E. Jane On Legends And Divas
The references run deep: Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Kandi Burruss, Summer Walker, Mary J. Blige, Tamar Braxton, Daenerys Targaryen, and Zora Neale Hurston. Be sure to take notes because, E. Jane’s knowledge, from sci-fi to R&B, is masterful. Researching and celebrating the Black diva is at the core of their work. It’s embodied. It’s about joy. It’s decolonial. It’s invested in the care and keeping of Black women’s culture.
It is E. Jane's parents who are responsible for their early education in the work of 1990s Black R&B divas. This is the source of the twenty-eight music videos at the core of Lavendra (2015–), a work composed of the eponymous planet and shrine to Black divadom presided over by E. Jane's (who uses they/them pronouns) alter ego, recording artist and Black diva in her own right, MHYSA (who uses she/her pronouns).
My mom and my dad were the people that at a young age, introduced me to the genre of R&B that is heavily reliant on women's vocals. So that meant listening to Whitney Houston and Chaka Khan and Mariah Carey—my mom played me a lot of Mariah Carey, a lot of Whitney Houston. My parents really loved Whitney Houston.
They also really loved Janet Jackson, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill. My mom had all these tapes. My mom bought me the Monica CD when I was a kid, the Brandy CD too. She bought me all these R&B diva CDs, and that was what I did in my spare time. I had a boom box when I was like nine, and I would make mixtapes. I would record songs from the radio because I had the two- tape cassette thing, and it had the CD player at the top, too. So you could really go in. I never really went in. I just recorded songs off the radio that I wanted and made my radio mixes. That music for me was very escapist; for my mom too.
Hearing the names, E. Jane rattles off; you cannot help but think. Anthems. Legends. Divas. All of them powerhouses, their music so readily at the surface of your mind. Each comes with a sharp sonic remembrance. Every song is a bop. This is not a canned '90s R&B top ten list. The Black '90s R&B diva is foundational to both Black culture and E. Jane's work.
In grad school, I was taking video classes and trying to make video art and being like, "I'm going to be like Steve McQueen. I'm going to be a video artist," and not knowing what to make a video about. I just didn't know what I cared about, but then the summer before the second year, I got really obsessed with watching old R&B music videos. I just couldn't stop, that's just what I wanted to do with my time. I was just like doing all this stuff, and I was, like, wait like this isn't a distraction, this is what I care about, and I should make from this. Then I started making Lavendra videos, and then I started thinking more about the Black diva in general as a performance archetype. A Black American archetype. An archetypal figure like how the hero is an archetypal figure. The diva, too, was an archetypal figure, and she already is in culture.
E. Jane's research looks to unpack the archetype of the diva. Divas are spectacular and display immense talent, but lost in narratives of innate gifts is the equally spectacular and immense work that has gone into their performances. For the diva, singing can be a means of mental escape, and also financial escape. Divas are a sight to behold, but are often not held or supported; they can be subject to intense critique. One of E. Jane's more recent case studies is the career of singer and songwriter Summer Walker. Walker, a direct descendent of the '90s R&B diva, has social anxiety that has caused her to cancel most of her recent tour. Fans lashed out, harshly critiquing what performances she did give. E. Jane looks to understand with empathy what the diva is going through.
There was a point when I realized that I don't want to just critique these women. I want to understand them. I want to study them. I want to study them deeply, and that's why I think MHYSA is very much deep performance, where I'm getting to study the experience through my body, but then also still reading, researching, and trying to understand the history of these people in detail. Not just an outline or a headline, since that isn't really considering them. You know?
"There was a point when I realized that I don't want to just critique these women. I want to understand them. I want to study them."
One of their long-term goals is to write a history of the American Black diva. Listening to E. Jane, at this point, it seems they just have to write it down.
I think studying history is a way to know and to keep the future in context. It's still a futurist project because you have to understand where we have been to know what we are doing right now. So when Normani comes out and she's doing crazy flips and trying to sing, what tradition is she coming out of? What tradition is Summer Walker coming out of? There are people that I'm not even necessarily studying as deeply that I still think about, like [singer and songwriter] Adina Howard. Is Summer Walker kind of like an Adina Howard figure, or who would she be? She has foremothers, and it's more obvious now. When I started this project, I feel like people weren't really naming like a lot of places that influence was coming from in terms of like acknowledging what '90s Black women were doing. [R&B vocal group] Xscape is on tour now or at least was last year. So it's a different time than 2015, which I love and maybe feel like I was doing a rain dance for. Please think about these women more!
People are thinking about these people, and they are using it to live. The future is being made at this very moment. The way that I think about futurism is not even as much futurism as it is futurity in the sense that I am interested in the continued and renewed existence of Black culture. The Black diva is a huge part, a pillar, of that. As an artist, you get to think about whatever you want to think about. It is one of the few freedoms of being an artist. It's like, this is what I want to think about [and spend] like fifty to sixty percent of my time [on] Black womanhood, and not necessarily just the identity, but the culture of it.
Jordan Jones is an artist and curator living and working in New York, New York. She is currently a Studio Museum and MoMA Curatorial Fellow, working with the permanent collection of The Studio Museum in Harlem. She received a BA in Studio Art and Comparative Literature from Williams College and was among the inaugural 2018–19 cohort of the Interdisciplinary Art and Theory Program, and has participated in the Studio Museum's Museum Education Practicum.