INTERVIEW: “The door that opens you: Why Whippa Wiley brings you magic, fear and fancy.”
By Sound Check
November 10, 2014
n a sunny day in September, at a rooftop party in Brooklyn, we are all swaying slower now. We are watching intently – with all of us, and not just our eyes. Whippa, Fluent and Kateri join Jidenna, the Master of Ceremony, in raising crowd participation. In the background, Nana is playing the Kendrick Lamar beat to “Backseat Freestyle.” Except, this version has been chopped and stripped bare to what feels like the West African essence foundational to all hip hop. What remains is the hypnotic chant, playing on repeat: Aahh bin kin kin. Aahh bin kin kin. Aahh bin kin kin. To the trance-inducing beat, Jidenna and the Fear & Fancy crew lift their arms with shaking hands from the floor to the sky. They repeat this motion, making deep eye contact with individual members of the audience, using their pantomime alone, they’re encouraging us to do the same. Whatever it is they’re conjuring, they want us to catch it. At the same time, Whippa and Kateri are clearly having fun, nodding with approval and a cheeky smile when an audience member starts laughing, lets go, and finally repeats the movement. As the energy rises, it feels like we’re moving through a time warp. The rhythm starts to shift and we’re being transported from the church, back to the club. Underneath Aahh bin kin kin. Aahh bin kin kin. Aahh bin kin kin. The bass from Schoolboy Q’s “Collard Greens” gets louder and louder until the sound and vibe covers the entire rooftop. Now, Jidenna, Whippa, Fluent and Kateri are bobbing their heads and elbows to the music. They are feeling it so hard you would think they made that beat themselves. Now, the audience doesn’t need any guidance, we’re all dancing to this welcomed surprise. We’re all connected, lost in the music and production. Something inside us has opened up.
This isn’t just performance, this is ritual. This art is not being shared, but deployed. This is why Milan “Whippa” Wiley, Fear & Fancy co-founder and creative director describes the art collective and movement as “bigger than all of us.”
By Kathryn Buford, AFROPUNK Contributor *
Born in California, Fear & Fancy is an arts and masquerade society working in partnership with Wondaland Arts Society. Typically wearing painted or physical masks reminiscent of Mardi Gras and Carnival, Whippa says Fear & Fancy celebrates the masquerade as a means to reveal, rather than conceal. In the Fear & Fancy tribe, the men are called Chiefs and the women are Madams. Another Fear & Fancy co-founder, Daniel Callahan, believes masks uncover “our inner essence.”
Since their founding in 2006, Fear & Fancy has evolved into an international movement of entrepreneurs, educators, activists and recording and visual artists with a commitment to social change. One of the founding members, Jidenna, currently performs as an independent artist, featuring Fear & Fancy. They are united in the goal of transforming the dance-floor into sacred ground and inspiring our generation to realize our full selves as lovers, rebels and visionaries. With an aesthetic similar to Outkast and Janelle Monáe, their modern funk and afro-futurist hip hop transcends genres, time, space and whatever you were stressing about last week.
Where The Magic Happens
For Fear & Fancy, the art starts in the shared Flatbush brownstone the team calls the “Fear & Fancy Parlor.” Here four members of the group — Jidenna, Kateri, Nana and Fluent — dine, rehearse and perform rituals together. The public rituals include blessing the block with large sage sticks. Even their house parties are considered social rituals that take people from the “mundane to the magical” with high energy music, lighting effects and performance art that feels like you’re watching a hip hop vaudeville show.
An interior designer, Whippa’s elegant decor combines warm colors, up-cycled furniture, African masks and antique furnishings. The classic touch makes the living room we’re sitting in feel like a space for intellectuals and creative types from the Harlem Renaissance or Enlightenment. Still, the flat-screen TV, large speakers and floating bookshelf holding books like The New Jim Crow, show that the household is current and well connected to technology, pop culture and social reality.
Sitting across from Whippa on the Victorian settee she chose for its luxurious, but cozy feel, I’m relating to her on her downtime: no makeup or regalia, just a deeply genuine smile on her face and in her eyes. She puts down Don Miguel Ruiz’s Mastery of Love, to begin our interview on the mission, values and aesthetic of Fear & Fancy. As fun and light-hearted as her energy is, a discerning eye can easily sense Whippa’s depth and integrity; even at such a young age, she is a woman who has earned her serenity. In our conversation we laugh a lot, but also dig it deep discussing womanhood, how to relate to fear, the healing power of art and ritual, and, as always, what living unchained means to Whippa Wiley.
Post Hip-Hop Throwbacks
Like Janelle Monáe and every other Wondaland Arts Society artist, Fear & Fancy represents one simple truth: introspection and rump shaking are really just two sides of the same coin. As deeply as songs like “2X2” and “Musket Dance,” (from their 2009 mixtape, “The Playlist”) will make you think, others will make you “party and ponder” as the group says.
Still, the strength of the music goes beyond lyrical content. Songs like the unreleased, but popular live feature, “Antelope” show Fear & Fancy’s exceptional production. The track sounds like the musicality of Stromae met a laid-back Too $hort beat and found common ground. Over the intoxicating rhythm, Jidenna combines smart lyricism with a bluesy singing style reminiscent of Otis Redding. In one breath he raps, “I put in on her like an antelope.” And, in another he croons, “She put that sweeeet, sweeeet body on mine.”
Kateri’s role as a producer is exceptional given that it’s more common to see women as vocalists in the industry. She describes the Fear & Fancy sound as “post hip-hop.” This makes perfect sense given that musically and aesthetically, the group weaves elements of Billie Holiday, James Brown, André 3000 and Fela Kuti into their distinct tapestry. The sound the group describes as a “digital potluck of artistic ingenuity that bumps” is easier to immerse yourself in than define. As unique as their sound is, the music is still accessible. You can dance as creatively as you would to azonto or soca, or let it all out like you’re dancing to Major Lazer. The live performance of “Antelope” is certainly a celebration of the body.
When Fear Is Sacred
“All the world is fear and fancy. We are not saints, we are not abusers, we don’t demonize one and embrace the other.” Life according to Fear & Fancy is about appreciating and welcoming the balance between the pain (fear) and joys (fancy) of life. As Whippa says, “You wouldn’t know what pleasure was without pain and with too much pleasure, you become numb.”
Fear & Fancy encourages us to not run from our fear, but accept the feelings, experiences and settings that would normally put us in escape mode. And, if we didn’t have to label the fear as “bad,” we might re-consider how it serves us. In some cases, fear may be more than an indicator that there is something we need to avoid that might hurt us, but a sensor telling us something inside needs our attention. Following that feeling, we might actually find our freedom and healing instead of destruction.
Whippa’s unique appreciation for fear helped me reconsider the standard interpretation. In the English language, there is only one definition of fear, but others have more complex understandings. In Hebrew, fear can also be translated as yirah, which does not refer to an imagined anticipation of suffering or attack. Rather, yirah describes fear as a feeling of heightened energy when stepping into strange, but promising territory. Many visionaries and dreamers experience a sensation of righteous trembling when embarking on something challenging, but potentially transformative. According to Rabbi Lew, yirah can also be defined as “the feeling we feel when we are on sacred ground.”
At the Party Line Concert, I did feel some nervous energy when the performers pointed to the audience members, motioning us to join in the movements, raising the energy from the floor to the sky. Feeling the nerves and tension in my chest, I thought, please don’t pick on me, I’d feel so awkward… I sensed some of the people around me had the same feeling, trying to avoid eye contact with the performers. But, what if that feeling wasn’t nervousness or shyness? What could allowing ourselves to participate, while still feeling that sensation and not trying to run from it, have led to?
The reality is, there is probably no safer place to release your inhibitions than at a Fear & Fancy event. No one is judging you and everyone wants you to win. Perhaps this is why Fear & Fancy has earned such a dedicated New York following. Their free-spirited fans appreciate the music and aesthetic that says: “We’re just being us and we want it to inspire you to be you.” The tribe embodies my personal definition of what it means to Live Unchained: they show what it looks like, feels like and sounds like when you have nothing to prove and nothing to hide.
The door that opens you: The Emancipation Of Whippa Wiley
I tell Whippa how much I like the Fear & Fancy saying, “Joy is best when shared.” Beaming she adds: “And, food tastes better when you eat it with friends.” Whippa says there would be no need to spread joy if there were no pain. To imagine a new world, we must first see the one in front of us, for what it is. Whippa references Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, as a compelling explanation of structural racial inequality. “Things look different, but not much has changed,” she says.
But, believing in their stated commitment to “the power of love over the love of power,” they are not defeated but active. Whippa and Fear & Fancy have been passionate about providing practical support to youth. In the past, they have supported initiatives like the San Francisco Bay Area-based, History through Hip Hop-Mural Music & Arts Project, which by combining education with arts and technology, taught high school students literary and leadership skills as well as music performance, production, writing and recording. In New York, Fear & Fancy is involved with the Urban Arts Partnership’s program, ‘Fresh Prep.’ Whippa explains, “As Fear & Fancy, one of our missions is to ensure we are reaching young people. So, part of the work that we do when the sun is up is working with young people in New York City public schools through a program called ‘Fresh Prep’. We write curricula and test prep strategies into the lyrics of hip-hop songs in order to create something that students are able to use in their preparation for the state-required Regent’s exam.”
I’m preparing to ask the question we always end with, “What does living unchained mean to you?”, when Whippa politely interrupts me to pick up her book. Discussing art and freedom she says I mentioned something that reminded her of what she was reading in Mastery of Love, when I walked in. She quotes Ruiz saying: “We need to open the wounds and clean the wounds, use some medicine, and keep the wounds clean until they heal. How are we going to open the wounds? We are going to use the truth as a scalpel to open the wounds.” I’m caught off guard by how much this resonates with me. How many times have I tried to make something right in my life only to fall down painfully? Then, having stumbled, I thought I wasn’t making progress. What if the pain that I thought was hurting me was actually healing me as the truth was opening the wound? It still stings a little to accept, but the hurt and healing that truth brings just go hand in hand, like Fear & Fancy. Maybe referring to their performances as a “traveling medicine show” all goes back to balance: Fear & Fancy makes you ponder and party; they bring the truth, so they also bring the medicine.
So, what does living unchained mean to Whippa Wiley? She answers: “Realizing that you hold the master key to the present moment. Whenever we feel mentally fatigued, we’re locked in the past or future. We handcuff ourselves. We should realize that we have the keys to our own hand-cuffs…Living unchained means inviting the present moment to be your best friend.” In light of her commitment to youth education and social transformation through art, for Whippa, freedom is personal, but not selfish. Liberation is something she and Fear & Fancy want to see everyone, especially people of color, experience collectively. You can’t be truly free when, all around you, people are in chains.
Our conversation reminds me of my favorite verse, from my favorite Fear & Fancy song, set to an enchanting melody that feels like a cross between Sufjan Stevens’s “Chicago” and Janelle Monáe’s “Oh, Maker”, Daniel Callahan sings: “In the moment there’s a door that once you open opens you. When they told me I was going I was hoping you were too. Two by two. Two by two.” Before and during my interview with Whippa, I occasionally felt that familiar tension again. I repeated some of the questions twice and at times ran my words together. But, it wasn’t because I was afraid. I was feeling that righteous trembling, still taking in the inspiring art, energy and vision of Fear & Fancy. We had opened the door and the two of us were communing on yirah; Woman to woman, united by that noble fear. Then, sinking into the most comfortable Victorian daybed I have ever felt, I think: Who couldn’t get used to feeling this fancy?
Encore: You Can Be Mean When You Look This Clean
No discussion of Fear & Fancy would be complete without mentioning fashion. The women’s adornment is on point. They dress with the flare and extravagance of the women at a South American carnival as well as with the chic and classic sex appeal of Josephine Baker or Dorothy Dandridge. For Madams, the clothes are meant to reveal the woman, not her body.
Wearing suspenders, ascots and three-piece suits in bold colors and pinstripes, the men also take deep pride in their appearance and what it communicates. Nana jokes, “My Dad always said: it’s a lot you can get away with in a suit.” And, on a more serious note he adds: “As you get older, you start to become pre-occupied with different things, like your legacy, social responsibility, building wealth for your family. So, to me, it’s like, for young black men, it’s time to dress the part, essentially being dressed up.” They dress how they feel: empowered, swanky and confident livers of the good life.
And, according to Jidenna, there’s no reason to hate. On the chorus to “Classic Man” he raps: “You can be mean when you look this clean!”
Fear And Fancy’s Iconic Fashion
* Piece orginally published on liveunchained.com