I first heard of the The Tenth Zine, a magazine by and for men who are Black and gay, in spring 2014. Through fashion editorials and multidisciplinary content The Tenth Zine explores the story of the Black gay man, each issue an anthology of creative work submitted by a wide range of contributors. Initially I was as excited about the venture as I was surprised that a project like it hadn’t really been around before, and it made me wonder whether a need for such a medium still exists. As I continued to follow their work through social media, my curiosity heightened in terms of wanting to understand what …
I first heard of the The Tenth Zine, a magazine by and for men who are Black and gay, in spring 2014. Through fashion editorials and multidisciplinary content The Tenth Zine explores the story of the Black gay man, each issue an anthology of creative work submitted by a wide range of contributors.
Initially I was as excited about the venture as I was surprised that a project like it hadn’t really been around before, and it made me wonder whether a need for such a medium still exists.
As I continued to follow their work through social media, my curiosity heightened in terms of wanting to understand what they are about.
I understand that Black people, LGBT people, and especially Black LGBT people are underrepresented in the mainstream media, yet as a Black Dane, I find the idea of fighting social divisions with more segregated media confusing and counterintuitive.
Luckily the founders of the magazine, Khary Septh and Kyle Banks, agreed to sit down with me for a conversation about the state of the Black gay American man and the need for and importance of having your own outlet.
The guys created Pink Rooster Studio in 2009 as a creative studio doing interactive work with clients in fashion, music, and film. The Tenth Zine is the studio’s first independently published project, and it has the objective of not only being commercially inventive but enriching communities, as stated on their website.
Khary Septh is a freelance art director with a background in the fashion industry as a designer. He went into doing studio-based work and ended up setting up a creative agency focusing on creative management and branding for fashion companies.
Kyle Banks is an actor who studied classical music and opera and played on Broadway before ending up in music management and teaming up with Khary to help manage some of the creative work and projects that he was doing. These collaborations blossomed into Pink Rooster Studio.
André Verdun Jones, the third founder and producer, was unfortunately not present for the conversation.
Mark Ivan Serunjogi: What is The Tenth Zine about, and how did you get started?
Khary Septh: It’s about relationships and networks. It felt really good for us to be able to go off on our own, to have built enough of a network in New York and L.A., and been able to work as art directors, creative consultants, and music directors. That was fun, but these days we are more invested in our own project that we call The Tenth. This magazine project, which ultimately has become a byproduct of the experience of making this work, is kind of an experiment in community building and community activism. I’ve been saying lately to Kyle, “It feels like we are more or so activists than we are publishers.” There’s always a difficulty when you’re developing something new and you’re trying to kind of reorient the way we as Black people, certainly Black gay people, are thinking about ourselves, the work that we’re doing, and our ability to collaborate and do things together.
Kyle Banks: Yeah, about two years ago we did the “Boys in the Studio” project, which was really just about taking pictures of hot boys. There was no deep significance to it; it was just us wanting to have some fun. The response was really great, and a lot people reached out to us and wanted to be a part of it. It just got a lot of traction, so out of that we thought, “Let’s continue this and see where it takes us.”
Septh: We freelance for magazines like BlackBook and Nylon, so why not take all these skills that we’ve mastered collectively from white people working on 7th Avenue, on Broadway, and all the skills that it takes to refine your eye from art school and graduate school, and give all of that back to our own community and see what we can do if we pay that much attention to ourselves, in creating an image that we felt was reflective of what is happening in the contemporary culture of the Black community? Maybe we’ve been a little naive, because now it has become a lot bigger than we thought, and we do have careers on the side. I think I am more transitioning into wanting to do good work in the world, and not just good creative work but work that has resonance with the younger generation in terms of what their possibilities will be.
The difficulties in making a magazine is: Fuck, it takes a lot of money to make a magazine, especially one that’s of the quality that we would like to produce, one that can play in the same spaces that all the white boys who have cool magazines are in. We should all have access to quality media, right? And we should all be able to control it. So it’s challenging but worthwhile in terms of positive energy that it gives back.
Serunjogi: So you are a zine made for and by Black gay men. What does that mean?
Banks: Usually I find, as African Americans, we are rarely in control of the imagery that we see out there of ourselves. It calls into question the authenticity of the imagery and the heart of it: Where is that [image] coming from if you have absolutely nothing to do with it and you’re so detached and removed from what is put out there in the public of you? So this is an experiment for us to take our own imagery into our own hands, pool our resources creatively, and see what we could come up with.
Septh: We are really inspired by people like… look at Oprah. She is a globally recognized figure, but what she has been able to do in terms of her own show, and now she’s created this network that is a part of the brand. When you position the work that she is putting into the world vs. what you might see on Bravo with Real Housewives of Atlanta, or VH1, where it’s like white people profiting off of Black people entertaining–
Banks: It definitely has a different approach and a different feel to it.
Septh: Right, compared to a lot of this trash television. I think we live in such a media-saturated culture that people are living up and into the images that they are seeing. Everyone is wearing hair weaves because Beyoncé and Rihanna are wearing hair weaves, but there is a psychology behind why people have beauty trends, so we are trying to get to the bottom of that.
The founders of The Tenth Zine: André Verdun Jones, Khary Septh, and Kyle Banks.
Serunjogi: Oprah has become iconic for working her way up to the top but not explicitly wanting to be the “leading Black female.” Why did you choose such an explicitly narrow focus? Why not be more inclusive and then let it transpire from that?
Septh: Because everybody else already has those vehicles. When you are talking about the Black gay community and you look at it from a statistical standpoint, you are talking about the community with the largest HIV infection rates, nationally. You are talking about the community with the least amount of access to capitalization of their businesses, the community that has the least amount of presence in mainstream media, so typically kind of misrepresented and, some would say, stereotyped in a sort of way. You are talking about a community… and this is not just a gay thing, but the Black community is very homophobic, so we live within a larger community that is oppressive. We are multi-marginalized. So for us to say we are making this about us and for us and take what, from a statistical and a perceptive standpoint, might be the lowest of the low and the least-accessed things that are bright and shiny, we are going to make something really bright and shiny out of that community, because through our experience and our identity as Black gay men, we know that our community is more incredible, more creative, and more talented than the larger communities. By a show of solidarity and a purity of the work coming from us, it is just us proving our own value to ourselves.
How come I worked in magazines like I have, but I would cringe about this idea of Black gay media? Because I thought I didn’t have a reference point of something that was on the level that I thought it should be. But little did I realize that that’s not true. There are so many incredibly talented artists and so many smart motherfuckers and intellectuals.
Banks: There is so much work to reference, but it’s hidden in chunks and in white institutions. It’s in archives. You need to really dig and search for it.
Septh: We are about collectivism. We are about anti-assimilationism. We are not about what white people are thinking. We don’t give a fuck about what they think about us. They always control the conversation. We want to control our own conversation. And when you do so, you wind up talking about things differently.
Our magazine is where you might have an article like, “How come all of the Black gay men who are successful in Hollywood and in music have white boyfriends? What is that about?” And I’m talking about taking it back to the great Black intellectuals who did radical Black work, back to the Harlem Renaissance and Langston Hughes and that creepy image of him with his white benefactor, and all the way to this idea in [present-day] LGBT media and advertising of “Why is it always interracial couples and you never see an image of two Black gay boys?” In a way that is more alienating to us than just white people, because we can kind of see ourselves in two white people.
In our magazine we are having conversations that we wouldn’t have if we were doing them in larger spaces, but in No. 2 we’ve extended that conversation to the women in our lives. We’re having conversations with our girlfriends and creative collaborators, so it’s about us and the people that are connected to us.
Serunjogi: Do you imagine that this narrow voice can contribute anything to the overall LGBT community? Could someone who is not Black and gay get something out of reading your magazine?
Banks: Totally. The funny thing is that our supporters, the ones who have been purchasing the zine, for the larger part it’s bigger than “Black and gay.” Our audience is white, female, gay, straight. We’ve had a wider reach than we initially expected.
Septh: Because these are universal issues that we can all relate to, like identity, marginalization, and this idea that there’s a lot that can be learned.
Banks: It’s human experience, so I think people are able to relate to it in some way.
Serunjogi: Is this what you refer to when you state that your objective is to “enrich communities”?
Septh: Yes, our own communities, and to also do a lot of critiquing of the larger cultures, so the Black community and mainstream white LGBT community. Someone needs to ring those bitches up and hold bitches motherfucking accountable! And it’s not good enough for us to be on one page of one magazine. Like now we have Michael Sam on the cover of GQ this November as “The Man of the Year,” which is very cool, but there’s got to be more. Diversity is not us living on one page or one cover a year. Diversity is us being allowed to have our own networks and publications, like the Essences, Ebonys, or what once was the BETs of the world, so that those are in a larger landscape and can be homogeneous and empowering.
Serunjogi: Is the goal to one day not need to have your own media? What would the dream scenario be?
Banks: Now the dream scenario would be to have our own media. That is true diversity. I don’t necessarily want to water down what I have to say for the white listener, editor, or publisher.
Septh: It’s about having a voice at the table. America is supposed to be a big melting pot, right?
Serunjogi: As a Danish person coming to the U.S.A., I find it very interesting and surprising how racial everything seems to be here. And it comes from everyone. I understand why, due to the history of the country, but as an outsider it also makes me feel a little uncomfortable.
Septh: Funny that you have that perspective. A lot of my Black European friends — I have tons of them — are less able to understand the anger and the hostility that us as Black Americans feel, because you do come from a place with kind of a larger racial tolerance. Even though you’re more recent immigrants, you are more ingratiated into the culture and the mainstream. But in America we are talking about a history of the day that we landed here; we were enslaved, and we’ve worked to build this country. The institutions and the actual building blocks of this country are meant to keep us down and give us access to nothing. We’ve got access to so little.
Banks: Blacks didn’t really start being a part of that so-called melting pot until like the early ’70s.
Septh: So we’re angry, and we’re pissed off. And yes, bitch, you’re racist. You can’t not be racist and privileged when you’re white.
Banks: You can’t dismiss white privilege, and white privilege at its very core is racism.
Septh: Everything you have got you have been given by generations of ancestors who have used Black and brown people as subjects to build the wealth of this country. So in your liberal-minded Bushwick way of thinking, you may not think you’re racist, because you’ve got a global network of friends. But everything you have got, all the access, not to mention the way that you move in the world, is built on this structural and racist institution that is America. So, no, you don’t get a pass.
Banks: And we love white boys!
Septh: And we can have that conversation in our magazine about the fact that we need help from white people. It’s fucked up to say, but we don’t have enough of a foundation in our community that we won’t need the help of white people, their generosity, and them handing us things to get little bits of access. But what they are going to have to do is have a day of reckoning.
Banks: And they are going to have to accept that this is the way things are today and there is a reason for that. There’s a reason why we don’t have access to banking, and there is reason to why we can’t finance our own projects. There are so many reasons.
Kyle Banks, André Verdun Jones, and Khary Septh
Serunjogi: Based on this logic of white people always being racist, is a person who is not gay then also, by definition, homophobic?
Septh: Absolutely not. The white gay community try to build bridges between the civil rights movement, what Black people have gone through, and the LGBT experience, and that is absolutely not right, because when you look at the response from the government and the world to the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s, they were forced into action. The early days of ACT UP and all these organizations that went to Washington, banged on desks, were allowed into Capital Hill, and said, “Reagan, you are not going to not acknowledge AIDS?” and Miss [Elizabeth] Taylor was coming out and talking about it — they were still white. So the people in power would still look at those people as brothers, as nephews, as sisters, so there is still a linking or an understanding, which has allowed them to gain access and these rights so fast. We are talking about from the ’60s to 2014, and now we’ve got gay marriage and gay adoption.
Banks: Not even the ’60s. We’re talking about from the ’80s.
Septh: So we’re talking about a 20- to 30-year cycle of full rights, if you will — DOMA, “don’t ask, don’t tell.” We’ve been going through policy changes left and right. When we are talking about Black people, in the 400 years of slavery, into Reconstruction, into Jim Crow, into civil rights, into the modern era, the crack era and the dismantlement of the Black Panthers, and we’re still having to redo our Voting [Rights] Act every fucking 10 years.
Banks: And we still got Rockefeller drug laws.
Septh: And we are still incarcerated at rates [disproportionately higher] than our white counterparts. And as Black gay men we are still living the Black-man narrative. We are more likely to wind up in jail over a blunt than some white boy smoking a joint on a corner in Williamsburg. So again, it’s white privilege. The gays don’t wear a mark like when you walk into a shop or the 5th floor at Barneys. They are not following you around ’cause you’re gay; they’re going to be looking sideways at you because you’re Black. So, again, back to why we believe that presenting images of ourselves in healthy ways that are celebrating our presence and our existence will be great for kids to see: It’s good for us all to see.
Serunjogi: So bringing it back to communities: Within the Black gay community or the Black community in general, what are your specific scenes?
Septh: This project doesn’t have a scene. The point was: If you think you live in a scene, you need to get your head from up your ass and understand that we all have collective interests. The “lit fags” vs. the “art fags,” and “Harlem kids” vs. the “Brooklyn hipsters,” and the “corporate boys” vs. the “gym boys” — all of those things are just distinctions that we are making that don’t help us at all in a larger point, so we are not about a scene. We are about connecting the dots of the scenes. We have kids in our magazines who have become friends, and they wouldn’t have otherwise been if it wasn’t for meeting through the platform of the magazine. Cross-generational is important for us as well, because there is this need to transmit knowledge from the older queens to the younger kids who don’t know what the fuck they are doing, besides posting stuff on Instagram for a “like.”
Banks: What good is a community or a tribe if you can’t build it and grow within it? So all of these different cliques, none of them are really able to build any traction with the things that they are doing, because they don’t have resources. And there are resources there, but you have to reach outside of your clique to realize it.
Serunjogi: So you haven’t experienced any hostility or resentment around this project from within your communities?
Banks: Of course. We are Black faggots, and it’s shade. So it’s also a test working through that shade, because where is that coming from in the first place? Why is my first greeting of my brotha shade?
Serunjogi: Do you have an idea of where that shade is coming from?
Banks: We are still Black. All of our behaviors, as far as I’m concerned, have been programmed into us, and they date back to Willie Lynch, so we are talking about almost 400 years of programming to hate you brother, hate your sister, hate your father, hate your mother. All of that was for the white man to be able to use and manipulate and get whatever he needed out of the situation. And we know this, but we can’t work through the institutionalized programming.
Septh: It’s a part of our culture. It’s like the more marginalized, the worse-off you are, and the worse you are to others like you. And I think we need to start looking at each other like collaborators. I don’t need to know you, but let’s work together; let’s do something. And that is what we are pointing at. We are ultimately going to need each other if we want to have any presence in this world. So let’s just put down those nasty little antics, those egos, that shade, and let us just hug it out. Half the time the kryptonite to shade is just love.
One kid called us “rich kids up in New York who are visual elitists.” And we were like, “We didn’t eat yesterday to make this work! I begged every bitch who said no to make this work come to life. So let’s take it off this projection of what you’re feeling and look at what it is.” None of the kids in our magazine are models, but we just work with photographers that are that talented who know how to create beautiful images. But you have to do the reading and not just the looking to get that.
Serunjogi: So you have heard that people perceive you as elitists or artsy-fartsy?
Septh: Yeah, once or twice. But clearly then you didn’t read the magazine, because that is the whole point of collaborating with so many boys and going around the country. You can’t really critique it unless you’re putting in the work. That’s the whole thing about these ivory-tower activists who aren’t really connected to a community. But we actually are connected to a community. We are actually on the computer and on the phone reaching out to the young artists and hanging out on college campuses. We are doing the work. We’re hitting the road and collaborating with kids in New Orleans and Dallas. And we are doing the work and being told no, no, and no. But everyone is entitled to their opinion.
Serunjogi: How do you feel that the magazine will bring more togetherness or make people hate less?
Septh: I don’t think it’s a lot of hate but a couple of misinformed gurls. The quality of the work and the real solid basis for why we’re doing it is intact. And the people that we are circling with and making a real hardcore effort to go out and meet, they are getting it. You can’t really address gurls who don’t get it.
Banks: It’s the crabs-in-a-barrel syndrome: “I don’t want to see my brotha do his best, because I may perceive that as doing better than how I’m doing.”
Septh: “I’m the only one in the room, but if you’re in the room with me, then my position is threatened.” But the room is full of white people. What I do hope is that for the next set of kids who are doing a Black LGBT project, the brands will be aware that it can work in an interesting way, and that this project can exist, and that they’ll do it better because people will be willing to put money behind it, and funding for these types of things will happen. It’s about continuity and projections through time, so hopefully we are doing our part.
Serunjogi: What would you say to kids reading this?
Septh: Own your fucking identity, enjoy your life, and don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do the things that you want to do. And then connect with others like you.
The Tenth Zine‘s second volume, “America,” is now available through the website, in a limited edition of 1,000 copies. International shipping is possible too. For more information visit thetenthzine.com.
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