Last week, at a Black Lives Matter protest in Chicago, Illinois, Gorgeous Karma Gucci and her friends Adonte Prodigy and Amya Miyake-Mugler, all clad in heels and masks, vogued down the middle of the streets to beats pumped on a Bluetooth speaker. The clips of their demonstration, which were filmed in front of police cars, have racked up well over 3.8 million views.
“To tell the truth, I was bored,” Gucci tells The Cut of how she came up with the idea. “I’m an only child so I get bored sometimes. But I’m also an advocate and I wanted to contribute in the best way I knew how, to make noise to let people know that [Black] trans and queer people do exist and we exist in the least harmful way.”
Though Karma only entered the ballroom scene in 2011, voguing is an art form with a history of about 40 years. As the story goes, it started either in the prisons of Riker’s Island, or in the clubs of the West Village — likely a combination of both. It became a global phenomenon with the introduction of Madonna’s “Vogue” and the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning. But it didn’t stop there; It’s since continued to enter and reenter culture through projects like America’s Best Dance Crew, FX’s acclaimed drama Pose, and more.
For some, voguing is just a dance to be studied in classes, and learned for jobs. For others — like contestants on the new HBO Max show Legendary — it can be a form of expression that can be matched against others to snatch top-dollar prizes. And for others still, it remains a form of gender exploration and communing with a like-minded community. As a creation of Black and brown queer and trans folks, it has always been a way to physically play with notions of gender presentation. And it’s because of these origins that this particular dance form has always also been a type of resistance.
“[Voguing] is a unique expression of queer bodies and queer movement, but more importantly it is a unique expression of Black thought and Black resistance,” Madelyn “Aamina” 007 said in the short documentary Legendary released last year by The Philadelphia Inquirer. In her telling, ballroom (the community which cultivated the art form of vogue) is a resistance to religious churches, toxic families, abusive neighborhoods, and traumatic schools. Michael Roberson, an adjunct professor at the New School and Union Theological Seminary and member of the ballroom scene, calls voguing itself an organizing tool.
“It [is] the way to contextualize the story of a people,” he said in his 2019 TED Residency talk. As he notes, after the dance was popularized by Madonna, the ballroom community used voguing and its affiliated balls to organize in an ongoing fight against the AIDS epidemic as well as other crises. For Karma, it’s always been a form of expression.
In 2011 Karma joined the ballroom scene after years of being a part of Chicago’s underground dance scene. Because of the previous experience, she had already mastered dance genres like hip hop and modern, but this provided something new.
“This was another character for me,” she says. Karma identifies as a butch queen, which in ballroom parlance is either a gay man, or someone who is gender nonconforming but was assigned male at birth.” I learned how to vogue as a way of expressing myself on top of me already being in drag. It’s an extra release for me in that character; when I’m Karma, in my head I’m that bitch.”
After that 2011 start as a 007, meaning that she was not yet part of a house, the dancer tried unsuccessfully to join the House of Mizrahi. She was turned down at first, but after winning over a Legend while having only been voguing for a year, the house changed its tune — Legends are performers who have mastered their craft, generally thought to have been voguing (and winning) for a decade or more. By December 2018 she had become the mother of the Chicago chapter before leaving with most of the house to start the Gorgeous House of Gucci in late 2019 — mother and father are positions of leadership in houses, held at the regional, national, and international levels. At Gucci, she remains the Chicago mother.
“I was never taught how to vogue,” she says of her skill, which had been refined through working with members of the scene. “I was taught, the elements and they left me with that. You can’t teach someone how to vogue. To do it you just have to possess some character or emotion that you want to present to those watching.” And last week that emotion was passion.
In the context of the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests around the police killing of George Floyd, and fresh off of news of the brutal beating of Iyanna Dior, a Black trans woman, Karma hoped to add something to the cultural dialogue. She hoped to affirm the queer and trans community as a part of the calls that Black Lives Matter.
“In person we were getting support from everyone,” she says of the reaction to voguing with her friends in front of protesters and cop cars. “They were recording us and telling us that we inspired them and that they appreciated what we were doing. Even from the police we didn’t get anything negative. Our Live on Facebook was a different story.”
A friend broadcasted the action on Facebook, and it attracted about 800 viewers and began circulating in various Facebook groups. One detractor condemned the display, saying that this was not a time for celebration.
“My response was that voguing or dancing is not just a celebration,” Karma explains. “We were voguing and this is an expression, just like people are saying looting and rioting is a way of Black people expressing themselves. That’s okay with y’all but when we go out there and try to contribute the best way we know how, y’all want to say we’re wrong for doing that?!”
But the vast majority of the response was positive — the video has since gone viral after people screen recorded it and posted it elsewhere. Some pages posted the CashApp handles of Karma, Amya, and Adente, and viewers have been sending in money — a reaction that Karma calls “overwhelming.” Since, there’s been similar occurrences. On Friday in San Francisco at the Ready to Listen Rally, Julian Marciano XLanvin, Jin Angels 007, Jocquese and Shireen vogued in an exhibition performance that was meant to “serve as a form of therapy for the crowd.” A day later, someone vogued at a demonstration in Philadelphia.
“It felt so good to go out there and receive such a positive response and support from Black people who I could see videos [of] that are harming my community,” Karma says. “To go out there and not even fear that I would be harmed was an amazing feeling.”