles and incense sticks, the spoken performance began.
I started out by thinking that Jamal Gerald was a very affable chap and the stories of his childhood and relationship with his mother were both touching and humorous, but I found that when he began making serious points, the piece faltered, as did his delivery several times. It is difficult to review a piece where the narrative flits back and forth between topics and emotions; one minute he is relating his problems of not having a figure to which he can pray, then his relationships, or lack thereof, with other gay black men. We cut to film clips of Kanye West’s interrupting of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2015 VMA Award ceremony, more narrative, an unconnected clip of Nina Simone on Black Power and some songs in the alter egos of his heroes. There followed a reminiscence on his recent trip to Trinidad and Tobago, where he indulged in a holiday romance when he was made to feel good about himself, hardly the exclusive domain of black gay men.
My feelings whilst watching the performance veered between pity for someone who needs to have an outside influence to believe in rather than being able to believe in himself, so much so that he came across as a star-struck teenager with pictures of his idols on the bedroom walls; and annoyance when he quoted facts and then totally misinterpreted them to ‘prove’ how badly black people were treated. There was a part of the performance when he bemoaned the fact that black independent record labels were now owned by multinational corporations such as Universal and Sony, whose CEOs are white men. Every time he said ‘white men’ the percussionist hit the drum and the performer acted as though he had been punched.
I doubt that the companies mentioned had made the independent labels’ founders sign their companies away at gunpoint. In fact, two of the oppressed founders he quoted were Sean (Diddy) Combs who, through his record sales and the proceeds from the sale of his label, is worth around £670million, and Dr Dre, who made his money through similar activities, along with the sale to Apple of Beats headphones and has a fortune of £644 million. Compare that with the ‘white’ independent labels such as Island and ZTT, both now owned by Universal, Two Tone, owned by another multi-national, Chrysalis… and you can see that the gobbling up of the minnows by the sharks has nothing to do with colour and even that is better than the fate of ‘white’ Factory records, which went out of business altogether. If anything it is a testament to the power of black entrepreneurs to make money out of the big boys.
In addition to the photographs of the pop singers on the shrine, there was a framed painting of an Afro-Caribbean man hanging on the wall, which may or may not have been his idea of what Jesus should look like. Jesus was born in Bethlehem of parents from Nazareth to where they returned after his birth. This would make him of Middle Eastern descent, thus giving him a slightly darker complexion than that of Northern Europeans but he would not have been black. I dimly recall seeing a portrait of Jesus with blonder hair than normal, but the vast majority of ‘likenesses’ have him with swarthy skin, black hair and Eurasian facial features, all which would be totally accurate.
I was also disappointed in his saying that he loves Beyonce ‘as much as a white man loves a white Jesus.’ I found this particularly offensive, because, as a white man with no religious beliefs, I do not wish to be categorised as one who does, purely because of the colour of my skin. Sound familiar, Mr Gerard? I abhor racism in any shape or form, as well as discrimination on any grounds, whether against religious beliefs which I accept some people hold dear, gender, sexual orientation, or anything else which causes division between my fellow humans.
By the time the performance was over, I found that I had been annoyed but in the wrong way. I had just seen someone start with the answers and then make up the questions in order to prove a spurious point. Despite his sheen of self-effacement, the show was all about him, and he hogged the spotlight even when the two amazing backing musicians were given the chance to show what they could do. He began his costume changes behind a full gown rail which shielded him from the audience, but he soon moved the garments to one side so that he was in full view of the audience at all times. At one point he even anointed himself with oil and then stripped naked to cleanse himself in a bowl of water. All of this was compounded by his inconsideration in not giving any credit whatsoever to the two brilliant musicians on stage with him.
I would like to end by saying that if he, like many white, black, brown, yellow and red people the world over, me included, wants to be more successful in forming meaningful relationships, he should take down his photographs of pop stars and whatever the painting was and replace them with a mirror. Then he can start looking to himself for inspiration because it’s unlikely he will ever meet his match by coming across so emotionally needy.
I chose this as a taster for Transform Festival as I thought that it would be a bit edgy and challenging. Sadly, I was mistaken.
Feature photograph by The Other Richard
Stan writes Let’s Do Lunch for Leeds Living. He also reviews special events for food and drink, which sometimes takes him beyond Leeds. He has also developed an interest in writing on culture, most frequently dramatic and musical theatre.