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Tim'm West and the masculine mystique

In his career as a hip-hop artist—and now through his work at the Center on Halsted—West has demonstrated that there's more than one way to be a black gay man.

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Tim'm West performing at the Center on Halsted on December 15 - EILEEN MESLAR
  • Eileen Meslar
  • Tim'm West performing at the Center on Halsted on December 15

Standing in the stark white stage lights in a darkened theater on the third floor of the Center on Halsted, stripped of a beat and sharing a spoken-word bill with a group of teenagers he's coached on both poetry and survival, Tim'm West is doing something rare, even among musicians who've pioneered a sound: he's turning his art into something bigger.

West is solidly built, with a stoic countenance and a voice that begins as a low rumble, an idling diesel engine that glides into a smooth brass baritone. His poetry, including "Quickie," an ode to love on the down-low, resonates with the crowd, garnering murmurs of approval and understanding, shouts and whispers of "yes," and, after particularly impressive or intricate turns of phrase, gasps and exhalations.

But what happens on the stage once West steps off is perhaps most impressive. The young people he's mentored possess a similar gift for turning vulnerability into something that makes them stronger.

Among them is a young lady with Cleopatra-straight bangs, sweatpants tucked into soft boots, and a nervousness that forces her to sit on the stage rather than stand. But she soon opens up—and gives Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" the brassy belting it deserves. A man who comes off as painfully shy—called to the stage multiple times, not materializing until the very end—proceeds to give one of the most beautiful performances of the evening, his clear, powerful voice belying the difficulty of facing the crowd. Another woman works Christmas carol verses in with spoken word, juxtaposing holiday cheer, poverty, and the recent Sandy Hook shootings in one heart-wrenching piece.

The Center on Halsted offers a safe environment for troubled and homeless LGBTQ youth, and as the Center's associate youth director, West brings to that mission a personal history that ties queer masculinity to genre-bending hip-hop. A founder of the influential Bay Area gay rap group Deep Dickollective, West played an important role in challenging and expanding the definition of hip-hop (not to mention the definition of the Gay Black Man) and helping to create a new kind of landscape now occupied by artists as varied as Mykki Blanco and Frank Ocean.

In his work at the Center, that kind of cred goes a long way.

"A lot of the youth here are very into the arts and theater and dance," says Hannah Said, who works with West. "Everyone sings, dances, vogues. This is a very expressive group. So to have someone who has already done that—who is an artist, has CDs, does shows, does spoken word, is in books—is such a good role model. Tim'm is them, in like 20 years. He's showing them: I'm a black queer man that is accomplished and can take my talent and my academics and mix them together."

West speaks with authority about the difficulties facing the young people who turn to the Center for help—the violence, the crime, the poverty. Such difficulties are often amplified for those who identify as anything other than straight. West understands their pain, and he wants his own experiences—specifically, his exploration of race and sexuality, and his success in using hip-hop as an unlikely tool to ease the tension between the two—to guide them.

"I protect and advocate and look out for their interests," he says. "They know I love them. They know I care about them, that I want them to thrive, that I hate a lot of the racism they have to face in Boystown, that I hate a lot of the homophobia they have to face in their own neighborhoods on the south and west sides."

It was in Little Rock, of all places, that West first became exposed to hip-hop.

In the early 80s, while hip-hop was flourishing in New York City, West got schooled in rap at Arkansas roller rinks and cassette-lined Kmart aisles. "You know, the Grandmaster Flash and the Kurtis Blow and all that kind of stuff—the graffiti culture, the tagging, the break dancing—that all happened in Little Rock."

"Black gay identity can be political. It can be masculine. It can be a lot of different things."—Tim'm West

While discovering hip-hop, West also began to realize he wasn't the same as the other boys—and reached the conclusion that it would be near impossible to come out and accept himself in the rural south.

"My whole high school experience was about plotting a way out," West says. "Plotting a way out of racist, homophobic, southern, rebel-flag-waving, Klan-boasting Arkansas."

A ball player in high school, he began to see college—Duke University, in particular—as his escape. While at Duke, West joined a collective he defines as "a sort of community-mobilization group" forged around hip-hop. "We had a name that was as typically embarrassing as the other names of the golden era. We were called Duke's Enlightened Nubians."

West came out while in DEN, and found a supportive, if perhaps a bit surprised, support system. "I don't think they quite expected it, because I'm a hip-hop jock type. When I came out, a lot of them didn't have a reference to what a masculine, basketball-playing, hip-hop [guy] would be doing being gay. I think people could fathom someone being really closeted, being on the down-low, but I was a very early pioneer in openly masculine, gay hip-hop."

This embrace of masculinity is one of the driving forces of West's hip-hop career and his work at the Center—a response to the estrangement he felt from stereotypes such as those purveyed by Eddie Murphy, unironically smothered in purple and black leather, slithering and whooping as he disparages a "fag nation," and In Living Color's Blaine Edwards and Antoine Merriweather, silk ascots, heavy lisps, fingers dangling.

Eventually, West discovered men similar to himself. He also came to fully understand who he was, thanks in no small part to the controversial 1989 PBS documentary Tongues Untied, which explored the hidden world of black gay men and HIV. The film made West realize that the "black gay identity can be political. It can be masculine. It can be a lot of different things."

After Duke, West attended the New School in New York City. Outside the comforting embrace of DEN, West turned his creative attention to spoken word, finding the more open gay culture surrounding poetry more welcoming than the still predominantly homophobic hip-hop scene. "Spoken-word culture became kind of a safe haven," West says.

West spent two years of graduate school simultaneously building a name for himself in the spoken-word scene. He then moved to the Bay Area to attend Stanford. He found that the confluence of the Bay's LGBTQ advocacy and its militant black nationalism created a compelling tension between two fascinating ideals. "People forget, you had ACT UP and stuff in San Francisco, but you also had Black Panthers," West says. Among the latter, there was a shared belief that "being gay is counter-revolutionary—you're not producing children for the revolution. This whole idea of pan-Africanism and black nationalism is also kind of working against progay [causes]. It's one of the few places were those two identities converge, which is why it was the perfect place for Deep Dickollective to happen. I don't think it could have happened anywhere else."

West met one of those revolutionary-minded people at an event celebrating the ten-year anniversary of Tongues Untied, where he performed "Quickie." The poem resonated with Chicago native Juba Kalamka—in much the same way it resonated with the youth at the Center on Halsted more than a decade later. West and Kalamka's frustrations with the homophobic attitudes they encountered in the supposedly "open" spoken-word scene—and with racist leanings in the LGBTQ community (something that many black youth find out when they arrive in Boystown)—inspired them, along with fellow Stanford student Phillip Atiba Goff, to form a group founded on the unlikely intersection of race and queer culture. As West explained Deep Dickollective's mission to the San Francisco Bay Guardian in 2002, "D/DC occupies this space that isn't exactly comfortable for everybody. We're not comfortable for black gay people; we're not a comfortable act for white gay people, white straight people, black straight people. … You don't get to be this cool gay white guy and not called out in some regards."

It's a passionate place from which to begin making music, but there's something even deeper there on those records, something you can hear in the great bubbling mass of West's voice as it roils like lava across the tracks. "We actually came together right after I tested HIV positive in '99," West says, voice slowing but never wavering. "I remember telling Juba about my status, and he was like 'Hey, let's just go down to Stanford and kick it.' So I just kind of kidnapped him, we went down to Stanford, we rented a piano room with Lightskindid Philosopher [Goff, who had rapped at Harvard]. I would give anything to find the tape that we recorded, this live jam session that became the basis for BourgieBohoPostPomoAfroHomo."

In an essay published in Black Cultural Traffic: Crossroads in Global Performance and Popular Culture titled "Keepin' It Real: Disidentification and Its Discontents," West writes that Deep Dickollective "came together with buckets on which to bang, a piano, freestyle rhymes, and the daunting task of consoling a friend's [read: West's] post-HIV crisis."

Roy Kinsey, left, is working with West on an upcoming record titled Snapshots. - EILEEN MESLAR
  • Eileen Meslar
  • Roy Kinsey, left, is working with West on an upcoming record titled Snapshots.

The music that sprang from that cacophony could loosely be described as conscious rap in a similar vein to Hieroglyphics, with the obvious difference being the queer lyrical matter. The idea that gay hip-hop would somehow fall short of its straight counterparts—suffering from saccharine sentimentality or, conversely, going too far down the social-issues rabbit hole to be enjoyable—is wiped away by BourgieBohoPostPomoAfroHomo. The production is tight, as soulful as De La Soul and dissociative as the Pharcyde.

Most striking are the verbose, highly complex, and difficult-to-unpack lines that are dependent on educated language and informed by a poet's perspective, darting between the beats like bats in a backlit woods and taking liberties with rhythm most MCs wouldn't dare touch.

Deep Dickollective made no bones about reappropriating disses. As far as the group members were concerned, Common's infamous "In a circle of faggots, your name is mentioned" was proof of their own skill and relevance. West recalls silencing battle rappers whose main shut-down line was the quick-strike attack on a rapper's masculinity: the accusation of homosexuality. "They go 'Yo, go suck a dick.' I say, 'Which one and how quick?'" West laughs. "It disarms them."

Deep Dickollective swelled from a four-man group to a ten-artist collective before finally reaching critical mass in 2008. Various creative differences, including West's fears of being pigeonholed by queer politics (not to mention a desire to incorporate more of the hooks and crowd-pleasing touchstones he grew appreciating in gospel music), caused Deep Dickollective to disband and its members to spread out across the country. West continued teaching, lecturing, and recording music, making stops in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, and Houston before finally arriving in Chicago, and at the Center on Halsted.

In 2011, West was tapped to perform at an event at the Center, a show revolving around "Hip-Hop on the Down Low." He finds it significant that he was initially introduced to the Center because he's a rapper. "That says volumes about the positive efforts [the Center] makes to mobilize talent from the community."

West says Chicago's gay hip-hop scene reminds him of the dynamic energy he found in the Bay Area in the early aughts. At the Center, West has built bridges with members of the scene, including the Freaky Bois, who West says possess a deft understanding of "the politics of representation," and Roy Kinsey, with whom West is working on an upcoming record titled Snapshots, and who spearheaded the Center's Holiday Peace Out open mike night.

Tim'm West, Snapshots: The He​-​Art and Experience of Tim'm T. West

Kinsey, whose sauntering, almost lackadaisical flow brings to mind Common on Clonazepam, admits that, while he was not familiar with West's music, he's become inspired by him. "I want to be this person who's covering all of these things that are a part of my personality—whether it's being black, whether it's being gay, whether it's being a male, whether it's being honest, whether it's being peaceful. And I think that he covers a lot. He is not just one thing, and a lot of artists now, they have to choose."

When I ask West what effect, if any, his music has had on his work with the youth, he says, "They see me as the director first." West fills his days at the Center managing evening workshops and programs for 13- to 24-year-olds and overseeing HIV/AIDS prevention for black and latino men who have sex with men.

"I'm doing more than writing a check for an organization," he continues. "I think, ten years down the line, when they're still talking about Tim'm West, that's going to be the legacy: that he was in the trenches, doing something nice. That there was work he was doing."

A few weeks later, West relayed an anecdote from earlier in the day, when a woman had approached him, hugged him tightly, and declared that he had saved her sons' lives. Depressed to the point of suicidal despair, they'd seen a Deep Dickollective show in Boston that became a turning point for them.

The moment was a revelation for West.

"You spend all this time grinding, playing colleges and small stages," he says, "and you lose sight of the impact you can have."

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