Last year seemed like the year that Billy Dean Thomas would finally break through. The Boston-based hip hop artist, poet and writer had accumulated a steady list of accomplishments. Thomas had performed on The View, was nominated for a number of music awards, including a Grammy, and had won grants that enabled Thomas to worry a little less about whether to pursue a creative life or put food on the table. The Grammy nomination felt particularly gratifying. In January, Thomas attended the ceremony in Los Angeles.
“I was on a huge high,” Thomas tells me. “It was my first time at the Grammys, and I’m meeting all these people and I had a ton of connections lined up.”
But then, the pandemic exploded and the opportunities imploded, leaving Thomas and their band bereft.
“Everything got shut down,” Thomas says. “It hit us financially and connections-wise really hard.”
Thomas and the members of their band, Anjimile Chithambo (guitar), Dominic “Diggity Dom” Glaude (drums) and Shiva Kovvuri (bass), were about to embark on some European gigs, and a small tour of the Midwestern United States, but touring was out, too. Shows were canceled, venues shuttered and everyone hunkered down.
Collaborations, networking and performing were replaced by quarantine, isolation and the realization that the music career Thomas had been building assiduously since high school had become fragile and suddenly tenuous.
In October, Thomas released the EP For Better or Worse, an album that displays Thomas’ sinuous flow and sophisticated song writing skills to great effect. The set falls within the broad confines of hip hop, but labeling the seven song record as such may be too limiting, both for Thomas’ talents and the artist’s aspirations. You could call the collection Thomas’ pandemic album. It also reflects their typically disparate influences, including rap, spoken word, blues, punk, angsty singer-songwriter confessionals and emo. In addition, the EP addresses a host of topical issues, with weight and candor.
“Hip hop is the spirit,” Thomas says, “but I can rap over a Bach prelude. The way I express can take many shapes.”
In fact, Thomas creates music that defies easy categorization. It is within the confines of hip hop culture and tradition, but draws outside those lines, too. The music sounds like hip hop, but it also has a sound uniquely its own.
Rilla Force, an electronic artist from Massachusetts, who collaborated with Thomas on For Better or Worse, and Thomas’ two song EP from 2019, 2 The World, said their art is difficult to qualify.
“Billy’s sound is what I would say would be like, more traditional hip hop, but with a super rock, punk-like influence, [an] against the world kind of influence,” Force tells me recently. “It’s very poetic.”
Force said that while he and Thomas’ musical styles vary, their creative partnership is akin to that of Timbaland and Missy Elliot, two people who came together, worked quickly and efficiently in the studio and created distinctive works of art.
“We’re both good at what we do,” Force says, “and we both work very fast. We kind of let each other do our own thing. It makes it really easy to bang out the music. We just really meshed.”
Thomas possesses a muscular voice, with a supple and lithe flow; the artist’s voice is their instrument, and Thomas is equally adept at powering through a song with dense production, or one that is stark, reduced to its rhythm, or accompanied by a lone acoustic guitar.
On “Don,” from 2018’s Rocky Barboa, the lush production never threatens to overwhelm Thomas’ voice or drown it out. Produced by Leam Thomas, “Don” sounds like it would fit comfortably on The Cold Vein, or on the soundtrack of a film about a future dystopia.
Thomas generally favors skeletal beats, or sounds borrowed from Electronic Dance Music, with an emphasis on sudden changes in bass lines or rhythms, tricky sounds, that are tough to navigate for even the most facile rapper. Because Thomas uses their voice as an instrument, their best songs have spare arrangements; the focus is on Thomas’ rapping and lyrics, where it should be.
Sometimes, such as on Rocky Barboa’s “Show Too Much/Show No Love,” the drop in the beat never comes. Thomas modulates their voice over a sparse, menacing instrumental, stretched to the breaking point, and the tension, created by the artist, the music and the message seems deliberate. Thomas doesn’t want you to be too comfortable when you listen.
Perhaps this is the point: art shouldn’t be easily consumed. It should challenge you, raise questions, create tension and discomfort, and disrupt your narrative. If you want easy art, go listen to Travis Scott. Songs aren’t the equivalent of pork bellies or soy bean futures, as much as the music industry might want them to be.
At age eight, Thomas, who grew up in Harlem, studied Afro-Caribbean drums, and played in a drum ensemble until they were around twelve. At the Facing History High School in mid-town Manhattan, one of the city’s specialized schools, Thomas branched out into music production, spoken word, and performance art.
During an after school program at New York City’s Urban Arts Partnership, Thomas met actor Rosie Perez, and that meeting resulted in an appearance on the day-time talk show The View, where the Oscar-nominated Perez was one of the hosts. In 2015 Thomas performed on the show with Jafé Paulino, currently the guitarist for the New York City rap-rock band Oxymorrons. The appearance revealed that, even then, Thomas was a charismatic performer with a commanding presence on the mike.
Thomas attended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, which Thomas calls a “super old school, white traditional women’s college.” Thomas tells me with a laugh that the school “had tea and crumpets on Sundays,” and it is, in fact, an old school.
“It exposed me to a lot of different things,” Thomas says. “Both culturally and also with regards to being a Black person in an all white space, something I dealt with head-on that I hadn’t before.”
Thomas says the school’s academics were rewarding but culturally, it was often a challenge. “I think there are a lot of deeply rooted, very racist structures [there] that did hurt at times and separated me from my classmates. My grandma and my aunt didn’t go to Smith, and that’s the legacy I was around” there all the time.
(Smith College was recently in the news because of an allegedly racist incident that roiled the campus and was viewed very differently by the school’s administrators and its students of color.)
After college, Thomas found a spiritual and creative home in Boston. Thomas admits that living in New York can be challenging under the best circumstances, especially for artists.
“New York has a lot of great things about it, but people don’t like to admit how painful it is financially. It’s kind of an abusive relationship to live there.” Thomas concluded that there were were more opportunities in Boston.
Thomas was eventually nominated for four Boston Music awards and then, there was the Grammys. Thomas was featured as a songwriter for the Grammy nominated album The Love by the Alphabet Rockers. Thomas co-wrote and performed on the song “Just Be.” In addition, Thomas has received the Brother Thomas Fellowship and was the first hip hop artist to be invited as a resident at MASS MOCA studios. Thomas was also named one of National Public Radio’s 2020 Slingshot Artists to Watch.
Recently, Thomas and I spoke via video, about their art, their identity, and the making of For Better or Worse.
The interview has been edited and condensed for publication.
Some artists reject discussions about how their identity informs their art. As a Black, Queer musician, Thomas doesn’t have that luxury. For the past four years, the United States had an administration actively working to extirpate the LGBTQ community. A change in regimes didn’t necessarily change the nature of the threat. Some Americans never stop fighting the “culture wars,” and the period before Trump’s ascent wasn’t exactly paradise either.
The rhetoric is performative but it has real life consequences for people like Thomas.
According to Human Rights Campaign, 2020 saw at least 44 transgender or gender non-conforming people fatally shot or killed by other violent means, the majority of whom were Black and Latinx transgender women. HRC noted that often these stories go unreported — or misreported, and the loss is probably much greater. Frequently, victims are misgendered, or their gender identity is not noted, and data are difficult to gather and analyze.
This reality is something Thomas must live with every day, as a human being and as an artist. Even in the music industry, which is dominated by socially conscious artists and executives, the creative burdens and demands are less onerous for cisgender men.
“The responsibility is so much lower for [straight dudes] in hip hop. They don’t have to show up in hair, in make-up,” or worry about the way they dress. “They can put on a dirty shirt and they still get the same level of respect,” Thomas tells me.
“I can’t be white passing,” Thomas says. “I can’t be straight passing. I have to be very intentional about what I say, how I say it, how I do it. People are going to be looking at me and talking about my identity. I need to be true and to be comfortable with that.”
Thomas says that “the influence of more Queer representation has allowed the music industry to be a little more accepting of people who look like me,” but it still has a long way to go.
When I ask Thomas about the role identity plays in their art, Thomas references the last line of a poem by Lucille Clifton, won’t you celebrate with me: “come celebrate with me that everyday, something has tried to kill me and has failed.” Thomas tells me that this sentiment also applies more specifically to the creation of Rocky Barboa, too.
“At that point in my musical journey, I was really upset at the ways I was being erased in certain settings. I would go into the studio and it was almost like I wasn’t there. A lot of times, I was the only person there, who looked like me and with my gender identity. That entire [EP] was fighting for my own way, fighting for my respect and what I deserve. It felt very true to the Rocky movies.”
And the album title, Rocky Barboa?
Thomas laughs. “Oh, that’s just about spinning bars!”
The bars that Thomas spins in Rocky Barboa, and elsewhere, are frequently harrowing, but always warrant repeated listening, consideration and study.
In “Freeman,” a highlight of Rocky Barboa, Thomas raps “I was left alone all abroad/(Freeman freeman don’t cry)/I don’t do this shit for no broads/
(Freemen freeman don’t die )/I do it for kids with no voice (hmm)/I do it for tips gotta charge/(hmm)/I do it so I can live large.”
Thomas recorded a live version of the song, with band member Anjimile Chithambo on guitar, for National Public Radio’s Live Sessions, and the stripped down rendition enhances its force. Thomas told NPR that the song is about “finding the hope and courage to free yourself from feelings of abandonment and neglect.”
“Freeman” has a rawness to it, an ache and an openness in the way that Thomas spits out the words, that highlight Thomas’ ability to form a deep connection with their listeners. Don’t be afraid of the truth, Thomas seems to be saying, because the truth will set you free. The truth will set all of us free. Thomas’ truth.
“I’m just putting everything on the table,” Thomas says about the song. “It’s very vulnerable. The more vulnerable and real I get, the closer I get to my community and the supporters I have. People were like, ‘that song is my life,’ or ‘that song is exactly what I went through.'”
In “Of Course,” Thomas spits “I ain’t never see those so gimme those/Reparations pay that/America ain’t never heard of payback/Grandma was a slave not way back/1917/All she saw was cotton trees/Man I hate this country/Like please/Never try to come at me with the false facts papi/Like please/You don’t even get this life/You tryna win is not likely/You heard of the king of pop/You heard that I am the the queer BIG.”
That last reference, to Biggie Smalls, refers to an appellation bestowed on Thomas by their sister and their best friend, the “Queer Biggie.” I asked Thomas about this because while Biggie was without peer as a story teller, his views on gender identity, women, and LGBTQ issues were not so enlightened. (He was and is not alone. It must also be said that hip hop, as a Black cultural art form, in which the vast majority of artists are Black, is often unfairly called out for attitudes that are endemic to society as a whole and all genres of music. Even a band as bland as Nickelback can be breath-taking in its banal sexism.)
“For me,” Thomas says, “it was more of being in alignment with one of the best emcees, despite feeling like I don’t fit into Western beauty standards of what is attractive. Biggie was chubby, [with] dark skin, and not seen as attractive, which I felt was my experience growing up. As I unlearn a lot of what has been engrained, as far as who gets to be legendary, I notice that only cis men are placed in these iconic categories. I realize that they wouldn’t support or respect me as much as I value them, for the fact that I’m Queer and born with female anatomy.”
Thomas points to the words of American lawyer and civil rights activist Pauli Murray when confronting the strictures placed on marginalized and under represented groups, particularly in the entertainment industry, and sometimes even within one’s own status groups. Murray said, “[w]hen my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them. Where they speak out for the privileges of a puny group, I shall shout for the rights of all mankind.”
Thomas returns to identity on For Better or Worse‘s “Aint Perfect,” specifically, the intersecting identities of a Queer, Black, non-binary person.
Thomas says that “there is an over-looking of Black women, Black, non-binary and Queer people all the time. What is it about me that makes people, make me feel like I’m less than, even within my own community.”
In “Aint Perfect,” Thomas raps “I put in all my time/I don’t get what I deserve/Maybe it’s cuz I’m not thin/ maybe I act likе a bird/Maybe it’s cuz of my skin/ maybe it’s cuz of my words/And I do not wear a pеrm/I am not selling my body like her/So when I speak they act like they don’t hear.”
In a recent interview in the New York Times, the legendary Philadelphia music impresario Kenny Gamble said this about the slew of hits he wrote with his partner, Leon Huff: “We had a line in the song ‘Message in Our Music – ‘understand while you dance.’ You can be dancing, but are you listening to what these people are saying? There’s a group of people who will listen if it’s got that beat to it.”
Listen to the message in Thomas’ music. And you can dance to it, too.
On For Better or Worse, Thomas’ voice is stage center, the better to shine a light on the lyrical content of the artist’s songs.
Thomas says that the song was “really just an emotional rant. I wrote that song in a day. I was pretty much free-styling a lot of that song. I was upset about what was going, about the political state [of things], and the pandemic. It was a heavy day.”
Words are central to all the art Thomas makes. Sometimes, Thomas writes songs that are direct, sometimes they are more oblique. There is no mistaking, however, the point of the song “Trump vs. Biden.” Is the change going to be substantive, or is it merely the optics that have changed?
In the song, Thomas raps “whites and Blacks are running different races/Light and dark there’s always several faces/See police be on they chases/Racist judges closing several cases/Put us in a box like we need cages/The run like we got loaded bases.”
“For people who look like me,” Thomas says, “no matter if it’s this guy, or this guy or the next guy, I’m not feeling like I’m being represented. I would love to have someone who actually speaks to me when they speak from the White House. When am I going to be part of this conversation? I don’t care who it is because none of them are talking to me.”
Thomas isn’t just a technically skilled rapper. Like the best rhyme artists and poets, Thomas loves words, the way they sound coming out of your mouth, the way some words fit together like notes on a scale and how the way you bend or twist a word when you enunciate adds dynamics to your bars. Sometimes the words spill out, percussive, like hailstones hitting a tin roof, a rat-a-tat-tat of verbiage, like in “Stressin & Flexxin” from For Better or Worse:
“Everybody step up to the mic they lose/Jay said never argue with a fool/Clearly I never understood his rules/Clearly the game sorta lack sharp tools/I don’t gotta point a gun send shots through/Shoutout to Big Pun BX the school/Hard knocks/Blocks with rocks/Many corners stole pops/Many cds dropped/All these rappers flopped/But the world supports it so they don’t know they real spot.”
With For Better or Worse, Thomas approached song writing differently than they had in the past. Some of the songs were written by free-styling over a beat and letting inspiration and the subconscious dictate the lyrics that spilled out.
“You push record on your computer and let yourself go, organically,” Thomas says. Thomas compares it to comping, a technique used by jazz musicians. “Sometimes, it’s not even words, it’s more like sonic gibberish. And it’s bizarre, the ways in which my subconscious talks about topics I didn’t even realize [I was talking about]. It feels very spiritual.”
A song’s topic or feel can even be evoked by Thomas’ emotional reaction to the beat itself. Producers often name the instrumental tracks they give emcees, and that name can also conjure a feeling or a response that drives a song’s lyrics. Thomas says that a sound can stimulate and affect the song writing process, too.
“Once I was on a plane and [the sounds] really resonated with me, and the whole story came out. A beat has to be hitting me in an emotional way for me to then think about the concept. Sometimes, it even comes from the title a producer will give to the beat. And for me, to pay homage to that producer, I will use the title as a reference point.”
Thomas calls “Balance,” the last song on the EP, the most personal one on the record. The song references Thomas’ dad, and you can hear his recorded voice on the track. “It allows you to get a picture of whom I am as a person,” Thomas says about the song.
In “Balance,” Thomas raps ” To music like heroine savages/Daddy just did what grandad did/Averaging 23 bags and shit/Touch it, bang it till he bagged the clips/I don’t wanna live like that/Go around circles and come right back/
Tryna move forward gotta watch my back/Cuz the past creep up like a spider attack/And I ran out of nickels so I’m sippin’ the jack/Tryna not do the coke/Tryna make it off rap/Tryna not ever choke.”
“There are lessons in these moments,” Thomas says. “Sometimes things need to be said, even if they’re difficult. I don’t want to protect people from their mistakes, or protect myself, from my own mistakes. It’s important to share because that is the truth.”
The Civil Rights icon Pauli Murray once wrote that “hope is a song in a weary throat.” Hope also comes when that song expresses the unvarnished truth. That’s Billy Dean Thomas’ story. And that’s our collective story, too.
Independent artists need our support now more than ever. Purchase a digital version of For Better or Worse, Rocky Barboa, 2 The World and Billy Dean Thomas merchandise on Bandcamp.
Learn more about Billy Dean Thomas on the artist’s web site.