It was an encounter with police during last year’s uprisings that changed the course of Kemar Jewel’s work.
Jewel, an artist and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Philadelphia, recalled the incident recently in an interview. He and other demonstrators had begun protesting in Brooklyn, marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan, where police confronted protesters and teargassed them on May 31, 2020. He remembers running away from the vapors, while three officers rushed toward him.
“One of the cops, he had shoved me to the ground and said, ‘Move,’” Jewel said. “As soon as he shoved me and I hit the ground, I looked up at him. And he looked back and he gave me this look, you know? And once again, I’m not stupid. I know. I’m a tall Black man. And he’s a white cop, right? So all he got to do is say that I threatened him or I looked at him the wrong way. And then I’m on the news, murdered.
“I just turned my head, and I scurried away,” Jewel continued. “And I was so hurt. I actually was really hurt by that. I cried the entire night. And what came out of it was, I was able to put all that pain into my art.”
Jewel, who was born in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and raised in Yeadon, made a name as a filmmaker when his short film Voguing Train caught fire on the internet in 2014. It centered on a group of dancers from the ballroom community, Jewel among them, voguing down inside SEPTA’s Walnut-Locust station. Last June, Jewel released the short dance film Vogue 4 #BlackLivesMatter, drawing on his experiences at protests and lifting up vogue as a form of resistance.
“That was the first time that one of my videos had a strong political or social message,” Jewel, 29, said. “And that was the first time I realized, like, ‘Oh, my art can be entertaining, but it also can be activism as well.’”
Earlier this month, Jewel released another short film, SOFT: A Love Letter to Black Queer Men. The film was featured Friday at the international streamed event Global Black Pride. SOFT shows a healing journey for a Black queer person who’d been abused at home for their queerness and femininity, told through contemporary dance.
The film, which features artists who’ve danced for Philadanco, the Philadelphia Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre, hits close to the heart for Jewel, whose family kicked him out of their home for being gay in October 2007, a month before his 16th birthday. Jewel was housing insecure for two years. He says he made it through that time through couch surfing, sex work, and riding the El from 69th Street to Frankford to get some sleep before school. He went to Community College of Philadelphia for two years before transferring to Temple, where he learned the craft of directing.
He explained that he would like Black queer men to feel seen in SOFT, but also for people with Black queer men in their lives and families to remember to care for them and to affirm them.
“I’m hoping that they will see this and be like, ‘Wow, I never realized how important it is for me to hug other people or tell them that I love them,’” Jewel said.
Jewel spoke to The Inquirer about the film, femininity, and healing. This interview had been edited and condensed for length.
How do you see yourself as I guess, like, a filmmaker who so often captures movement? Why does it matter so much to you?
Because dance is the one thing that I can control with my body. It’s something that I can put out to the world that I know that I’m doing myself. And actually, Alvin Ailey has a quote that says, “I believe that the dance came from the people and that it should always be delivered back to the people.” And I really do believe that, that there is this communication between people.
There was a quote from Lester Mayers’ poem in the film that goes, “Black femininity has the strongest energy in the world.” Could you share your thoughts on that?
I think Black femininity is one of the strongest energies in the world. Just look at Black women and all that they do, and how they provide, and how they create, and how they make everything better. From the homes to fashion to entertainment, you know, Beyoncé! (laughs) Black femininity is so powerful … But yet when a man does it or someone who is perceived as masculine does it, then it’s like, oh, no, absolutely not.
I do believe that, in my opinion, that everyone has masculine and also feminine energies, like, within them. It’s really disheartening when people in a community try to act like that isn’t true, or try to tell people that if you do this, you are this type of person.
There is literally nothing like being around Black women and Black feminine energy. Like, it’s just, it’s healing, it’s family, it’s community, it’s soft, you know. And, Black men can also be soft.
Can you expand on what soft means to you?
A lot of Black queer poets and playwrights from yesteryear and also today have written about Black men being together and being soft with themselves or being gentle or, you know, some other type of synonym for soft, right? People like — and it’s funny many of those people are from Philly — Joseph Beam, Essex Hemphill, Assotto Saint, Donja R. Love, so many of those people talked about Black men loving each other, it being this revolutionary act.
For me, personally, softness is about healing. It’s about telling yourself that it’ll be OK. It’s about telling yourself that you are right, right where you need to be. It’s about affirmations. It’s about community. It’s about finding yourself. Yeah, it’s just about, at the root of it, love. I hate to sound corny and cliché, but yeah, at the root of it, it’s definitely about love. And it’s all about just learning how to be gentle with yourself and others.
Something that I noticed is that the lead character is clothed, and then he dances unclothed with the other dancers, and then, when he’s held in an embrace, he’s clothed again. Could talk about those choices?
Part of my own healing and coming into my softness and kind of coming into myself is about being open about who I am, being vulnerable. And when I think about vulnerability, in a physical space, I think about being unclothed. Because, you know ... everyone doesn’t like something about their bodies someway, somehow, right? There’s just this notion of, like, if I’m stripped down, who am I? And so I wanted to really convey that by having, once again, this character being kicked out, slash abused, slash having this very traumatic experience with his father, having a black eye, and then being stripped down to be his whole authentic self within his community.
At the end, him being clothed again within this healing circle was about him learning to basically take what he learned being in the community, being unclothed, and taking it back into his real life. And it’s very subtle, but in the beginning of the video, he has a black eye, and at the end of the video, he doesn’t. There’s that slight healing factor where, like, something happened.