Breaking CultureMusicSex & Gender

tony washington, the forgotten gay superstar

September 25, 2019
116 Picks

We do most of the things we do in life to subside the fiery feeling of wasting our time. This is where doom and anxiety meet, and your stomach reacts as if someone took something from you. There’s only one thing worse than something slipping out of your fingers and that’s the feeling that something has slipped out of your fingers.

Among life’s most popular stories are the ones full of broken dreams. Dashed hopes that could have been an alternative, better realities that will never be realized because of a split-second decision that was incorrectly chosen. These are the things are that adult nightmares are made of, but they also occur on grander stages. Like a Soul Train taping in 1974.

Tony Washington was sultry, dressed in yellow. He looked like a dream, backed up by four other moving and crooning Black men that danced around a split microphone. Tony Washington, however, was the star, and he was a generous one. He moved romantically around, as couples danced in front of him, as if he was a Black gay cupid and the whole room was Venus. And Washington was just that, as he sang a song with a sentiment like, “a penny could buy you plenty. A nickel was the fare. To take you anywhere. Troubles, we didn’t have many. I may not have much to speak of but there’ll always be plenty of love.”

It might be through my projection, my inability to know nothing more tragic in 2019 than not being as recognized as your talents should have made you, but Tony Washington did break my heart. Or maybe, again, I broke my own heart and confused it for something I saw in his eyes that felt familiar: a hope for the future. I still have it and fight to preserve it, but hope in someone’s eyes when you know their fate in the context of culture, is tragic. Tony Washington would die as a name that only a handful of people know, as someone that even Black music historians look over. 

Washington’s story feels tragic to me because it wasn’t that his talent, vision, or skills were not up to par for superstardom, but that he was ahead of his time. The idea of being ahead of one’s time is often branded on someone as accomplishment, a badge of originality in a monotonous world, however, the heartbreak and loneliness that exists in someone that is doing everything perfectly in an imperfect world, not ready for what they have to offer must be recognized.

This week, Billboard, a magazine and chart-keeping platform known for their centering of mainstream music — or music that has somehow hit the zeitgeist — proudly splashed “queer” on their cover. I think about the plethora of Black queer musicians today, most recently and popularly Lil Nas X, who have been able to get their slices of global recognition even after revealing themselves as queer. I think about a Tony Washington that, momentarily, made a great impact on mainstream popular music, but whose very existence opened up space for an infinite stream of possibilities that he could have never anticipated. He just sang from his heart.

Listening to “Shoe Shoe Shine,” the hit single by Washington’s group, The Dynamic Superiors,  with new ears and mind, my relationship to the lyrics is transformed, as Tony sings in his delicate falsetto, “First of all. Let’s get one thing straight. All the things you desire will have to come late.” The song is about gratitude, about not having much, but retaining patience; that sometimes the good feeling of doing what you are put on Earth to do is what matters, and the results — the fame, the virality, the stardom — are gifts that are not guaranteed and may never actually be experienced by you. Maybe, in the cosmos right now, Tony Washington sings lullabies to Zora Neal Hurston, as they revel in their knowledge that doing what you love is the gift. Not the getting of what you think you want or need. In fact, the not getting of what you thought you needed to access bliss, is the gift.

It is only once you realize this, that you understand that Black superstardom is a birthright, a way of being and of knowing. It’s not a destination on a chart. It’s the state of the heart.