New York just saw the launch of The Tenth, a new biannual zine about gay black life. It’s an ode to the exceptional, be they playwrights, artists, horticulturalists, stylists, beauties or anything beyond. As academic Frank Roberts says in his opening essay: “The publication blurs the lines between the high and the low, the past and the present, the popular and the underground; the sacred and the secular.” We caught up with Creative Director, Khary Septh, to talk about all that falls on its pages.
What’s the aim of your zine?
Khary Septh: The goal of the project was to collaborate with 100 people and see who was doing what. We work in isolated industries, so I was like, “What are the writers doing? What are the playwrights producing?” It took maybe six to eight months figuring out how to find people. In the black gay community, there’s this culture of not necessarily working together, and that was why we wanted to break those barriers. When you’re working and you’ve arrived and you’re in a room full of white folks, there’s a validation to it. Then you kind of wake up and you think, “Well, I’m still an outsider. I still haven’t had a chance to really express myself freely.” We all knew that we were feeling that way.
By putting this issue together, you’re creating a school in a way. What do you hope for this to become?
Khary Septh: I don’t even know. We’re committed to the next two issues because we’ve got a sponsor for the next one. We’re going on a road trip. We’re going to explore regional gay communities in ten cities and see what’s going on in New Orleans, what’s going on in Kansas City. We’re going to go on three trips with different collaborators: film makers, photographers, writers. We’ve been reaching out, meeting people in different places, so we don’t just bring our New York friends. We want to know who’s shooting in Indiana. We’re all from somewhere obscure. We’re not all from a really cool part of New York.
There are so many successful and talented gay black people that I forget that you might still need reassurance through being celebrated together in a magazine like this.
Khary Septh: I do believe that. Our friends and the kids that we work with are doing really well. But it’s really insular. For us, making this magazine was a wake up call. Our resources really stopped after hair stylists, photographers, stylists. We were like, “Why don’t we know the kids on Wall Street?” The white boys tend to be more connected. Even in the art world, to be an artist you need to have collectors, and people who will support your work, so how well are you doing if you don’t have a community that can support your work?
You’re called The Tenth Zine for a few reasons. One of the influences is WEB Du Bois’s essay “The Talented Tenth.” Among other things, that essay talks about an elite of exceptional black men saving the rest of the black community. Your magazine is reflecting a very talented, keyed-in group within the black gay community. Do you have an interest in spreading the ideas to other corners of the gay black community?
Khary Septh: Absolutely. Du Bois is elitist - the voice, his ideology is kind of anti-Booker T Washington, who is kind of “the working black man.” We don’t really ascribe to elitism. We ascribe to exceptionalism. There’s a bit of a difference as queer boys. We’re remixing that. So yeah, there’s “the talented tenth”, but then the “tenth” also refers to the Kinsey Scale, where supposedly 10% of the population are gay. And then there’s like the ballroom, where you get your 10.
This is the first gay zine in a while that feels like it has a really strong identity and purpose. When BUTT magazine first came out it was amazing and covered a really diverse group of gay men, but over time started to cater mostly to its more beary readers. How do you stop moving away from your initial intentions?
Khary Septh: I know, right? I was like you - I was totally obsessed with BUTT too, and then you saw the decolourisation of it. That was a big complaint. People were pissed, like. “Oh really, now you only look like these boys?” With anything really nichey, you eventually go mass. You’ve got to look at it from that angle. I don’t know. I haven’t looked that far ahead.
You’re in a different position though I guess. They were trying to do diversity within the entire gay community - which they became less and less successful at - whereas you’re trying to do diversity within the gay black community. It’ll be easier to stay true to that I imagine, but would there ever come a time where you would broaden out?
Khary Septh: Well this is Andre’s whole fucking thing [the magazine’s producer]. I just think there’s so much yet to be done. And why do I always need to be thinking about the opening up of my forum to other people? We can do all these Asian boys that Andre suggested, but right now I’m sticking with this black gay agenda, and I wanted to see how it works out. But there’s three of us, so I don’t get to make all the rules! We’ll see.
“‘OK, I’m jerking off to a black boy on a Ralph Lauren underwear box.’ It’s cool. I’m okay with it. Give it to me more.” – Khary Septh
Your mission is to reflect gay black culture and zines are meant to be specific, so it would probably feel weird to move away from that.
Khary Septh: Right. Why do we need to move away always? And it’s like, “What is this zine”? It’s an educational process, it’s independent, it’s niche, it’s specific. We aren’t trying to be for everybody.
White photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos of nude black men have always been problematic. Do you feel that because the images of black men are by black men that they automatically have a different integrity?
Khary Septh: It’s like no black girls in Italian Vogue or one black girl on the runway. The black person has always been used as a muse and always been adopted by fashionable people, for a moment. Culture is always looking for something to explore and to commercialise, and to turn into a trend. I don’t mind that, but what I do mind is when we don’t have the vehicles to tell our own side of it. We need to have a diversity and I think to control your own media is the real answer to it. When you get on YouTube, you see kids with their own shows and telling their own stories. OK, a lot of the time the lighting is horrible, and there’s all this shit you’ve got to get through, but at least they’re visibile, they’re present. So we just need to let them have the resources to execute it the right way. Yes it’s about controlling the image. I don’t want someone else defining my image for me. But I live for Mapplethorpe. I mean look at Ken Moody, the black guy who is in all the photos. And when Ralph Lauren brought Tyson Beckford to the forefront, next thing you know it’s like, 'OK, I’m jerking off to a black boy on a Ralph Lauren underwear box.' It’s cool. I’m okay with it. Give it to me more.
Do you think the gay black experience is more difficult than the general gay experience?
Khary Septh: We can reach the same levels and we can achieve the same lifestyles and goals, but it’s more difficult. Your mum will say when you’re growing up. “Oh you’ve got to work 10 times as hard.” You think, “What’s possible for me as a black boy?” And it’s not much. It is more difficult. The black community is more conservative. It’s more religious, it’s not just down south, it’s across the board, it’s cultural and it’s in the Caribbean, everywhere. But what is difficulty? Like who gives a fuck? It’s always been difficult. It’s never been safe for us. Difficult things have been done to us for hundreds of years. You know, we’re just coming out of Jim Crow, we’re just coming out of that era.
What about your hashtag for the zine, #unbothered?
Khary Septh: It’s what the black kids say. They’ve been saying it since the ‘90s, or as long as I’ve been gay, which means that they’ve probably been saying it forever! Unbothered is, “I’m so above whatever I’m doing, no matter how wrong it may be, or how offended you may be, I’m so un-fucking-bothered!” So it’s usually like, “Girl be offended. I’m unbothered.” Or you are on the shop floor and they’re following you around: “Unbothered.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone being bothered by this beautiful, interesting magazine. It’s strange to think it’s a threat to some people.
Khary Septh: It’s weird. We hang out and we work with all these cool white boys, and we’re like, “This is our scene.” And they’re like, “We don’t understand. What is the video about?” And we’re like, “Ugh! What do you not understand?” There is definitely an educating thing to it as well. And Kyle’s mum [Kyle is Managing Editor] is very big into the church and asked him to redesign their brochure. So we were like, “Yeah, we’ll do it.” But if they found out that we’re publishing this work and doing their church brochure! There’s going to be a moment when they’re going to find out about it, and they’re going to gag and we’re going to be #unbothered.
The Tenth's first issue is out now.