BHM: CAN WE TALK ABOUT TEVIN CAMPBELL?
February 12, 2019
I was born in a perfect moment. If there ever were a time to be born a black gay man, he would want to be born in 1991. This means by adulthood, you would’ve just missed the AIDs epidemic and been too young to have to be expected to clean up the J.L. King and Oprah controversy about the downlow where every woman was afraid their husband was secretly sleeping with men without their knowledge. In your mid-twenties, you would’ve seen Black gay and queer men make strides. Tarell Alvin McCraney won an Oscar for gay black film, Moonlight. Frank Ocean was nominated and won countless Grammy’s including one for his debut album, Channel Orange. Lee Daniels owns television with hit shows Star and Empire. RuPaul has gone from a campy character only existing for comedic relief into a gay empire fashioned after classic, queer camp and Oprah’s business savvy thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race. Why yes, even today’s resistance movements includes black gay men with the rise of DeRay McKesson as one of the public activists at the forefront of mainstream visibility. Rap superstar, Jay-Z dedicates a song to his lesbian mother and a more inclusive, queer-friendly world is ready to hear it. Stevie Wonder plays in between Jay-Z’s LGBTQI+ affirming rap bars. 1991 was the perfect moment to be born black and gay.
I recognize that a lot of my success and opportunity could not be possible in any other moment. I tasted success as a writer first with a children’s book entitled, Large Fears, centering a queer black boy. Today, I exist as a visibly queer, almost trans femme black gay man and I am popular. I have been able to build a business around my identity and talent that does not just solely request for me to be used, but also seen. I am not requested to be in the shadows. This is a black, gay moment that I am sure Essex Hemphill, Marlon Riggs, and Sylvester could hardly imagine for a little, black sissy. And this would not be possible if I weren’t born in 1991.
To be fair, in this American project, there has never been a great time to be born Black and queer, but since I am, I am glad I was born in 1991. Because some people were born in 1976.
Tevin Campbell had the world’s ears with his eager lyrics and youthful, romantic melodies that turned him into a type of pre-teen, R&B casanova. In 1993, the world was his when I was was just being acquainted with the world. He was set to have the clean transition from young crooner to adult star because of the tinge of maturity preserved in his music and image. He was never presented too old to be seen as inappropriate, but not too young to seem frozen in his youth. He was primed in a way that Michael Jackson and Bobby Brown could only wish. He wouldn’t need to break molds or preconceived notions because he was already being set up for longevity in the R&B and Hip-Hop world.
In 2003, when Tevin Campbell was 26 years-old, just one year older than I am now, he spoke to Sister 2 Sister magazine. He was asked about his sexuality and said, “I’m not gay, but there are a lot of different things that I do like, sexually. Being in the business, you are introduced to a lot of different things. I’m not gay but I’m a freak and I think a lot of people know what a freak is.” The interview was in print, but you could almost see the squinted eyes of the interviewer and the salivating tongue, knowing if she pushed this conversation in just the right way she would have a scandal on her hands. She pushed. Campbell responded, “I am not exclusively attracted to men. I’m not gay, but sexually…” She interrupts and attempts to conclude her scandal, “Bisexual?” He responds, “No, just TRY-sexual.”
Tevin Campbell halted his career with one interview and response. Even in a pre-twitter and gossip site American pop culture, it was enough to undo Tevin’s R&B career. In 2003, there was no room for a R&B singer that might be queer. Because of this Campbell was promptly erased leaving nothing behind, but homophobic jokes and scandal. Congruently, in 2003, R. Kelly released “Chocolate Factory” which went on to go multi-platinum the year after a videotape surfaced of him urinating on an underaged girl.
Like life, culture is easy to make sense of when you think of it from moment to moment. Not just moments that have been created, but moments that were missed. Tevin Campbell seems to be that missed moment. It seems that if he came just a few years later, he would have had a totally different career, and if not total, at least slightly shifted. Tevin Campbell may have not been so quickly erased for his comments. He might’ve just collaborated with Makonnen or Frank Ocean. He might have had dinner with Don Lemon and Jay-Z’s mom. He might be on a panel with me discussing gay/queer black men in media.
Media does not create. It exploits and surveils. Toni Morrison said, “The media originates nothing; it simply digests what exists.” So, it should not be a surprise that a community that has been enlisted for years for fashion expertise, cultural innovation in language and dance, humor, and conceptualizing artistic worlds would one day catch the attention and be gazed upon by the mainstream media. And it should also not surprise us when this interest passes. Media isn’t a nurturing person, it is a cannibalistic machine. The people who participate in media, however, do not have to take on the nature of media itself. We can create. We can tell the truth. We can be fair. And in the case of Tevin Campbell, we can remember those who were just moments too soon with their own truth and innovation.