When she was 15 years old, Josephine Baker left home to become a star. She joined a Black theater troupe and danced her way to New York City, where she was a part of the Harlem Renaissance. In the years that followed, she moved to Paris, where she performed dances with Black style and themes for mostly white audiences.
When she moved back to the United States, Baker was an outspoken opponent of segregation and one of the few women permitted to speak at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. She was seductive and glamorous, a performer and an activist. And, as The Gay & Lesbian Review put it, she “led one queer life.”
“It’s not just that she was lesbian or bisexual … (I)t’s the fact that nearly everything she did expressed desires and needs that deviated significantly from the prescribed social norms of her times.”
Which is all to say that Josephine Baker was a perfect inspiration for Latoya Watson and Darrah Dunn, who uses the stage name DJ Rah D. The two women are the founders of The Black Pearl Experience, named after Baker, who collected a variety of nicknames over her life—including the Black Pearl.
The Black Pearl Experience is a space to celebrate Black LGBTQ culture in Cincinnati, to “bring unapologetic celebration, joy, art, and music to our community,” Watson says.
Black Pearl kicked off on July 11 with a day party. Watson estimates about 75 people attended the event, which featured music by Rah D, specialty drinks and a burlesque show.
“It felt like a family reunion,” she says. “I loved looking out into the crowd and saw so many unfamiliar faces. The love and vibes were at a high.”
Black Pearl events will take place monthly, and they’ll focus on community, music, and food. Everyone is invited, no matter their color, sexuality, or gender: The Black Pearl Experience might have been founded to create a space for Black, queer women, but the Black Pearl doesn’t exclude. Everyone is welcome, Rah D says.
The two women decided that Cincinnati needed an experience like The Black Pearl after spending time away. For Rah D, it was about the music. She grew up in Detroit, where she was exposed to a plethora of music genres—and she didn’t necessarily find that kind of musical variety locally.
“When people listen to music, I think that brings people together,” she says. “That’s something that really struck me and moved me to the direction of becoming a DJ.” It’s what inspired the Black Pearl, too. “We have a party, and you bring people together that way. Then you’re able to expand their minds and open them up to other things that you’d like to educate them about.”
Watson, who spent time living in Washington DC, hopes to further some of the work done by Cincinnati Black Pride in June. She saw event tickets sell out, and she saw the excitement and comradery there.
“When we have these events and these spaces, people love it,” she says. “It helps new people immediately get involved with the community.”