'Kiki' Music Producer MikeQ Talks Preserving The Ballroom [Interview]
'Kiki' Music Producer MikeQ Talks Preserving The Ballroom [Interview]
Photo of 'Kiki' Movie courtesy of Twitter.

'Kiki' Music Producer MikeQ Talks Preserving The Ballroom [Interview]

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY. Photo of 'Kiki' Movie courtesy of Sundance Selects.

To preserve the culture is to forfeit profit. This is the truth more often than it is not. Preserving culture becomes risky work in a culture dominated by white supremacist capitalism where often to keep the culture alive, you must commodify it. It must be sold and retold for a large audience and it must be done quickly and repeatedly. The ballroom and vogue culture stand in a very interesting limbo at the moment where it still has deep, attached roots in the underground, but has been tip-toeing in and out of mainstream consciousness for decades now. Paris is Burning and Madonna’s smash-hit “Vogue” are obvious highlights of when above-the-ground and the underground both were sharing ballroom culture, often under the practice of exploitation and appropriation when done from the side of the mainstream.

Kiki is a film that attempts to preserve the ballroom culture. It chronicles the lives of queer black people living in New York City and the culture that they inherited and continue to help evolve. Moments in the film are heartbreaking, other moments are empowering and others are sheer entertainment.

The music is the heartbeat of the ballroom culture and the film. This is why once I saw Kiki, I knew I wanted to talk to MikeQ, who is a legendary gay black producer/DJ and also the person that scored the documentary. “I never wanted to be a DJ. I wasn’t big on it. I fell into ballroom and that was able to bring this creativity out of me for the past 13 years,” he told Okayplayer when I spoke with him over the phone.

When we talk about preserving culture as the mainstream begins to find re-interest in black queer cultural productions, we must talk about MikeQ. For our generation, MikeQ single-handedly used his career to bridge cultural gaps between ballroom culture and hip-hop culture, even gaining attention from superstars like Missy Elliott. “First of all, I love her. Actually, my first time meeting her was in 2007. I was DJ-ing at this ball in [New] Jersey, very small. Queen Latifah had brought Missy Elliot and Salt-n-Pepa in and I passed her a CD.”

MikeQ’s aura is calmer than you’d expect based off of his music. The beats drop and brag, leave room for a bit of silence, before shanking you in the gut. You dance. He continues, “A couple of years later, she tweeted me back like she knew who I was and we talked in her DMs, and I sent her some music. Unfortunately, she didn’t use that stuff. As a thank you she recorded herself chanting [on the tracks I sent].” This was an amazing personal moment for MikeQ, but it was also a kind of symbol of what he has done now for his decade-long career. He has been making it all make sense as it concerns ballroom culture and other youth-driven cultures in America.

Lenny Kravitz, Grace Jones, Lauryn Hill, Lion Babe, Thundercat, SZA & More Rock The Afropunk Festival 2015 in Brooklyn, NY. Photo of 'Kiki' Movie courtesy of Sundance Selects.

This is also what he returned to by scoring Kiki. The movie shows effort to preserve the culture, stories, and most importantly, the humanity of the people that participate in ballroom culture. However, the risk of a culture being stripped of all of that simply to profit can never be ignored or denied. Once you give something to domination culture to participate in, you are risking it. MikeQ knows this. “We live in this culture everyday. People come through dance, not experience. People like me exposing ballroom to the general public, there’s a lot of producers that are trying to recreate the sound, not knowing the background and culture that comes with it. I feel like it’s unavoidable because there’s no cap on it, everyone in ballroom has a piece of it that gets out.”

The militant in me wants ballroom culture to always be a quiet, radical, queer happening, but the ethos and feeling of ballroom culture begs for you to share it; empowerment, creativity, community, conflict through art, and expression through the body, music and fashion. These are practices that beg to be made universal and perpetuated through everyone who experiences it. MikeQ dealt with the score in a similar way the movie plays out by not being precious about the culture, but sharing it in the most appropriate way that assists the story. “There weren’t many discussions on what exactly music would be used. I just saw and watched it over and over and tried to figure out what pieces of music would go where.” He continues, “Some music I already created and some are tracks that me and the people at my label created just for the film.”

Kiki will always concern me, but the bravery of the participants will always comfort me. The ones that tell their story and the ones that score the stories told, and do the work of cultivating well-curated visibility while intentionally preserving the truth of what makes the culture possible. Nobody can see what will become of the ballroom culture, but with folks like MikeQ overseeing it it brings some relief and hope that it won’t be lost once mainstream begins to gaze upon it once again.

“It is something everyone should see. It’s really important for what it is. None of those other movies tell a story about this subculture of a culture which is the Kiki scene. It’s apart of the LGBT people of color history.”

Kiki, directed by Sara Jordenö, is currently in select theaters across the country. Cop a ticket and check out the trailer below:

Myles E. Johnson is an Atlanta, Georgia-based storyteller. He is also the creator of the literary project, Dear Giovanni. You can follow him on Twitter @HausMuva.