Blackbear: an interview

Ahead of his latest album release, I talk to hit-making sensation Blackbear on his first Father’s Day, a future collaboration with Elton John and his feelings behind making “everything means nothing”.

As we’re all aware of now, 2020 has been a year of many grievances, brutal truths and realisations. Amidst this, people are looking everywhere for positivity and light, whether through memes about our current climate, seeing how our favourite celebrities are coping despite living in mansions the size of an island, and so much more. For Matthew Tyler Musto, otherwise known as ‘blackbear’, it’s been about satirising the seemingly shallow aspects of our concerns and educating ourselves on the significant ones, such as the Black Lives Matter movement. As well as this, blackbear has spent 2020 navigating newfound fatherhood and creating new music for his upcoming album “everything means nothing”—all lowercase, exactly like his name.

His summer defining bop ‘hot girl bummer’ has over a billion streams on Spotify alone, and he’s collaborated with Justin Bieber, Machine Gun Kelly, Linkin Park, G-Easy and Ellie Goulding. Yet, blackbear is an individual who still, as the kids say, “slept on”. The self-made music prodigy has a loyal fanbase and is making waves nonetheless, with Elton John even giving him a call as of recent. So with this in mind, I gave Matthew a ring, and we chatted about all things quarantine, changes and our favourite quotes.

How do you like to be referred to as in your day to day name wise?
People call me Matt or Matthew. Sometimes my therapist calls me ‘Bear’, I do not know why. Think he is trying to be all supportive like, “Come on Bear, you got this!” as if he’s cheering me on [laughs]. You can call me Matt, that is totally fine!

So, the story behind the name Blackbear, I heard multiple stories. From gangs being in relation to an addiction to Haribo gummy bears, but I need full confirmation.
Yeah, I had to go to rehab and the whole thing because I could not stop. Now we cannot have them in the house, every time I think about gummy bears or even see a gummy WORM, it is a gateway drug for me. No, I’m just being cheeky [laughs]. I like to see how far I can fucking take things to the point where it’s not even funny anymore [laughs]. When I was a child, I thought that God was this black teddy bear in the sky that you could just cuddle with. I came to find out slowly and later in life that this could both be true and not be true. You cannot tell me whether that is real or not, but it was one of my first true beliefs. So, I just named myself Blackbear because it was one of first creative thoughts.

Father’s Day has just passed, how did you celebrate?
Father’s Day was surreal for me. It was just one of the most beautiful, normal days for a normal guy that anyone can experience. I don’t want to take away the experience from anybody, but you just have to experience it, it’s just unexplainable. Just so amazing. It’s like…I’m someone’s DAD. That is the coolest part, this weird guy that you’re talking to right now is a parent of someone. It’s so strange, like we’ve gotten in the car before and my song was playing on the radio. That’s definitely a lifelong achievement for me, I just think that it’s just such a big flex, like, “Look how hard daddy worked!”, you know? I don’t know whether he’ll remember it, but maybe I’ll have songs in the future that will play on the radio.

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Photo by Sam Dameshek

What was the meaning behind the name Midnight for your son?
It just means new day, 12 o’clock. Fresh start, it’s a new chapter. So that’s what Midnight is for me in my life. He’s already smart in some way, he already has such a personality and is already his own person at 5 months old, it’s just so strange because he’s this little person that we made together.

How has becoming a father affected your creative process?
Oh! Good question. If it’s done anything relatively massive in my life…it’s made me more keen to the idea that I have to provide for someone. I need to make music that people are going to resonate with and really relate to, and really love, and keep me touring. I need to keep working so that I can support my family and I think that overarching idea has set in. I made Hot Girl Bummer as soon as I found out Michele (girlfriend) was pregnant. So, I thought, I need to step this up into high gear. No more fun and games.

How has quarantine changed the way you have seen life given recent events?
That was well put. Amazing. That was amazing. Is this my interview or yours? [laughs]. As soon as the death of George Floyd hit the news and started becoming such a massive thing, I will admit that THAT was the moment for me and a lot of other White people, like, that was our changing moment where we were like, you know what? I am going to post about Black Lives Matter, I’m going to make a pledge, I’m going to bring my child up the correct way, buy the books on Amazon and I’m going to teach him about racism, about these things. All I can say is that we are the teachers of the next generation. When I look at Midnight I see opportunity and I see change.

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Photo by Sam Dameshek

Have you been getting creative this time? Hot Girl Bummer part 2, 2020 edition? Or another summer-defining anthem?
So…you’re asking whether I’d make another satire record that pokes fun at our times? I just see it as this, I have a platform to say what maybe everyone is thinking but nobody is saying, thinking or even feeling. I know that the reason Hot Girl Bummer took off was because people really related to it. I stood in the club before and wandered why I was spending so much on a drink, on a table and why is it so important that I wear my fake diamond necklace when I’m going to be in the dark? It’s just all of these ridiculous little things that we do that I’m guilty of as well and so, the title was definitely more of a satirical take on our culture. We are generally getting into a time where it’s harder to not fuck up and not say something wrong and whatever it is as long as your intentions are right. I’m not worried about making someone angry because yes, I am sensitive to the way people feel today but at the same time it’s kind of my own therapy.

You’ve worked with a lot of accomplished artists- do you prefer the song writing process and working behind the scenes or releasing your own?
I enjoy making music for other people, especially when Justin Bieber or Linkin Park or somebody who is totally different from Blackbear. Like, Blackbear would never come out with a Linkin Park song! Mainly that is what I get out of writing for other people, I like to read the vibe of a room and get something out of them.

Speaking of which, you said in another interview that when you’re not creating Blackbear songs you’re writing songs of your own- is there a particular artist who you really want to write songs for? Dead or alive.
I actually recently spoke to Elton John, I know- it’s so insane. He called me on the phone and said that in the future that we have to work on something. That’s definitely something that we’ve been talking about.

A lot of your fans were heavily anticipating your new Queen of Broken Hearts EP which is now going to be a full-blown album! How come you are splitting the release dates?
So that it will be more digestible. I just want people to spend time with the songs. It’s kind of like eating a sandwich!

Having looked at the track list I noticed your album features LAUV and Trevor Daniel who I actually interviewed this past month. What made you decide that those were the artists to best collaborate with?
It was not the matter of these being the artists that I wanted to collaborate with, as much as it was the case of working on a song and just HEARING Trevor Daniel on this song. With if I were you, I thought that this sounded like the perfect LAUV song. I just had to ask Ari (LAUV) if he will do this. They are also just my good mates, they’re just great friends. It’s just really cool to take the opportunity for my friends to be on. We all sing about the same topics.

Your social media is typically littered in quotes, what would you say is your one mantra in life? A quote you like the most?
The last quote I posted was in my own words, it said “If you don’t learn from the past you will live there”. I love quotes, and in this album, I want people to feel…I think, I want people to feel validated in their individuality. I want people to feel empowered, I really want them to feel like they can be who they really are. Sorry, that is so deep.

Last question. What quote do you swear that you live by?
Live. Laugh. Love. [Laughs]. Okay, I love you.

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STREAM ‘EVERYTHING MEANS NOTHING’ ON ALL PLATFORMS.

Has Black Feminism actually progressed in film?

Is Black female representation as presented in film just a trend?
Originally posted on The National Student.

Hollywood has come under a lot of scrutiny in recent years. Just last year we were finally exposed to the “open secret” of Harvey Weinstein, prompting the beginning of the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns, which challenged the status quo of the industry as a whole. And Hollywood hasn’t just been criticised its treatment and representation of women. In 2015 and 2016, the Academy Awards in particular were called out for being overwhelmingly white.

Despite the recent success of Black women on screen and the progressive message that their performances are depicting, many fear that the “Black girl magic” and the empowerment of marginalised voices is nothing more than a marketing tool for ‘woke points’. But being woke is more than being a political young person, it’s more than a hashtag, and way more than a trend.

While some might have feigned surprise that the 2016 Oscars were #SoWhite, anyone with an insight into the industry could have foreseen it. From whitewashing to nepotism, and the promotion of stereotypes, it’s about time that we as a society have a conversation about films, feminism, and race.

Across all aspects of life, society indicates that women are second-rate citizens, people who need to be dominated, and are incapable of succeeding in the ways men can. This is a belief especially damaging towards women of colour, who face discrimination due to their race too. Finally, especially within in the last few years, the presence of melanated heroines on our screens has been at an all time high. Particularly worth mentioning are Hidden Figures, Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time.

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A Wrinkle In Time, 2018

In 2015, there were no people of colour nominated for an Oscar in acting. None. In 2016, once again, there were absolutely no people of colour nominated for an Oscar in acting. Suddenly in 2017, there were six. Among the films to tackle issues of race and to garner the Academy’s attention were Loving, Fences, The People v. O.J. Simpson, I Am Not Your Negro, Moonlight, and 13th.

With her documentary 13th, Ava DuVernay calls out the racist history behind America’s penal system and challenges perceptions about the War on Drugs. She has dared to reclaim history, and ended up making it as a result. Even though DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time didn’t excel in the box office nor did it do well amongst critics, the film itself is a game-changer.

And that is not only because it is a landmark achievement for inclusive science fiction and fantasy (SFF) films, but also in the way that it shows Black girls a young hero who looks like them. A Wrinkle in Time is an open love letter to Black girls, and addresses the uncertainties of girlhood, especially for girls of colour.

Hidden Figures, the 20th Century Fox film telling the long-forgotten story of the African-American women at NASA who played instrumental roles in some of their most iconic missions, promotes the message that “We shall overcome”.

But it’s more than just a ‘Black movie’ – it’s an intelligent movie. It forces us to revisit one of the most monumental events in American history and acknowledge the unsung heroes that made it possible. It’s not a story that many people have heard before, but it’s one we all deserve to. It is a feminist movie, one that demonstrates a triumph of progress and perseverance through the rampant sexism of the 60’s.

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Hidden Figures, 2016

“The fight has changed, the stereotypes remain, and the cause will never die.”

A woman of colour doesn’t face racism and sexism separately. The sexism she faces is often racialised, and the racism she faces is often sexualised. Black Americans have endured innumerable hardships since their involuntary migration and subsequent enslavement from Africa to America. The game-changing book “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race” by British journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge details the equivalent Black British experience, which is far less talked about.

The labour of women, but especially women of colour, is undervalued and overlooked. We are glaringly absent from textbooks, and our whitewashed histories are only available during Black History Month or through elective courses.

The representation of Black women throughout history has affected the way Black people, as well as Western society, values, identifies and idealises Black women in general. There have clearly been changes in these ideologies over time, and they are heavily influenced by the way Black women are represented in media.

Black Panther is an important film for diversity across various spectrum’s. It’s a blockbuster movie that features a majority Black cast with major names attached to it, and the merchandising is aimed at Black children. Its existence in the pop culture scene and what it means for representation in media cannot be understated and yes, finally, it is a film that Black women can actually celebrate.

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Black Panther, 2018

The narrative places the women of Black Panther front and centre, making them the heroes of their own stories. From the start, the story avoids the sexist tropes we are accustomed to watching in film.

Black Panther contains powerful messages about gender roles. The Wakandan women’s sex appeal is obvious, but secondary to their personality and skill, and rarely do we see Black women who are as assertive and independent as they are in this Marvel creation. Furthermore, almost every significant female role is played by a dark-skinned actress. It’s amazing to witness.

Yet a YouGov survey recently found that most Americans still believe there are not enough film roles for women and people of colour. The survey of 1,220 adults found that 37% of respondents believed women had enough roles available, just 2% points more than people who believed black people had enough parts available.

On-screen representations of minorities, the survey found, are seen as sometimes inauthentic, though that depends on whom you asked. Nearly half of Black respondents (46%) said on-screen representation of black characters were inauthentic, about twice the rate of the respondents overall. The analysis reveals people of colour remained underrepresented, considering they comprised 40% of the U.S. population in 2016.

Just 13.9% of the year’s film leads and 12.6% of film directors were people of colour.
But what does this mean now? The portrayal of Black women has certainly changed since the age of Blaxploitation, and of course, the success of Black women should be celebrated on screens, but do a few big-budget films with a Black cast count as progress? Is it fair?

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Fences, 2016

Investing in stories that center around people of colour without dwelling on their pain or oppression is a large step towards healing, particularly in this brutal contemporary political climate. It’s important not just to show tokenised images of Black characters, but to present diverse narratives of individuals with different stories and experiences.
It can be argued that in Hollywood, in an industry where everything is about marketing and making fortunes, that money is the only motivator. Therefore, Hollywood isn’t being progressive in including more Black actors and characters, they’re being tactical.

It seems that Hollywood has yet to understand what makes money, however. The last report on diversity in UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies shows that “films and television shows with casts attuned to America’s diversity tend to register the highest global box office figures and viewer ratings.” Yet the study still indicates that the industry could do better.

While the data notes that some progress has been made, it also highlights that Hollywood decision-makers still consider the presence of diverse talent to be the exception, rather than the rule, but sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. To reach a point where we can put marginalised voices on screens, and tell the stories of women of colour without any prescribed idea of what we should be, to find real examples of those like ourselves – this can all be attained.

A few extra nominations won’t undo years of exclusion of women and PoC, because we are as different as we are complicated. Hollywood has to actively work to give more opportunities to those previously ostracised and make sure a wider range of stories get told.

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The Black Feminist Documentary, 2019

Djuna Barnes, gender trouble and lesbian desire

A piece exploring the impact of Djuna Barnes in queer literature. Originally posted on The National Student.

Dying on this day in 1982 at the age of 90, it’s difficult to say that the poet, artist and novelist didn’t live a significant life with impact within queer literature.

Djuna Barnes was at various times a poet, journalist, playwright, theatrical columnist and novelist who then liked to be called “The Barnes.” A recluse, the writer’s avant-garde and “most famous unknown” literary work won wide acclaim in the 1920’s and 30’s, was once a writing talent of the Lost Generation era. The tag the ‘Lost Generation’ came from a remark by Gertrude Stein to Ernest Hemingway when she said, “All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.”

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Barnes’ work was mostly given attention to by academic professors and students. Other than fitting within a the category of being a modernist text, she got kudos from writers like T.S. Eliot, who referred to her “a living genius”, as well as Dylan Thomas who called her works “one of the three major prose works by a woman” (probably a back-handed compliment). These comments were made alongside the praise of Graham Greene, Samuel Beckett, Janet Flanner, Lawrence Durrell, Kenneth Burke and Sir Herbert Read, and The Spectator compared Barnes to Virginia Woolf, declaring ”It is clear that a writer of genuine importance has made herself known to us.”

Even the New York Times referred to her as “The American Woolf”; the work is an important milestone on any map of gay literature – even though, like all the best books, its power makes a nonsense of any categorisation, especially of gender and sexuality, this anti-categorisation tendency in Barnes is perhaps due to the ways in which society pathlogizes differences.

Au Café, famous photo by Maurice Brange, depicting Solita Solano and Djuna Barnes in Paris, 1922

However, Barnes never kept it peaceful. Though her works have remained obscure to the broader reading public, she started earning notoriety, starting with a preformative piece the New York World Magazine, where she was force-fed to illustrate the fate of hunger-striking suffragettes, and the accompanying photo shows her stoically being held down by three men while a doctor snakes a tube up her nose.

She also began using herself as a pawn in what she called “My Adventures Being Rescued,” in which she put herself in peril at a firemen’s training session, hanging several stories up in a long black dress. Barnes became a regular on the set of the women’s boxing beat. Her writing is full of misfits, eccentrics, socialists, free thinkers, immigrants and the homeless.

Djuna Barnes was never cautious, and so, because ”Nightwood” in large part concerns a doomed lesbian love affair, the novel would be highly praised despite claiming to not even being gay. She was quick to offend without even checking on herself, while continuously breaking barriers.

“So love, when it has gone, taking time with it, leaves a memory of its weight.” – Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

Still I Rise: ‘Feminisms, Gender, Resistance’ Exhibition review

On October 26th, the Nottingham Contemporary art gallery launched a new effervescent exhibition titled ‘Still I Rise’ which runs until 27th January, 2019. The name stems from Maya Angelou’s empowering poem from 1978 which tackles subjects of prejudice and injustice.

Similarly to the poem, the exhibition showcases themes of resistance, gender, feminism and resilience as well as exploring the roles that women played in the history of resistance movements. It also refers to artists spanning centuries and continents who are protesting and exploring new, alternative forms of living.

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Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance, Act 1, Nottingham Contemporary, 2018. Image credit: Stuart Whipps
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Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance, Act 1, Nottingham Contemporary, 2018. Image credit: Stuart Whipps

Coinciding with the centenary of women’s suffrage within the UK, this major group is a demonstration of endurance around the world, spanning across the time periods between the late 19th century to present reforms.

The exhibition also references key historic moments including the Civil Rights Movement, resistance against dictatorships in Latin America in the 1960’s–70’s, independence movements against colonial rule in Africa, the Women’s Liberation Movement, the AIDS crisis and the Stonewall Rebellion, exhibiting pieces from a multiplicity of perspectives, from minor cases on the domestic sphere to larger scale uprisings.

Since opening in 2009, the Nottingham Contemporary has been the city’s chance to make a larger cultural mark in the global art scene, highlighting social upheavals and movements through art.

What is most compelling about this new exhibition is how it captures such a pivotal era, showcasing art as a form of protest, declaration and revelation. The exhibition itself signifies the abuse of power by those who sit in high government positions, as well as the judiciary and people within the police force. For the public, it sends out clear, repeated messages of hope. For those who understand the meaning of repeated wrongdoing, the title ‘Still I Rise’ becomes an anthem, a beacon of hope for the oppressed and downtrodden.

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Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance, Act 1, Nottingham Contemporary, 2018. Image credit: Stuart Whipps

Upon arrival, spectators are immediately faced with a giant board with pens and coloured paper on the side. On each piece of paper, visitors are addressed with questions such as “Blank page – Share your thoughts and feelings about the stories and themes in the exhibition” and “What does resistance look like to you? Share your acts of resistance”.

Not only do these types of statements engage viewers into the exhibition and facilitate individuals to involve their personal input, but they also help to widen conversations for future observers, opening up a much-needed discussion. This form of interactive art enables visitors to build their own versions of the accompanying publication, reflecting a history of self-publishing as a form of resistance. Answers were often playful but pressing, with answers written in permanent marker such as “TRANS RIGHTS R HUMAN RIGHTS” and “BEING WHOEVER THE F@#& I WANT TO BE!”.

Within the exhibition, there are different rooms for each gallery, and each one of these rooms is arranged thematically across different practices and waves of feminism. Above the artworks themselves, the exhibition displays have been designed by f-architecture, a research-based architectural practice which explores issues surrounding the spatial politics of bodies and subjects.

As well as the catalogue, which is by OOMK (One of My Kind), the London-based collaborative publishing practice that has produced a book with rearrange-able pages to allow the reader to structure their own thoughts.

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Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance, Act 1, Nottingham Contemporary, 2018. Image credit: Stuart Whipps

The first artist to be gazed upon is none other than feminist artist Judy Chicago, with a pink-peach background for a wall, Chicago’s explosive colour pieces are complimented marvellously. It’s been over 50 years since the artist debuted her flame, fireworks and smoke performances on print, yet the pyrotechnics of Smoking Bodies in the Californian desert still ignites the same passionate reaction today. Chicago created this body of work as a reaction to the male dominance of land art created in the 1960’s.

Other standout pieces were displayed proudly within another gallery room titled ‘A Rumour’. This area features an array of protest posters showcased a decade later, during the 70’s, by the See Red Women’s Workshop, covering topics from abortion rights to Margaret Thatcher’s benefit cuts. There are also Suffragette Mary Lowndes’s detail-orientated and crafted banners that were designed for the 1908 National Union of Suffrage Societies procession, alongside a selection of prison photographs of female anarchists affiliated with the Paris Commune of 1871.

Queer artists, however, made the most significant impact in this particular area; a tower of Zoe Leonard’s infamous poem ‘I WANT A DYKE FOR PRESIDENT’ was distributed to visitors of the exhibition. The piece highlights the need for a wave of politicians which represent marginal voices across the spectrum. Despite being published in 1992, it recently regained recognition and relevancy as it was performed as a rap by Mykki Blanco for a video, during the run-up to the 2016 US Presidential Election.

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Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance, Act 1, Nottingham Contemporary, 2018. Image credit: Stuart Whipps

The erasure of minorities and the outvoted isn’t uncommon within history. There have been many examples in recent years which show that many important movements and advancements within biographies involved more than the white men who were accredited. I recently read a line inside the Stanford Daily about representation which said “Representation can make disadvantaged groups become real people” and I think I’ll continue to use this quote in the future because it’s true, and that’s why exhibitions like these are so engaging: they help us to realise that there is a lot going on outside of our echo chamber.

There are patriarchal hierarchies and that’s the brutal truth about the world we live in, within all sectors. Whether we agree or understand it all or not is irrelevant because not everything is our story to tell and a lot of the time, we want to be heard more than actually understood. Isn’t that what Maya Angelou fought for her entire life anyway?

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Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance, Act 1, Nottingham Contemporary, 2018. Image credit: Stuart Whipps