Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Changing Meaning Of "Banji" (Banjee) - From "Paris Is Burning" to Sharaya J's "Banji" Record

Edited by Azizi Powell

In Episode 11 Season 6 of the American television show RuPaul's Drag Race the contestants had to prepare and model a banjee girl outfit. I had never heard the word "banjee" or the term "banjee girl" prior to watching that show. And even after that episode ended, I still wasn't exactly sure what "banjee" meant.

This post provides information about the term Banji (Banjee) that I found online.
UPDATE: May 5, 2014 - As a somewhat related subject, I'm including in the Addendum a link to a discussion & excerpt of a comment in that discussion about the difference between a female impersonator and a drag queen.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, cultural, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post and who are featured in the videos in this post. Thanks also to publishers of these videos on YouTube.

1 April 09
"What is Banji?

Banji Realness is a category in which men dress in drag and attempt to look not like a man in drag, but in fact like a real Banji Girl or Banji Boy. What is a Banji Girl? In simplest terms, a Banji Girl is a hoot* [sic] rat. In the documentary Paris is Burning, an inside look at Drag Ball culture of 1980’s New York, the following definitions are given:

"Banji. Looking like the boy that robbed you a few minutes before you came to Paris’ ball."

"This is Banji, you know, the girls that be on the corner talkin’ about ‘Yo, man.’"

"Ones that can hang out with the [sic] Rough and the [sic] Tough."...

In other words, ghetto...."
"Hoot" in this article is probably a typo for "hood".
"hood rat" — African American Vernacular English noun (derogatory) = a young woman from a poor urban area.
Note that unlike "hood rat" or "(wearing) ghetto styles", "banjee"/"banji" and "banji realness" are largely considered to be complimentary terms.

Banjee or banjee boy is a term from the 1980s or earlier that describes a certain type of young Latino or African American man who has sex with men and who dresses in stereotypical masculine urban fashion for reasons which may include expressing masculinity, hiding his sexual orientation and attracting male partners. The term is mostly associated with New York City and may be Nuyorican in origin*.[1][2][3] Attitude, clothing, ethnicity, masculinity, physique and youth are all elements of what has been called "banjee realness".

...The 1990 documentary film Paris is Burning featured "banjee realness" as one of the categories in which contestants competed for trophies. According to the Village Voice "banjee boy categories have been a part of vogue balls since at least the early 1980s."[4]

The word "banjee" never entered mainstream pop culture, but it had currency as gay slang throughout the 1990s. In 1998, a report in the medical journal AIDS Patient Care and STDs regarding safer sex practices among young Black and Latino men was entitled "Banjee Boys Are Down" ("down", in this vernacular, meaning "supportive of it").[5]...

Several examples of the use of the term "Banjee girl" exist in the blogosphere but it has rarely, if ever, made it into print or mass media.** An exception is the Billboard charting single "Back to My Roots" [1993] by RuPaul, which states the phrase in a list of hair fashions. In the film Paris is Burning, the term itself is used in comparable frequency with its male counterpart, "banjee boy", which coupled with the film's focus on the inextricably connected transgender and drag culture of 1980s NYC, lends itself to a contextual definition of those performers impersonating females and attempting to exhibit the ultimately judged quality of holistic visual verisimilitude—"realness".
*Nuyorican = slang for a Puerto Rican living in New York City

**This was apparently written before the RuPaul's Drag Race episode that I mentioned in the beginning of this post.

SHOWCASE VIDEO: Realness (Paris is Burning)

Ursus malayanus Published on Aug 8, 2013

All footage edited from Paris is Burning, a 1990 film on the gay ball scene in the 80s and 90s New York City.
Paris Is Burning is a 1990 American documentary film directed by Jennie Livingston. Filmed in the mid-to-late 1980s, it chronicles the ball culture of New York City and the African-American, Latino, gay, and transgender communities involved in it...

The film explores the elaborately-structured ball competitions in which contestants, adhering to a very specific category or theme, must "walk" (much like a fashion model's runway) and subsequently be judged on criteria including the "realness" of their drag, the beauty of their clothing and their dancing ability."
I believe that the title Paris Is Burning is a way of bragging that the Ballroom scene has taken the place of the fashion scene in Paris, France.

In the 1990s, the clothing styles that are associated with young men from "the hood" were loose fitting, baggy (often sagging) pants (often the brand name "Dickies" which are khaki in color), or jogging pant suits, checkered shirts, athletic sports team shirts, "wife beaters" (a sleeveless white t-shirt), and tight fitted black leather jacket. Other clothing styles from those decades are a baseball cap worn backwards, or a black knitted cap, wearing a (blue or red depending on their gang color) scarf over your hair, and wearing your tennis shoes (sneakers) unlaced. Those clothing styles are shown in the videos found below.

Females living in "the hood" were associated with the following clothing styles: baggy (often sagging) pants, or "hoochie mama" shorts (very small tight shorts that are often made by cutting off long jeans (often over tight black stocking pants), a baseball caps worn backwards, [the brand name] "Cross Colors" jackets, "belly shirts" (shirts tied below their breast), clunky necklaces, and large earrings (called "door knockers").

It seems to me that the 2013 "banji realness" style is an old school (retro) 1990s style that to a large extent is typified by the 1990s female singer Aliyah and the female rappers "Salt N Pepa". Notice the clothing in this Salt N Pepa video:

Salt-n-Pepa - "Shoop" Live (1994)

KlassicThrowbackTV, Published on Jan 10, 2013

Performed @ NBA All Star Weekend (1994)
*A "hoochie mama" is another term for a promiscuous woman. People outside of the hood largely considered these female hood rats to be dirty (i.e. promiscuous, sleeping with anyone like rats do) simply because they hung around those streets (those neighborhood corners and areas) where males "thugs" associated.

I'm not sure what the etymology is for the word "banji" ("banjee"). It might come from the African American slang word "banging" (as in "gang bangin" (meaning urban gang fighting). The African American word "banging" also means engaging in sexual intercourse. "Banging" can also be used as an adjective for someone or something that is very good.

Note that in that Paris Is Burning clip the narrator said that "realness" is looking like your straight [not gay] counterpart. The narrator also said that "realness is looking like a real woman or a real man". I believe that that statement is outdated because homosexual men are also real men and lesbians are also real women. However, that wording reflected the sentiments of those times.

In the 2000s "banji/banjee" and related terms such as "banji certified", "banji bash", and "banji movement" have been largely separated from any reference to LBGT people. Instead, "banji" is a (usually complimentary) referent to certain styles of urban fashion.

A person is "banji certified" if he or she is really (acting like or dressing like a) "banji". Two related terms that are probably also of recent coinage are "Banji bash" (an event where people dressed in banji styles") and "Banji movement" (a catch all term for all things "banji)

Le1f Talks Style Evolution, Fashion Ambitions, And Defining 'Banjee'
Posted 10/19/12 3:42 pm EST by Maud Deitch in Dudes, Interviews
[Gay rapper Le1f asked to explain “Banjee”]
"I guess to someone’s parents gay friends it might mean someone who is in the closet, like a gay black or latino person who is straight-acting, or particularly wearing that fashion from the early 90’s, like Aaliyah in her tomboy look from Tommy Hilfiger, that was very banjee. It’s been re-appropriated by masculine men who aren’t afraid of being out of the closet to describe a style of dress. Like a mix of streetwear—archetypal things like Timberlands and jerseys and things that I actually do like—with things like harem pants and bomber jackets. It’s a masculine but androgynous approach to fashion."
I believe that the 'Be Authentic Never Jeopardise Individuality' acronym is a recent coinage that was probably created by rapper/producer Missy Elliot or her protégé Sharaya J. While I applaud the sentiments of that acronym, it wasn't what the Paris Is Burning participants meant by "realness". To quote LHarkins in the introduction to a discussion thread about Ru Paul's Drag Race's Episode 11, Season 6: "Realness in terms of ball culture means being able to pass convincingly as that certain criteria". [Warning: Some of the comments on that thread include profanity.]


ALLFEMALERAP, Published on Mar 8, 2013

Missy Elliott's new Artist Sharaya J
From ="
"B.A.N.J.I stands for 'Be Authentic Never Jeopardise Individuality' which is a strong and powerful message that I feel is much needed in the media driven world we live in today. Constantly we are being fed information leading us to believe we need to look or act a certain way to fit into society. However Sharaya J - a rising star mentored by Missy Elliott is having none of this, creating a breath of fresh air in the current music world. Her debut single 'Banji' spreads the word about embracing your unique qualities and not changing for anybody"...
This comment was included in the discussion thread to another video of this same song [Warning: Some comments in that thread include profanity]:
ABC Dance Crew, 2014
"SMH" means "shake my head" a gesture that indicates scorn.

I should note that a commenter in the discussion thread of one YouTube video of Sharaya J's "Banji" record shared that he or she believed that Missy Elliot is well aware of the origin of the term "banji" since she is friends with people who were associated with that gay ballroom scene.

Click read a discussion about the difference between female impersonator and drag queens.
Here's an excerpt from the comment posted by wtroffaducksback, May 4, 2014
..."one thing to remember is there is a difference between female impersonator and drag queens. A drag queen must have a developed alter ego that is separate from their male counterpart. Ben dela creme is the best example of this because the queen's boy identity is shy and introspective wheras dela's "terminally delightful" personality is the part of ben that feels like he has overcome his depression. Impersonators are moreso just playing a role. examples of female impersonators are: Shakespearian actors, some like it hot and Madea. Tyler perry is not a drag queen because madea is not his alter ego or even someone he identifies with.

SO BASICALLY: people who think that drag is a performance art for gay men to express their feminine side and challenge societies roles, they would call a straight drag queen ( even if they work at drag clubs) a female impersonator or a boy in a dress. I think that this attitude is changing because fishy queens are becoming more popular. Unlike low camp, high camp, underground, clubkid and dragball styles of drag, fishy is the least politically and socially consious; if you look like a girl your in. A straight person could do this type of drag."
"Madea" (a contraction of the words "Ma [Mama] dear)= the character of an old-ish, no nonsense African American mother that was developed and is portrayed by Tyler Perry in many of his lucrative movies.
"fishy" = a very feminine looking drag queen

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  1. Ive just been watching a banned cartoon from 1943. Here's a link. Im sure they say banjee at 2:58 into it. What do you think? Is this a really early use of the word?

  2. Jolyonp, thanks for that tip. I visited that link tow watch the banned cartoon "Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarfs". I agree with you that at 2:58 the character of Coal Black exclaims something like "Well, banjee bonjee!". Given that the Wikipedia page for that cartoon indicates that that controversial cartoon is still noted for its jazz music score*, it's possible that "banjee" (pronounced ban[without the "d"] gee) could have been lifted from Jazz/swing culture or it could have just been made up. I checked our the Jazz dictionary at and there's no listing for either of those rhyming words.

    Thanks again!

    "Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (working title: So White and de Sebben Dwarfs) is a Merrie Melodies animated cartoon directed by Bob Clampett, produced by Leon Schlesinger Productions, and released to theatres on January 16, 1943 by Warner Bros. Pictures and The Vitaphone Corporation.[1] The film is notable for being an all-black parody of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Snow White, known to its audience from the popular 1937 Walt Disney animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The stylistic portrayal of the characters, however, is an example of darky iconography (see blackface), which was widely accepted in American society at the time. As such, it is one of the most controversial cartoons in the classic Warner Bros. library, has been rarely seen on television, and (because it is one of the Censored Eleven; see below) has never been officially released on home video. However, it is often named as one of the best cartoons ever made,[2] in part for its African-American-inspired jazz and swing music, and is considered one of Clampett's masterpieces"...

    1. As to the black faced cartoon depiction of Black people, the only thing that I feel like saying is "and the beat goes on".