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Billy Porter on his return to music and becoming unapologetically himself
Geoff Bennett: Billy Porter is an unforgettable presence, both on stage and on screen. It was just announced that he's playing James Baldwin in an upcoming biopic.
He's also returning to his musical roots, releasing a new album nearly 30 years after his first and embarking on his first nationwide headlining tour.
We look at his journey to this moment for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Billy Porter is a multi-hyphenate artist who won an Emmy for his portrayal of ballroom emcee Pray Tell on the groundbreaking series "Pose," a Tony and a Grammy for best actor in a musical for his role as Lola in "Kinky Boots."
He is in rare company of those who have earned three of the EGOT awards, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony, and he has emerged as an LGBTQ activist known for never holding back.
Billy Porter, Singer/Actor/Activist: Art is political inherently. Historically, as artists, we get to speak truth to power, always.
Geoff Bennett: Porter and I met recently in New York City, where he is rehearsing for his tour and sat down for a conversation at that Republic Records Studio.
Billy Porter: Art is very Trojan horsey, right? You can do things and you can say things as an artist that you can't as a politician. And it cracks open people's minds.
You know, art creates critical thinkers. And critical thinkers are leaders, not followers.
Geoff Bennett: When he first hit the scene in 1997 as an R&B singer, Porter says he had to hide the authenticity he has since become known for.
Twenty-six years later, you are now embarking on your first national music tour. Is it fair to ask what took so long?
Billy Porter: Well, you know what took so long.
Billy Porter: You know.
I — in 1997, the world and the music business was very homophobic, very often violently so. And I was — and even in that moment, I was participating in the don't ask, don't tell policy of my life. And I was showing up being as straight as I could, so that I could eat. And I was made to feel like I failed at that.
All these years later, I go back and look at my music videos. I was actually good at it. I was good at being straight. And the universe made it so that it didn't work, so that I could come back all this time later in the fullness of myself.
So what took so long was that. Blessedly, I had all of these other creative outlets that I could exist in, and I leaned into all of that. And 25 years later, I'm one award away from an EGOT. I have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I have a production company. I work all the time.
So, when my first album imploded, I realized, oh, I had failed as someone else. I will never do that again, I said to myself. So that's when I chose my authenticity.
Geoff Bennett: Do you feel vindicated now?
Billy Porter: I don't like vindicated.
Geoff Bennett: OK.
Billy Porter: Because vindicated, yes and. Vindicated has a negative connotation. Redeemed.
Geoff Bennett: Wow. The culture had to catch up to you.
Billy Porter: The culture had to catch up to me. The world had to catch up to me. Everybody told me that my queerness would be my liability, allies and haters alike. And it was. For decades, it was.
Geoff Bennett: Now he is not holding back with his new album, "Black Mona Lisa."
Billy Porter: Now I get to come back to the mainstream music industry on my own terms, and as I started working with writers and producers who now actually listen to me and want to help me and my vision, as opposed to the first time around when I did it.
Geoff Bennett: The lead single, "Baby was a Dancer," is a celebratory anthem meant for the dance floor.
There are a couple of lines in here that I want to read to you. "Every preacher told her she's a sinner. Every teacher told her she won't make it because she moved ahead of her time."
Is that autobiographical?
Billy Porter: Of course, it is. The whole album is autobiographical. I grew up in the church. I'm queer. They cursed me from their pulpits and said I'd never be blessed. AIDS is an abomination. You know, all of that stuff that comes in that space, right?
You know, I'm calling myself she. I'm referring to myself in the third person. Queer people, we mix up the pronouns all the time. You know, it's a pronoun world now. So, I'm referring to myself in the third person. And even the teachers.
I went to drama school at Carnegie Mellon, and I was almost kicked out of the program, because…
Geoff Bennett: Really?
Billy Porter: In the first semester of my sophomore year, because the voice and speech teacher said that my speaking voice was too high for the American stage and I would never work.
That was based on what they had seen. This was 1987. We had three archetypes, the James Earl Jones patriarch, the Denzel Washington sex symbol, and the Eddie Murphy genius clown. And they were only trying to do their job, right?
In retrospect, I have compassion, because they were only trying to do their job. There aren't many spaces, particularly arts, education spaces, that know how to train firsts of anything. They know how to train people to enter the market that already exists.
Geoff Bennett: OK.
Billy Porter: But they don't know how to train a first. I was a first.
Geoff Bennett: Also a pioneer of gender-defying fashion, Porter's Porters red carpet looks are custom couture works of art. It all started with the 2019 Oscars.
Billy Porter: The Oscar dress was just me being me. And it changed the face of fashion forever. It's a touchstone that will go down in history.
I went to the Oscars in an antebellum tuxedo gown. As a cisgendered man, it had never happened before. And since then, it's changed fashion.
Geoff Bennett: Yes. I remember the 2020 Grammys, where you wore that hat with the motorized crystal curtain. Where do these ideas originate? And do you feel pressure to have to top what you have already done?
Billy Porter: No, I don't feel pressure. I'm just being myself.
And what I love about the process is, I have an amazing team. It's like we come together, we talk about things, we talk about ideas. Best idea in the room always wins with me. You know, I come from the theater, so I'm very collaborative. I'm not a micromanager. And the things show up.
Geoff Bennett: Billy Porter has left his mark on Broadway, fashion, television, and music, building loyal, sometimes separate fan bases along the way.
So how do you then navigate having all of those different audiences, meeting all of those different sets of expectations?
Billy Porter: I'm trying to figure that out. And I think and I hope that it's this return to the mainstream music space that will do that because music is the universal language.
You know, existing in all of these spaces, they don't necessarily — these creative artistic spaces, they don't always speak to each other. So my hope is that now I can wrangle them all together through the music.
Geoff Bennett: Well, what should people expect at a Billy Porter show?
Billy Porter: A celebration of life, love, joy, hope. It's like church. It's like gay church.
Geoff Bennett: And you were raised Pentecostal.
Billy Porter: And I was raised Pentecostal.
Geoff Bennett: So, when you say church — yes, OK.
Billy Porter: Yes. Yes. I just want to give the world a big bear hug.
You know, we have been through so much recently, this collective trauma that we have been inside of. And nobody is OK. And that's OK. And my hope is that my message will be healing. We need a healing. And I have been singing my whole life, and I know that music is healing. It's really, really healing.
Geoff Bennett: Billy Porter's concert tour kicks off this Saturday.