The Unapologetic Flamboyance of Trinidad James
“Gold will never die, people will.”
The relationship between style, identity, perception and masculinity has always been complex for black men, especially in America where racial undertones still permeate many our most basic interactions. Perhaps even more so in the arena of hip-hop where Trinidadian-American rapper Nicholaus Williams, professionally known as Trinidad James, is situated. One only has to look at the discourse around the clothing choices of artists like James, Young Thug, Jaden Smith or Lil Uzi Vert, who went viral earlier in the year for wearing a distressed woman’s sweater from Faith Connexion. Uzi’s shirt stoked homophobic rants, disavowals from established members of the hip-hop community, and even accusations that the presence of sartorially experimental rappers was feminizing the genre and insidiously turning young black men gay.
Such violently rejective rhetoric makes it clear that for some black men the performance of hyper-masculinity invades every aspect of their lives, even when it comes to something as personal as style. If we are to look at fashion purely through the lens of current mainstream hip-hop - excluding the disruptors who exist within their own spectrum - one might think that an aggressive presentation of “maleness” was inherent to the genre. Take it a step further - as some of those who repudiate fashion experimentalists like James actually do - and a troublingly inaccurate precedence for black masculinity emerges. This standard of toxic machismo in turn becomes a monolith which binds men to an identity that rejects self-expression.
Ironically, these militantly restrictive ideas couldn’t be further removed from history. In truth, black expressions of style have always been rooted in individualism and rebelliousness - often as a matter of preserving autonomy and reclaiming dignity in a world where dehumanization was par for course. Consider the evolution of black dandyism; it is, to an extent, rooted in reappropriation and defiance. As Monica L. Miller points out in Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity, some of the earliest blueprints for the black dandy were in fact racist caricatures created for the amusement of white audiences. In the 18th and 19th century when blackface and minstrelsy were common theatrical practices, characters ranging from a perpetually drunk n'ere do well named Mungo (whom Miller explicitly mentions) to the Golliwog (a “terrifyingly ugly” but ultimately harmless figure), were all depicted as elaborately dressed fools.
For white audiences, the idea of a “dandified negro” was amusing because it framed those who were societally unequal as falsely assuming the airs of privilege through the emulation of what was perceived as white fashion. Yet even as actors in blackface performed caricatures of blackness, it laid the groundwork for coming generations to invert the narrative and reclaim dandyism without restrictions. Furthermore, because black people existed across a vast diaspora yet were all (for the most part) either included in fashion in offensive ways (via caricatures) or rejected from conversation completely, the development of black style existed without traditional limitations.
As a result, it wasn’t uncommon for conventional ideas of gender to be completely subverted. Even as recently as the ‘60s and ‘70s, men in heeled boots or brightly-colored suits sporting lacy cravats weren’t met with the perception they would be in today’s climate where rampant hyper-masculinity has imposed stringent codes of heteronormative dress. History is something that James recognizes and acknowledges in his own style choices. Inspired by the 1970s, punk rock and his Caribbean heritage, the Atlanta-based rapper has been a sartorial rebel since the release of his single “Female$ Welcomed” The song’s music video, shot in Trinidad, is a swaggering celebration of excess which highlights the deep sense of pageantry that makes black fashion so endlessly creative. We sat down with the artist - who recently released his Father FiGGA EP- to discuss his inspirations and why gender is a construct that shouldn’t apply to clothing.
Traditionally, a lot of black style has incorporated elements of the masculine and feminine. How do you think you channel that?
I think the key is to see past ideas of masculine or feminine and figure out the purpose behind your fashion choices.
Tailoring has also played a huge role for you. You’ve been wearing fitted trousers since before it was a trend in hip-hop. What has been the most interesting thing about the evolution of fashion as it pertains to rap?
For me, the main thing has been my confidence has grown. Five to seven years ago people would ridicule you if your pants were “slim” or “skinny.” It’s just interesting to see how everything I was bashed for people now wear and think they’ve started as a trend.
How would you describe your current sense of style?
My current style is a little bit all over the place. I will say, now that I’m a little more seasoned I do like to call it “Trendy DAD.”
What are some of your influences?
One of my biggest influences is the ‘70s. To me, that’s when black culture found its confidence in fashion. We had the heels, the hair, the nails, all of that. Artists also play a part for me: James Brown, Prince, Michael Jackson, Andre 3000 - all of them show up in my fashion daily. I’m also really interested in skate culture, punk rock and the style around that.
Hustling in the streets of Atlanta came with a very plain streetwear look so it was something I had to bring energy to. Everyone was doing the white T-shirts and Levis 501s, which I did for awhile, but the mentality I have with fashion made me want to turn that look into leopard T-shirt and skinny jeans. I just said, ‘fuck it, I’m trapping in skinny jeans.’”
What designers are you interested in right now?
These days I’m not devoted to anyone in fashion. At first I thought it was going to be YSL and then Hedi Slimane left. Gucci got Alessandro Michele and they started coming legit, but now everybody and they momma on it so that’s a dub. At this point I just keep my eyes open for the pieces that make me feel like the first time I put on red skinny jeans and a leopard tee...If it makes you feel uncomfortable then I’ll probably want to wear it.
How do you think your Caribbean heritage has influenced your approach to style?
I think that my confidence stems from my background. People in the Caribbean don’t really care if they can dress or not because the confidence they wear their outfits with is unmatched. Go hang out in Trinidad for the weekend, you will see some shit!
Are you happy we’re seeing more unisex fashion? Do you think we’re getting closer to seeing clothing without the lens of gender?
Trust me, the more we exist is the more the barriers break. The people with problems about men wearing dresses (or anything else) will eventually die out. The future doesn’t slow down for anyone. Adjust or die!
All clothing from Union Los Angeles & Model's own. Shop the Marni collection at our Los Angles store or online here.
Written by Stephanie Strickland
Photography Richard Brooks
Styled by Bephie