My Time at This Year's SLAYFEST by Damian Ruff

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From Friday to Sunday this weekend was one for the books. I had a fab date with a lovely young man at Coney Island and even though the fireworks Friday were breathtaking the real show was Saturday. SlayTV, the brainchild of Sean and Terry Torrington, hosted its inaugural SLAYFEST celebrating the queer Black creative. Part film festival, part concert, SLAYFEST was nothing but love and Black excellence. Housed in the Fisher Building of the Brooklyn Academy of Music it was four floors of unapologetic greatness and a whirlwind of activity. This little bee played your insider for HIM while the boys were busy interviewing some of SLAYFEST’s lauded guests. If you’ve ever tipped through downtown Brooklyn you’ve passed BAM Fisher several times over, Heaven knows I have, and yet I never guessed that one day I’d get to pump under the cover of its roof. Mind you, the rooftop held an open bar for the girls getting themselves together for that evening’s concert which Cakes Da Killa and Dai Burger were slated to headline.

The sun was as high as Dominique Jackson’s cheekbones when I pumped out of Atlantic Terminal and bumped right into HIM’s pretty boy and thought provoker, Erin. Walking down Ashland Place I thought to myself how unsuspecting the Fisher Building seems from the outside,
how easy it is to pump by without noticing it, but walking through that door I buzzed with a nervous energy. I picked up my VIP pass from the one and only Twiggy Pucci Garcon, in a rare moment of stillness in his duties as Director of Programming, and tipped down the stairs to the
Jay Sharp Lounge where the rest of HIM were gathering themselves.

Malik gave us the run- through of what was expected of the day and by half past noon we were ready to hit it. Now, you know how us colored folk are when it comes to time but after Friday, and a bit of good news that morning, I knew time would be on our side. So, when the screening of short films was delayed due to unforeseen circumstances a shiver of anticipation washed over me as I kiki’d with Stevie and Trey while Erin and Malik were in their phones.

The Fishman Space was set to house the screenings of shorts and short films by various Black and queer filmmakers which, as I’m guessing some of you have gathered, is my bailiwick. When the screenings started I was immediately sucked into the superstar performance of MJ Rodriguez as the title character of 2016’s Gema. Following the moments leading up to Rodriguez’s Gema meeting Ari Blinder’s Sam’s parents for the first time it was a wave of stellar performances from both actors. When Sam says that hasn’t gotten around to telling his parents about Gema’s tea, she’s upset. The tension in the newly engaged couple’s bedroom was palpable as an underlying air of fear pinged out of every scene. It was perhaps the final shot of the film that left this audience member at the  edge of his seat as Rodriguez stood in her underwear with Blinder seated behind her as the bell of reality rang on their small paradise.

Following Gema was a set of episodes of Christopher Rule’s series, Reality Check. Inspired by a breakup and life in general it left this writer cackling almost as hard as when I was kikiing with Stevie. Following Reality Check was the powerful docuseries, Finding Home, which
is “chronicling the painstaking efforts of LGBT immigrants to build and define a home in Los Angeles,” and had Stevie in tears within the first two minutes. The featured episode followed Stacy, an immigrant from El Salvador seeking asylum in the US. It followed her as she worked as a hotel maid by day and performed in drag shows at night with the threat of deportation over her head. Returning to El Salvador being the worst thing for her as she was raped by the police and beaten by gangsters in her country. Clicking the trailer on SlayTV’s SLAYFEST lineup will lead you to a Kickstarter to help support the series. It was partway through the sxcreenings when the boys and I tipped out of the auditorium to check setup for the podcast and I was itching to see what else SLAYFEST had to offer.

I took the elevator up to the second floor for the panel on Representation in the Media, but was told that it would not start until a half hour. I went back down to the screenings in time to catch the leading lady and comedic chops of Miss Angelica Ross in 2017’s Missed
Connections. Following two people who meet at a festival and are parted by fate before they can exchange information, it seemed all too fitting for the day’s festivities. We watch as friends and friends of friends and their followers work in concert to get a Missed Connections post on Craigslist to go viral so that Jermell Smith’s Kamal could meet Ross’s Jennifer again. A touching romantic comedy, this is a feel good short film to watch alone on a rainy day or with your girls and a glass of Moscato. After this was Justin Dominic’s Unapologetic Me: Black | Gay | Man which proves itself as powerful as the first few times I saw it writing my review. This time I found myself sitting in the front row with tears welling in my eyes watching the dancers speak to one another through movement. A powerful message through the fantastic choreography of
Justin Dominic on the intersections of Blackness, queerness, and maleness in a society where to
be all three is to be undervalued, and under-appreciated. It speaks on the importance of Black
queer men loving themselves and each other despite societal expectations.

I tipped out of the theatre and ran into Ronaldo Maurice who, along with Twiggy, runs a masterclass on runway and vogue performance that makes it look simple enough for me to do. The classes are held at Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company, check their Instagrams for the
next class. I took the elevator up to the second floor and stood in on the panel on Representation in the Media in time to catch Jamal Lewis’ nugget of wisdom in the wake of Pose that, the danger of representation is that it “feeds some and leaves others hungry.” My phone went off in
my hand and I stepped out to pick up a friend who had been invited to perform by Sean Torrington just that morning. Before stepping into the gray light of day I passed the boys of HIM who were interviewing photographer, Lamont Baldwin. To the outsider in the Atlantic Terminal area one would think that some fashion show was taking place at BAM as M.L. Thompson and Laquann Dawson pumped around with a gorgeous young woman looking for something to fill their tummies among the other immaculately dressed children hungry for more than just a good

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I got back to the Fisher Building and into the screenings to catch snatches of Whose Street, a documentary on the Ferguson, Missouri riots after the wrongful death of Michael Brown at the hands of Caucasian Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson. I watched with my hand over
my mouth and disgust in my heart at the powerful images of Fergusonites being pelted with rubber bullets and tear gas on their own lawns after the issuance of a curfew. “This is my home!

This is my home,” one distraught man yelled as I felt a lump form in my throat at how easy it is to feel powerless in the face of militarized humvees and faceless officers following orders. Mind you, the Nazis were “only following orders” too but that doesn’t justify a single thing about them. Needing a change, I tipped down to the Jay Sharp Lounge, buzzing past the boys of HIM as they interviewed Ryan Jamaal Swain, who had just come down from where he was a panelist for Representation in the Media.

Walking into the lounge I was greeted by the lovely strings of multi-instrumentalist
Devon Webster as he played along to classic R&B favorites with his violin. I found a seat at the far end of the lounge, closest to the bar, and let the soothing sound of the violin mixing with the familiar backing beats wash over me. The room seemed to be feeling his music as well as many of the guests took video and nodded approvingly at him, but it was during Devon’s rendition of Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You” when my suspicions were confirmed, as those gathered sang along. Sitting there, notebook in hand and smile on my face, I looked up to the first floor where guests and staff alike leaned over the open space to listen.

I was conflicted when six o’clock hit and the rooftop bar opened at the same time the Women’s Experience panel started, but when Monsieur Garcon asks you to sit in on a panel you ignore your inner lush. The boys of HIM and I sat in on what was, in my opinion, one of the best panels of the day, which is saying something because I enjoy a good Q+A with filmmakers. It was church up on the second floor as the ladies got us together. As someone who identifies as gender nonconforming and who has been raised by more women than men, I thought I was familiar with the plight of the fairer sex, but we can always learn more. What I learned was that I take my privilege as someone who has worked with the queer community in the non-profit sector for granted. Much of what we know is not disseminated to the masses in an accessible way and so, being there with someone who went up and thanked the panelists for their perspectives, I was humbled. This all comes back to representation in the media being of paramount importance now more than ever; visibility matters. It was the overarching consensus that “safe spaces” for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals is not something that should be sought that, in order for us to actively be the change, we have to go out of these “boxes” and inform not just each other but those outside of our communities.

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After a quick run to the liquor store, because the open bar had been capped and the prices in the bar of the lounge were a tad exorbitant for the underemployed, I tipped my personal into a Stella (purchased at the bar) and relaxed in the company of HIM and the young man who accompanied me. When Twiggy and Winstina Dakers, head of PR at SlayTV, leaned over the banister to tell the children that the concert doors were open I held back from the mass exodus to have some one-on-one time with my date. I noted an empty pint bottle of Hennessy by one of the benches and applauded the children for their discretion and savviness. By the time we got up to the concert, which was held in the same auditorium as the screenings that morning, we were ready to turn up. Turn up we did.

The concert, which was hosted by Lonnie Bee, boasted a loaded lineup of Black queer performers. Headlined by Dai Burger and Cakes Da Killa, Boy Radio, Shea Diamond, Punk Adams, and Brynt were also slated to perform. We arrived in time to see Rozay Labeija take the stage, and were turnt when Rahrah Gabor got up with some sick bars that left both me and my date gagging. Twerking along with the boys of HIM to Charlie Xile, I was stunned when Mila Jam came out in full performance mode serving Queen Bey in “Ghost” tease. This little bee was beat by the time Mila Jam was halfway through her set and so were the boys of HIM. We tipped around saying our goodbyes but not before meeting MJ Rodriguez, who sat discreetly on the second floor of the auditorium enjoying the performances. Between meeting her, Ryan Jamaal
Swain, and Boy Radio my day had been made several times over.

If you didn’t get the chance to come to this inaugural SLAYFEST fret not because I am sure that come next summer you too will be able to pump through and catch your life. I would like to thank Sean and Terry Torrington for creating SlayTV, a vehicle for Black queer creatives
to come together and showcase their art. I would like to thank Twiggy Pucci Garcon for hooking me up with a VIP pass and, of course, the boys of HIM who are all so special in their own beautiful ways.

Catch this week’s podcast to hear the boys of HIM interviewing Kyle Price, Mikelle Street, and Ryan Jamaal Swain. Take care, and remember that you are beautiful.

HIM Podcast