“It’s Always Everything”
Coffee and Theory with Raja Feather Kelly
By Megan Curet
1. Modern popular culture transmitted via mass media and aimed particularly at younger people. [Oxford Dictionary]
A few names are as enmeshed with the term “pop culture” as Andy Warhol. Luckily for us there is one artist who has fused Warhol with a cerebral experience. Using costumes and set designs that transport the viewer and push the boundaries of gender, Raja Feather Kelly challenges what we know and understand about the human condition through imagery that is flushed, thrilling, and stimulating. I sat down with Raja Feather Kelly to chat on a New York City sidewalk over coffee and posters for his upcoming season at The Kitchen for “Another Fucking Warhol Production.” He explained his frustrations with challenging the notions that his work is “too queer,” “not black enough,” or “politically unclear.” I was also able to gather a different perspective on the man who believes all humans truly want to be liked.
Kelly is a recipient of the 2016 Solange MacArthur Award for New Choreography. Hailing from Fort Hood, Texas, he completed his Bachelor studies in both Dance and English at Connecticut College. A former member of David Dorfman Dance and current member of Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group, Kelly, who founded The Feath3r Theory in 2009, a warm, welcoming, and bubbly individual who sat and discussed his upcoming season at The Kitchen and what comes next.
Kelly expressed his obsession with pop culture, growing up in front of the television screen and the similarities between James Baldwin and Fiona Apple. He also brought his focus to a few common sources: “All of us want to be heard, all of us want to be seen, and all of us want to be respected.” Raja Feather Kelly challenges the status quo of the queer black man by becoming his own self-made man.
TiLLT: As a black and queer man who creates provocative choreography, do you find challenges from others in how you engage and if so how does that shape your approach with the dialogue?
RK: There is something for me, and it is that I start to feel guilty about doing my work, and I don’t want to feel guilty. I want to ask people a question, which is why isn’t doing the work enough? Why as a black queer man do I have to do anything more than just my work? It’s not that I don’t want to be a part of the dialogue, or that I don’t care about issues, but I feel that my work reflects all of that in itself. So my main issue is how people expect my work to look. There is often a feeling that if I am black and queer that my work should look black and queer, and that is really problematic for me because I am not here to teach you. So I say just experience it and stop looking for things.
TiLLT: Having experienced your previous work TROPICO, I thought it was stunning to see the life of such an iconic figure, reconfigured for a stage work by such a young and relevant artist such as yourself. It is not a particularly new endeavor, so why do you think you stand out in when creating work dedicated to the life of Andy Warhol?
RK: I actually remember a particular review where it starts out with literally saying, “There are two ways to make an Andy Warhol piece”. I had to stop reading and think to myself, ok if there are only two ways to make a piece about a specific thing and I have an obsession with said specific thing, wouldn’t I be the first person to know there are only two ways? And it just sort of showed me that people have these expectations about me and what I am supposed to do, and because my work is traced to a specific person or lineage that people have an idea of what that’s supposed to look like. And I think that is why this new production is called Another Fucking Warhol Production, because I am just going to keep doing my thing. I care very much about my audience and make-work for them but I am done with feeling that I am going to meet everyone’s expectations.
TiLLT: So I have to ask why and how this obsession with Andy Warhol? Why him and why pop culture?
RK: I have three answers to that question. A part of me is I don’t know nor do I think I need to know but what I do know is I am obsessed with Andy Warhol and I can’t help it, I see him name and I am simply drawn to it. Part of this obsession is trying to figure out what exactly it is. I think another part of it is that he has a bad reputation; he seems to define what pop culture is today but from a very superficial and candy colored perspective. I believe it is much deeper than that and stronger than that, and I feel that my work is a case for this other side of Andy Warhol and his work. My third answer would be my obsession with TV growing up: not being able to separate fiction from reality and so for a long time it was difficult to imagine that those people on the television screen were real people. So trying to figure out how you went from being a normal person to a person on television and I realized Andy Warhol was a conduit for that, because he made people, he made celebrities and superstars out of either nothing or simply who they were.
TiLLT: It’s always everything, as you mention so often. How does this concept tie into your work as a whole?
RK: The last piece I made, TROPICO, a part of the title was, and it’s always everything. Because when I am making a work everything is involved, everything is included and everything is always in the room. I am not going to say my work is just black and queer and not post modern. Or musical theater and not dance theater, it’s just all of it because I live in all of that and it influences everything that I do.