Emil Wilbekin Would Never Kill the Vibe

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Wardell Malloy, Getty Images, Everett Collection, Retailers

This year, hundreds of anti-LGBTQ+ bills were introduced into state legislatures, and while many of them ultimately didn’t become law, the mere fact that they — and efforts to limit education about African American history — had enough support to get to statehouses and make headline news isn’t lost on Emil Wilbekin, the founder of Native Son, a platform for Black gay/queer men to support and celebrate one another.

“There are all of these amazing hidden figures in history who are Black gay or queer men who no one knows,” Wilbekin tells the Cut. “It’s important to me that we as Black gay and queer men are seen and heard, and that our work and our accomplishments are recognized historically in the canon.”

Wilbekin created Native Son seven years ago because he wanted to connect with other Black gay and queer men who had similar life experiences as he did. “Maybe we were the only one in the office, maybe the only one in the corner suite dealing with issues around dating, getting married, wanting to have kids, living with HIV, coming-out stories, challenges with the Black church,” he says.

Since then, Native Son has become an essential resource and community for Black gay/queer men around the world, garnering more than 75,000 followers on Instagram, an in-person awards show, and community-gathering events. To highlight these men and their experiences and accomplishments, Wilbekin began publishing the Native Son 101 List. This year’s list includes news personalities, musicians, writers, artists, actors, stylists, and more. “This year’s list really shows the world how resilient, innovative, and brave Black gay and queer men are,” Wilbekin says.

Where do you get your best culture recommendations from? 

I am the culture source for everyone inside and outside of my friend group. I am an admitted Instagram fiend — meaning I’m always on. I get most of my culture news there. It’s an amalgamation of sources — the Cut, the New York Times, Lena Waithe, High Snobiety, The Hollywood Reporter, Diet Prada, Billboard, Variety, and Time. My friends Kyle Hagler and Teddy Tinson have an IG thread called Hey Sis. There is always news, gossip, and chic moments that make me laugh or eye-roll.

Which celebrities would you invite to a dinner party — dead or alive? 

James Baldwin, Little Richard, Lil Nas X, Sylvester, and Colman Domingo.

What’s the last meal you cooked for dinner?

Turkey Bolognese. I do a base that’s almost like a sofrito, with onions, garlic, scallions, and green peppers. Then I layer in all this seasoning and ground turkey, and then I add in tomato sauce from the jar — I’m not making my own sauce — and then I got the hack from TikTok of adding the pasta in directly and cooking it that way.

Courtesy of CJ Robinson for Native Son Illustration: Courtesy of CJ Robinson for Native Son

What is your pre-writing ritual?

I’m a morning writer, so it’s really my morning ritual, which is a combination of prayer, meditation, listening to gospel music, definitely lots of coffee with vanilla-almond milk, and just being still. I write — weirdly — on my notes app on my phone. I always start my drafts there and then move them to Google Docs later, so I’m often sitting in bed with either a Kaytranada playlist or a Snoh Allegra playlist on Pandora and the mood is set.

What’s your comfort rewatch?

Definitely The Jeffersons and The Nanny.

What is something you’ll never, ever watch, no matter what?

I will never watch Game of Thrones because it seems too violent and complicated. I’m not a sci-fi person. I’m more of a romantic-comedy and classic-film person.

What’s the best piece of gossip you’ve ever heard?

The best piece of gossip I ever heard was that Jay-Z and Beyoncé were dating, and it turned out to be true. When I was editor-in-chief of Vibe, information was always coming through and everyone was giving their opinion and gossip about everybody. Fifty percent was right and 50 percent was wrong, so there were all these rumors that Beyoncé and Jay-Z were dating, but no one could ever kind of validate it. Then one day they popped out together. Definitely one of my early-2000s gossip moments.

Favorite game to play?

My favorite game to play is Spades. I’m from Cincinnati, and typically folks from the Midwest are really good at playing Spades. I learned how to play growing up with my father and my brother. It’s my secret weapon, because whenever I go to parties and people want to play Spades, they think that I’m not good at it and then I go in for the kill. My one rule is that I do not like to play Spades in Harlem because the Harlem people are sharks.

What playlist do you listen to when you’re alone?

The playlist I will listen to the most when I’m alone is either Black Coffee on Pandora — that’s really great Afrobeats music — or Anita Wilson, the gospel singer. I listen to her probably every single day when I’m alone. If I’m getting ready to go out, it’s kind of been a Renaissance year, so I play Renaissance on repeat.

Name a book you couldn’t put down.

The book I could not put down this year was How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays, by Alexander Chee.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Illustration: Courtesy of CJ Robinson for Native Son

The best advice I have ever received was when I was editor-in-chief at Vibe and Robert Miller, who was the president of the company, told me to surround myself with people who would accentuate my deficits. It was one of the best pieces of leadership advice I could have gotten. He said, “You don’t need other people around you who are good at what you’re good at. You need people around you who are good at what you’re not good at.” That has served me well.

And the worst advice you’ve ever received?

The worst advice I’ve ever received is to not be out about being gay and being HIV-positive. I was advised not to come out about my status, and I just think that’s terrible advice. One of the best things I could have done was be transparent about both because in that I’ve created a whole movement, community, and platform, but also I just feel super-liberated and myself and in my body.

What’s the one thing you’d recommend to someone who is seeking community but doesn’t know how to find it? 

I know a lot of young Black men who specifically move to New York and struggle with finding community. One of the things I recommend to them is that you have to build your community around you, so find people with like-minded interests. That’s at work, in your apartment building. If you volunteer and do service in your community, at your church, wherever in your life, you’re going to gravitate and meet other people who have shared interests.

What do you listen to in the car?

What I love about being in a car in New York City, driving or as a passenger, is listening to WBLS. Something about WBLS is just super-Black. It’s the best R&B, the best hip-hop, and now Afrobeats. It just feels like the soundtrack to New York City.

Illustration: Courtesy of CJ Robinson for Native Son

Favorite piece of art you own?

A portrait that was done of my mother. It is a huge painting on plywood. It is three different-looking layers of plywood with this gold frame, and it hangs in my living room and reminds me of my beloved mother. It also is a reminder of the fact that she was such a warrior and such a boss. Sometimes it reminds me to do the right thing and move in grace and take the high road. But it’s beautiful in my apartment and it makes me happy. It’s really colorful and bright and beautiful.

What would your last meal be?

I’ve thought about this a lot. My last meal would be crispy rice from Bond Street, French fries, and a bottle of Veuve Clicquot chilled. And for dessert, chocolate cake from Magnolia.

Worst thing to do at a dinner party?

Just drop a crazy bomb in the middle of the dinner that disrupts the mood and energy. Either something super-negative or something super-controversial. Don’t kill the vibe. Seriously.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. The Cut is a media partner of Native Son 101.

Emil Wilbekin Would Never Kill the Vibe