Space:Queens: Shanté Paradigm Smalls

Source: Shanté Paradigm Smalls blog

Greetings Everyone!

Welcome back to the next installation of my Space: Queens segment!

Last Saturday, I attended the 2nd annual Afrofuturism conference at The New School and in the panel I attended, Conjuring Black Futures, moderator, Jamal Lewis mentioned that conjuring is associated with possibility, the “otherwise.”

I had the pleasure to interview Shanté Paradigm Smalls, a local professor at Queens’ own St. John’s University, and how she is manifesting the “otherwise” in her own work involving sci-fi, fantasy, comics, hip-hop, and queer studies.

1) Tell the readers a little about yourself.
Sure. I live in Brooklyn and I’m an Assistant Professor of  African American Literature & Culture at St. John’s University in Queens. I grew up between New York City (Queens and Harlem) and Connecticut. I’m a huge pop culture fan and I love music, sci fi and fantasy, and comics.
2) Tell us about your current projects. I read that you are working on two projects — “Hip Hop Heresies: New York City’s Queer Aesthetics” and “Androids, Cyborgs, Others: Black Futurism, Black Fantasy.” 
So, I’m finishing up my first scholarly manuscript Hip Hop Heresies: New York City’s Queer Aesthetics which traces queer articulations of race, gender, and sexuality in New York City hip hop culture from the mid-70s to roughly the present. I do this by examining film, music, and visual art. It’s a really fun project that started with my work when I was a Masters’ student at NYU and then I further developed it in my doctoral program in Performance Studies at Tisch. I plan on turning the manuscript into the press by early summer.  The second project, Androids, Cyborgs, Others is in its nascent stages, but is concerned with depictions of black futurity in music, tv and film, and genre writing (including comics). The great thing about both these projects is I get to take my life-long love of hip hop culture and sci-fi and do scholarly, critical work on them. My life is really pretty amazing.

Source:  Shanté Paradigm Smalls

3)   I love that you use the word heresy in your project title because it stirred for me that imaginative and speculative work of marginalized communities is heretical by nature because it goes against mainstream/master narratives. Can you talk a bit more about your thoughts behind choosing that title?

Oh, wow, that’s a great thing to say. You know I started thinking about heresy in a few different ways when I was writing my doctoral dissertation. On one level, I was really thinking through the ways hip hop fans and artists (including myself) are a fanatics around their favorites but also can really police hip hop in very ungenerous and non-generative ways. Some of that has to do with concerns about appropriation; some of that has to do with feeling like boom-bap hip hop is the only valuable hip hop sound; sometimes its a valid concern about preserving a way of life and a way of expression.
So you know, I know folks who haven’t really  listened to hip hop music deeply or engaged hip hop cultural production made after 2000. They maybe consider it inauthentic or unrelatable or maybe heretical. I really can’t afford that. I’m a hip hop head and so I’m really interested in the musical and visual and other aesthetic trends in hip hop culture—even if there are certain aesthetic performances I don’t really enjoy.
On another level, the heretical points to me and the fact that I’m daring to take the relationship of hip hop and queerness seriously. Like, this is not just about what rappers or DJs are gay or bisexual—that’s not really that interesting theoretically, though it makes good gossip. I look at queer aesthetics—the inauthentic, the unexpected, and disruptive—as central to New York City hip hop production.
Finally, heresy relates to literacy in the sense that if a person has a different interpretation of an orthodox text they introduce heterodoxy—different readings. Hip hop cultural productions are some of the most heterodoxical out there, yet we struggle with “realness,” “authenticity,” and other forms of conservative renderings of Africana cultural possibility.

“What queer studies at its best can really do for Black people is to encourage us to imagine otherwise. If we look at the work of great queer of color thinkers like Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Marlon James, Barbara Smith and so on, part of what they do is ask us to investigate deeply and broadly this condition of blackness and humanity. To be bold and to be fearless. This often means we go against all sorts of grains and ingrained beliefs and knowledge about ourselves individually and collectively.” – Smalls


4) Since your book projects cover Hip-Hop, Queer cultures and Black Futurism, in what ways have they influenced each other and intersected with each other?
Well those are my interests and so I’m always curious about how they rub up against each other even when we are told that they are discreet. Hip Hop Heresies has a whole ethnographic section of the history of queer hip hop from 1981-on, that’s going to surprise a lot of folks. But hip hop has always been about futurity to me—the sounds, the way we move and dance, the audacity of our visual culture, the complete brilliance of the way we reinvent language, and the very fact of recording and preserving these cultural artifact. Not to mention, hip hop gave a couple of generations of Black and Brown folks a way to see and make their way into the future. Sometimes that future is something we can get behind and sometimes that future looks really bleak, but it’s one of the main ways that folks of color have continued to write themselves into history even as white supremacy attempts to kill our bodies and our creativity.
5) At the New York School Afrofuturism Conference, Jamal T. Lewis mentioned that black people are queer because we do not fit the socially accepted norms of racialized genderism. I wanted to know your thoughts on that and how queer studies provide a lens to re-examine black cultures.
Yes, I agree with that statement: that Blackness is inherently queer to the Western modernity. We have been made queer—meaning the oddity, the abnormal—and we are alienated from our own sense of construction of blackness. So you see a lot of regressiveness in Black populations. Attempts to regain some fictive primordial Blackness which usually cherry picks certain “African” aspects that result in a patriarchal view of Blackness. Somehow that type of faux hotepery always places masculinity on the top of the hierarchy. I understand this impulse as Black masculinity has been degraded in West, but so has Black femininity. So their is a lot of resistance to queerness, the range of queerness, whether it is sexuality or gender or other types of explorations of Black humanity that are expansive.
What queer studies at its best can really do for Black people is to encourage us to imagine otherwise. If we look at the work of great queer of color thinkers like Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Marlon James, Barbara Smith and so on, part of what they do is ask us to investigate deeply and broadly this condition of blackness and humanity. To be bold and to be fearless. This often means we go against all sorts of grains and ingrained beliefs and knowledge about ourselves individually and collectively. Queer studies, but more specifically, queer of color thinkers and queer of color critique gets at the messy intersections and pivots of race, memory, gender, trauma, genre, sexuality, nation, futurism, historicism, love, religion, and humanity/inhumanity. It’s not just about who you fuck or how you fuck, but how we might really invest in creating realities unbound by systems of oppression and violence.
Storm Solo Comic Issue 4

6)   What black speculative/afrofuturist work has inspired you either in the past or recently?


I’m reading a LOT of comics right now. The Storm solo comic, Amadeus Cho (Totally Awesome Hulk), Marjorie Liu’s Monstress…there are so many good comics right now that I can’t keep up. But I have piles and piles of singles and collections waiting for me. I’m a huge Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, and Chip Delany fan, so I’m always reading something by them. I also read a fair amount of fan fiction as I’m really interested in what people do with fandoms and their imagination. Some of it is awful writing, a majority of it is really implicitly or explicitly racist—the maid is always Latinx or Asian, the Black folks are peripheral or get shot but the cops are justified, Indigenous folks are either disappeared or are as stereotypical as you would imagine, Arabs and South Asians are often portrayed as exotic or dangerous, and white folks and whiteness are always the center, backdrop, and margins. I also watch tons of sci fi and fantasy films and TV and listen to a lot of weird music. I’m actually just starting to think through the ways a lot of Millennial and Gen X- made hip hop is pretty futuristic.
7) Since you work at St. John’s University in Queens, do you see Queens as a place of speculative possibility and exploration and have you seen people and communities of color in Queens, or at St. John’s specifically, exploring more speculative fiction and technology?
That’s a great question. Well, I’m getting to know Queens in a different way as an adult. As a kid, I lived in Queens for a short time and it was just bike riding, playing on the street with cousins, and long trips to Manhattan. I think Queens gets slept on in a lot of ways because it’s not thought of as wealthy like the City or cutting-edge like Brooklyn. But Queens has Silver Cup Studios and fantastic museums and the most diverse population in the world. I hope Queens is the future. It’s both neighborhood-y but also filled with historical and cultural wealth. At St. John’s there is a lot of interest in technology and connecting the global and the metropolitan. There are lots of great initiatives to get students and professors to use technology in innovative ways. It’s funny, my students are online all the time but most of them view social media and digital media as content portals, they don’t think of themselves as content creators. I try and change that up by using tumblr and Twitter and getting them to think about how to use social media and digital media in their scholarly work.
8 )  Since this blog is called futuristically ancient, how are you and your work both futuristic and ancient?

I’m a total alien. I’m really interested in space and time and creativity. My scholarly work is interested in the genealogies that get lost and the stories that don’t get told in hip hop and sci fi. I love when Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about earthlings being made of stardust.

We are stardust stuffed into a suit of skin and flesh and blood and sinew and bone—that’s both ancient and futuristic.


Thank you Shanté! To find out more about Shanté and her work please visit her blog, Shante Paradigm!

Stay tuned for the next installation of Space:Queens featuring York College professor, Margaret Rose Vendreyes!


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