QTIPOCS On The Block: Elliott Brown

QTIPOCS On The Block is a new column by Abdu Mongo Ali (best know as the performer, Abdu Ali) which celebrates young, driven queer, trans, and intersex artists of color.

Born in Long Island, Elliott Brown is a Brooklyn-based photographer and when experiencing his work I’m gifted with feelings of security, solidness and swank.

I wanted to talk with Elliott after digging into his work, which was suggested by mutual friend, Devin Morris, of 3 Dot Zine, but I already had gotten a glance of it on the musician SerpentWithFeet’s Instagram, where Elliott’s photos of the artist for Dazed Digital were posted. Through those photographs you can instantly see how visceral, honest, and unapologetic Elliot’s work is; no shade, it woke me up which is a desperate feeling in today’s oversaturated creative world. To be real, I wanted to write about him because he is me. My people would see Elliott’s photographs as vital not only to our existence but to our growth within this world. His work provides not only a relative expression, but also solidarity -- an on-demand noun both in the analog and virtual world within my community. I am here for that and so is he.

What lead you to start doing photography and what compels you to keep shooting?

Elliott Brown: I started photographing random shit at the mall and members of my family when I was younger. I watched America's Next Top Model, but only for the photo shoots. For some reason I didn't get that Nigel Barker was a professional photographer that made a living from his work. Once I realized you could make money from photographing, I decided I'd pursue it and my visions more seriously. Which is not to say I'm only here for money. I was more so excited that I could create something, be passionate about it, and make money from it. The second I realized this is what I wanted to commit to, I made it as much a part of my life as I could. Originally, I wanted to be a fashion photographer because that made the most sense to me because it’s usually dramatic, ornate, and glamorous. Once I got to NYU, I was encouraged to work outside of fashion in order to apply that vision to fashion later on. I don't necessarily want to work in fashion anymore, but I do want to work commercially. Editorial and advertising are still incredible opportunities to push ideas that haunt and submerge viewers.

Also, photography and visuals have become ways for me to process and understand my life.  They are chronicles of my development; the person I am and want to be can be understood in what I've produced and the potential of it.

In your series “Foundations”, you explore and magnify the black body. The photos seem to be commenting on the exploitation and stereotyping of the black gay body, what are you trying to communicate to the viewer?

“Foundations” is like a diary: notes and reflections. It is my history, to date. It’s a compilation of images that are seeds for larger projects more than it is an actual series. The majority of images that are available of black gay men depict us as one of two options: the antithesis of white gay men--brooding, unfeeling, towering--or the antithesis of black heteronormative men--flamboyant, weak, superficial. These images are obviously insufficient and they don't reflect me or the wealth of black gay and queer men that I've met. Being a gay man is unfortunately informed by really stupid categories -- bottom, top, bear, leather, twink, otter, etc--and they dominate how gay men understand and relate to one another. I'm usually read as a twink and men assume that I'm submissive and can be taken advantage of. All of my behaviors are then extensions of my identity as a twink. I don't think I need to explain how limiting and stupid that is. I photograph myself so that I can dismantle any fear or shame that I've felt in defying these options. For that reason, a lot of my work is staged in public places. I want to access that tension.

You are in a lot of your photos. Why is that? I also like that when you are in your photos you give direct eye contact to the camera. Is that intentional?

I think most photographers end up photographing themselves out of sheer convenience and availability. It can be daunting to have to wait to work on an idea because someone isn't available. In the past people were less receptive to what I wanted to do. But, I would never ask anyone to do anything that I wouldn't do or if I didn't trust myself to engage the person I'm photographing appropriately and collaboratively. So, I turned to myself and found there was a wealth of shit I wanted to talk about that my own body could articulate.

My early self-portraits were working through the realization of my sexuality. Very simply, what does it mean to be gay? Is my experience as a black person linked in that meaning? I spent seven years interrogating my sexual identity. With so much of my experience being only in my head, I needed a way to confront it. First, by actually being intimate with other men. Then as sex became less fulfilling outside of the physical, I decided to document and abstract those experiences to further reflect on them. A lot of what I was doing was very gestural and performative--from signaling to men in the park that I was interested to parodying my social identity to suit others' favor or make it seem like I was enjoying what I was doing. I wanted to interpret what was theatrical about my identity--what social parameters informed my interests and the relationships I sought. That lead me to investigating my interest in white men. I struggled deeply with being black. Like most young black children who attend integrated schools and live in primarily white neighborhoods, I didn't realize my blackness until I realized it was different and apparently not in the way that meant you were special. Even as all my friends were black, the cultural lexicon I was most fluent in was black, the things I enjoyed most came from and were done by black people. Yet, I would observe white people and wonder deeply about them. What did they feel?

I didn't accept that I was gay until my first year of college, so all of my early interests in white men were characterized by admiring and wanting to be them. What I thought was merely an aesthetic interest or preference, ultimately translated into a disdain for myself, and a lack of trust in who I could be. It became necessary for me to do this project on my relationships with white men because it forced me to clearly identify the issue and be critical of it. The love and desire I sought in those relationships was regressive. Making direct eye contact in the images is a way for me to arrest myself and the viewer.                                                               

How do you feel about the imaging and narrative of the black male queer body in mainstream and underground American media?

LOL. The mainstream is always teetering between respectability and subversion. There is always a compromise in that visioning. Since there is a thirst for that relentlessness which is missing in a mainstream context, the underground can do that. I think also, because the mainstream is so predetermined and illusory, there's little room for responsiveness. The underground is determined and upheld by the environment it exists in, so it is constantly in conversation with the audience in a way that the mainstream can't be. Underground media sounds like my friends and communities. I think about people like you and Serpentwithfeet, and how comforted I am by what y'all are so relentlessly giving. I think about Kearra Amaya Gopee, who doesn't explicitly work with black male queer bodies, but works with imaging blackness as it exists within the Caribbean diaspora. Her work and palette expand on the internal productions of race. I think about Serena Jara, who makes empowering images of friends who have transitioned with her into womanhood. She reminds me that as a photographer you hold a lot of power and that it's important to collaborate with who you're photographing to negotiate and offset that power. These are just a few of the people that inform my understanding of underground media. The underground, from this view, is honest, accountable, self-aware, responsive, and mutating.

Do you think it is important for blacks to own the images of our identity and present them in a public platform by our own terms?

100%. There is a thirst for rich, intelligent depictions of black people, especially those that defy respectability, don't operate exclusively out of the past, and are inclusive of the various ways in which black people access, perform, and comprehend their blackness. That being said, it's important for black people of any and all varieties to visualize their realities and fascinations.

Your photos have a lot of velocity and bluntness, and they have this provocative exposition in them. Why do you stick with that aesthetic?

Right now, I'm just playing around and experimenting, seeing what speaks to me aesthetically and what doesn't. For the most part I've nailed down what I want to discuss in my work--how is race, specifically blackness, produced in an intercommunal manner? Regardless of the extent to which we agree on our position in America and how we've dealt with our past, we've been able to identify the hand responsible for this conversation in the first place. So let's look at us. What characterized our upbringing? Where have we been the most afraid? What don't we know about one another? What challenges are there in loving each other? How are we feeling? Those are the questions I'm interested in right now, as far as race goes. I'm far too proud of my blackness to only acknowledge it in its relationship to oppression.

What is on your brain right now as a photographer? What is the thing you want to talk about now or in the future?

I think a lot about the response to black and queer work being a pigeonhole. Blackness is so expansive, especially in its relationship to queerness. There's so much I've yet to discover, put together, or touch on. So how can something so limitless be perceived as limiting? That says to me that only one narrative regarding blackness is of interest: the one that is in constant tension with oppression. And of course it is that. This isn't an erasure or a desire to no longer work with that aspect of blackness but I'm equally as invested in black diversity and expressing that.

Elliott Brown is a student at NYU and his work has also been featured on Butt Magazine, New York Magazine, Afropunk and Gayletter. Go to his website to check out more of his work: www.elliottbrownjr.com



Catching Up w/ True Laurels' Favorite Artists From 2014

2014 saw four new issues of True Laurels and while we wish we could have caught back up with every single artist featured, here's what seven artists from the zine took from this year and how they're going into 2015. Check it!

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Butch Dawson (True Laurels Vol. 2)

What was your favorite musical moment from 2014?

My favorite musical moment of 2014 was experiencing my first tour and first time in LA.

Best artist you got put onto?

I got put on to Thundercat this year and I listen to him all the time so he has to be my best artist.

What’s the most valuable lesson you learned this year to carry over to 2015?

I've learned that things are possible for a Baltimore guy like me and for all musicians from Baltimore, and that i shouldn't doubt myself or have a conscience when it comes to taking the next step. I wanna be able to take my confidence into the next year and show myself that I'm capable of doing what I need to do.

Abdu Ali (True Laurels Vol. 1)

You've been very candid online with your take on the structure of our society this year. What's a more fitting explanation: The world's bullshit making you more conscious or is your increased level of consciousness hipping you to the bullshit?

It's a combination of both: me being more conscious/educated on the shade of society and the current events of shade that have taken place as well. Both sort of provoke each other to come about. Also with age comes wisdom. As you get older, if fortunate, you become less blind and your perception of the world you live in starts to become more raw and real.

Something you did that even surprised you this year?

At the last Kahlon, during my performance I got too overwhelmed by the energy and became very emotional and idk. It was an out-of-body experience I had on stage for the first time, it was a lot to deal with. I loved it though. It was like I saw and felt that burning bush, as if "god" came down to me touched me and spoke to me.

3 Essential Do's & Don'ts for DIY touring.

Do: Be vegan. Drink a gallon of water everyday. Sleep as much as possible (fuck going out to sight see and all that). Don't: Eat bad. Smoke or Drink. Don't hold any emotions or feelings in.

Your most valuable takeaway from 2014? 

To do the most you can, be uninhabited, and try to stay calm and positive. All three are vital. And try to be healthy as fuck. Drink a gallon of water a day. Try to eat meat once a week or twice. Or never. And vitamins are bullshit. They basically don't work. Most herbal supplements are bullshit because they are cheaply manufactured and can fuck your body up. If anything use raw herbs or powders. Get mad iodine (salt with iodine or from sea plants), b12 (veggies or a high quality b12 product that contains no cyanide), vitamin d (from sunlight or uv light) in your body. FOOD IS THE BEST MEDICINE.

UNIIQU3 (True Laurels Vol. 5)

Overall, club music seemed to have reemerged as a leading genre of interest on the web this year. As an artist in that field, how'd it make you feel?

To see something that we just grew up on grow to be enjoyed and accepted internationally was beyond amazing. It also gave me hope and reassurance that I'm doing something right, as far as my music career goes. Overall it's just a blessing. 

You were on the road a lot this year. What was your best and worst touring experience?

This year was my first year being on the road. My best experience would have to be traveling to Australia. It's half ways around the world and it was my first tour! The whole thing was an amazing experience. My worst experience would have to be when I was getting picked up from the airport one time, my driver had the wrong name on the board so I walked around the ground transportation for an hour, but eventually I found him. 

5 mixes you really rocked with from 2014?

That's kinda hard, I'm such a music junkie but here you go!

1.  Pause FadetoMind :: Kingdom b2b Rizzla b2b Prince Will - Fade to Mind on Rinse FM - 10.9.2014

2.  Pelicanfly :: Dj Slow - As The World Turns Slow Chapter 1 

3. FILTHYRICHTAJ - xoChill

4. BEASTONLEASH :: SICH MANG - WARKSTAP FOR TRADER JOE'S MIX P3

5. The FADER FADER Mix: UNIIQU3

What's a non-music-related goal you have for 2015?

I really want to be the best version of Cherise I can be, and I'm well on my way there. 

B L A C K I E (True Laurels Vol. 2)

You've been a fighter through your music since Day 1. Has this year's heightened exposure to police killing black men added more fuel to your fire?

Not really. Not at all. I'm focusing on making sure my family is living good and all that outside of music. That's the first & only real battle. I got a black child. Fuck the police state. Fuck these tyrants.

Something you HAVE to get better at in 2015.

I want to get better at maintaining my own personal solitude. Kick all the fakes, flakes and mistakes to the dumpster.

Something new you learned about yourself this year?

This year I learned I can move on in my life and not let anyone (even myself) restrain me.

Three albums that got the most spins from you in 2014?

Ola Playa - Slime Season

Blunt Fang - 777 #1 Hits

Deftones - White Pony

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Chrissy Vasquez (True Laurels Vol. 4)

What was your biggest challenge of 2014?

My biggest challenge in 2014 was going to summer school and going on the Freakshow Tour. I had to wake up early in the a.m for a straight month and ride my Huffy bike to school while going out of town on weekends, coming back to school exhausted and not ready to pass some days. In general, it's hard trying to level out school and performing. It's like, "Okay do I take this chance and be half sleep in the morning while the school bus is 20 minutes away?" and I always did it. To be able to express is a blessing. 

What artists did you listen to the most this year?

Artists I listen to the most: Nas. 2Pac, Crystal Castles, Andre 3000, A Tribe Called Quest, Michael Jackson, Erykah Badu. Can't forget the good bike rides listening to Earl Sweatshirt. I listen to tons of artist and tons of genres. So it's not as if I listen to the same people everyday.

You're always carrying around a gallon of water. What health tips can you lend us going into next year?

Yes. I try my best to drink a gallon of water a day. Your body and my body needs water. I've transitioned from a vegetarian to a vegan, it being a full year now. I'm not saying in order to be healthy you have to drop the meat and lift the veggies...however, that would be a good option. I recommend everyone to eat many servings of vegetables and fruit a day. It's many fun things you can do with your food to make a healthy lifestyle not so bland. I enjoy making a good vegan meal with a spot of green tea. Sip it, it's good for you and very relaxing. Everyone should have up to 2 spots of tea a day. For my protein I like to eat beans and eat tree nuts...and digging my finger in the peanut butter jar. Be optimistic when it comes to having a colorful diet. Broccoli is your friend. Pineapples love you. Always remember that you can either look at your body as a trash can or a temple, and that what you eat on a daily basis can either better you or harm you in the long run.

Was there anything you read that changed your perspective?

I'm in the process of reading "Think and Grow Rich" by Napoleon Hill. To sum it up, it talks a lot about the mental and how you can think positively and act on your goals, pushing them to your full potential. Most of the people who are successful now is because it took hard work and a smooth thought process. You can do anything you desire as long as you strive for it. In the book he talks about successful people and situations where a blockage may come into your life and you just have to bite your way through it. I'm not going to summarize the entire book, but here's something I underlined: "Tolerance and an open mind are practical necessities for the dreamer of today. Those who are afraid of new ideas are doomed before they start."

Hi$to (True Laurels Vol. 3)

With some of your peers being featured in both Boiler Room's Baltimore and Jersey club episodes, how were you affected? Were you motivated?

I was definitely moved and more confident in being next. I've payed attention to these people for years prior to moving to Baltimore and I get respect from most of them featured in both episodes. I have a few joints with TT The Artist, a remix I'm working on for James Nasty, and I'm working on a beat I want UNIIQU3 to hop on for my next tape. I met Sliink again around this time last year and talked to him about working before but he was touring heavy over seas after that. One day.

What there a moment this year that made you really miss Houston?

Not really but I say that because I spent three months in Houston over the summer. But if there was a moment, it was definitely SXSW. I missed out on it this year and I usually kick it in H-town before I go to Austin. 

Did you develop any new musical routines during the year?

I've been practicing  new scratch techniques on the turntables. I learned a personal technique where I can knock out remixes within a day. And I'm currently working on fusing visuals I create with my sounds right now for my short film dropping next year. 

Four tracks that never left your rotation in 2014? 

That's kinda hard but my favorites I mostly play are:

Lakim- "Rent4"

iLoveMakonnen - "Don't Sell Molly"

DJ Rashad - "Do It Again"

HI$TO & Gianni Lee - "Shake"

Asaad (True Laurels Vol. 2)

What's your proudest moment of 2014?

The entire 2014. The fact that I stopped lying.

You were on the road with Ab-Soul for the These Days Tour. Your three favorite stops and why?

Chicago because I like the thrill. Toronto because I'm Drake there lol. Madison, Wisconsin was a great vibe. 

I saw online you were talking about getting your health right this year. What was your method?

I rid the lying, rid the stress, told the truth and got some rest. 

Your 5 favorite tracks from the year? 

Lil Mouse- Don't Get Smoked

Asaad- Blue Note Entendre 

Pharrell- Gust Of Wind

Rick Ross Feat. Yo Gotti- Trap Luv

Chief Keef- Faneto 

Matic808: Laurels Mix

As an exclusive for True Laurels Volume 5, Baltimore Club producer/DJ, Matic 808—who's featured in the issue—put together a sick club mix of select artists who've been featured in True Laurels so far. Songs from DonChristian, Abdu Ali, Chiffon, Butch Dawson and B L A C K I E are featured, with their vocals chopped, sped up and distorted. Artwork for the mix is provided by Denver-based artist, Antonina Clarke. Listen below!