It’s an interesting experience being in a public place with M. Lamar. Even in Bushwick, you can feel every eye in the room traveling back and forth between his long, stick-straight black hair, his various spikes, and jet black clothing. The artist– who performed Destruction, his multi-faceted theatrical black-metal opera last night at Issue Project Room— is probably like no one you’ve ever seen before. For one, M. Lamar truly lives his art (which is like nothing else out there at the moment), as evidenced in his speech and appearance: he drapes himself in the darkest blacks and speaks with passionate conviction. “Lately, I’ve been calling myself a ‘negro gothic devil-worshipping free black man in the blues tradition,'” he explained. It’s actually a modest description of what Lamar’s all about.
M. Lamar is supermodel tall but graceful as a dancer less than half his size. He’s assumed a goth aesthetic very seriously: platforms, shiny black leggings, leather, dark eye makeup and spiky, painted-on eyebrows. Under the fabulous garb, you might recognize him from Orange is the New Black, as either the twin brother of Laverne Cox, or from his cameo appearance on the show as her pre-transition character. “Yes, I have a twin sister, and that’s well documented,” Lamar laughed.
His powerful physical presence, and proud queerness, make him a magnetic force. But it’s his manic, stream-of-consciousness way of conversing that keeps more than your eyes spinning. But Lamar’s not babbling — he’s classically trained in everything it seems, and his musical productions (which float somewhere between theatre, metal show, and experimental mind-blast) are based not just on intuition, but heavy research, history, theory, and a deep connectivity with the black radical tradition.
Destruction, his latest show and one that has spent the past several months touring across Europe, combines elements of opera, piano, visuals, and intense storytelling. While in many ways this performance represents a new direction for Lamar, it’s also very much a continuation of his instantly recognizable but impossible to classify aesthetic.
The live action of his pieces is essential. “I think being in a room with a voice is a particular thing that’s really special,” he explained. “No other kind of experience can replace that.” But Destruction, like his other productions, includes visuals that he says have a “silent-film, horror-film, old-timey sensibility.”
The blues aspect of his work, and particularly Lamar’s ideological devotion to the devil, draws heavily on artists like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Robert Johnson while his metal inspiration draws on everything from the classics (Black Sabbath) to doom. But like anything M. Lamar does, he goes much deeper than simply imitating his musical influences, and he’s pushing much farther back into the blackness of history. While his classical training as a musician has brought him closer to opera and the theatre, he’s even more passionate about folk traditions, more specifically “negro spirituals,” or slave songs.
“Intellectually I’m trying to place myself in what it would have been like to be in bondage,” Lamar explained. “There are thousands of spirituals but I guess right now I’m drawn to the ones that had those revolutionary impulses.”
Opera? Black metal? The blues? Historical ethnomusicology? It all seems so… ADD. But actually, there are some major threads connecting these seemingly disparate influences.
“They’re not inconsistent — doom metal has always had a sort of operatic vibe, there’s an opulence to it,” he explained. “There’s a sort of epic-ness with Black Sabbath. All the good, sludgy stuff comes from Black Sabbath and really from black music, too. They started out as a blues cover band, so they were really indebted to the blues specifically and the history of black music and even the sort of devil worshipping that was a really important part of it– that’s something people don’t talk about as much with blues, how much it’s indebted to the devil.”
As he did at several points during our conversation, Lamar invoked a black intellectual to help drive home his point. In this case it was Angela Davis. “In Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, she’s talking about how blues happened after emancipation, after this enforced Christianity that was happening under slavery was no longer being enforced,” he explained. “So there was a lot of going in the opposite direction. So to me, blues is all about liberation, even embracing the devil worshipping aspects of it.”
Suddenly it all clicked: Lamar as goth, Lamar as devil worshipper, in a sense it’s all about being liberated. But there’s also a strange paradox between Lamar’s revolutionary tendencies and his obsession with death and dying, one that he acknowledges and makes sense of.
After all, the Black Lives Matter movement is all about life and at its core, black peoples’ right to live just as white people do, without presumed guilt. “It’s hard when you’re a politically engaged black person not to be moved by the current Black Lives Matter movement and the current revolution that’s happening in Ferguson and Baltimore, on the ground,” he explained. “I think this new show is more so than any of my other work a call to action, in a way. Destruction, the title of the show is very much about destroying the world of white supremacy that we currently live in.”
Though Lamar is not involved with the movement directly, he feels that his work is a necessary artistic contribution.“Some people need to be reading really amazing songs or books, instead of getting arrested, though maybe my time will come, and I’ll be ready,” he explained. “But I think there has to be music associated with movements. In the ’60s there were, but right now not really. I think artists are a very important part of that.”
While Destruction is maybe the most revolutionary of Lamar’s performance pieces so far, it maintains the same focus on death found in the rest of his work. “I think one of the things this show wants to believe is that death is not the end. I mean, if you buy into that Rapture stuff, the dead are going to wake from the ground, and in black traditions there’s a lot of conversation with the dead. The dead are never done, the spirits are always there. This show is a lot about the presence of the dead, and that they’re always speaking.”
M. Lamar arrived at this bizarre fusion of solo musician, operatic composer, and black metal when he moved to Bushwick nine years ago after a year spent at an MFA program at Yale. “I dropped out because I wanted to rock,” he laughed. “Really, seriously. I know it sounds ridiculous.”
He’d spent many successful years as an art student prior, completing his BFA at the San Francisco Art Institute. Lamar found that he was good at painting, like really, really good, so he stuck with it. “The plan was to go to San Francisco for a year or so, drop out of school, and start a band. It was really in the back of my head. But the art school, it just kept going, and going well — but ultimately, it wasn’t what I wanted to do. Since I was a kid I wanted to rock.”
He spent years playing in bands, but found that he wanted to have more creative control over the entire performance. “I started moving out of the band because I wanted to have a more intimate thing than what I was doing with the band and it seemed like it made more sense to come to New York City, and mostly because of the history of avant-garde music here,” he recalled.
It’s easy to see why having a band, which relies on collaboration and a restrictive format, might smother Lamar’s creative ambitions. “I’m in this constant state of training, but also politically and theoretically engaged, because a lot of the ideas in my work come from politics or history, so there’s a lot of research often involved in the work.”
And Lamar’s performances are nothing if not weighty. “I would never call my shows ‘fun’ — they’re always about mourning in some way,” he explained. “But ultimately, they’re not uplifting shows. They’re just sort of depressing, which is fine, I think it’s cathartic and necessary.”
For example, Speculum Orum, which refers to a tool used by slave traders to pry open the mouths of captured slaves, follows a black man’s existence throughout several time periods. “He was on this slave ship, and then he traverses time to Jim Crow, where he ended up being lynched and came back to life,” Lamar explained. “I focused on the slave ship and all these bodies thrown overboard. In theory, there must be millions of bodies that lay at the bottom of the ocean and that are part of our ecosystem and water, in a way. So that particular piece is a requiem for all those lost.”
Another show in a format similar to Destruction was just as dark, though with an added dimension of a political issue of immediate relevance. Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche was based on the Foucaultian concept of the panopticon from Discipline and Punish, “and then just being a negro in the surveillance state,” Lamar explained.
It’s common for people to be deeply moved by M. Lamar’s shows. “Maybe they cry,” he said. But one response in particular struck him. “A black woman in Brighton– there was this thing in Destruction about a city burning– said to me that sometimes she’s just walking down the street imagining all the white people burning. That made me really happy. It sounds incendiary or whatever, but given the context of the imperialist, capitalist, white supremacist patriarchy, it’s a reasonable response.”
He added, “And actually, we’ve had a very loving, artistic response to brutality– we created blues music, we created jazz music, we created some great writers like Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. As Cornel West pointed out, the response has not been to come up with a terrorist cell that kills white people.”
Throughout Lamar’s work there’s an obsession with time travel and a sense of unsettled history, and a continuing painful and unjust trajectory for black Americans. “These are extreme circumstances in which black people exist — it’s sort of remarkable, the fact that we’re walking around just given the extreme things that have happened to us,” he said. “The brutality of lynching [for example] is something people don’t talk about enough.”
Central to Lamar’s work is keeping the discussion about the past alive and igniting awareness about difficult but important realities. “One of my hobbies is watching YouTube videos of James Baldwin and I think it was in 1987 or something he said, ‘History is not something we read in books, history’s not even the past, it’s the present,'” Lamar recalled. “There’s this very poignant relationship to historical things and how things work now, and that’s just how I make work. Because history is always relative to right now. There’s always some way that we got to this current moment, we didn’t just arrive, magically.”
In this way, the dead really are conversing with us. “There’s this idea that if the dead can speak to us, that there’s always the possibility of waking up– I know it sounds hokey and schlockily goth or something, but I’m really very serious about that– particularly in the black radical tradition, we’re always in conversation with those who allowed us to be here,” Lamar explained. “What does a black radical impulse mean? How is it that we’re here? I think a lot of people died for us to be here.”
As part of the Greater New York series at PS1, M. Lamar will perform Tree of Blood on Oct. 11. He writes the piece is “a lamentation on the lynching tree as site of both violence and sexualized death as well as a site of hope renewal and sacrifice. “