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'I've been trying to do this for over 30 years' — Billy Porter sings on his terms

Cover art for Billy Porter's <em>Black Mona Lisa</em>
Republic Records
Cover art for Billy Porter's Black Mona Lisa

Billy Porter has won a Grammy, an Emmy and a few Tonys since his breakout role on Broadway with 2013's Kinky Boots. For the FX show Pose, he was the first openly gay Black man to win an Emmy as lead actor.

But when he first came to national prominence after winning 1992's TV talent competition Star Search -- Porter obeyed the guidance at the time: hide your queerness. For his modern-day fans, he's almost unrecognizable in this video from his 1997 debut album.

"I've been trying to do this for over 30 years," Billy Porter told Morning Edition host Leila Fadel. "The industry was very homophobic at the time. I was not welcomed. I was actually put out."

Billy Porter just released a new album on his own terms --- with songs that often serve as little autobiographies — called Black Mona Lisa.

Porter says it took years for his career to recover. "Everybody told me that my queerness would be my liability. And it was four decades. Now it's actually my superpower."

The song "Children" has been with Porter for years now; it's become a favorite among his fans. Porter says, "'Children' is about facing your haters. You know, facing the people that set out to destroy entire swaths of people."

In his song "I'm Not Ashamed Anymore," he sings:

"I know I was strong enough/ To make a better life for me/ Than prayin' up, every day of my life/ I learned to never let the devil ever win/ But it took me some time."

It's just one of the references to his upbringing in the Pentecostal church — and its rejection of him. "Unfortunately, the first thing that the religious right likes to try and take away from queer people is God," he says. And he's been working on his spiritual life ever since leaving the church. "I believe that religion is manmade; spirituality is divine. I've been staying in the divine space."

Billy Porter's path to this freedom finds joyful expression on Black Mona Lisa. It's basically the album he wish he had when he was growing up. "The world has changed," he says. "The change has already happened. That's what I try to focus on in my work, because art can heal the traumas that we endure. And I want to be a part of the healing."

Mansee Khurana produced the audio version of this story. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Phil Harrell is a producer with Morning Edition, NPR's award-winning newsmagazine. He has been at NPR since 1999.

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