This week’s video vault is brought to you by our amazing 33 1/3 intern Arev Pivazyan. Arev has an M.A. in Performance Studies, which takes performance ranging from actual staged performance to the performance of identity, gender, and politics as its object of analysis. Read Arev discuss ball culture and the queering of rap, below!
Editorial Intern Arev Pivazyan here! This week I bring you Zebra Katz’s “Ima Read,” featuring Njena Red Foxxx.
Bursting into public awareness in the early 90s with the release of the documentary Paris is Burning (1990), the ball scene has been influencing pop culture without most of our knowledge for decades. Often credited as beginning in Harlem, New York, ball culture is an urban queer people of color scene where people compete for prizes and recognition by voguing (a form of dance invoking model-like poses) and performing a particular gender, style, or affect through clothing, makeup, and body language. Drag is a prominent aspect of ball culture and often competitors are judged as much on how convincing their drag presentation is (realness) as on their dance moves. Competitors usually represent ball “houses,” queer families of gay and transgender people led by a “house mother” or “house father” which feature names that invoke high fashion and glamor such as House Prada or House Xtravaganza. Ball houses are more than teams or affiliations; they are often the families and spiritual homes for the many queers that have been rejected by their biological families or who must hide their desires in their day-to-day lives. To this day if you take a stroll down to the Chelsea Piers in Manhattan, you will likely see a gaggle of queer teenagers affecting the mannerisms of ball culture. Modern pop music draws a significant portion of its aesthetic from ball culture, so you can thank the ball scene for the likes of Madonna and Lady Gaga. (By the way, Queen Bey credits the ball scene with being one of her inspirations.)
Ball culture also gave rise to something called “reading”, an old school term for verbally insulting a person by publicly pointing out and exaggerating their flaws (often to do with their failed realness). Reading is not just a well delivered insult. A good read is a stylized dressing down of the offending party that takes verbal skill, an enormous amount of wit, and a degree of lyricism. Even though they sound different, rap and reading are quite similar in form.
“Ima Read” is not a literacy manifesto. Zebra Katz, as a young queer black man, is invoking the term for verbally thrashing someone… “that bitch.” The word bitch, by the way, is invoked over 80 times in the song. There’s a certain numbing effect that happens through the repetition. The word bitch isn’t defanged—perhaps it is impossible to take the misogyny out of “bitch,”—but it begins to lose its meaning, like when you’ve repeated something over and over until it just becomes a sound. It’s important to remember who Zebra Katz and Njena Red Foxx are, a black woman and a queer black man, both often historically positioned as “bitches,” when they take the word bitch and make it into auditory mush. Reading itself is, well, bitchy, so when Zebra Katz raps “Ima read that bitch” he’s flexing his queer blackness. Queens are the ones who are meant to be bitchy, not rappers, reminding us that reading and rapping are similar skills and that through their similarity queerness begins to infect rap in general. In effect “Ima Read” functions as an elaborate series of puns and metatextual references that serve to queer how we think about rap, inescapably muddling it with queer subculture.
Plus, it’s really catchy. Listen to it a couple of times and I promise you’ll be singing “ima read ima read ima read ima read that bitch” under your breath and getting scandalized looks from innocent bystanders (oops). – Arev