Saturday, April 10, 2021

Mykal Kilgore: First Openly Gay Male Artist to Earn ‘Best Traditional R&B’ Grammy Nod [EUR Exclusive]

Grammy Nominee Mykal Kilgore

*Singer, songwriter, artist, and activist Mykal Kilgore has made history as the first openly gay, male artist to earn a nomination in the Grammy’s Best Traditional R&B category. 

Kilgore, an award-winning Broadway performer, received the nomination for his single, “Let Me Go”, which is the first release from his debut album, “A Man Born Black.”

“I am overwhelmed with joy to be counting amongst these incredible artists and to represent the male sound of R&B in this category,” said Kilgore in a statement. 

“I tried to write songs that helped express the truth of myself — the pretty and the ugly. I wanted people to see a whole human being, not a stereotype or a picture-perfect image – something true to myself. I wanted to speak about the world that I actually live in,” he added 

We caught up with the Orlando native ahead of the 2021 Grammy Awards to dish about his first nomination, his debut release and just being a man born Black. Check out our conversation below. 

READ MORE: Loni Love Gets ‘Unfiltered’ with Cast of ‘Little Women: Atlanta’ [EUR Exclusive]

Congratulations on being nominated for your first Grammy award. How exciting is it to have your first album nominated for a Grammy?

Thank you so much. It is a really, really incredible time. I’m super proud of the whole team at Affective Music and the idea that David, my manager, believed in what I was doing. So strong that he was like, “You know what, we’re going to get this out and we’re going to do it this way.” So him creating Affective Music, for me feels very… The mantle is heavy, but it also feels really beautiful and lovely that I had that kind of support.

I cannot believe I’m in a category with people who I’ve been inspired by for so long. Being in a category with Ledisi is just spectacular, but also just the idea that the Academy saw the work that I did and thought that it was worthy enough to be elevated, makes me humble and really excited for what’s next in this realm because now I feel like I’m at the big kid’s table.

It’s great that you’re nominated, but it’s kind of a bummer that you’re nominated during a year where you can’t even attend the ceremony because of COVID.

Honestly, the thing that we kept telling ourselves when we were creating the music was that the goal was to make music that we were really proud of. And because we achieved that everything else kind of feels not even the icing, it feels like the sprinkles. So getting this nomination feels like a dream and yeah, I want to win it, I absolutely want to win it. But I do like that it brings some reality to this black, queer R & B artist. Who now is in the history books, a Grammy nominee and I feel like it doesn’t make my career more valuable or important, but it does make it harder to ignore. And I look forward to it knocking down a door and allowing for other artists to live as honestly and openly as I want to. And for the culture of the industry to say, you know what, this isn’t an issue. This is beautiful and these are the kinds of stories and storytellers that we want to have in the conversation about American music.

You started “A Man Born Black” by raising money for the album via Kickstarter. How long was the campaign and how much money did you raise?

I raised $30,000. The campaign was, I think a month and a half. Because they were like, “You shouldn’t do two months, it’s too long.” I raised $30,000 and I thought that was enough to do an album. Bit by bit we were raising more and more and more and more. I think I started work on this album in 2015 or 16, that was me just going, I want to write an album. And then we finally were able to record the album. We recorded the album in three days.

As a gay, male artist, do you feel you have a responsibility to represent in this space?

Oh, absolutely. My biggest responsibility is to be honest. I feel a responsibility to be honest and to present myself in a way where I’m not feeling like I’m holding back for fear. I can hold back from the sense of, there’s something there for me and not for everyone, but to kind of walk out without the fear of being crippling. Because I think it’s human to be nervous, I’m nervous now when I think about the Grammy. Every time I say it a little bit of sweat trickles down my back. But I think it’s important to think about the people coming up. I’m just old enough to be thinking about children all the time. I’m always interested in how do we make the lives of the young artists coming up behind me freer. So, that is my responsibility.

Talk about the inspiration behind your debut album.

I wanted to do a project that reflected Michael Kilgore. And then as I continued to write it, I was like, “This project isn’t is an invitation.” It’s saying to people from a distance, what you can see is that I’m a man, I’m black and if you want to know more, you got to get closer. And this project allows for people to really get closer. So I’m very thankful that so many people have taken the invitation and gotten closer to me through this art.

What’s your favorite song on the album and why?

Ooh. You asked me to pick my favorite child. How dare you? I think maybe my favorite song on the album is, “Let Me Go” It was our first single, it was the first song we recorded, but it’s really tough. It’s really tough to choose.

What’s the message you’re hoping fans takeaway from “Let Me Go,” and what does the track mean to you?

It is about releasing anything that doesn’t support you, that doesn’t honor you, that doesn’t serve you, and the recognition that sometimes you have to just speak to it and say, “I need you to stop, so that I can stop.” And it’s romantic, it’s familial, it’s work, it’s anything. And I think that from the responses I’ve gotten from people, I think a lot of people were catching it.

So this journey that you embarked on in putting this album together — from writing the songs,  recording, packaging, and now Grammy nominee. Has this process been therapeutic for you in any way?

Oh my goodness. Extremely. You think you’re an honest person and you think you’re open and you think you’re available and then you put out something that tells on you and you realize, “Oh my God, I actually have to become this man.” I have to be this guy who was okay with you knowing him. And it has been so instructive, it’s been so cleansing to be able to sing these songs after recording them when we were able to go do shows. It has been therapeutic to see people experience them in new ways that I didn’t imagine when I was writing. And then I was dreaming a dream for myself that this whole process has completely eclipsed. It just is so much bigger, and brighter, and better, and cooler, and weirder than I even imagined it could possibly be. And I’m so super thankful to have the opportunity to live in God’s dream for my life, which was so much bigger than my own dream.

What are you hoping listeners are left feeling or thinking about after they listen to “A Man Born Black”?

I hope to think about the lyrics. I hope that people really listen to what I have to say. And the music is incredible. My producer, Jamison Ross did an amazing job producing the album, but I really hope that people feel like they’ve been confronted with themselves. Hope they feel like they are hearing things that trigger their emotions in good ways and ways that allow them to experience sadness and joy and love. I hope they think about the political climate. I hope they think about what kind of person do they want to be. Do they want to be the kind of person who’s an abolitionist or do they want to be someone who silently on the sidelines? I hope that it forces us all to take a look at all of that.

And even to what you were saying before, this is a kind of success that for some people who’ve had incredible successes like, “Oh, this is the beginning of a journey.” For other people this is the brass ring. And for me, I’m learning how to be journey-focused and not goal-focused in that way. That I’m really loving the fact that I get to make music, that I get to say what I want to say through my art that I get to represent myself and my communities beautifully. And that to me is what makes us feel so beautiful and successful. And it’s… The Grammy will be lovely and I am making room for it right now in my apartment, but if I don’t get it and it doesn’t change the work. And for any young artists the work is what’s key. I really hope that all of us focus our minds on, make the art. Make the art and don’t make the art because you want the accolades, make the art because your body can’t take it if you don’t do it.

My body can’t take it. It can’t take it if I don’t write. It can’t take it if I don’t dance, if I don’t act. Those are things that bring me so much joy and they are where I feel most of myself. I don’t feel like a human if I’m not doing those things. And there will come a time where my body will get tired and I won’t know I can’t sing the way I used to sing and I can’t dance the way I used to dance or whatever. And then when those times come, there’ll be other things that I’ll be doing, but I am so committed to waking up every day and doing things that feed my measure of joy.

When did you first realize you had a talent for singing and songwriting?

I was in middle school and I kind of became the community jukebox because I would sit out on the benches at lunch and sing songs and people would come up and ask me to sing. And I was like, “Oh my goodness.” My singing matters enough to people that they’re thinking up songs, asking me to learn songs overnight, to come back to school to sing tomorrow. It was really incredible. And before then I was just singing in church. So it didn’t seem like it was a special thing. It just seemed like everybody sings in church, but that was when I realized, okay, maybe this is more than just a little… Just open your mouth and sing some songs. It turned into people actually going, “Wow, you have a special thing going on.” So that was about the time, around middle school. That’s the time we all need to be affirmed. I got it.

What are your peers and family members saying now that you’re a Grammy nominee?

They are so cool about it. When I say cool, they’re just like, “Oh okay, we knew it.” And I’m like, “What do you mean? You knew it, this is a Grammy nomination.” They’re like, “Oh, we knew you were going to get it.” So my family is just cool as a cucumber. They’re so unmoved by it and I love that because it keeps me so calm. They refuse to stress me out about it. My friends, on the other hand, when I found out, I did like a little mini… I was in Florida and I have a lot of friends who are in Florida still and they were like, “Oh my God, we have to celebrate!” And it was a huge deal for them. But most of my friends are just… They’re so kind because they’re like, “We’re just glad that everyone’s catching up to what we already knew.” And that has been kind of, not kind of, extremely heartwarming for me, that my friends are such believers in what I do. And they support me 110%, 120%.

How do you feel about your growth as an artist in the industry at this point?

I have been doing the slow and steady methods and sometimes it has been frustrating, I’ll be honest. But for the most part, this has felt great. I feel like every room I go into, I feel confident. Sometimes I feel confident in knowing that I’m the dumbest person in the room, but I’m confident in that and I go in there with a spirit of, let me learn, because I know there’s lots to learn. There are other times where I’m like, “Oh my gosh. Now I get to finally be the old man in the room.” And in those places, I’m confident in knowing I have something to share and something to give. And I think this whole journey has helped me to kind of go into myself. I mean, mind you, the quarantine helped as well, but it’s helped me to focus and go into myself and go, “All right, let’s be real.” Let’s be real with Mykal Kilgore and let’s see what the truth is. And let’s see what we can do to help ourselves and feel… Feel and show up in the best way that we can.

What role does social media play in your branding efforts?

It’s completely important. And I joke because I’m like, “The difference between a young person and an old person is all people fight technology.” But I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to fight technology. I’m going to say, “You know what, times they are changing but keep up and move on and go forward with it.” So I think that social media is great. I want to be as good at social media as Cardi B. I’m not quite as good as her, but she’s my brass ring right now, because she’s so authentic and it is almost frightening how authentic she is. But I think that there’s so much beauty in the fact that, Cardi B is not getting online to lie and fake for y’all. She is getting on there to be her truest self and that’s why people love her. Because they love her. And that’s what I want. I want people to love the music and love me and for it not to be anything that feels fake or phony in a way.

Have you been thinking about the legacy you want to leave behind?

I’ve definitely thought about what I want to leave behind and I want people to always… And this may come back to bite me in the butt sometime, but it is what it is. I always say that you cannot have the art without having me. You got to have me with the art and my blackness, my queerness, my church upbringing, my theatrical experience, all that sort of stuff is wrapped within the art that I do. And I don’t like the idea that people want blackness without black people. People want queerness without queer people. You can’t have it. You have to… We all have to be a part of it and steering our own destinies. So my hope that I leave behind is that when other artists are creating the art, they’re going, I want to be authentically me too. And whatever it is that you get from me, you can’t excise that from me.

Over the past year, America has been impacted by the COVID pandemic, protests over police brutality,  the Black Lives Matter movement pissed a lot of folks off, we’re still dealing with the ongoing social injustice, and rising racial tensions… has any of this inspired the music you want to put out going forward?

It has. Well, what it did first was it forced me to stop in a way that I never would have stopped before. It’s forced me to be with myself in a way that was very uncomfortable for me. And I think that’s probably where the inspiration for the next stuff is coming from. Not so much songs about, I like to call them COVID carols. I don’t have any COVID carols. There’s nothing like that.

Yeah, but isn’t there a whole bunch of COVID and quarantine carols of people releasing stuff that’s kind of a monument to quarantine. And I think that’s fine. I think that you should be allowed to do that. For me, the things that I’m going to write come from, I don’t want to say a deeper, but a very deep well. Because these next songs will be about me. The things I’ve created during quarantine will really be about me and how I view me and what I’m doing and what has affected me. It’s about me and my time with my therapist, it’s about me healing my heart and thinking about my time growing up within with my parents and my feelings about them and my feelings about the industry and how it’s… And my place within it.

So, I think that the quarantine, for those of us who are able to create, and I think a lot of people who aren’t creating, it was probably for the best. I think there’s something to be said about all these people creating, creating, creating, and then the world stops and they listen and they stop too. So I have nothing but the utmost respect for people who are like, “This is not the time for me to create.” But for me, I took a lot of time to not do anything. And then when it was time for me to start again, I was able to do it with a fresh perspective on myself. And I really have the quarantine to thank for that.

You have a great story. A couple of years from now, once you’re really established in the game, you’re going to be writing your biography and we’ll be talking again about your rise to fame and I’ll be like, “Hey, remember your first interview with me, and now look at you.” I’m projecting that for your future.

Oh, that’s sweet. Our luxurious world tour interview and we’re on the private jet together interviewing. That is our goal. And I have to tell you, thank you so much. I’m brand spanking new and there’s been so many people who have taken a chance and I appreciate you for being a person who’s taking a chance on me. And was like, “Oh yeah, this was worth talk… He’s worth talking to.” So I really, really appreciate that.

I hope young gay males who think their sexuality is a crutch or a handicap or just a negative will read this conversation and be inspired to live their full, unapologetic truth. 

I hope so too. I mean, I think about the stars that I loved growing up and for me, it’s specifically that I’m in R & B. As an R & B person, it’s such a… The men sing about this and the woman singing about that and they sit… And then it’s very heterosexual is very heteronormative. And with the idea that… And the songs are like, I meaning for you to be able to imagine whoever it is that you love and be a male, be a female. And for me, it’s male and it shouldn’t be an issue. It shouldn’t be a rub. And there’s so many artists that went before me that I wish could have done what I’m doing. So it’s important for me to be thinking about them and to be doing it for them.

Well, this has certainly been an insightful conversation, thank you, and congratulations again on your Grammy, fingers crossed that you win!

This is my first invite to the dance. I’m happy to be at the dance. Maybe I’ll be prom queen, maybe I won’t. But I’m just happy to be at a dance. But if I get the crown, the gag of it all, woo… now that I would like to see, because so many people are like, “It’s fixed, there’s no way you can win a Grammy. You’re not one of the bigs. You’re not on a big lit record label.” And I just still believe that even now God favors, David’s over Goliath’s. And that’s just how I feel.

The 63rd GRAMMY Awards will take place live on Sunday, March 14 at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT live on CBS, which you can watch on TV as well as stream on Paramount+ (formerly CBS All Access), where plans start at $5.99 per month.

Ny MaGee
Ny MaGee is a screenwriter and freelance reporter from Chicago -- currently living in Los Angeles and covering A-list entertainment for various outlets, including Emmys.com. She has worked for: Miramax, MTV & VH1, The Jim Henson Company, Hallmark Channel, Paramount Pictures, and for iconic indie film producer Roger Corman.

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