By: Mike Givens/TRT Assistant Editor—
In preparation for her latest album, hip-hop artist Billy Dean Thomas decided to utilize a technique that many method actors employ when preparing for a stage, television, or film role: She immersed herself fully in the subject of her work.
Thomas studied boxing culture and its nuances to bring to life her latest project.
“ … I even attended boxing lessons to discover the philosophies and how it relates to hip hop,” she said. “While engaging with boxing head on I also spent my time ‘training,’ or trying to sharpen my pen and become a better writer [and] orator by watching videos of hip hop artists who inspire me to work on my craft.”
“Rocky Barboa”, Thomas’ latest album, is a lyrical journey that uses boxing as an extended metaphor for her life, one that was, until recently, in a state of tumult.
“After experiencing one of the hardest years of my life, losing my band, quitting a job that invalidated my existence and almost losing sight of myself as an artist, I wanted my next project to be my comeback,” she said. “‘Rocky Barboa’ became a testament to redefining who I am despite every area of my life collapsing.”
Thomas devoted herself to studying hip-hop freestyle rap battles and the “sparring” that happens between rappers as they square off against one another in a cutthroat competition to see who can compose and deliver the best lyrics.
“These lyricism tests of adaptability and flow gives the artist a moment to step in the booth, also known as the ring, to fight for your title,” she said. “Not only did I think about how these [two] philosophies collided, but I constantly imagined my moment.”
Her intense devotion and observation of freestyle rap often lead her to imagine when her own time would come in the spotlight.
“When I am a featured artist on these shows what will it mean for me, a queer masculine-presenting person of color, to be a part of this sport and lifestyle knowing that the intersectionality of my being sparks fights itself?” she wondered.
The Theater Offensive
“Young LGBTQ+ artists are bursting at the seams with creative power and ingenuity,” said Abe Rybeck, executive artistic director and founder of The Theater Offensive (TTO), a Boston-based nonprofit providing spaces for LGTBQ+ artists to showcase their work.
From Oct. 25-31, artists like Billy Dean Thomas were able to showcase their work thanks to TTO’s creation of OUT’Hood Fest, an exhibition exclusively for queer artists of color held in Boston’s historic Hibernian Hall in the neighborhood of Roxbury.
Rybeck emphasized that the artists featured in the OUT’Hood Fest cross generations, which makes for a richer experience for audience members.
“This Festival highlights fresh work by folks from their early 20s up through their 50s,” he continued. “The cultural give and take in all directions across the generations has been one of the most inspiring parts of working with this dynamite group of artists.”
According to Rybeck, the idea for the festival came from community feedback and extensive discussions.
“At our annual SpeakOUT event, The Theater Offensive hears input from folks in the neighborhoods where we work: Roxbury, Dorchester, the South End, and Jamaica Plain,” he said. “At a SpeakOUT a couple years ago a lot of local queer artists of color made a really powerful case for stronger support. Couldn’t we design a program that lifted up artists in the neighborhoods with financial production opportunities and resources?”
TTO responded to the question by creating a residency program for local queer artists of color and set about raising the resources to put together the Out’Hood event. There was a community call for applications to the residency program and artists like Black Venus and Billy Dean Thomas, among others, were accepted.
“We had open workshops where we went over the application process with folks who were interested,” Rybeck said. “A lot of people showed up and we received over 20 applications!
“Then a panel of community activists and artists read through all the materials, interviewed over a dozen artists in person, and recommended this amazing slate of artists.”
Black queer femme visibility
On October 25, the event kicked off with a two-day showing of Speculum, an art and storytelling performance that delves into the black queer experience. Produced by Black Venus, the performance was a vivid exploration of identity, the concept of color, and visibility.
“I loved each scene, every word, and movement,” said Tyahra Angus, a photographer who attended the event and worked closely with Black Venus and other performers. “Like a close family member of Black said during the talk back, through creating this original piece they expressed the pain of the discovery of our difference, being queer black women, female at birth, in a way that we did not cry, we celebrated.
“We laughed and rejoiced. I was able to be part of the crowd for the second show and it was truly, in a word, spellbinding.”
“I found the performance provocative and poignant in its exploration of love, oppression and resiliency,” said Sidney Monroe, TTO’s youth programs manager, who saw Black Venus’ production. “Speculum also challenges audiences to see the nuances of our identities and continue to dismantle antiquated ideologies and systems of oppression.”
The divinity in femininity
Laury Gutiérrez, a third artist featured in the fest, composed a musical ensemble that delves into the lives of two 17th Century Spanish women.
Having devoted much of her studies to that of women composers, Gutiérrez was particularly struck by the stories of Catalina de Erauso and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. She turned the notoriety of their lives and written works into her project, Divine Sisters.
“Originally we wanted to create a play and eventually, we will create a play,” she said of the project’s beginnings. “But given the resources that we had at our [disposal] at the moment, I put together what I think will be the music for this play. This music draws from the inspiration of musician authors, composers, and their collaborators.”
When describing the type of music to be performed, Gutiérrez discussed the blending of a few genres.
“The music will continuously use Early Music (Medieval, Renaissance, and baroque) to build into the Latin Fusion,” she said. “It is a bit like the weather in Boston. If you don’t like a song, wait a little because it will change very fast.”
“We are eleven performers with all kinds of different expertise coming together to create a fusion of music, lives, and ideas presented in [an] original way so it’s fresh and current, yet historical and educational,” she said of herself and RUMBARROCO, the ensemble of 10 other musicians performing with her.
Of the two women at the center of the music, Gutiérrez noted the extraordinary way they lived their lives given the circumstances.
“Born a woman, at age 17 [de Erauso] left the convent and went to travel the world as military man,” she said.
Of de la Cruz, Gutiérrez said, “Born in Mexico, from her we have the first period text that we can call feminist. We have her poetry clearly embracing her love for another woman. We can catch a glimpse of the brilliant mind she had. She was known in her lifetime as ‘The Tenth Muse,’ ‘The Phoenix of America.’”
Gutiérrez also noted that the plights that these two women faced are not too far off from the current adversities faced by modern women.
“Interestingly enough, the struggles that these two women endure [are] not too far from the life of ostracism and rejection that we encounter in the 21st century in America, and many other countries,” she said.
Josean Ortiz, community programs manager for TTO and producer of the Out’Hood fest, praised Gutiérrez as well as the other artists who performed.
“We have a variety of artists, all of them with their unique form to express their queerness,” he said. “I feel blessed to have this opportunity of working with such amazing artists and to be able to contribute to their professional development.”
The Power of the Pen
Playwright Elizabeth James produced a powerful autobiographical play on the struggles of being a mother, daughter, and queer. The play, “Uncommon Ties,” garnered praise from Ortiz.
James is a, “ … fresh voice among the Boston LGBTQ dramaturgy,” according to Ortiz. “A writer that I hope will continue raising her voice and contribute with more works to the local and national LGBTQ theater scene.”
Renée Singletary, an actress performing in a lead role in the play said that her character resonated with her own lived experience.
“The performance is a story of being true to yourself, in all things,” she said. “It’s about letting go and moving on. I was drawn to this performance because of the storyline.
“The protagonist, Valerie, shows such strength and resilience in her push to live her truth. It’s heartening.”
Trans Artist Eddie Maisonet created an interactive experience titled The Boston QTPOC Mixtape Project. The exhibit allowed participants to interact with community storytellers to learn more about the experiences of queer people of color in the Boston area.
Billy Dean Thomas, who Josean Ortiz described as having, “ … all the tools to become in the near future a nationally successful hip hop artist,” ended the fest on Halloween.
When asked about what she wanted the audience to take away from the experience, Thomas seemed to be speaking for artists of color in general and the importance of highlighting their identities.
“Queer [people of color] artists are made up of so many parts and sometimes [conflicting] pieces that this country rarely engages,” she said. “As artists we use creative forms of expression to build bridges of communication, spread joy, and express rage as protest. Being that so many pieces of my identity intersect I am able to understand the world in a way that is multidimensional.”
And like any true artist, Thomas said she’s fine with presenting her work and allowing the listeners to be the judge.
“My goal is to make the strongest impact with every window of opportunity that I am given so that it leads me to where I need to be,” she said. “I also know that I am not the first person that has had to deal with these hardships in the industry so I take the hits and show up honored to be present and allow my music to speak for itself.”