Black Cracker aka Ellison Renee Glenn is a man of many talents. With a pluralistic vision, he’s breaking down barriers in the music industry, expanding the breadth of his creative output and barreling forward into the spotlight. Working as an MC, poet, producer, visual artist, performer and publisher, Black Cracker’s bucket list keeps getting longer. His audience base is growing and as an artist and a person, he’s flourishing alongside every experience and opportunity seized.
Born in Alabama, Black Cracker was raised between the US and Europe, finally moving to New York and then Paris, Lausanne and Berlin: a man of trans experience finding himself in his home body and with a newfound freedom to create the world he envisions. I caught up with Black Cracker at his home studio in Berlin to find out more about his range of projects underway. He proudly shared his latest mesmerizing music video ‘TIDE’, and we had the chance to talk about poetry, theater, race and privilege, the branding of queer culture, neurochemistry, and falling in love.
Getting a start in the visual arts, Black Cracker moved to New York City to study at theNew York Studio Residency Program in Tribeca but dropped out after one semester. “I quit art. That shit’s gross, at least for me. At the time, they wanted to make the commodification of the artist. Commodification of the art is one thing, but they wanted to sell me as this token and it made me uncomfortable to be so invisible.”
Music and spoken word were always an integral part of his practice. While living in New York, Black Cracker taught poetry with Urban Word NYC and spent time in hundreds of schools with thousands of students teaching them to have a voice and sense of individuality. Through poetry, rap and hip-hop soon became his preferred mode of expression. “Music for me was an escape outside of totalitarian social responsibility. I felt like making music was more like going into an abstract creative space. I always thought I’d make music and it’d be abstract and fun and non-political, because sound is not fundamentally political in the same way that words are. Sounds don’t carry the same weight – or, at least, not musical sounds. So I thought I was escaping this political universe, but it’s still with me. I always associated it with poetry, but it’s actually just a fundamental part of my interests.”
Nevertheless, the art world has stayed within close reach. In the corner of the room, between the bench press and the window plants, the summer light shines in on a book cover with a handsome and muscly half-naked trans person. It was the freshly minted catalogue from the Homosexuality_ies at the Schwules Museum, where Black Cracker had just performed an improv, DJ, live music, and spoken word set for the opening. The exhibition is a celebration of self, gender and sexuality. Black Cracker (who often takes issue with the public labelling of gender) was proud to be part of this exhibition, helping promote a positive image of male sexuality: “Especially these days, I feel like male sexuality is super repressed.” Part of the exhibition that is hosted in theDeutsches Historisches Museum also displays his video ‘Living Right’ (2014) from the album Poster Boy. The video is made of 2D jpegs that have been spliced to create a parallax effect that becomes almost 3D, translating the act of cutting music for producing and composing into a visual format. “I was doing this to explore my own evolution, taking something two-dimensional and flat and giving it some life.”
As an active collaborator, Black Cracker built up his career and musical work with past partners like CocoRosie and Bunny Rabbit. Current projects include two jazz bands. One is a collective called Grand Pianoramax, with whom he is touring Japan and Switzerland this summer and the other is called Kiku, featuring Blixa Bargeld, who is best known for working with Nick Cave. Most recently, Black Cracker has been seen on stage in the theater working with various ensemble groups including Gritty Glamourat Ballhaus Naunystraße, and as part of T/HE/Y – a dance theater project with Océan LeRoy and Josep Caballero García at HAU3 during the Männliche Weiß Heterofestival. “The premise of the piece was that we had to learn each other’s work through the background of masculinity. We were exploring different aspects of masculinity and how the body responds to foreign movements.” The show offered a chance for the three performers – one rapper, one Pina Bausch dancer, and one drag king – to exchange and share experiences with one another, making visible their struggles to perform different social expectations of ‘maleness’.
On the horizon is a solo concert at the YoSissy Music Festival, and then a book project that he is making with writer Ricardo Domeneck called Your + 1, which will be published through Black Cracker’s label Gully Havoc at the end of the summer. The book is a culmination of texts edited from a poetry reading series called READING that Black Cracker and Domeneck regularly host in non-traditional spaces throughout Berlin. Included are up and coming international poets and writers like Cia Rinne, John Holten, Travis Jeppesen, Aleksandr Skidan, Hanne Lippard, Annika Henderson andChristian Hawkey. The next READING event is definitely worth keeping an eye out for, as it will be held at the local underground hotspot Ficken 3000.
Working across genres, Black Cracker finds himself deeply connected to a dialogue about social responsibility and is already developing ideas for his next performance piece. “Creatively, there’s a lot to explore with the poetics of privilege and really explore what privilege is, what it is not and why some people don’t recognize they have it. For me, amongst many of my peers, it’s something they’ve had a real challenge to understand particularly with all the violence going on in the States and all the appropriation directed at one community that happens to have brown skin. Like now, people are seeing all this violence, but I don’t think they really understand what it means to experience it everyday. We all have our things like size, gender, and class or whatever. But in general, it’s all just extra shit. It’s a matter of layers obstructing the source.” Lyrics in his music reflect upon this pluralistic vision with songs such as ‘TIDE’ which begin: “Come as you are, I am what I am, you are a star, the earth in my hands, and I like it like that, yeah I like you like that…we got the sun on our backs, now there’s no turning back, we are a hesitant tide, back and forth and then back.”
Still, he sees that society is nowhere near ready to accept all humans equally. Even with the increasing hype about queer culture filtering into the mainstream and famous figures such as Caitlyn Jenner making her transition on such a public platform, Black Cracker warns of false presumptions about a rise of a new ‘Post-Gender Era’ stating: “It’s a heightened gender era! Gender is everything. It’s everything about how we are indoctrinated into humanity. It’s so much about the social structure and culture that you can’t uproot it. Just like how you can’t avoid race. These things aren’t going anywhere because they’re built into everything.“ However, along with this heightened discourse in the market driven public sphere come the aspects of branding that are often reflected back on him. “I think everyone makes the choices for how they brand things. It’s their business. But I don’t like it when people put a brand on me and that’s where I struggle. By nature of doing this shit, I’m adapting a brand that I didn’t ask for. On a personal level, I question, how can I bring about the change that I want to see on different levels?”
When it comes to creative influence, Black Cracker’s interests run the gamut. In terms of music, he cites artists that range from MikeQ who is making ballroom to Yung Thugand I love Makonnen stating: “It’s super creative, super futuristic and super progressive in terms of the structure of the writing, the music and the relationship between the rhythms.“ Though, he admits that he doesn’t spend much time listening to music these days and rather sources brain food on topdocumentaryfilms.com. “I watch a lot of Science of the Sexes because I need an advantage with the ladies.” Films and writings by the Biological Anthropologist Helen Fisher are a recent favorite. Fisher studied love, attraction, and sexuality though brain activity, deconstructing how the mix of serotonin, estrogen, testosterone, or dopamine can determine whom you are generally attracted to. “I think it’s crazy that we walk around in these bodies and they dictate so much, but we don’t know much about them. I mean, we’re going to Mars, but we can’t understand why we are the way we are.”
All photographs by Ériver Hijano.
First published on berlinartlink.com, July 13th, 2015.