The Queer Love Ballads of Be Steadwell
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Netflix is fucking up our sex lives.
By Nick Fouriezos
There’s a song I desperately want to ask Be Steadwell about. The track, part of her 2016 album Jaded, is the sonic incarnation of Aziz Ansari’s book Modern Romance. Like the New York Times best-seller, Steadwell hits the torrents of desire, disassociation and, frankly, disappointment that mark my generation’s modern — aka digitized — relationships with ourselves and others. “We get in bed with the device. We fall asleep by the screen light,” her voice, firm and dissipating like melting ice, liquidates in a tragically hilarious refrain: “Netflix is fucking up my sex life.”
Talking to the 29-year-old singer on Google Hangouts, watching as her partly shaved curls, thick glasses and facial piercings dissolve into the static of a shitty connection, it’s hard not to laugh at the cosmic irony. When we talked she was in London, touring not just the jazz-acapella-folk blend she calls “pop&soul” but also her indie narrative Vow of Silence, which was making the global queer-film-festival circuit. After completing an MFA in film at Howard University, Steadwell was selected as the 2016 Strathmore Artist in Residence, also receiving a $5,000 fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts. The Northwest D.C. daughter of a white father and a Black mother didn’t set out to be disruptive. “It didn’t really occur to me,” she says, but singing about herself was instant fodder for political and societal critique, the side effect of being a queer Black woman. “I’ve always been hungry for media that spoke to my experience.”
Steadwell’s live performances use a mix of layered loop-pedal vocals and beat boxing to replicate the haunting echoes of her recorded work. “Something is definitely missing,” she says, referring back to technology’s grip on our lives (and hearts), but “it’s not all so bad.” Case in point: She owes much of her career to YouTube, where she gets tens of thousands of views, and goes by B Steady. Her next big project stays true to her funky roots, a script about a southern town where enslaved Africans drowned during the triangle trade but form an empowering community underwater. Steadwell brings up one of the year’s hottest hashtags, #BlackGirlMagic. “On a basic level, I just want us to claim our own power. And also, I love Harry Potter. Can we have a Harry Potter that is a little more about us?”
There’s a risk that Steadwell and her work will get typecast, pigeonholed into a dusty record-store corner: Ballads … Black Ballads …Queer Black Ballads. “There are all sorts of brilliant artists who make unique, challenging music,” says David Barbe, director of the University of Georgia’s Music Business Program, “but you’re not going to hear it on a Cadillac commercial.” She’s heard the advice from industry professionals and musicians, telling her not to call her music queer because it’s alienating. “I get that. That’s legit,” she says. “But again, most of the songs I write are love songs, and they’re love songs about women. I guess it could be alienating, but ideally, it’s just a human story.”