Mission Creek Festival 2021: DUOS
missioncreekfestival.com, Thursday and Friday, April 29-30, 7 p.m.
Billy Dean Thomas, a.k.a. “The Queer Biggie,” is a quadruple-threat: a rapper, singer, instrumentalist and charismatic performer whose dynamic presence permeates their live shows and music videos. In “Rocky Barboa,” the Harlem-raised MC can be seen rhyming and bouncing to a sparse, retrofuturistic beat while dressed in unique, stylish outfits tailor-made for this gender-nonconforming artist.
After a New York City arts program unlocked something within them, music became a vehicle for reinvention, starting with their moniker, which emerged from a song they wrote years ago with their sister and best friend. Thomas recalled making a beat with a Biggie Smalls vibe and then began emulating the rap legend’s flow, something that inspired their sister to blurt out, “The Queer Biggie!”
“Once it was said out loud,” Thomas said, “it dawned on me how similar to Biggie I actually was, which I had never thought about before. My birthday is the day after his, we both are rappers from New York City, we both are dark skinned, chubby and not really seen as commercially ‘attractive’ by Western beauty standards. However, we still possess our own swagger, appeal—and stand tall in our confidence.”
While they are proud of their birth name, Billy Dean was given to them by their chosen family and it deeply resonated with them spiritually. “The name Billy Dean really allowed me to reintroduce myself to myself and claim me,” they told me, “in the same way that Malcolm X did with the letter X.”
Thomas grew up in Harlem and was raised by parents who played music all the time, especially R&B. Their mother gravitated to ’90s singers like Mary J. Blige and Jaheim, while their father spun older artists such as Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles and the Delfonics. They lived on a major block — 116th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues — and each year the African American Day Parade would pass by Thomas’ apartment, so they didn’t even need to go outside to hear the sounds of the street.
“Harlem is music,” they said. “You literally cannot walk down the street without hearing the hottest new record on the radio blasting in someone’s car or walk into the local grocery store or deli without hearing Bachata or some music in a different language. I mean, there are sounds everywhere.”
The rapper is grateful for the experience of growing up in the heart of Black art, Black creativity and Black enterprise, which helped make them who they are today — as did other opportunities that they seized. A spoken word and performance class at the Facing History School in Manhattan transformed Thomas, who entered the arts high school as a shy and insecure kid who was still very uncomfortable in their own skin.
“Wow, that class changed my life, literally,” Thomas said. “I was just surprised that my teacher saw something in me that I hadn’t seen in myself. After I took this class, I ended up performing all over New York City and then ended up winning first and second place at my high school talent show while being the host. I mean, this moment was probably one of the most validating experiences that I had, and it made me think, ‘Wow, maybe this could really be something.’”
A woman from a nonprofit arts program in SoHo saw Thomas at that talent show and invited them to perform on Broadway during their senior year, which led to a $40,000 art scholarship to attend Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. The elite private women’s college wasn’t a culture shock for this Harlem native because they had always attended predominantly white schools. But the level of privilege they witnessed was a new experience.
“I was in class with people who were princesses in their countries,” Thomas said, “people whose entire families had gone to Smith, when all of my grandparents, aunts and uncles had never graduated high school and had all passed away before I was 12. Those reminders were hard, made me angry and were amplified when I went into restaurants in town where I was treated differently because I was Black and people would commit microaggressions constantly.”
Thomas was regularly reminded that they didn’t belong — in subtle and not-so-subtle ways — by the racism woven into every fiber of these kinds of educational institutions, college towns and, for that matter, the world. Nevertheless, it grounded them; it made them far more proud and knowledgeable about who they were and about the world around them.
One positive aspect of their time at Smith was its Media Lab, which was the epicenter for Thomas’ creative explosion.
“There were no limits to how long I could sit in the recording booth and completely exercise the range of my voice and start to teach myself music production and engineering,” they said. “Throughout those years in the Media Lab, I wrote some of my best songs. It was pure bliss. However, I realized that access is power. Without the access to the equipment and the space to be creative, I would not have known that I possessed an ability to produce the art that has become my career and life’s purpose.”
That learning curve exposed Thomas to harsh truths about systemic racism, such as how people who enjoy certain privileges are afforded more access to artistic resources than others. Still, it allowed them to use those tools to propel them forward and give back knowledge to their family and community. And those experiences also led them to Boston, where they have thrived. Thomas thinks they would be far more inspired in their hometown of New York City, but Boston has given them opportunities, access to resources and funding in the same way that Smith did.
“It has also provided me with the framework to transform my art into a business,” they told me. “When I was in New York City, I felt like being paid for my work was going to be impossible. Music industry circles seemed invisible and beyond reach. Boston pushed me to be the creator of my own productions and build the skills to curate my own shows and my artistic framework. So, I am grateful for both places pushing different aspects of my artistic identity.”
One deeply-ingrained societal narrative that Thomas wants to change is the romanticized idea of the starving artist.
“My goal for myself and the artist community is to unlearn ideas from systems that don’t want us to thrive,” they said. “Art is power, and it is possible to be paid for it.”
Thomas is also trying to unlearn who is allowed to be legendary or iconic — something that has largely been the domain of cis males. They see it as their mission to elevate the greats who haven’t been celebrated in the same way: artists like Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and pioneering rapper Roxanne Shanté.
“By virtue of being born in this body and not conforming to any checkbox, whether it’s about who I am attracted to or the music that I make, I push narrow perspectives without trying to,” Thomas said. “I choose to stand confidently in my existence and truth. I figure if people are going to always judge and stare at me, let’s give them something good to talk about.”
By day, Kembrew McLeod is the chair of the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa; by night he is the chair of Dance Floor Wrecking! This article was originally published in Little Village issue 293.