What does it take to be seen?
Burlesque performer Mone’t Ha-Sidi tries to get traction for black arts in Sacramento
Two days after the Fourth of July, Mone’t Ha-Sidi hosted Sacramento’s first Black Arts Matter meeting at Blue Lamp on Alhambra Boulevard. She had high hopes to address the lack of diversity in the city’s art community, vent about discrimination against artists of color by certain venue owners and local cops, and provide a safe space for anyone involved in the scene.
Or try, at least. The problem was, two people showed up. Blue Lamp co-owner Gabriell Garcia and Sac Black Lives Matter activist Irina Beffa sat in with her that night. The message was received, but it’s not something that Ha-Sidi, an outspoken activist and one of Sacramento’s only black burlesque dancers, seems ready to accept.
“Sometimes I feel like the lone wolf, and it shouldn’t be that way,” Ha-Sidi said. “The things I’m upset about, you should be upset about too.”
But Ha-Sidi, who proudly identifies as a “stripper,” is losing hope that her hometown is the right place for her. She described a city with a segregated, sometimes racist arts scene, where the more accepting venues are shutting down and the remaining ones are not interested in her unapologetically fringe, black sideshow. Can Ha-Sidi make an impact in Sacramento?
Hairstylist by day, stripper by night
Ha-Sidi works as a hairstylist at Pure Lounge on Truxel Road. She also leads Jezebelle’s Army, a burlesque revue she founded around 2008 that features a rotating cast of local and Bay Area dancers. She performed as part of the Sacramento Horror Film Festival for nine years, has trained in and taught burlesque and pole-dancing for just as many, and she once danced in local troupes like the Midtown Moxies and Sizzling Sirens Burlesque Experience. To top an impressive resume, she was recently tapped to compete nationally in Burlypicks, a burlesque competition held in Denver this August, after winning the regionals in the “Master of Lip Sync” and “Master of Improv” categories.
She described her style as “outside the box,” mixing “ratchet, nerd-culture and black girl magic” elements in her routines. She dances as Darth Vader, as Brad from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, even as Mr. T. The routines are usually lighthearted and satirical, like traditional burlesque, but she doesn’t shy away from choreographing darker stories and creating heavier variety shows such as Lithium, an art mixer held at the Sidetrax LGBT bar that centered around mental health awareness.
In January, Ha-Sidi performed during Louder Than Wolves, a variety show focused on sexual assault awareness. Her act purposely lacked the smoothness of your average burlesque number. In it, Ha-Sidi symbolically overcame her bouts with suicide and trauma as a sexual assault survivor, crudely ripping off her top and wig as she cried.
“For what I’ve been through, by all means, I shouldn’t even be here,” Ha-Sidi said. “My existence is an act of defiance in some ways.”
Outspoken and unheard
Ha-Sidi’s developed a renowned passion for speaking out against racism in the arts scene. Last year, she rallied to protest a Starlite Lounge show by a touring circus troupe known as the Mystic Circus. The company had gotten press in the past for performing in blackface. The owner, Rush Hicks, denied being racist, excusing himself on Twitter because it was performance art and he “slept with two black women [that] year.” After the club’s ownership found out about the planned protest, they canceled the show.
“[Starlite] was one of the few venues in which the owners would actually pay attention or care about what type of artist they’re housing in their space,” she said of the club, which closed last month.
Despite her acclaim outside of Sacramento, Ha-Sidi, a plus-size, 39-year-old black woman who uses her nearly nude body to tell stories, said she gets the opposite response from venue owners, peers and patrons in town. And, in her estimation, the arts scene largely ignores the problem it may have with racial discrimination.
“I live in a completely different Sacramento than anybody else,” Ha-Sidi said.
Her complaints about the scene, which focused on racism, run the gamut. Despite teaching pole classes at conventions in Las Vegas and Atlanta, she has trouble renting space in studios here. Though she gets uproarious applause in other cities like San Francisco, where she performed for the popular Hubba Hubba burlesque revue, local venues have canceled shows after watching footage of her routines.
“If somebody’s resume has all this experience, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t consider them an asset to your company or business,” she said. “So then for me, I have to look at all these other factors, like who owns the place, what type of people are going there and what their values are … I’ve been doing [burlesque] for nine years, and I don’t have the same support or recognition from people that have been [performing] for less time.”
In 2014, Ha-Sidi was fired from a Midtown hair salon. She said management had asked to see a video of her burlesque, and that before she was let go, her co-workers expressed fear of being sexually assaulted by her after watching her routines.
This year, Ha-Sidi found herself in court and on television after suing Jackie Nadile, owner of the Public House Theater on 14th Avenue, which also closed this month. She was featured on the syndicated civil court show Hot Bench, in an episode titled “Burlesque Artist or Strip Teaser?! …,” which aired in May.
She claimed that Nadile, after first agreeing to have Ha-Sidi perform two shows in the beginning of the year, backed out once she saw a video showcasing her rendition of the Saturday Night Live parody song, “Dick in a Box.” The same performance had gotten her on the BurlyPicks nationals for “Master of Lip Sync.” Ha-Sidi sued Nadile, arguing there was a breach of contract, and she sought damages totaling $43, the cost of the fliers she printed out to promote the two shows. She lost.
“The judges said, ’Your routine was inappropriate [for the venue],’” Ha-Sidi said. “It’s a burlesque show. I’m not doing this at a daycare or Chuck E. Cheese.”
She said the televised hearing focused on sensationalizing her profession and that the panel of three judges ignored what she considered to be anti-black behavior by Nadile.
Of course, Nadile said she felt the judges were fair in the case. She said that while she tentatively scheduled the shows, which would have been the first-ever burlesque events at the theater, she never approved the creation of the fliers. After seeing Ha-Sidi’s version of “Dick in a Box,” she was so disgusted, particularly by Ha-Sidi’s use of a stuffed toy penis in the film, that she canceled the shows. She also says Ha-Sidi overreacted.
“I said, ’There’s no way this is appropriate for my venue,’” Nadile said. “Then she pulled the race card on me and said it was because she was black, which was absolutely not true.”
Nadile claimed that other local venues complained about similar experiences.
“Probably 70 percent of my customers were black or gay,” Nadile said. “I had two black bartenders, for Christ’s sake. She was just butthurt because I canceled her show. … I appreciate that she’s an advocate for black people, but you pick your battles. I never pull a gay card, for crying out loud.”
Despite the troubles, Ha-Sidi soldiers on. She said that Black Arts Matter isn’t dead and that she wants to create a hub to advertise shows and network with artists of color. She’s planning a variety show for September. The theme will pay homage to the phrase “by any means necessary,” an excerpt taken from a famous Malcolm X speech.
Her end game is to integrate Sacramento’s art scene across every identity, art medium and genre. That is, if that community is willing to show up.
But Ha-Sidi has also thought about moving to another city. She likened being a black artist and activist in Sacramento to fighting an “uphill battle on ice.”
“I’m exhausted with having to repeat myself,” Ha-Sidi said. “There’s no reason we should even still be seeing what is happening. I hope this will be the time for people to stand up and say enough is enough.”