The Magic of Basements and Living Rooms
“It’s about showing up and having the courage to create your own projects, to create your own space, to create your own work… If you’re not interested in doing a play in a living room, then you can’t be interested in doing a play on Broadway.” – Billy Porter
Overlooking a sparkling spring view of the Atlantic Ocean from a Fort Lauderdale hotel conference room, I sat among a group of activists and community service workers talking about art as activism and what makes that igniting mix possible when it strikes. Several minutes deep into this discussion, we began exploring the idea of something that seems obvious now but felt profound to us as we unpacked what the boom-bust history of creative movements had in common with one another when each began. For instance, what did the works of Black women writers in the ‘70s, authors nd poets who formed a new era in Black women’s fiction, have in common with the Harlem Renaissance-era workers who peopled Wallace Thurman’s “Niggerati Manor” and would go on to create the iconically single-issued Fire? Or, the Black gay men and feminist women of the East Coast who comprised the first wave of Black gay and lesbian literature and documentary film in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s have in common with Georgia’s Dungeon Family that helped launch Southern hip hop and R&B in Atlanta in the ‘90s? What did socially conscious people who produced, however temporarily, societally challenging work that impacted both their culture and communities have in common?
Well, one, we determined, they weren’t the work of grand soloists operating in isolation. They were the products of collective nurturing and relationships formed by creatives for a period of time that helped several of its members emerge with some of their best work and shine. We also noted that each later or concurrently reached back to bring others along with them for the spoils as they happened. These short-lived crews, camps, and collectives were the origins of individual greatness and collective consciousness raising. Further, they were often done in the unassuming beginnings of living rooms and basements. Or, nightclubs and coffeehouses, as was the case with Philadelphia’s “Black Lily” series at the Five Spot or Atlanta’s Ying Yang Café that would nurture the formation of Groovement in the A and the ladies and gents who would populate DJ Jazzy Jeff’s Touch of Jazz productions in Philly. A similar thing happened beginning in 2007 with Odd Future (e.g., Syd, Frank Ocean, The Internet, Tyler the Creator, etc.) in L.A. whose genesis began in a room in Syd tha Kyd and Taco’s South Central home known as “The Trap.”
None of them began with deep pockets and sign-off from gatekeepers. These creatives gave themselves permission to just do what they could with what they had. And, while the well-heeled patron might have eventually put some duckets in the pockets of the Zora Neale Hurstons and Langston Hughes of Niggerati Manor to help further the Renaissance’s work or the major label connect that changed everything for Rico Wade and the rest of Organized Noise who’d go on to produce OutKast, Goodie Mob, and Joi in that basement, to name but a few, no one was waiting for that patron or that record deal to begin doing their work. The creatively hungry just showed up humbly in the basements and living rooms accessible to them as sites for training, critiquing, loving, collaborating, and growing. They showed up to do their work and the rest followed.
In his now viral 2013 interview at his Carnegie Mellon alma mater, actor/singer/director (and gay man extraordinaire) Billy Porter paraphrased a fellow legendary black gay elder, George C. Wolfe, to expound on his idea of the magic of living rooms:
“You cannot wait for anyone to give you permission to practice your art. You have to be practicing it all the time, whether people are listening or not. And, trust me, they’re not always listening. You have to have the courage to even speak when nobody’s listening. And, very often, most of the time nobody cares.”
Now, Porter was speaking to would-be actors and playwrights when the sage delivered these timeless nuggets for eager, milk-wet ears, but he could have just as easily been speaking to the women in Toni Morrison’s New York who babysat one another’s children, delivered groceries to one another’s bare cupboards, and took care of each other creatively, critically, and financially, to give each other the space necessary to birth the works that would make Toni Cade Bambara, Sonia Sanchez, and Morrison, among others, literary figures of incredible accomplishment when little was speaking to, for, and about Black women of the times. This movement was started in the tiny living rooms of the Bronx, Harlem, and Brooklyn, not in an MFA program or a Northeastern writer’s residency or Southern writers retreat funded through a comfortable fellowship, though some of those things would later come for some among them. The launch of their sweat equity didn’t rely on external affirmation or resource validation from those on high looking low to get started. They just did their work both alone, as formative creation is a solitary pursuit, and, later, with one another.
Porter could have just as easily been talking about my fledgling Black Bear Brotherhood (BBB), a social collective that was founded to provide safe space, affirmation, and fellowship for black gay/bi/SGL and gender non-conforming men of size and their allies. It started in my living room as a potluck in May 2017 with 12 attendees and now has four chapters in four different cities serving hundreds across the United States, touching the lives of thousands of socially marginalized men who get to see themselves celebrated through our various platforms. Weekly, BBB is now fielding requests looking for chapters in the areas where BGM live, for the living room or basement where they too can connect, create, and flourish among others of like minds and values. Those who have answered the call to start chapters are cautioned to think simply, to think a handful of people of like minds in a living room. I now regularly speak BBB’s origin story in speeches and interviews, not only because it’s a good narrative to have for a toddler movement whose ultimate potential has yet to be experienced, but because it reinforces the power and impacts possible with the humblest of beginnings. There is little more humbling than a basement or living room. Yet, there is magic in their modesty. Trust me on this.
Giving yourself permission to do your art or meet a community need doesn’t require an army, grant, fellowship, or sign-off from a funder, university, institution, or gatekeeper. All it requires is giving oneself that “yes,” the talents of a small group of committed people of like minds and aspirations, a little bit of hunger, a dash of resourcefulness, and a basement or living room to change the world. Indeed, it's all that was ever needed to begin your work. Now, go do it.
L. Michael Gipson is a writer, educator, and 24-year advocate for a host of social justice causes, L. Michael Gipson, MS is the co-founder of the Beyond Identities Community Center for LGBTQ youth in Cleveland, the Black Alphabet Film Festival in Chicago, and the Black Bear Brotherhood in Detroit. Currently, Gipson is the Founder and Principal of Faithwalk, LLC and the Urban [W]rites project. A Red Dirt Press author, Gipson serves as Editor-at-Large at SoulTracks.com and Lead Writer and Co-Producer of the PBS docuseries Indie Soul Journeys.