Afro Drag. Photo by Drag Coven

Afro Drag celebrates local Black drag voices

We spoke to Athena Holmes about their Afrofuturist alter-ego and the big show coming up this weekend.

As part of Black History Month, the Phi Centre is presenting Afro Drag: Ancestors Past, Present & Future. The all-Black drag show is narrated by BiG SiSSY, the drag alter ego of Montreal-based musician Athena Holmes.

In addition to highlighting local Black drag voices, the show is also premised on doing drag a little differently. Holmes sings rather than lip-syncing, for a start, and the show’s story arc is very present, with SiSSY situated within an Afrofuturist narrative. In 2018 Holmes wrote and performed in The Message, establishing SiSSY’s backstory. Holmes describes SiSSY as a Black, queer witch from Black Star Planet. She’s on a mission to liberate Earth from the oppressive systems which will ultimately destroy the planet and its inhabitants.” 

As a performer, Holmes distinguishes between themselves and their stage name, Ms. Holmes, as well as between themselves and SiSSY. They spoke about the intentionality each separate artistic project can give: “Sometimes with Ms. Holmes I don’t feel like I can say certain things so having BiG SiSSY as an outlet is great because I can say those things through her.”

BiG SiSSY has also evolved as a character alongside Holmes’s own personal reckoning with “white supremacy and how it determines most things in our society.” Holmes describes what they see as the nature of Afrofuturism: “Imagining a future with Black people.” Referencing President Trump’s MAGA sloganizing, Holmes points out that that “future vision for greatness doesn’t include Black people…Afrofuturism is just being able to imagine our own futures in brighter ways and expanding our ideas of what that can look like.”

Step back to salute Black drag

As a performer whose life and whose “consciousness around Blackness” has been rooted in North America, Holmes also talked about how Afro Drag has allowed them “to explore more stories within the diaspora…to bring in other people’s narratives.” Giving centrality to Black performers is something they’re manifestly excited about, as well as opening opportunities for Black performers new to drag to explore what drag can do and be. The show is theatrical and focuses “on ancestral stories. It’s not your typical drag show.”

Holmes also spoke about navigating the dynamic of performing a show by-and-for Black people to audiences in which white people have at times ostentatiously taken many of the front seats. Holmes wants everyone to come and be welcome and enjoy Afro Drag, but for people to be mindful, also.

“If white people want to come to our show, great. I think their job especially [during] Black History Month is to buy your Black friends tickets to the show or buy extra tickets for other people so they can attend and then don’t sit in the front row. That’s it. Just enjoy the show!”

Afro Drag will feature performances by Aizysse Baga, Powetik Justice, LADX and Lulu, but Holmes also turned my attention to some other rising Black drag stars: Jaqq Strapp, Noka Palm Trees, and Carmen Mayhem here in Montreal, Many Dingo and Ravyn Wngz in Toronto, and Devery Bess in Calgary. Keep an eye out for their shows! ■

Afro Drag: Ancestors Past, Present & Future is happening at Phi Centre (407 St-Pierre) this Friday, Feb. 21, 9 p.m., $21.82

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