Tuesday, July 5

Todrick Hall is (still) Actively Harming Queer People and Black Folks [COMMENTARY]

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In case you saw the title and thought “who is Todrick Hall,” here’s a brief primer. Hall is a gay Black performer who rose to fame through his YouTube parodies of famous songs and creative sketches. His undeniable talent in vocals and choreography gained attention from many reputable queer figures, landing him a recurring role on RuPaul’s Drag Race, catapulting his relevance to the point where he began releasing whole albums.

Even during his less well-known YouTube days, there have always been red flags about Todrick’s alignment with and reliance on whiteness, like the awful Black tropes he historically relied on, or just the fact that he’s a Black person that wears colored contacts.

Back in 2019, a slew of allegations started to surface about how awful of a business person Todrick is. These allegations include, but are not limited to multiple accounts of not paying his performers, many of whom are queer and people of color themselves, and retaliation against a former employee for reporting sexual misconduct against him. Then in 2020, Todrick continued to build the metaphorical case against himself with his very hot garbage takes on feminism and what slut-shaming is, which lead to even more exposure of his outright anti-Black behavior. Then earlier this year, he decided to embrace all of the mess that he is by not even trying to pretend to be a good person on his season of Celebrity Big Brother.

Like many others, I had firmly categorized Todrick Hall as being “ain’t shit” and was fine to continue on my queer Black life without him. That was until my husband came home the other day and played a couple of the songs off his new album ALGORHYTHM that was released on June 1.  The songs that he played were giving peak 80’s pop, sounding right off of a Janet Jackson album, with heavy influences from Prince – so needless to say, I decided to give the album a shot the next day at the gym.

I started listening to the album and was really and truly considering moving him from “ain’t shit” to potential “problematic fav.” That was until I got to the song that my husband had warned me about; I knew right away when I heard some corny lyric about Ken that I had been lulled into complacency by living my full blown Miss Jackson (cause I’m nasty) fantasy.

So what is it about ‘SORRY BARBIE’ that sent me into a rage spiral? Well, it’s the same problem that I have with the other song ‘GAY EXCELLENCE’ – in both songs, he co-opts slogans made popular by Black people and presents them to white and non-Black audiences in a way that allows them to feel like they should be a part of it.

In ‘SORRY BARBIE,’ Todrick changes Megan Thee Stallion’s now trademarked “hot girl summer” to “hot boy summer,” a move that, in my opinion, is (cheap and boring and) no different than Chet Hank’s god awful “white boy summer.” Replacing “Black” with “gay” in “GAY EXCELLENCE” completely changes the meaning and is no different than changing “Black” to “blue” when we’re talking about lives mattering.

To be clear, this is not to suggest that boys can’t have a “hot summer” or that gays can’t be excellent – to suggest that would be reductive, simple, and dismissive. No, the answer lies deeper in the meaning of the expressions of themselves, and all the the subtle nuances.

To understand the insult behind changing Black Excellence, you have to also understand that there are systems – and people – committed to ensuring that Black people don’t excel. Moreover, it feels like the sole purpose of those entities is to ensure that Black people don’t *feel* excellent. You cannot simply swap out identities in expressions designed to empower groups of people, especially in an effort to try to empower another.

Just like when we say “Black Lives Matter” and mean all Black lives, when we say “Black Excellence,” we mean all forms of Black Excellence, including queer and trans people (even if it doesn’t always feel like that.) Simply changing the expression to “Gay” doesn’t work the same way when it comes to empowerment – yes, all queer people are facing up against similar systems and people, however to be white and gay and shout “Gay Excellence” ignores that whiteness is the baseline to which the rest of us are held. So despite holding that marginalized sexual identity, white supremacy still protects and upholds the ideal that whiteness is inherently excellent.

When it comes to ‘SORRY BARBIE,’ we first have to acknowledge and affirm that “Hot Girl Summer” celebrates reclamation of self, body positivity, and autonomous decision-making for women & femmes. The desire to participate in those things is not inherently unique to women, however the fact that a Black girl stood up and claimed those things for herself is revolutionary. Women, especially women of color, and most specifically Black and dark-skinned women rarely get the encouragement, let alone the right, to own their bodies, their decisions, and their sense of self. The same is simply not true for people socialized as men. Even at the intersections of race and sexuality, as a queer Black non-binary person socialized into manhood, I know that the messaging I received continuously reinforced the idea that my decisions and my body are my own.

I know there’s a group of queers, of all races, that are reading this and thinking “Relax, Mary. It’s just a song.” And to them, I offer encouragement to consider what it would be like to have things that feel inherently *ours* as a whole community stripped away and cheapened. Like when people who are cis and heterosexual refer to themselves as “queer” because they “love differently.” Or like the first time we saw a straight, cisman drag queen lip sync on national television and thought “something is missing.”

So what do we do? How do we, as humans, engage in trends that were designed by someone else? For me, a good rule of thumb is thinking about it like addition and subtraction. If you’re thinking about participating in something related to another culture, consider whether you are adding something to represent a broader swath of people in that community, or are you replacing the very people by whom it was designed. If you want to celebrate Gay Black Excellence or Black Disabled Excellence, then go right ahead, but don’t remove Blackness from it. If declaring a “hot girl summer” doesn’t feel like it describes your experience because of your personal identity, then you don’t get to simply change the gender to something else. I don’t identify as a girl or woman, and I can tell you it’s been a hot girl summer around here since 2019.

Todrick Hall & Taylor Swift

I can confidently say that I am not surprised with Todrick’s social trajectory – it’s really been steadily downhill since he appeared over Taylor Swift’s shoulder in the all white adaptation of “Formation.” But we have to stop pretending like his actions are harmless to our community or that his art absolves him of responsibility. He continues to prove time and again that even though he loves #TheCulture, and has contributed a great deal to it, he’s out of touch with the people. 🔥 

About Author

Ryan Clopton-Zymler is an activist, educator, emcee and advocate from Cleveland, Ohio. They are a co-founder and consultant of Sage & Maven, LLC a for-profit consultancy that focuses on leadership and social justice. They are also a rotating host for area drag and burlesque shows and in their spare time, they read comics, lift weights, and compliment random dogs. Follow them on Instagram and Twitter at @callmercz

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