David Blair: Remembering and Celebrating the Life of a Gay Black Renaissance Man

On July 23, the world lost a multi-talented writer, musician, performer, educator and advocate when David Blair (commonly known as “Blair”) passed away in Detroit at the age of 43.  He appears to have died of natural causes. A medical examiner’s report is pending.

photo credit: David Lewinski Photography

Blair was raised in New Jersey, but adopted Detroit as his home in the 1990s, where he quickly became engaged in the community even as he pursued his art.  Blair was, in his own words, “made in Detroit,” though he performed at venues across the United States, South Africa, Europe and Russia.  As a solo artist and with The Urban Folk Collective, he released more than seven records in the past decade.  His most recent album, The Line, with his band The Boyfriends, was released in 2010 on Repeatable Silence Records.  He was nominated for 7 Detroit Music Awards, including a 2007 nod for Outstanding Acoustic Artist.  As a writer, he was a 2010 Callaloo Fellow, recipient of Seattle's 2007 BENT Mentor Award for LGBT Writers, and a 2002 National Poetry Slam Champion.  His book of poetry, Moonwalking, was recently released by Penmanship Books to positive reviews.  Additionally, he taught poetry and song writing in Detroit Public Schools, The Ruth Ellis Center, Hannan House Senior Center, the YMCA of Detroit, and at various universities, colleges and high schools across the country.

By his own admission, Blair was heavily influenced by the communities he was part of.  In an interview for the Michigan Citizen he stated, “Because I’m Black and gay, the Black gay community means a lot to me as a writer, artist, performer and as a listener.”  Detroit was also a major influence on his life and work, as evident in the video below, featuring his performance of his poem “Detroit (While I was away)” at the 2009 TEDx Detroit conference.

He leaves behind a large body of work, including song recordings, poems and other writings, and videos that provide a glimpse into his life journey, including  the one below.

Blair Singer/Poet from Alex Franck on Vimeo.

Blair’s passing has inspired online and in-person tributes throughout Detroit, including an article in the Detroit Free Press, a cover story in the Metro Times, and a New Orleans-style jazz funeral on July 31 (see photo below).

photo credit: Metro Times

Blair’s friends and colleagues remember him as a man who could make a lifelong impact on everyone he crossed paths with, whether through his performances, his work as an educator, or simply through conversation.

Adjowah Brodie, Blair’s long-time friend, shares,

I’ve known Blair since 1988 - he was a friend of mine from college.  I travel a lot for business, and Blair and I would often find each other in different corners of the country – in NY, Chicago, Texas, Seattle – and he went a lot of places I’ve never been to, too. He’s performed in nearly every state in the continental US. He spent time in South Africa, and last year he performed in Siberia.  In 2009 I followed him on tour in Europe, to Amsterdam, Salzburg, Munich, Berlin.  So Blair is really known around the world and across this country.  People came to his funeral who had only met him once – there were remembrances on Facebook from all over the country and all over the world.  It wasn’t just Detroit, though that was definitely his heart.  In terms of his legacy, I think there’s a generation of poets and artists and writers that will continue his work, and continue to do their work because they’ve been inspired by Blair.

Liz Latty, writer and another friend of Blair, reflects,

I met Blair when I moved into the apartment underneath him and his former band, Urban Folk Collective.  Blair and I became friends pretty quickly, as everyone always seemed to do with him.  He had this way of connecting so intimately with people, even after just five minutes.  He had the ability to be totally vulnerable and honest with everyone, but also completely silly and smart and insightful at the same time.  Blair was also the first person who ever made me get on a stage to perform – I know there’s a lot of other people who could say that, too.  This was a huge part of who he was: seeing the best in people and getting them to pull it out of themselves and share it with the world.

The legacy he leaves behind is so huge and so important.  Blair was a poet and a musician, yes, and we are so lucky to have an enormous catalogue of his work in print, audio, video, etc.  But his legacy as an activist and truly amazing social and political role model is just as powerful.  He was a leader in the Detroit community, and pretty much everywhere he went.  He lived out loud in this way that most people aren't brave enough to do, but also in a way that wasn't just preaching to the choir - he could connect with just about anyone...and people engaged with him on really deep levels because he didn't jump down your throat, he just was living this really honest existence and he cared about what people had to say and so they cared about him in return.  He changed people.  Sometimes only after a 5 minute conversation, he changed people.

And he was an educator.  At his memorial in Detroit, a children's choir he had been working with on the history and importance of call and response in music got up in front of hundreds of people and led them in a call and response of “When the Saints Go Marching In” to celebrate “Mr. Blair.”  That’s a legacy in and of itself.

Jenny Lee, an organizer of the Allied Media Conference in Detroit, worked with Blair on this annual event.  In a tribute to him on that conference’s website, she remembers,

Through his many Allied Media Conference performances, he rooted the conference in the culture of Detroit, teaching people how to love the city whether they were visitors or lifelong residents…Blair was a shapeshifter who could access truths about humanity that others couldn't necessarily see or understand.  He had the talent to translate that truth into art and the generosity to share it with people constantly.  That's what made him such an incredible performer, but also teacher, and organizer.

Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, co-creator of the Mobile Homecoming Project, adds,

Blair was an amazing spirit.  He had so much energy and passion.  The last poem I heard him recite was an embodiment of Little Richard.  If you closed your eyes there was no Blair, only Little Richard's spirit returning, only truth.

Aricka Foreman, Blair's friend and former housemate, shares,

I knew Blair through the arts community as a poet - I actually met him as a fan in 2004 when he was performing with Urban Folk Collective.  Eventually, because we moved in the same circles, we became friends, developed a mutual respect for each other’s work, and shared a love of the potential of poetry to be a transformative force.  We were actually roommates at the beginning of this year.  We often spent the morning discussing poems or music or queer politics, focused less on ideology and more on human interactions and trying to bring forth the humanity of this issue.

I think everybody knew him as a musician and poet, but I don’t know if a lot of people in the arts community realized how involved he was politically.  One of his biggest recent involvements was organizing support to keep the Catherine Ferguson Academy, a Detroit public school specifically for young mothers, open in the face of budget cuts.   Blair worked for a nonprofit that provided arts programming at the school.  When young people and some of their parents organized a protest to keep the school open, Blair participated in the protest and helped mobilize other artists and activists to support the students.  In the end, this school did not close down.

This type of work was most representative of his latest commitments.  Blair first came to Detroit through a number of political affiliations – artist groups, socialist groups – but as he settled here, his involvement was less a political statement and more about personal connection and ensuring that people in his community were being treated fairly and that their rights were being respected.  His methodology was to talk to people one on one to get to know people. He was one of the most beautiful people I’ve had the privilege of having a friendship with, and he will be very much missed.

Laura Hughes, Executive Director of Ruth Ellis Center (a residential and drop-in center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth), knew Blair through his work there.  She remembers,

Blair came into our lives as a poet-in-residence working with our youth through a collaborative project with Inside Out Detroit.  I heard Blair perform many times over the year and was always in awe when he would burst into Italian and then flow - such a talented artist.  When he selected to work with the Center I was amazed.  I had thought that a man who had traveled the world might be too big to work with a Center like ours, with youth who might not be literate, as "polished."  How foolish I was.  I only briefly crossed paths with him as he came in early to make copies for the sessions, or heard from the youth about how he loved Little Richard and had shared his work with them.  He dedicated a poem he did at the Science Center to the youth and gave them shout outs, and thus, legitimacy they don’t get in our community.  Since his passing, our youth have written numerous poems and dedicated letters and raps to him.  Staff have mourned silently and supported youth by sharing that their lives were touched by a giant.  His void will never be filled, but his inspiration and ability to navigate the intersections he too occupied and shared with our youth lives on through their writing.  We are a better Ruth Ellis Center because of him.

Blair's partner, Dan Stalter (also a spoken word artist), wrote on his personal blog,

Blair continues to be one of the most amazing and inspiring people I have ever had the privilege of knowing and loving. I know the gravity of this loss is shared by many. In his honor, take the time today to reach out to those closest to you and let them know you love them. Everyone needs to hear it. I love you David Blair. Thank you for making me a better person.

In addition to his partner, Blair is survived by his mother, Hildegard, siblings Herbert, Tony, Walter, and Joy and many nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts and uncles.

A second memorial service has been scheduled in his hometown of Newton, NJ, where his body will be cremated.

Friends have established an online memorial for Blair at: http://rememberingblair.wordpress.com/. Donations are being accepted for the Memorial Fund for David Blair, both to help cover the cost of his funeral expenses, and to begin a fund for artists who do not have health care.  As Adjowah Brodie explained, though the cause of Blair’s death is yet unknown, friends believe he died of an undiagnosed illness, given the fact that he had not had health insurance in many years and thus rarely went to the doctor.

A poem written by Jay Theden, a Ruth Ellis Center youth member who was mentored by Blair, has been exclusively shared with GLAAD and follows below.  GLAAD offers deep sympathies to his loved ones and all who loved him.

"Blair (while you are gone)”
by Jay Theden, Ruth Ellis Center youth member

I couldn’t sleep last night
cuz you were wrapped around my
mind tight
all I could think about is my
Little Richard is gone too soon
you was a cool ass fellow
we used to see each other at the
Center, on the bus, AMP, open mics,
I swear you was everywhere I
needed you to be. like a guardian
angel you stood by my side with your
poems as they stuck to me like flies
on tape. I’ll never forget you as the
greatest poet I ever knew. Especially
since you did the Little Richard
poem.  Ever since then that’s what
I called you. I can never get it
outta my head. or the one you did
at the Science Museum and
dedicated it to us. It touched many of
us. You always spoke truth, never false
Dreams or false hopes for any of us.
You was like one of my major inspirations
in poetry, spoken word, teachings, and most
of all you was a strong man.  A gay man of
color at that. You always spoke on
diversity, culture, morals, and History was always
in your hands
you inspired a lot of us thru your
words and your teaching. When you
did your piece at AMC this
year so many people were touched.
(Detroit [While I Was Away])
Detroit loves you, we miss
you and we promise to live
on for you and walk high
and stand tall. We promise
to carry on dreams as you have
awakened them for us.