Culture Club saved my life — or at least helped me make sense of it, which is often the same thing. When Boy George and the gang hit the U.S. shores in 1983, I was 13 years old. The boners that I got looking at the band’s often shirtless drummer Jon Moss convinced me that I liked guys.
But I didn’t know what to do with those feelings. I didn’t know how to articulate them or how they fit with my identity of being a Black teen. I didn’t have many cultural figures to help me navigate these questions. Queer disco icon Sylvester was a little far out for me. I loved the live version of “You Are My Friend.” But I wasn’t quite ready to “funk” someone.
I’d yet to discover the gay side of James Baldwin (even though the paperback of Just Above My Head was sitting right there on the family bookshelf).
And this was before Joseph Beam, Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill, Isaac Julien, and Assotto Saint, among others, jacked mainstream white gay representations to create space for Black gay men. At the time, I was left on my own to make sense of my feelings for other guys and to see how those could be integrated with being Black.
Boy George and Culture Club helped me tremendously in this effort. George’s androgynous dress opened up the possibility to be something different from the traditionally masculine norms of the ’80s (Think Bruce Springsteen and Rambo). George also didn’t come off hyper-sexual like Prince.
I wasn’t quite ready to don a jockstrap and expose my butt cheeks to the world. (That would come later.) But he didn’t obsess over childish things like Michael Jackson. I was more than ready to put those things away.
If George debuted now, he’d likely be accused of cultural appropriation for adopting faux-locs and borrowing other aspects of Rasta culture. But at the time, these choices made me feel like he understood something about the breadth and complexity of the Black world. He wasn’t jumping on a trend; he was using style to make a statement, one that valued the aesthetic contributions of Black people.
Perhaps, most important for me as a music lover, was that Boy George’s sound was rooted in Black music such as reggae and R&B. I may have been introduced to him through videos, and I owned all of his albums and played them at home. But he was also a part of my larger world — the one that included family and friends who didn’t know about my inner desires — because Culture Club was played on Black radio (shoutout to Donny Simpson at WKYS in D.C.). Yes, folks cracked jokes about him being “funny.” But for the most part, I heard people express an appreciation for his music. It made me feel that someone who was different like me could have value and also embody that most revered — yet hard to pin down — aspect of Blackness: Soul
Here’s my list of the Top 20 Most Soulful Songs By Culture Club and Boy George: