Vivek Shraya Makes Toni Braxton Breathe Again in His Tribute to Babyface


It’s no secret that gay men have a special relationship with female singers, in particular pop singers. Even the most butch homosexuals, the ones who claim they are not into musicals and pop-culture have a female singer to whom they turn in times of trouble; if they say no, they’re lying. The relationship between gay men and celebrities have been theorized and discussed by many queer theorists but ultimately it can be brought down to the basic fact that female pop-singers – aside from being shiny, sexy, and glamorous – sing about love, or in particular the hardships of loving. Denied the right or the chance to experience love “properly”, to built healthy relationships outside of public washrooms, parks or bathhouses gay men identified with the hurt that fills the songs of Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Gloria Gaynor, Patsy Cline, Janice Joplin, Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Dusty Springfield. This list of course does not include the more recent breed of pop-singers making this it almost impossible to complete. In the way only gay men can we’ve queered these songs either by empathizing with the singer’s pain or simply bysubstituting their “I” for ours. In such a way Mary J. Blige’s “I Can Love You” becomes a perfect vehicle to express the pain and frustration of loving a man on the down low.

The generation of gay men growing up in the 90s witnessed the rise of R’n’B in mainstream culture. Produced by the musical genius of the decade, the man who could make no mistake- Babyface – Whitney, Mariah, Toni, Brandy, Mary and TLC lead us through the pain, the heartbreak, and the libido of a black American woman. With strong, deep voices full of pain and strenght, accusation and resilience and desire they taught us, their gay followers, that we too will survive, we ain’t gonna cry. But of course, secretly we all did.

Despite, the liberating melodrama of these songs no gay singer touches them, leaving them to that feminized sphere of drag queens. That is until now. Vivek Shraya’s Breathe Again: A Tribute to Babyface, is just what the title says it is. Shraya takes the most iconic of Babyface’s songs and completely reworks them. In his studio Brandy’s “Sittin Up in My Room” (featuring MC Jazz) turns into a bouncy and dancy diary entry about wanting that one special boy while Toni Braxton’s fear of losing her love is accompanied only by a powerful, heart-like beat. Mary J. Blige’s “Not Gonna Cry” gets an acoustic guitar make-over making it actually more heart-wrenching than the original for Mary’s voice carried a resistance and accusation (rightfully so) that Shraya doesn’t offer the song. Madonna’s “Take a Bow” acquires a horn, a heavy drum, and occasional bells turning it into a processional hymn; it’s a dark remake that still manages to sound sexy. But the one thing maintaining that quintessential Babyface quality is Shraya’s soft, sad and sweet voice. Shraya gives a radical make-over to all the songs on the album but still keeps the female-narrative voice in tact. And so, we always know that this boy is singing about love for a boy. For his cover of TLC’s sexually-charged “Red Light Special” Shraya’s falsetto proclaims “I’m a woman”, and it’s liberating.

Yes, yes, we all are men, we love being men, but sometimes it just feels so good to be a woman. And, in Whitney’s “Queen of the Night”, the queen becomes the Queen!

Breathe Again, is available as a free download through here. Get it, listen to it and embrace your diva!

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“Where Are You From?”

“When I ask anybody where they’re from, I expect now a days to be told an extremely long story”.  Stuart Hall

I never expected my story to be long. I was born in Poland, a country that is 94% Polish – with a few Eastern European ethnicities added to the mix. Growing up in such a homogenous country the question “Where are you from?” is never asked, and so as far as I was concerned we were Polish through and through.

Map of Contemporary Eastern Europe

Map of Contemporary Eastern Europe

The question began popping up once we moved to Canada. While fluent in English and French, my slight accent alerted everyone to the fact I was not born in Canada. Yet, in the multi-cultural place that is Toronto it seems a fair question to ask; it seems everyone is from somewhere else be it a city or a country. But having to explain my origins eventually alerted me to my status as the outsider. Interested in my family’s history’s (for such questions always lead to genealogical investigations) I began to inquire amongst my family. It turned out not to be a complicated history but slightly long, as Stuart Hall expected.

My maternal family was from present day Ukraine. Prior to 1945 and the Yalta Conference, which redrew the map of Eastern Europe – the most Western parts of today’s Ukraine were Polish and the most Western parts of Poland were German; in lieu of the international agreement, which excluded any representatives of the people who would be relocated, all the borders shifted West. And so, Ukraine becoming a Soviet republic stretched out somewhat further into the West. The Poles living there were given a choice to remain or resettle in the West, which was gained by slicing off the Eastern part of German territories (600 years before these were Polish lands).  Under such circumstances, my great-grandparents and their two daughters moved West, bringing with them their Eastern customs and idioms. My grandmother could speak both Polish and Ukrainian, and it has been said to me that whenever angry, my great-grandparents cursed in Ukrainian. I never learnt the language, seeing as I was Polish through and through. I never missed Ukraine, though my grandmother went back several times over the course of her life.  Irregularly, I imagined the village of my maternal heritage, the straw-hatched house, the big yard, and the barn. I tried to imagine the people living there but all I came up with were generic recreations of Eastern European farmers. It was only on her death bed that my grandmother confessed that someone in the family was Ukrainian, it was a shameful secret that she could not take to her grave. The history of the two nations is so intertwined and complicated that it did not come as a shock to me.

In Canada I continued to speak Polish at home, though English slowly became the language with which I expressed myself most freely; it is the language of my youth and it shaped my ideas of the world and how I express them. But still, every time I met someone the question popped-up “Where are you from?” The answer at that time, though tiresome, was simple. When I visited Poland several years after our move I was taken aback when I was asked “Where are you from?”.  Over the years I seemed to have lost a fluid control of the language and when speaking with a Pole I was assumed to be a foreigner, or if not a foreigner than a child of Poles whose home was somewhere else. Even for my Polish family the conversation all of a sudden turned to an “us” vs “them” dialogue, in which I was part of the “they”.  Slowly I accepted the fact that I was neither from here or there, and I began to relish in this status of a linguistic outsider. As years passed I realized that my freedom of thought was a very North American privilege but I also began to see life through the socialist prism that was Poland of my childhood.

Map of South Korea

Map of South Korea

Conscious of the fact that I belonged to no particular nation, though a citizen of two, I moved to South Korea. There my outsider status was clearly established by my physical appearance. It would have not mattered if I spoke Korean fluently, without an accent for my physiology spoke of my outsider status for me, whether I liked it or not. But a strange thing happened, when asked the question “Where are you from?” I began to say “Canada”. It was only a few Koreans and almost every native English speaker who recognized that I wasn’t a “true” Canadian, and then I would explain the story. Yet, it was in Korea that I began to strongly identify with my Canadian upbringing. After almost five years in the land of the morning calm (as Koreans traditionally describe their country) I returned to Canada, this time to Montreal just to be asked again “Where are you from?”.

As Stuart Hall predicted this rather simple question can unleash a rather long and complicated answer. Yet, what my story – like millions of others around the world – points out is that our notion of solid history, nationhood, and belonging are complicated and long and subjects to the ever-changing tides of history.

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Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America

41TH-Y-M3tL._SL500_Jon Mooallem’s “Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America” is a wildly engaging book (excuse the pun) that traces North American interaction with its wildlife from the early destructive days to the contemporary preservationist fervor. To be clear Mooallem’s “North Americans” refers only to the European settlers and he never engages with the Native American relationship to the animals with which they shared the land. As Mooallem traces the history of this rather complicated relationship he makes it clear that we have turned wild animals into symbols of causes we are fighting. In these battles the dying polar bear became a symbol of the consequences of global warming and the mammoth or the buffalo symbols of American grandness and might. With our anthropomorphic gaze we have co-opted their image to serve us.

“Wild Ones” is divided into three parts: Polar Bear, Butterflies, and Birds. As Mooallem writes about his first-person experiences in conservation efforts of the three animals, he contextualizes contemporary behavior with historical research of attitudes towards wild animals and how they figure in the creation of the national imagery. Anecdotes of his young daughter’s interaction with some of the wild animal and his efforts to bring her face to face with wildlife supplement his writing. Not a conservationist by trade Mooallem brings to the story the rather analytical and sometimes skeptical eye of an outsider. That is not to say Mooallem doesn’t care but his intellectual alienation from the human passion involved in the painstaking process brings a sober, questioning attitude. This particular modus operandi brings to the foreground some serious issues that we may overlook in our general support of such projects; most of us feel bad that species are dying and agree that we should do whatever is necessary to help them but what is the true implication of our interjection?

While his treatment of the conservation efforts of the polar bears and whooping cranes are thoroughly engaging, it is his writing devoted to Lange’s metal butterfly that thoroughly intrigued me. Lange_metal_mark_butterfly_insect_apodemia_mormo_langeiIt is in this particular section that Mooallem revisits the first American conservationist efforts and paints a picture of contemporary conservationist failure and fatigue. Insects make up the biggest percentage of non-human life on earth and are therefore, indispensible to living ecosystems. And yet, because they don’t figure in our imaginary in the same way that a polar bear or a whooping crane, we pay them little attention, often dismissing them and the need to protect. Generally considered annoying and dirty, we care very little for them and they become easy prey to industrialization, profits, convoluted preservation laws and human indifference.

As he moves from one conservation effort to another, a major question emerges: Why continue in this seemingly Sisyphean effort? The answer is two-fold. We do this for the next generation and this is where Mooallem’s daughter, Isla, comes in. He takes her to two of the three conservationist adventures to introduce her to wildlife face to face and not through the anthropomorphic gaze of children’s books, where human experiences and desires are symbolized through wild animals. The second answer is more present and more selfish. We do this for us, to remind us, as Brooke – one of the people dedicated to the preservation of the whooping crane – says, in helping the cranes ordinary people do good things. The journey of saving a whooping crane, who to this day is born in captivity and taught to fly and be wild by people in white costumes, is one of tremendous human involvement. It starts with the raising of the cranes, teaching them how to fly, and then leading them from Wisconsin to Florida from where they will make the journey back to Wisconsin the following year, this time on their own. The trip to Florida is intercepted with stays on farms and in towns where strangers open up their homes and hearts to the people directly involved in the project. These strangers do it willingly, with no hopes of interacting with the birds (that is forbidden in case birds become accustomed to humans), or recognition. What ultimately takes place is a beautiful and warm interaction between strangers brought together by the daunting task of saving a species.

It seems to me that by looking at wildlife we stare into the face of the Other and by default ourselves. We have imbued wildlife with many presumed human traits – treachery, primitivism, valor, dignity, and strength – that now through them as the Other we define ourselves. We have vilified and celebrated them; we have tried to exterminate, domesticate, and save them.  This, after all, is the history of colonization, of coming face to face with the Other; in this way Mooallem’s book tells us much more about ourselves than we would like to think.

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How to Depict a “Terrorist” or Rather, How Do We Wee Ourselves

Tsarnaev's Selfie

Tsarnaev’s Selfie

Much has been written about the new Rolling Stone cover since it’s been revealed via a tweeter feed last week. The cover features a selfie of the accused Boston Marathon bomber, Dzokhar Tsarnaev.  It has been said that it glorifies violence and terrorism, that its cheap and exploitative of people’s grief, and that it posits Tsarnaev as a celebrity. It’s been discussed from a racial point of view as well as from an ethical one, these being some of the more nuanced explorations of the meaning of putting an accused murderer on the cover of a popular magazine.

I think the negative response has been rather reactionary and hysterical; it’s somewhat presumptuous to assume that this cover will make a celebrity out of Tsarnaev, no matter how attractive he may seem on it.  However, what this particular mode of hysteria actually does point out is the way we link an image with the concept of celebrity. The old saying “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” took on particularly extreme forms in the 21st century where celebrity is tied to reality TV, scandalous behavior, and constant presence in media. In the process the line between fame and infamy has been thoroughly obscured. And so, in a world where people are obsessed with becoming a celebrity it seems somehow fitting that’s how they would read Tsarnaev’s presence on the cover of the Rolling Stone.  His selfie, though illustrates our long and complex history with the image of the individual.

Image plays a very important role in the development of Christian Western culture. Unlike Judeism or Islam, which rely on abstract geometric shapes to convey the power of God Catholicism exploited the power of figurative visual representation. Granted it wasn’t the only culture to represent divinity through images – the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas had highly developed ways of presenting their spiritual world. But what happened in Europe is slightly different in that the medium used almost explicitly for the depiction of Christ and the Saints (the first celebrities) began to be used to commemorate lay people. They were rich and powerful and begun to appear quite regularly and in highly visible ways on Western canvases. That is how slowly but surely the rich and the powerful become the famous. At the same time something else begun to appear in Western art – the self-portrait, or the selfie.  Durer was quite fond of selfie’s and he created them at different times in his life. In some his pose is reminiscent of Christ’s where as in other’s he depicts his entire aging body. And if the history of Western art is peppered with artists who immortalized themselves on canvas, no-one did it to such a spectacular extent as Frida Kahlo, or Santa Frida.

The majority of Kahlo’s oeuvre are self-portraits meant to express and convey her emotional, physical, and psychological turmoil.  But by the time Kahlo was painting her tight and tiny selfies image and celebrity were longtime partners. To be publically visible was to have some kind of social and popular recognition, though fame and infamy were still very different concepts.

By the time Tsarnaev snapped his own selfie, those boundaries had been thoroughly blurred and everyone was counting the number of “likes” on their FB page to see how popular they were. Our social network sites had been set up in a way as to maximize our persons, to extend our networks; Twitter, Instagram, Pinrest, Tumblr allow us thousands of followers giving us a false sense of being popular or possibly famous.  Tsarnaev was clearly part of this culture – as isolated and estranged, as dismayed and disillusioned, as impressionable he was he was still part of this particular popular landscape. To be fair, as an immigrant I felt exactly the same though I channeled my frustration in a different way.  But when Tsarnaev snapped a selfie of his curly, unruly hair making him look more like a Jonas brother rather than Bin Laden’s cousin he was fully participating in contemporary culture. And that is why we felt so uncomfortable with the Rolling Stone cover; we felt jolted not because he looked like one of us but because he actually wasn’t the outsider we would have liked him to be.

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apip_33_pp169_170My mother passed onto me the love of reading: she taught me how to read, she read to me when I was a child, and bought me most children’s books I read when I was a child. Because of her my house was full of books – adventure books, romance novels, Russian dramas, the  Polish classics. When I was seven she wrote in my journal that everything passes – money, youth, beauty – but the one thing that stays is your knowledge. At that point she didn’t think of the Alzheimer’s disease that would affect my grandmother and thus, her memory. She was thinking of non-material things that could be maintained. She installed in me a desire to know things. To know things is to read; eventually I learned that “to know things” means to watch films, to talk with people, to read books, and to be open to life.

The following post was motivated by a thought I had while reading an engrossing book by  Jon Mooallem, “Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America”.  I read the book in two days while recuperating from shoulder surgery. This engrossing book reminded me why I love books.

Why I love to read…


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A New Polish Identity?

The World's Tallest Jesus. A statue which in the face reconstruction recalls the first ruler of Poland, Mieszko I.

The World’s Tallest Jesus. A statue which recalls the first ruler of Poland, Mieszko I.

Over the last two hundred years of Polish history the Catholic Church has played a pivotal role in the moral and cultural upkeep of the nation. It was the Church that taught Polish children their mother tongue when no such thing as Poland existed and it was the Catholic Church that helped to operate the anti-Communist underground. As such, Catholicism and faith are integral elements of the current, highly complex socio-cultural climate in Poland, a country, which through its massive sculptural projects conflates nation with religion – by default marking a Pole as a Catholic – yet where the Parliament’s deputes include an openly-gay lawyer and a transsexual, the first such parliamentary members in Eastern Europe.

It’s from such a climate that comes Małgośka Szumowska’s In the Name of . Though it’s garnering international acclaim (winning a Teddy from the Berlin Film Festival) the film is sure to cause scandal and controversy when it is to be released in Poland later this year. Yet, in spite of this context of production the director asserts she didn’t set out to be controversial and that this is a universal story of a man’s isolation and longing.  Andrzej Chyra (a veteran of Polish cinema, acclaimed for roles in films dealing with contemporary Poland) plays the gay priest, Father Adam, who falls in love with a young and beautiful Łukasz aka Dynia (translated as Humpty) played by Mateusz Kościukiewicz. Their story takes time to unfold and is supported by stories of one of his wards, Gajo, (Father Adam runs a centre for troubled youths) who is having problems accepting his homosexuality, and an unfulfilled alcoholic housewife, Ewa, who tries to, unsuccessfully, seduce Father Adam. Yes, that’s right Adam and Eve… Szumowska manages to universalize this culturally specific story by humanizing her protagonist. Father Adam wears regular clothes when not leading the sermon, works and hangs out with the boys, drinks beer, and in a moving conversation with his Toronto-set sister asks, “Do you have anyone to hug?” This poignant moment highlights the difficulties of leading a spiritual life in a physical body, and that “a priest is just a man” – a fact observed by a one of the inhabitants of the village where the story takes place.  Father Adam is a good but lost man and in Humpty he finds respite and solace; it’s no accident that the curly haired and bearded Humpty resembles the image of a Slavic Christ, who comes to save Adam.

The Slavic Christ.

The Slavic Christ.

Suggesting that universal can be gay and vice versa Szumowska manages to create a thoroughly homoerotic, dare I say gay film: scenes of shirtless teenage boys playing soccer and smoking pot are cut with scenes of them swimming or Father Adam masturbating. The sex scene between Gajo and Blondie will bring to mind some of the Bel Ami sets of the late 1990s. The ending may not be as satisfying as we would like it but given the place and the subject matter I’m not sure what kind of an ending would have been appropriate.

In a climate that equalizes Polish with Catholic, nothing can be more Catholic and therefore Polish then a priest. The newly erected statue of the Polish Pope clearly testifies to that. In In the Name of Szumowska adds one more identity marker to the equation – gay.  By making the priest gay (the most Polish a man could be) the film decidedly opposes the extreme nationalist position that gay is not part of the Polish tradition. As such what appears on the screen is a new configuration of the Polish identity and a challenge to the assumed ideas of who is or isn’t Polish.

A new type of Pole?

A new type of Pole?






* A more concise version of this article appeared in Xtra! magazine as a review for Inside Out Film Festival.

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As Pride Approaches

In the May 4th issue of The Globe & Mail Doug Saunders address the issue of  gay rights and the international anti-gay movement. Describing our times as revolutionary because France has finally recognized gay marriage (omitting any mention of the highly vocal and almost violent opposition by the country’s right-wingers – so much for the Equality, Liberty and Fraternity as symbolized by the country’s flag)  Saunders proposes that gay rights, defined by gay marriage, are not only a marker of social progress but also a universally upheld concept. Yet, there is something to be said about this when we take into account that only 14 out 193 countries in the world recognize gay marriage (four of them from the southern hemisphere complicating our notion of the south as thoroughly religious, socially backward and underdeveloped). So can it be that about 180 countries are not progressive are not open-minded? And let’s remember that we are talking about places like the UK, Germany, Denmark, Finland, and Switzerland. How can these beacons of light and knowledge (as Europeans liked to view themselves in the 19th century in relationship to Africa and Asia) and colonizing forces (responsible for the state of the world today) not be progressive?  So much for the universality of gay marriage.

Demo Against Gay Marriage in France.

Demo Against Gay Marriage in France.

Saunders rightly points out that most anti-gay campaigns – the most extreme of which we see play out in Uganda and Russia – are supported by extremist Christian groups that have lost the ideological battle in their own countries (mostly the US). But in his suggestion that before Putin Russia had fairly robust gay-rights laws he mistakenly leads us to believe that Russia has a tradition of tolerance towards homosexuals. In the Soviet Union suspected homosexuals were either placed in psychiatric institutions or sent to the gulag; imprisonment was homosexuals was common throughout the Communist Block. The fact is that in the countries of the Iron Curtain sexuality was a private subject; partially motivated by a culture where the bodily needs were second to the intellectual ones and partially by a culture of spying. However, like everywhere in the world homosexuals existed and negotiated their place in the public space.

The truth is that gay rights is a Western notion, just like an openly gay man or a lesbian. Steeped in the American ideology of individual rights, the gay rights struggle accompanied the black and feminist struggle for equality. All of these were particularly American in nature and so most of the world did not experience the same upheavals until recently, when American notions of society began to infiltrate other countries and have been proposed as a normative and universal way of being. The gay rights struggle was just that a STRUGGLE. As the battle continued there were many casualties be it from violent assaults and prosecution, suicide in the face of isolation, loneliness, and shame or AIDS. And so what is happening around the world, in terms of gay rights is what was happening in America a few decades ago. But let’s not be so reductive as to think that gays are safe on American shores; it was just last week that in New York a man was beaten to death for being gay.

Gay Pride March in 1977. Ultimately the struggle was a success for mainly white and middle class gay men and ever so often women.

Gay Pride March in 1977. Ultimately the struggle was a success for mainly white and middle class gay men and ever so often women.

To be fair gay rights is a complex issue; we live in an information age, supported by widespread international travel, recognition of the value of the pink dollar and where technology has democratized access to information and its exchange. Be it in Iraq, South Korea or Poland gays desire and should be awarded recognition from their fellow citizens. Problems arise when countries with no such history (be it the struggle for gay rights or recognition of such people amongst their midst) are forced to do so through international agreements. One of the requirements for Poland before it entered the European Union was to include anti-discrimination clauses in regards to sexuality. Such a demand continues to exhort tremendous pressures on the society causing internal tension and every so often erupting in violence against those who just happen to look different. pride_seoul

It has been mainly an English, and now I suppose an American, tradition to export its problems – be it religious or economic – and in the process create tensions amongst the native populations, exploit other cultures while investing into its own development, education, and public and then criticizing others for not being on the same footing. And so, it’s eerie and highly problematic that international agreements have the potential to demand a change in a country’s policy towards its citizens as do these external missionary groups.

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