It’s hard to believe that these two were ever apart, given the beautiful music that Monstah Black and Manchildblack have long been making both on and off stage. With an eclectic look and sound that is nothing short of cosmic, The Illustrious Blacks stand strong in this age of uncertainty… and may have finally figured out the way to bring live music back into our venues. [Cover photo: Fabulmann]
Thotyssey: Thanks so much for talking to us today, Monstah and Manchild! It’s been a very emotional and eventful week, with all the protesting happening across the world in response to George Floyd’s murder by the Minneapolis police. All the cops involved have been charged seriously, which is promising, but of course this just all illustrates how far we have to go to achieve unity as a people. I must ask, what are your thoughts and feelings about everything that is happening now?
Manchildblack: I am extremely proud to see people from around the world galvanize racism and police brutality, but we must be in it for the long haul. Yes, this is about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Armaud Arbery, Tony McDade and so many others known and unknown to us, but it’s also about an entire system that has allowed for racism and these kinds of killings to continue. We must stay vigilant.
Monstah Black: My feelings have shifted daily, from hour to hour… from extreme anger, fear, frustration, to a sense of hope. I’d like to believe that perhaps we are experiencing a much needed drastic shift in America in terms of racial divide, but of course we are still only scratching the surface of the work that needs to be done to eradicate systemic racism. As black people, we’ve been doing the work for over 400 years. And now I believe that it’s crucial for white people to do the work as well, in terms of going back to the root of the dilemma that we all live in. I’m speaking of soul searching for white people. I’m talking dinner table conversations with their families asking each other why such horrible acts and crimes were committed against black people. Why did their forefathers need to slaughter and enslave people that were different from them? Those conversations with their children in hopes to instill kindness in their hearts is possibly a way to shape future generations. That’s how I’m feeling right now.
Have you had any specific experiences with protesting these past few weeks, or anything you’ve heard about protesters in NYC, that you care to share?
MCB: The groundswell of support from people of all walks of life is inspiring. When we’ve attended protests in the past around this issue, the demographic was majority black. This time looks to be much more diverse in race and age. While I’m happy to see folks take to the streets, it’s also important for people to do what they can, however they can. If you are unable to march on the frontline, consider donating to organizations that support the Black Lives Matter movement or to the families of the deceased. You can also use your social platforms to raise awareness. It’s no longer business as usual, it’s time to really do the work to dismantle systemic racism.
You two play an important–and certainly original–role in NYC nightlife, as performers and music makers and style icons! How might you describe The Illustrious Blacks experience to the uninitiated?
MB: The Illustrious Blacks experience is sensorially delicious. It’s a feast for the open mind.
MCB: The Illustrious Blacks are neo-Afro-futuristic-psychedelic-surrealistic-hippies on a mission to save the world, one beat at a time.
Where are you both from, and what were some of your musical and style influences growing up?
MB: I was born and raised in York County, Virginia (Colonial Williamsburg). I was influenced by the rude boy realness of Prince.
MCB: I was born in NYC, and have lived here the majority of my life. I’m deeply influenced by the music of Stevie Wonder and Larry Heard, the art of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Salvador Dali, the performance art of Grace Jones, the photography of Malik Sadibe and the spirit of Sylvester.
How did you two meet, and begin calling yourselves Monstah and Manchild… and collectively The Illustrious Blacks?
MCB: The name “Manchild” was given to me as a nickname by a friend. Once I discovered there were other artists using the name, I decided to add “Black” to differentiate myself.
MB: “Little Monster” was the name I was crowned while studying choreography and performance in undergrad. I eventually changed the spelling to “Monstah” as I started to associate the name with my ancestors, who were referred to as “Monstah” on the auction block. After all–the fear began then, and we were seen as animals / scary monsters. So in theory, whenever anyone calls my name (Monstah), they are also calling out / giving honor and respect to the spirit of enslaved Africans on the auction block in the south. I added Black to my name during [my and Mandchild’s] commitment ceremony to each other.
MCB: Once we both started using the names Monstah Black and Manchildblack, a good friend declared us The Illustrious Blacks. In that moment, we agreed that it was our musical name.
Would you say that one of you is more the emcee and the other is more the DJ for your bar / club sets, or do you both divide your rolls equally?
MB: I emcee and add moments of singing along with theater / performance art, dance and costume manipulation.
MCB: I DJ, and occasionally perform live within the sets. I’m also the captain of the body roll.
Drag is fun, but live music is sorely lacking in queer nightlife spaces today. You guys seem tailor-made for the nightlife stage, with your very high energy, cosmic music and eclectic presence. What’s the trick to getting the nightlife kids back into live music?
MB: Having live elements fused into DJ sets. Ultimately, if the sound is good whether it’s live or recorded, dancers will get their life. So literally, just add the live element… and maybe some high kicks.
MCB: I think the trick is to give audiences a total experience within the live set. Our goal is to stimulate the mind, body and soul. It’s great to see the younger generation get into disco and house music. I think the fun and exuberance of those two genres is what’s needed now to counter the turmoil in the world.
MB: But, of course, that live element will be based on if we can be “live” again, and not virtual. Sorry, I’m the darker one between the two of us! My moon is in Scorpio, but my Sun is in Leo.
Most of your well-known songs come from your brilliant 2017 EP Neo Afro Futuristic Psychedelic Surrealistic Hippy. That includes my favorite track from you two, “Black Like Jesus,” which is both a celebratory dance bop and something that could function like an anthem for this moment. Do the ways you think and feel about your own recordings change frequently over time?
MCB: Yes, a song we did with DJ Lorant called “Delusions of Grandeur” comes to mind. When we originally wrote it, we were thinking of a very specific individual. But now we think it’s really speaking about the overall delusions of white supremacy.
MB: Interestingly enough, as the state of the world shifts, it also shifts the way we think about our music (released and unreleased). Because by nature, a lot of our creations are rooted in messages that are coming from a place of activism. So, we are rediscovering things we had put on the shelf simply because of what is happening in the sociopolitical realm of today.
Your whole video for “Revolutionary Love” is basically just you two passionately making out. At the time, there were very few images in art of queer black men showing a display of physical love like that. Did you think that that was going to be so significant, or did it just seem like a fun idea?
MB: We knew it would be fun. We are forever grateful that our fun has significance.
MCB: The concept for the video was born out of a moment in our live show, Hyperbolic; there is a scene in which we kiss for the duration of an entire three to four minute song. And so when we were coming up with ideas for a visual interpretation of the song, we thought this could be simple and effective. It was the shortest and most fun video shoot ever!
I see you two recently had an anniversary! Do you have any relationship advice for queer folks out there? Many of us *ahem* can surely use it!
MCB: We always tell anyone who asks us this question that the most important thing is the friendship. Build that first and foremost, so that when the challenges arise you have a strong foundation to fall back on. Also, remember to laugh. Relationships are work, but you should actually enjoy being around your partner.
MB: Laugh and cry together. Take time to see both sides of the coin before you respond during heated conversations. Agree to step away from the conversation, and come back when you are less heated.
What is the biggest thing that quarantine is keeping you from doing right now, that you really want to do? And is there any aspect of quarantine that you find you like?
MB: The quarantine is keeping me from sharing joyful dance moments and hugs with audience members. The music and dance (particularly live) is a universal language. But I’m loving the new found creative challenges that arise by being confined to one space while quarantined.
MCB: I’m a homebody naturally, so I have no problem staying in the house with Monstah, Netflix and a pizza. I do miss performing in front of a live audience. The virtual performances have been fun, but I definitely miss the in person connection.
If not for quarantine, we’d be seeing you two serve kikis at C’Mon Everybody in Brooklyn a few times a month. What do you love / miss about your nights there?
MB: I miss the smiling faces, sweaty dancing bodies, the laughter and joy! The communal celebration of life.
MCB: C’mon Everybody is a home for us, as it is for many other queer artists of color. I think we’ve grown a lot as a result of performing there. I miss that room, the entire staff, and seeing people dance to our sets. Looking forward to the owners opening their new space, Good Judy BK.
And you two recently performed a digital reprise of one your elaborate live stage shows on the Joe’s Pub website. The real Joe’s is where you’ve done a lot of your showcases.
MCB: Joe’s Pub is another home to us. Digital performances are fun, but not nearly as much fun as performing for a live audience.
The Illustrious Blacks seem perfect for the virtual forum: eclectic, risky and hyper-visual, like old school MTV!
MB: I’m loving the digital platform. It’s basically television for 2020. That’s my Leo side. I’m a sucker for the camera.
MCB: The virtual sets have allowed us to be inventive with our space, and have forced us to become more tech savvy.
You two are hosting a weekly digital DJ set on your Instagram (Wednesdays at 1pm). How have you been enjoying that?
MB: Wednesday Lunch Breaks are church and a release for me. It’s lifted my spirits during the quarantine.
MCB: Those sets are a lot of fun! I get to exercise my DJ muscles at least once a week. The response has been great, and we will continue on even as quarantine ends.
What else should the children be looking out for from you?
MB: Keep an eye out for the lewks that we’ll be rocking with our new releases. The quarantine has definitely allowed us to flex our construct / deconstruct / reconstruct muscles.
MCB: And the children should be checking for our brand new EP, Technegrocolor; it features our single “Step Back, Muthafucka.” It will premiere on Bandcamp on Juneteenth, and then the following week on all music platforms. We also have many virtual performances coming up for Pride Month. Follow us on IG for updates.
And finally: these are dark times, but there’s also been a beacon of hope and a definite igniting of activism in this young generation. Do you have any words of inspiration for kids fighting to make this country better?
MCB: Amplify your voices! Audre Lorde said it best: “Your silence will not protect you.”
MB: Be Bold! Be Brave! Be Love! Be you!
Thank you, Monstah and Manchildblack!