Q: How did you first become involved in the performing arts?
My parents met in choir at Talladega College. I'm the oldest of four. My dad, who's a minister, would sing with me and my brother at church. The first song that we sang was this drug awareness song (laughs). My parents were also a part of a gospel group. And so, my brother and I used to sit in rehearsals, and I would dance the entire rehearsal. I always had a natural inclination to movement, but never took any classes. It wasn't something that my father wanted me to do, because it was looked upon as “being weak” and “being gay.” My dad, being hyper masculine and also hyper religious was like, “No, my son's not going to dance.” But singing was always encouraged. And so, when my sisters, who are six and nine years younger than me, were born, that gave me my outlet to be a teacher for them. I decided that they were going to dance and be in gymnastics and cheerleaders. I just kind of coached them and introduced them to musical theater as well, and they loved it. They gravitated to it immediately.
In third grade, the show choir from Tri-Cities High School came to my elementary school. They introduced themselves as a performing arts high school. My elementary school chorus teacher got them to come because she was the accompanist for their show choir. Then the same show choir was invited to sing at the Governor's mansion and my chorus teacher invited myself and my brother to go and sing there as well. We sang Little Drummer Boy by the Jackson Five. I remember going and sitting with all of these people on the bus on the way to perform who were older than me. They were singing Day by Day from Godspell on the bus there and I was hypnotized.
Now, imagine a third grader coming home to their parents and saying, “I want to go to Tri-Cities High School. No matter what.” (laughs) Eventually, I ended up attending Tri-Cities and the school is a magical place. A lot of incredible Black performers and artists graduated from the school and my senior year Saycon Sengbloh came back to talk to our class. She was on the national tour of Aida at the time. Aida was one of my favorite musicals, I was obsessed. I was listening to the original Broadway cast recording all the time. I remember going to see Saycon and sitting at the Fox Theater in Atlanta, seeing somebody who graduated from Tri Cities High School, performing in a show that I loved. It just kind of unlocked that portal for me. That year I also met Juel D. Lane and Shanell Woodgett, who's a choreographer in the commercial area. I would say the three of them were my trifecta of possibility because they showed me that it was possible. They made me feel like I could do this, I can make this happen.
So I went to Savannah College of Art and Design for three months majoring in Performing Arts with a minor in fashion. The program was new at the time. Coming from a high school with a long standing performing arts magnet program that pushed out high level talent, I became a section leader of the show choir within the first month of being there. You were not supposed to be a section leader until your fourth year. But I could sight read and nobody else in the bass section could. While at SCAD I was also commissioned to choreograph a piece for the fall fundraiser and I thought to myself, “This school costs a lot of money, I'm on a partial scholarship, and I'm already working…” So it just kind of showed me the level of my possibility at that point.
I left school and came back home. I worked at Red Lobster and for a while started working at a boutique and auditioning around the city. From auditioning, I met my mentors who got me into artist development. At this point I was around 21 years old. I did artist development for lesser known artists here and there, people who were just being signed. I was also doing what they were calling “pre-professional productions” with True Colors Theater Company. I started a band as well. I remember all these things were happening.
In 2008 my brother passed away. When my brother passed I stepped away from pursuing music and focused on choreography and creative direction so I could see behind the scenes. I said to myself that I would start working on music again when I turned 30. That was important to me. At the time when my brother passed I wanted to be behind the scenes to grieve and be in my own space. I did not want to have to worry about being seen or being the lead singer of a band or, you know, presenting in a boutique and doing all those things. In those seven years between 23 and 30 years old, I ended up being on five reality shows... I was like, “Ha, I thought I was going to be invisible during the seven years!” That did not end up happening (laughs). Around that time I also started working with Iggy Azalea, doing her artist development. I choreographed two tours for Lil’ Wayne in that time as well. By the time I turned 30, “Fancy” was number one on the Billboard charts for like a month. I’d crafted performances for the Billboard Awards AMAs, VMAs, BET Awards, Kids Choice Awards, iHeart Radio Awards, the Today Show, Good Morning America, Fallon, Kimmel, Saturday Night Live, and so on. I felt like I had done everything, and God was like, “All right, you ready to work on this music now?” and I was like, “Oh, wait, I forgot about that!”
The summer of 2015 I turned 30, moved back to Atlanta, and put out a single the day of my birthday. That started a new journey for myself of just leaning into my voice; leaning into storytelling more. I also started working with Broadway Dreams while I was in LA, before coming back to Atlanta. Working with Broadway Dreams and working on my own music simultaneously has kind of balanced out my scales.
Honestly, this year is so crazy with everything that's going on. This year I was choreographing my first professional musical. I was releasing a single this summer. I was doing a TEDx talk at Morehouse College. In January, I directed my first Broadway Dream showcase in New Zealand. In spite of it all, I feel like all these things are just lining up, including a fashion brand that I consult being featured on Good Morning America, literally a week before the lockdown happened. As I sit here today, I’ve seen everything kind of come full circle and I'm excited about the future.
During this time it is very easy to look at this whole period at face value and be like nothing's happening. Everything's stopping, but I'm also seeing everything back to the seed analogy. I'm seeing the root taking hold. I'm seeing the sprout blossom and I'm really hopeful because I feel like right now I'm in a better place as an artist than I've ever been before.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about how you think the performing arts can be a platform for social justice work?
Storytelling is universal. If you look at storytelling in any indigenous civilization, orators were the people who held the history. I think if we want to change history, it's about putting that power back in the hands of the storytellers. Corporations with greed and all of these things have tried to take the story away from the storyteller and control the narrative. But nothing from song lyrics to movie quotes to binge worthy TV shows to pivotal and gut wrenching theater, nothing pushes the needle forward more than performing artists. Absolutely nothing. That is why actors and actresses and musicians are drafted to be surrogates for presidential campaigns. That is why the covers of your favorite magazines are no longer featuring models but they're featuring musicians and actors and directors and singers and songwriters. It is because the words that we speak, the notes that we sing, and the art that we produce, push the needle forward.
When people look back at this time, they won't only be talking about the craziness that happened in the world, they'll be talking about the songs that came out, the live performances that artists did online, the theaters that went into their archives to stream the shows that audiences have never seen before. They'll be talking about the ways that art comforted them. People will be talking about how their favorite albums played non-stop or how they sat in front of the TV and binge watched shows like Hollywood, where Janet Mock, a Black trans woman, is a writer and a director on two episodes.
I'm consulting a writer right now on a new musical work. He's doing a virtual casting call, and he sent me a text this morning, he's like, “I didn't even think that people would do this and they are!” He said artists from all over the world came wearing the colors from the promo of the musical and they're singing their hearts out and learning how to self tape. I think we, as performing artists, are some of the most imaginative and inventive people in the world. If we really harness that power, we can change everything. We can change the laws, we can change systemic oppression, we can use our work and we can use our voices to change the face of society.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected you as an artist and the communities that you're in, and maybe the processes, the processes that you are in that were interrupted the US started to shut down?
I was in Berlin teaching with Broadway Dreams, when Italy shut down. We had a US student who was doing a semester abroad in Italy. He came over to Berlin on his spring break to take our week long intensive, and got the call on our lunch break that Italy was shutting down and his college was ending the semester abroad program. They were urging him to come back to the states. I flew from Berlin to New York to do Good Morning America with a client. We did Good Morning America and a photo shoot the following day. I left New York Tuesday of the second week of March, right before the New York shut down happened. I came back to Atlanta.
I was gearing up in March to do a performance at City Winery Atlanta. On March, 25th, and to do my first ever performance in New York of my original music. On March 31st I had bought tickets for my dancers, I had bought a wardrobe for my dancers for both shows, we were in the middle of rehearsal for both shows...And then it was like, “ Alright, March is out! That's not happening.”
I had also been invited to be a speaker at the inaugural TedX at Morehouse College. That was supposed to happen yesterday. I was brought on to choreograph an adaptation of Twelfth Night at the Dallas Theater Center for the Public Works Program, which has been pushed back to 2021. I was also preparing my single to come out. The single was actually supposed to be released today. The pandemic has upended a lot of plans.
My great grandmother passed two weeks ago from COVID-19. That made me come to my parents house. This time that I've been able to spend with my parents and sisters has really made up for a lot of the loss of gigs and shows. It gave me time to reflect, it gave me time to journal, it has given me time to meditate (sometimes I take the time, sometimes I don't.) But it's given me time to reflect on the life of my great grandmother who was 94, who immigrated here from England, when she was like 19 or 20. You know, it's also given me time to reflect on what I've done. And what I want to do next. It is easy to write out your plan. But sometimes it's good to also reflect on what seems like a loss. And to really dissect it to find the value in it. I have found multiple silver linings and pots of gold at the end of these rainbows, because I am getting to know myself better. I will say if I was on the run, the way that I was scheduled to be on the run, I wouldn't have this time with my family. I wouldn't have this time with myself. I wouldn't be in this place where I am right now. I'm settled right now. There is no no extra noise, I'm not juggling 50 projects at a time. I'm juggling about five right now, if I'm being fair, but I found it's helping me find my balance, and I know that coming out of this. I'll have the practices in place to keep that balance in check when the demands of the outside world builds back up.
Q: What would you like to see change in the performing arts world after the pandemic ends?
I think the answer to that question lies in what you're doing. I think within the industry there have been gatekeepers for a very long time. And those gatekeepers let you in, at their discretion, based on their needs. If they need a queer person in the cast, or on their faculty, they let you in. If they need a person of color in the cast or in their organization, they let you in. If they need a woman on the board, they let you in. And so what this moment of pause has created is an opportunity, an equal opportunity for marginalized people to create their own platform. And in those marginalized people creating their own platforms, they are sparking an explosion that will not be denied.
I'm sure you've seen the influx of IG live (instagram live) and the conversations that people are doing like the zoom virtual workshops or panels that people are doing. This is allowing people to share their stories and the information that they have about the industry. There are industry stylists who work with top actors and actresses for Oscar Red Carpets and Emmy Red Carpets who are doing IG lives now. There are television producers who are doing IG lives. There are artistic directors, choreographers, and working artists who are doing IG live now and using zoom to share. So there's a new access to information. I think if we all continue to harness that access it will benefit more people.
I started an IG Live series called “Fame Cost.” We’ve spoken to Alex Newell, Brian Jordan Jr., and Bittany Inge. These are Black actors on highly rated TV shows who started in theater or love theater, but lean into their light in multiple spaces. In having open conversations with them, I get to hang out with them and introduce viewers to a wealth of industry advice. There are many people who don't understand how to get started, who don't understand how to write a resume, who don't understand how to be multifaceted and ambidextrous in this industry of performing arts. So having a conversation and sitting on IG Live for 45 minutes gives people a look into this world. I had 1,500 people tune in the first week. Those 1,500 people learned about life as a performing artist and what it takes to get into the industry and what it takes to not only stay in it but also stay sane in it.
So, with what you're doing, with what I'm doing, with the Broadway Dreams virtual intensives that are happening, all of these things are leveling the playing field by giving access to information. If you give people information, then you give them the opportunity to unlock whatever doors they want to unlock with that information. Information is a free form key. And it is up to you to decide what door you want to put that key in. If you tell somebody This is how you self tape or. This is the website that I distribute my original music through or this is the program that you need to write a script or this is what the setup that you need. If you give people that information. Then it does plant a seed. I feel like I keep going back to the concept of nature, but I feel like we can learn so much from the processes of nature. Nature shows us how to live, how to exist, and the seeds in an apple, when you discover that seed, while you're eating it you look at the seed and you say, “ I can throw this away...but if I plant this, then I can get something else maybe.”
So now it's not about having the money to buy an apple to find out about the seed. Now everybody has free apples, and what you choose to do when you discover that seed is up to you. I know there are people who don't have access to the internet. But I will say that right now I'm seeing an influx of access to information, probably more so than I've ever seen in my entire life.