Have you ever met someone and instantly liked them? That’s what happened when I met Derrick “DJ” Williams earlier this year through a mutual friend.
We had a delightful exchange about what the “movies of our lives” would look like and from his references I knew I had met a cultural ally. I was excited to have someone to talk with about music, and more specifically Lykke Li so showed him my favorite “Live on the Moon” Sessions.
During our first meeting I couldn’t figure out why DJ looked so familiar and then it dawned on me. He could pass for the singer Twin Shadow’s brother, the way I could pass for his cousin. We are part of the same bi-racial tribe and there was that instant familial bond.
Our second encounter consisted of a conversation about branding and the Thandie Newton Tedx Talk on “Otherness & Self”. After this conversation my original impression was confirmed and I knew DJ would be a good subject to interview. We traded email addresses, and after a few texts and emails this is the defining interview that transpired.
Conducted via email 10/2/16.
1. So you recently watched Amelie. What are your thoughts on that film?
Yeah, I was finally able to watch Amelie recently! It was amazing: I laughed, I cried, I felt simultaneously lonely and infinitely connected, I was made full of wonder. It’s a great film. Just, the pure joy and happiness that you get to see moved me in a way that most other films I’ve seen have. For example, I was ugly crying, like boo-hoo sobbing, when Amelie takes a blind man’s arm and describes what everything looks like as they walk down the street. In a good way, of course! The characters are all super memorable without crossing the line into twee caricatures. It’s rare to see joy celebrated like this movie does.
2. Are you now a Jean Pierre Jeunet fan? What other French filmmakers do you enjoy?
I couldn’t say I’m a JPJ fan just yet, but after I see a couple more of his films I totally could be! In a direct contrast to the reasons Amelie was so significant, one of my favorite French filmmakers is Gaspar Noé. All of his films are extremely dark (which I love) and extremely beautiful. He definitely inspires me as a filmmaker with his use of various lighting techniques and storytelling.
3. Do you feel like other cultures, the French for example, are more or less open to the notion of bi-racial couples and bi-racial people in general?
The difference between America’s views on bi-racialism and that of many European countries, like France or Britain, is that our racial history is much more recent than theirs. It also seems like culturally we are more frank in discussing issues of race/gender/sexuality/etc. I think you see a ton of interracial couples in British media, for example, but just because there’s more representation doesn’t mean there aren’t the same issues as over here. Now we’re finally entering an era where somebody might be able to recognize themselves on TV, but that came from decades of fights and discussions.
4. Have you ever been to a foreign country? If so, how were you received?
Unfortunately I haven’t been to a foreign country other than Mexico when I was about six and those memories are super hazy. I will say that there are many countries that I would love to visit but would hesitate if given the opportunity because of how universal anti-blackness is. If I did go to, for example, and East Asian country like China (where I’ve read accounts of people throwing bananas and calling black men Michael Jordan) or Japan (where I’ve read accounts of black people getting denied entry to public places like stores or bars), how would I feel about it afterwards? Would my experience sour whatever cultural aspects I enjoy? It sucks, but that’s the kind of thinking black people (and members of the LGBT community) have to do when traveling abroad.
5. What is your take on the term “otherness?” Do you feel like an “other?”
Otherness is a much more common experience than people think it is. Of course it varies from culture to culture, but in US culture if you aren’t a straight, cis, white, man the truth is you ARE “other.” That’s because those are the people who created the rules of this game we’re playing and it isn’t fair. Because I exist at the intersection of gay and black (and half-black, which comes with another set of identity questions) of course I’ve felt othered my whole life. I’m the only non-white member of my immediate family and I’ve often been the only non-white member of my friend group. It’s taken a long time to come to terms with my identity and with that coming to terms came a huge surge of confidence.
6. What does the term “grey art” mean to you? Does it make you feel like a pioneer? Also, does it imply a specific duty to live up to a standard of quality?
To be honest I haven’t heard of the term grey art and my perfunctory googling didn’t reveal anything specific. It does seem that whenever one’s work is categorized as something specific there’s an instant comparison not only to those that are highly regarded in that art in general, but also the people who pioneered that specific category of art. For me there’s always an obligation to make the best work I can, but something that’s helpful is not trying to create a specific thing until the thing is done.
7. I feel like you would be a fan of Jeff Koons. Are you familiar with his work? What artists do you refer to as influences?
Yeah, Jeff Koons is fantastic! His use of colors and culture is so fun and so whimsical and so free. Of course, because I am SUPER gay, Lady Gaga is the one who first introduced me to his work. Visual art-wise, I’ve never been interested in reality. Landscapes, realistic portraits, wildlife photography, that kind of stuff never interested me. The visual artists who really inspire me are my two favorites: Yayoi Kusama and Takashi Murakami. Their art is so completely OUT THERE and they have such an amazing use of color and pattern. It’s far out. You know, Louis Vuitton has done collaborations with both of those artists and it is my DREAM to own a bag or something from the Yayoi collection.
8. What’s the best art exhibit you’ve ever seen?
The most fun I’ve had at an art show or gallery is visiting the pop art room at MoMA in New York. If you couldn’t tell, I love when artists buck the existing trends and rules and concentrate on making something fun and personal. It was full of Warhol’s and even a sculpture by Yayoi Kusama.
9. When we first met we had a great conversation about Lykke Li. In her video “Never Gonna Love Again” there is an intense car crash scene. What do you feel like this scene represents?
Yeah we did! It’s so great to talk about her with someone. That car crash scene is so difficult to watch. There’s definitely a trope of the Unexpected Car Crash in various media, which makes every single car scene so nerve-wracking for me. But! In this case it can totally represent heartbreak. Especially if you don’t see it coming, the end of a relationship can totally mess with your life and your routine.
10. Do you feel like car crashes in videos always represent emotional turmoil? Or is it a depiction of relationships?
It’s a valid metaphor for emotional turmoil, but I don’t think it always represents either love or relationships. Sure, there are probably a bunch of videos that use that imagery as a representation of a romantic relationship, but it could represent a sudden life change, or the end of an era, or an awakening. It’s emotionally jarring most times, which lends whichever metaphor certain heaviness.
11. What was the first concert you ever went to? And how was it?
Well I’m from a working class family in Louisville, Kentucky. Since Louisville is more urban than people expect, there are many stereotypes that don’t hold up. Except this: my first concert was Garth Brooks. I was six, I went with my mom, I knew every word, and I got friends in low places.
12. What is the last concert you went to? And how was it?
Holy crap, I saw Deborah Cox at Market Days this year and she was FABULOUS. Her voice was amazing! Honestly I was getting major Whitney Houston vibes from her as she was singing.
13. What are your thoughts on how musicians and bands brand themselves today? What role do you feel like technology has played in doing this from decade to decade?
Musicians and entertainers in general are branding themselves and getting their work out in a way that people in past decades could only DREAM of doing. Of course it creates the problem of too many voices and groups for any one to rise to the top, but don’t you think it’s amazing that anybody with a dream can get their voice heard by someone? And that’s how things have gone since the beginning. Technology is integral to the development of music in every decade, so much so that any musical distinction could probably be attributed to the technological advancements of that era. I love that there are so many way for artists to share their work.
14. Think about a tweet from Buddy Holly. How weird would that be?
Hahaha, that would be absolutely ridiculous. What kind of tweets do you think he would tweet? Could you imagine the uproar on social media if Buddy Holly were around when Weezer released their song “Buddy Holly”? It would be insane, like tweeting Green Day every time September ends.
15. What are your thoughts on the pervasiveness of technology and do you think it helps or harms our culture?
Listen, technology is here to stay. It’s everywhere and only increasing in scope. The only thing we can do know is adapt and keep adapting because we’re barreling forward in our tech advancements faster than ever before. Obviously there are a ton of benefits from these advancements – puppies are getting 3D printed replacement limbs! We can go to a concert performed solely by Hatsune Miku: an artificially intelligent hologram WHO IS SELLING OUT VENUES WORLDWIDE. Shit’s insaaane! But then I consider the impact social media is probably having on people younger than me. The only thing a developing teenager wants is validation, and if they can only get that from strangers online they’ll keep pushing their boundaries to see just how big a following they’ll amass.
16. Is the term YOLO still relevant? If so what does it mean to you?
YOLO (or, You Only Live Once) is a sentiment that will always be relevant. Maybe not the specific term, but the attitude will be around for ages to come. It’s just so important to consider taking the path not planned, to live in the moment, to appreciate today.
17. Where did your obsession with K-Pop originate from?
Hahaha! Probably my first K-pop obsession was 2NE1’s “I’m the Best.” I’ve gone through periods of being interested, but it’s seriously my most-played genre, more than (I’m ashamed to say) even Beyoncé! The songs are basically mathematically formulated to stick in your head. Plus, the Korean idol industry is SO different from our Western model that it’s really interesting to compare and contrast the sounds and business models. My current bias groups (plus their popular songs) by the way are TWICE (“Cheer Up”), Stellar (“Sting”), and Red Velvet (“Russian Roulette”).
18. How do you think being bi-racial informs how you consume culture?
Being bi-racial has totally influenced every aspect of my cultural consumption. We’re inundated with images, both good and bad, on how your life should look if you are of one race or another. Because I have two different, and often opposing, views on pop culture, I’ve had to forge my own path. I appreciate it now because now I don’t care about whether I “should” like or dislike something – if I enjoy it, I know it’s for me, regardless of what we’re told to like.
19. What do you feel is our responsibility as American creators and consumers?
Really our only responsibility is to ourselves. If you are a creator, whether it’s artistic, scientific, both, neither, or whichever, we are only obligated to create what we feel we should create. I do think that people who would be categorized as “Other” often have the additional obligation to represent everyone in whichever group we consist of. And that’s important to! Representation is so, so, so important. But one should never force themselves to be something they’re not or to create something they don’t believe in just to satisfy someone else’s view of what they should be doing.
20. How do you feel this interview went?
This interview went really well! Thank you so much for this; it’s super fun to discuss my viewpoint on things.