Justen Leroy by Miriha Austin, Touched By an Angel Barbershop/Son studio, Los Angeles, Ca, 2019.
Los Angeles is presently in a resurgence state. Tensions began to rise after the murder of Black teen, Trayvon Martin, by a white man in Florida in 2012. Upon this rise in social, economic and political upheaval, tensions flared across the nation. Los Angeles was boiling over into a socially conscious and change-based arts renaissance. As I was fumbling my way through the scene, searching for a community to belong to, and spaces that gave me courage through safety, to be vulnerable in, I learned of Justen Leroy through newer friends. I had seen this polished, brown-skinned, young man hustling around the Underground Museum not long after I became a regular visitor there, and popping and rolling at the few parties I crawled out to now and again. I was instantly drawn to the confidence in his movement, the genuine energy you felt with each glance of his broad smile and his full-toned voice, so nostalgic, it reminded me of Blackness the moment I caught it. Sometime later, Justen collaborated with our mutual friend, Autumn Randolph, in an intimate creative space she cultivated. The event ticked all the boxes for me, close to home, a few friends assured me they would be there and it would allow me to fulfill some of the inquiries I had about Justen without prodding too much on my own accord. I was IN THERE!
The evening included a film screening and a conversation between the filmmaker and Justen. The poise and authenticity I witnessed emerging from Justen that evening was inspiring. I could physically sense his passion for the work he was doing, for the conversation he was having. It felt like a private moment we were allowed to witness, like flies on the wall. When I began to rework the essence and intentions of TOAN Magazine, I knew right away that individuals like Justen are exactly whom I wanted to uplift, speak to and learn from.
As I worked through the tedious details of this conversation's launch, he was nothing short of patient, flexible, and open with me. This experience I was having with Justen, as we tried to nail down dates and maneuver through unexpected hiccups, was introducing me to his spirit, and that spirit is the foundation of Son Studio. With this, he intends to create spaces that will contribute to a cultural shift that reframe, re-energize, and reimagine the Black male body, and the way that it is perceived. He embodies what he aims to teach. You see it in his actions and you feel it in his energy.
I can say with full confidence that my experience with Justen Leroy was not a one-off. Darol Olu Kae had the pleasure of sitting in conversation with Justen. This is what they explored...
the portion of the conversation we have shared begins after Darol and Justen were discussing what art and music were like before their high school years...
Justen LeRoy: ...I was just sort of tryna find a way, any kind of way, and [I was] always doing a high level of research. I bought my first album at three…
Darol Olu Kae cuts in: you bought your first album at THREE?!
…Well, I had a close connection to Brandy, my dad was her bodyguard, and I’ve always been into the liner notes of things. I've always wanted to know where it was recorded, who was involved, and all that stuff. So that’s kind of just been an affinity that has grown and grown into this. You know, the deeper practice of it all.
That’s the perfect Segway, your point on liner notes. Let's think about SON and how your curiosities led to that. Where did the idea come from? What things in your life led to the manifestation of your want, or need, to create SON?
I mean, I’ve felt like there was a really huge lacking. I felt like as a… you know, me existing in my Black maleness, I really couldn’t look to a thing that really represented who I was and a lot of people in my life. I felt like we always had these type-casted roles within media and what the performance is and I think I’ve just always known that the performance of who we are was so much more than what we’ve seen of ourselves.
How did you know?
Because it was just me. For me I just kind of knew that the performance wasn’t something that really was in sync with me no matter how hard I tried to be a part of that performance. It just wasn’t me. Throughout childhood I just wanted to be one of the boys so badly and it just wasn’t that (laughs). Throughout life I began to realize nobody is really one of the boys, like, no one is really that. It’s all quite a performance.
So you recognized very early on this performance of black maleness, how limiting it was and how you existed outside of these boundaries?
Definitely. I think I was finding bits and pieces of that later in high school through social outlets like tumblr, which is responsible for a lot of what I know today. Finding platforms like Street Etiquette and you know, just finding a pool of information given out by black men who weren’t a part of the performance and who were very interested in carving their own.
When you talk about performance, what are we talking about specifically?
Hyper-masculinity or the complete opposite, which is like being hyper-feminine. I feel like there’s a way in which, you know it’s not that black and white, there's ways to really exist as who you are, which might be very well in the middle of it, or it could be on the end of each of those spectrums. I knew I wanted to create a space where no matter where you were within that you could identify with whatever this is. I knew that there were people who were getting to the kind of conversation that I was interested in having but never really going there. People that I felt had the platform just wasn’t really pushing it that hard. I felt like something was missing. I felt like I had a responsibility since I see this thing that’s not here. I didn’t know what it would be, I didn’t know how I would do it but I felt like there was something there that needed work. For example, I was also looking at a lot of what women of color, specifically Black women, were really doing.
Getting guidance from Black women and their doings. Not only now, but forever. I am always creating walls of community and support and looking at the work they’ve done for us. I really couldn’t look at anybody within my generation and say, “You’re doing that work.”
In terms of Black males or…
In terms of Black males and not to say that it’s not happening but it’s so far from people’s lives to where nobody knows that this is happening if it is happening. Making it accessible.
Justen Leroy by Miriha Austin, Touched By an Angel Barbershop/Son studio, Los Angeles, Ca, 2019.
Justen Leroy by Miriha Austin, Touched By an Angel Barbershop/Son studio, Los Angeles, Ca, 2019.
Were there models for this kind of boundless Black maleness in your personal life? In terms of Black males that you were around who encouraged you. Maybe they didn’t personify this in full, but kind of gave you glimpses of like, “you know what, I don’t have to necessarily fit into this box.”
A lot of my friends. No one else growing up. No one family-wise. None of that was actually there but I knew that it was out there. I guess because I was on the internet, but, you know. I think people like you, people like my friend Aryn, I think people like my friend George, both who help me with SON. I feel like in my life I didn’t have that very close to me and then growing up I was fortunate enough to meet a lot of great young, Black men who were doing amazing work but none of them really knew each other. Creating a network through tumblr, creating a network through The Underground [Museum].
So, you've made connections largely through digital spaces?
Yeah, definitely. That's where my sense of possibility really came from. I knew things could be done but I didn’t know to the extent or how big or how in-the-crevices things could be done. I think through the internet, seeing people doing their work, it taught me about the work that I could be doing. Through all of that work I didn’t see anything like SON. So, it sort-of just came from a lack of, me needing that personally, and me knowing that if I could bring this together I could really find a way for people who felt like there was no space for them to exist in. I felt like that first shoot that we did, you know, I brought together people who would never be in the same room, but it was like… it worked!
It's interesting because you’re talking about the idea coming from a digital space, right? It's immaterial but you’re like a conduit, you deal with the immaterial and you make it manifest in the real world. A lot of the things SON does takes place in the physical, it’s not entirely through a digital space. Can you expand on that?
I feel like I understood these conversations through the internet but it was very important for me to create physical space. I felt as though I never really had that space and we still don’t have that space, at all. It’s one thing for something to be on the internet, great, everybody has access to it, but it’s incredible to be in a room with people who you have never met before who are trying to undo all of the same things and realize all of the same things and just what those heart to hearts can do after a conversation. I don’t know If you were at the John Edmonds talk, but I felt like people really connected after that. The conversation was about the representation of the black male body and photography and how John uses his work to really deconstruct what we’ve known from that form.
As you describe the benefits of these conversations I wonder what the opposing environment was like for you as you grew from a child. If the spaces you spent your childhood and teenage years in lacked these conversations, what was the environment like?
So, I grew up here in Los Angeles, completely South Central. Most of my time was spent around Crenshaw and Slauson. I went to school right at View Park on Crenshaw and Slauson. I grew up with two parents who were not together, so I was always going back and forth, back and forth. There wasn't any stability on my mother’s end. We dealt with homelessness for my entire childhood, up until we actually separated when I was 16. I kind of had to just figure it out on my own because I just couldn’t, you know, no more. There was a lot of taking responsibility at a young age and I never really had the luxury of just taking things as they were or letting things be. There was always a fixing that needed to be done in my situations and I feel like that’s impacted how I see the world. There’s always something better, there’s always some work that needs to be done to achieve a certain level of comfort. You know? Comfort is something I never had dealing with the homelessness. On top of that I was in a custody thing so I would be with my mom for two weeks and then with my dad for two weeks and just never really able to plant my feet anywhere. I think that’s why space is so important to me.
Because you literally haven’t had these spaces, like these permanent spaces?
A permanent anything. A space where no matter where, sun pops up. It’s like we’re putting our roots there, we’re leaving our impact there. You know that it’s been there and its seen as part of this ongoing, very permanent conversation. So, kind of seeing all these things as like, the space, for now, until Son actually does have something like that.
Because you were moving around so much was it hard to establish connections with folks you grew up with? Were you able to retain friendships?
That was not something that was difficult. I’ve been able to maintain friendships but I think that has been upcoming I guess, just really wanting to plant roots. I think it’s also had a damper on, maybe not friendships, but romantic relationships. A lack of relationships due to it all, just not really understanding stability and always relying on myself really, and finding that in other people. I think that Son is a tool for me to open up in that way and begin really deep relationships and build community. I’ve never had that.
What are some of those characteristics that you’ve recognized? Can you give that transition a language? Specifically, can you give what they transitioned into and out of a language?
In the beginning, it's selfless[ness], that everybody has. There’s just this open-eyed… This umm, simple humanity in allowing oneself to feel and, you know, just like… I don’t know how to really describe it. Like, how would you describe what you see in Malachi.
Yeah… So for me, its innocence. But, there’s also, with that innocence, a confidence in self, right? He’s not questioning who he is, he’s existing. He’s existing and he’s in relationship to others. But, in his relationship to others his existence isn’t diminished by who they are, he’s still inquisitive about himself and his relationship to the world. He’s always asking “what is this,” “Why not?” Even challenging authority, he’s like “Why?!” Why do you tell me what to do?” It's not this acceptance of the norm, automatically it’s a questioning of the norm. I think that’s very foundational.
Yeaaahh! Exactly! It’s that level of individuality that is so unique. Something that is so Malachi, that is so You, that is so Me, that we all have. Then it just kind of… you know. I think through life and the pressures that are applied onto us through the people that we care most about in life, who sort of want to toughen us up, don’t realize that they’re kind of yanking that from us. Mom’s doing it, Dad’s doing it.
Have you had to go through that?
Yeeah!! Oh, hell yeah. I mean… I was definitely a very soft lil’ guy.
Mhm… What does that mean? What does it mean to be soft?
I just wanted to just like… I was very relaxed. I was very, I mean, I’m the same person. I remember all my thoughts from when I was three, four, five. I remember certain ways that I went about my friendship with people would backfire on me and I would be called soft, in another type of way. The softness I’m talking about is caring and I always wanted to share information. I love music and I liked to dance, like I do now, and I liked to sing, like I do now. Back then, that was kinda… not, you know, cool.
So to express yourself in these different mediums, whether it be through dance or singing, this kind of expressivity that you shared is considered to be soft?
Yeah. Which would have been okay if I was interested in or picked up football or something like that, but I wasn’t interested, like I didn’t care, haha.
So if you would have been involved in sports you would have been able to express yourself through violence…
Exactly. Never been in a fight in my entire life, something was wrong with that, you know. If I would have been violent, if I would have been rowdy, if I would have been loud… Which I did become, loud. That was kind of my way of finding or creating some sort of placing for myself ‘cause I didn’t know where to place myself authentically within institutions and stuff. In middle school I became the funny guy, humor. Just, taking up space. Through my experience I learned that was very important, to take us space. To make myself known. I couldn’t do it in the hypermasculine way so I was like, let me just be loud and funny and let me not dance, let me not sing. Let me not do any of the things that umm…
Did you still dance in the privacy of your own home?
Right, but lost confidence in it all, of me existing that way in the world, which I’m just learning to do that. We were just talking about that, about me hiding behind projects and as an adult I just have to take accountability. But yeah, learning to take up space, which is a very hyper-masculine trait… What was the question again, hahaha.
I was thinking about this idea of soft or softness and how for you what softness represented as being caring and loving and wanting to share, and dominant society, especially for us particularly as Black males in L.A. surrounded by gang-culture, softness is the thing you can’t be. That’s the one thing that’s not allowed. So how do exist in this world, in this space, without throwing that core of yourself away. How did you keep that alive? You were talking about how you negotiated that relationship by being loud and developing a sense of humor that kind of allowed you to remain yourself but also to exist in these spaces.
There were music choices that weren’t… I remember I went to the record store with my dad and I think I picked up, I was looking at something very pop and he was like “Boyyy you…” and me just being like “what's wrong with me?”
How old were you?
I was like, 9…
And what year was it when you were 9?
okay, yeah. What was happening in 2003 was, like, Dipset I remember.
Yeah!! And I wasn’t buying that. I remember going out and getting a Cassidy and Chingy album just to balance out the Ashanti album that I bought.
I never really listened to the Chingy album, I never listened to the Cassidy record.
But that Ashanti though?
It was the BOMB! That first album was it, man.
(much more laughter, a whole kee-kee)
It ended up always being an issue with me just wanting to be me and I think if I had the language back then, at nine, to say why I liked these things maybe it would have helped, maybe, or maybe not. Now I know what it is. Now I know, there’s a sense of melody and sound that I just like and gravitate to.
What is that sense of melody, or what is that sound? As you’re exploring sound now, what is that connected to? How is it related to this idea of softness or caring and loving? Is it in anyway related to those aspects as opposed to the boom-bap?
I love ballads, all the Babyface stuff. I love all the David Foster, Huge. I like that!
Why do you like that? What do you like about it?
I don’t know why I like that…
Thinking about dance, thinking about music, contemporary music.
There’s a slowness. I like how there’s a timelessness.
So it sounds like your approach is to diagnose, so to speak, internally. Son is like this on a larger scale and where you're not just looking internally, you're looking at Black maleness in general. But, the same musicality, the same relationship through sound, and place, and Black maleness and using it as a vehicle to cleanse and purify us of these toxic notions, stereotypes and limiting beliefs that we carry in relationship to ourselves but also our relationship to women, time, power, sexuality... Any and everything, it seems like this is the space where it is happening. It's allowing me to get a better sense of what you're doing with the events and everything through SON, extrapolating from your very personal experience to create a social space where this can happen, not just for you but...
For everybody... yes. I'm very invested in, not just everybody coming together to share the space and to be part of this community but I want everybody individually to grow and walk away as better people from each thing. Because of the talk that we did with John [Edmonds] was because his work was at CAAM and from that same talk, Tyler, who was the moderator went to New Mexico based off of that to be part of a conference. Somebody else just told me something worked out for them based off of something that we did and that's what I care about. This isn't a ME ME ME thing, it's literally, I want everybody to be in a better position after, you know?
And it comes from a very personal space, of not having a home, always having to move... I get a better understanding of SON through understanding your personal background and your upbringing and relationships.
Furthering that, and doing very difficult work, now what it's all come to is me bringing that to sound. It's very difficult. I approached you about writing something in bringing together a conversation between Fred Moten and Okwui [Enwezor]. I'm thinking, okay, how do I manifest that level of performance through sound? How do I manifest Fred's writings through sound? How can I create that texture and that kind of rigor with sound? That's something that's kind of external, it feels, but closer to me is the barbershop thing.
How did ya'll get to the place you are in now? Your notions and ideas of space and sound are at the barbershop.
Through the talks that we've been having, I understood the rhythm of the talks to be more women than men and being men who were really already kind of in on the conversation that I was trying to have. Sure, this was a chance for them to further investigate but they already knew that they were within the culture of like happenings. I felt that was very unproductive and I knew that when I went to the barbershop I knew who I saw and I knew what they were talking about and it wasn't nothing productive (laughs). It's those same cycles of misogyny happening, homophobia happening. There could be someone who identifies as gay in this space while these conversations are happening and it immediately becomes a very unsafe space. And so many other things! Just seeing kids there too, receiving all of this. Why would I have a talk about this somewhere in a performance space when I can just take it to where I know men are already talking. This conversation is already happening here and folks are already passionate about the conversations that are happening here. How can I bring something that shifts the culture to the people that I actually want to see the shift from? Not that there's anything wrong with the way in which everybody is existing but as men, we can do better.
Justen LeRoy // community organizer, sound artist.
Miriha Austin // interdisciplinary artist, educator and organizer.
Darol Olu Kae // program curator, filmmaker and researcher.