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September 1, 2013

SylvesterSylvester made the most beautifully political records ever, but they’re political in the best sense of the word. Not in a didactic sense. That’s always been an important thing for me.
Prince Language

My first Sylvester record was Step II (1978), from which most of his biggest hits come, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Dance (Disco Heat).” I didn’t know this at the time or anything about Sylvester, just a baby in middle school, crate digging for albums that caught my eye. At three for a dollar, i could cart away plenty of music and risk very little. So i ended up listening to lots of classical, southern rock and disco, but something about Sylvester made me go back for more. Was it the warmth of his voice, the sweet energy of it all, the homo undercurrents? My fave album now is Stars (1979), comprised of four extra-long dance tracks. The music is nice and bangin, layered and progressive, but the lyrics really give these songs their immense weight. The first side is “Stars” and “Body Strong,” two super uplifting songs. “You are a star, everybody is one. You are are a star, and you only happen once.” “You make my body, body strong.” These are followed by bummer jams “I (Who Have Nothing)” and “I Need Somebody to Love Tonight,” songs that actually speak more strongly to Sylvester’s origins as a Billie Holiday interpreter.

He started singing in Chinatown at the Rickshaw Lounge. Creating a stage show called, “The Women of Blues”, he performed as “Ruby Blue” and paid homage to Billie Holiday, Lena Horne and Bessie Smith. Sylvester became venerated throughout the Bay Area for his dead-on allusions to divas of the past, as well as his powerhouse voice. – Mervin Malone

To be clear, i love these melancholy tunes just as much as the sugary openers. Dancing for me is many things: exercise, a way to hang out around people without needing to talk, exhibitionism. It’s an opportunity to flow between deep introspection and meditative emptiness, childish joy and stoic resolution. There are few albums that let me navigate these with such effortlessness, but Stars kindly lets me forget and feel aeons in the space of an hour. Maybe that’s the political dimension to which Prince Language refers, the way that feeding breakfast to working-class children can be politically engaging. Feeding the soul seems political (and Sylvester alone has nourished millions), so to get young men worked up enough they can’t help but dance their bedrooms up a storm (no way was this just me, “everybody is one”). Or was it Sylvester’s endless battle with the media-industrial complex over gender expression? Rumour has it that the bigger and more beloved he became, the more execs tried to cut away at his style and spirit. “Later pressure from the label to “butch up” his image would result in him attending meetings in full-on drag.” Or Sylvester’s climb to world-class performer in a white supremacist, heterosexist femme-phobic country? Or something else? He will always be a pivotal figure in my life and has changed our society in ways beyond comprehension. Sylvester was there for some of us before we even knew how much we needed him. For others, he was probably the leader they’d always been looking for, just that track they’d been waiting for all night or a kindred soul, another light in the void. For these reasons and more, Sylvester will always be a part of my life and one of the people i will always turn to in need.

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