On the Down-Low: Why Marsha Ambrosius’ Video May Have Fallen on Deaf Hears

January 13, 2024
5 mins read


By Jeffrey Q. McCune, Jr. | With thanks to NewBlackMan

Tuesday, July 12, 2011.

Earlier this year, there was a new viral video repeatedly being sent to my Facebook and university in-boxes: Marsha Ambrosius’ video, “Far Away.” As a gender studies professor, and a mentor to young men and boys, friends and colleagues passed along the link to this video commending its efforts to bring awareness to bullying and hate crimes against LGBT folk, particularly black gay men. Up until the recent 2011 BET Awards, where the video was nominated for “Video of the Year,” I was convinced that this video was a vague memory, shadowed by the other viral stories: from Eddie Long’s coercive complexities to the black church’s gay marriage question. Indeed, the video was somewhat muted by these explosions in media. However, seeing the numerous acts of violence against black gay men and black men more generally in this year alone, I wonder why this performance has not fueled greater buzz beyond “can you believe she had two black men kissing in this video” or “why are people so cruel and violent against gay people?” As such a performance surely underscores an issue often muted from media and black community conversation, why has no action or community outrage moved from the screen to the pews, classrooms, or the streets?

The “Far Away” video follows closely Ambrosius’ male best friend and his male lover, as they walk through the (neighbor)hood and into a scene of danger (physical assault by other men in a park), and concludes with another scene of violence (the best friend’s suicide by overdose in his own front room). The music plays against the action, as Ambrosius sings of her memories, her pain, and her loss of a friend at the hand of senseless and unwarranted violence. This powerful video recalls an often-undermined element of black feminism—the importance of black men’s well being in relation to, not in exchange for, black women’s health and well-being.

The video, drawn from Ambrosius’ second-released single on her album Late Nights and Early Mornings, is most provocative as it takes a clear stance on gay bullying and hate crimes. However, it is also bold in its blatant display of man-on-man love, not lust, as the central relational image throughout the video. This artistic work, if anything, returns us to other moments where “music was message”-informed by the love, pain, and struggles of everyday experiences. Here, Ambrosius’ video demonstrates the way in which hate and hostility toward gays not only produces violent acts, but can also lead to spirit-murder which ends with suicide. With such bravery, carefully crafted drama, and a clear-cut message, it is hard to believe that viewers do not “get it,” after viewing this powerful exposition of such current and sad times which we live. As the men walk through the (neighbor)hood—the space which birthed their love–they become fast victims of violence in the name of hating sexual and/or gender differences.

So, how or why might this video and its message have fallen on deaf ears?

First, the video itself is in conversation with some preexisting kitchen talk. The primary one is that of the “down-low,” or DL—conventionally understood as “masculine men who pass off as straight when they are actually gay.” Due to the overwhelming media frenzy over the DL, I believe that many viewers may find it difficult to SEE these men as “gay.” Especially, as the video begins with what visually suggests that the Ambrosius and her best friend are actually lovers. With this in mind, on one hand this video becomes about the punishment these men deserve for being unavailable to the sisters who are in search for “good black men.” While on the other, it is about some affront to black hetero-masculinity, where visible “male-on-male” love endangers the cult of black manhood. These understandings ignore the reality of some black men who are Gay, Masculine, and living DL (discreet lives)— a combination which often responds to desires for privacy in a world which constantly surveillances them.

Second, the use of conventionally masculine men allows viewers to forget that those who DO NOT conform to gender standards are often at greater risks of violence. This is largely because men who break tradition of what is understood as properly masculine are highly scrutinized and are more available targets for criticism. Indeed, this is most significant as we reflect upon the bullying of our gay and straight youth who may, or may not, perform gender outside of certain norms. While it is important to foster acceptance and affirm sexual difference, there is as much a need for our communities to embrace gender differences as well.

Third, while this video has been passed along to me for its content on bullying, I also believe it says something even more bold about what is necessary to end these heinous acts. A somewhat random and odd moment appears in the video, where a mother and her son encounter the handholding couple and the mother pulls her son away from Ambrosius’ best friend. [side note: her son’s future could be his present]. Her treatment of the couple as “nasty, embarrassing, disgraceful,” sends a clear message to her son that love is conditional. This attitude fuels hate and anchors violence and suicide. In fact, this moment along with other imaginable instances, instigates the notion that black gay men loving each others is not revolutionary and reverent, but to be ridiculed and denied. To eradicate violent acts in the lives of ALL our children and adults, we must disrupt our cycle of teaching hate—too often couched in lessons of manhood, (non)Christ-like approaches, and fear. This, for me, was a compelling moment where “Far Away,” inadvertently gets at the systemic ways we infect our young men with violent potential.

Finally, while I wholeheartedly applaud Ambrosius’ achievement here, there is something very contradictory and odd about one line in her closing message: “I lost a friend to suicide, and I’m asking all of you to support alternative lifestyles.” This line complicates the work that Ambrosius does throughout the video. Indeed, she means to suggest that LGBT folks need community support and to feel apart of the community; yet, this coda appears to offer up LGBT lives as merely a thing put on and taken off. The word “lifestyle,” implies some degree of freedom to select a community of folks, with whom one shares similar ideas and values. In this case, “a gay lifestyle” suggests selecting a community where you are more likely to beaten, or even killed. Indeed, if selecting a “lifestyle” was so easy— in order to avoid such tragedies and violence—I would contend that many would peel off their gayness and live in the privilege of never having to run for their lives because of who they love or how they perform their gender. Unfortunately, this framing of gayness as some “bad choice” or “bad lifestyle” is not the product of Ambrosius, but a larger understanding of gayness that allows us to not only dismiss human value and beauty, but also the violence that destroys these bodies. For this reason, her word-choice here—and its call upon old framings of gay lives—marks a poor closing for such a powerful visual statement.

Still, hats off to Marsha Ambrosius for disrupting the monotony of pop and daring to assert a political, provocative, and passionate voice. While I would love to say Ambrosius’ nomination for the BET award for “Video of the Year” was a sign of consciousness, I am more apt to believe that it was a recognition of her artistic genius and skill, rather than a concern for her critical message against violence. Indeed, questions remain. How can this performance be restored and used to create a necessary dialogue in spaces often mute on issues of gender and/or sexual difference? When will we begin to allow the viral sound bytes to infect and affect us in ways that our anger and outrage are incurable and only treatable through collective action? These matters are too close to home for us not to act and save lives.


Jeffrey Q. McCune, Jr. is an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland-College Park. He is author of the forthcoming manuscript, Sexual Discretion: Black Masculinity and Politics of Passing (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2012)

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