Liv Collom: This is Liv Collom. I’m with KCPR, and I’m here with Billy Dean Thomas. How are you doing this morning, Billy Dean?
Billy Dean Thomas: Good. Thank you for having me. Super excited to talk with you.
Collom: Your new release, “For Better or Worse,” is in our current rotations and it was one of my favorite releases of the past year. Did you initially plan to release an album in 2020? Or did the turmoil and the events of the year inspire you to write something? What was the main catalyst for putting out “For Better or Worse?”
Thomas: I think it was a little bit of both. A couple of the songs I had written a couple of years ago, but what gave me this extra fire up underneath me was the fact that everything was so uncertain. Even the title, “For Better or Worse,” it’s kind of ambiguous. It leaves you with this very unclear state of how the future is going to look… I felt like if I didn’t release it during the pandemic, when everyone had that same feeling, it would almost feel less important and less timely.
Collom: People experience different degrees, I guess, of losses… but there was this collective sense of uncertainty. So I guess that uncertainty would be one of those themes… What are some of the others? My next question was actually what is the significance of the title? But you checked that box off right away.
Thomas: Definitely uncertainty. I was feeling really conflicted with a lot of the spaces that I was a part of, not just the government, but also like within internal circles… There were a lot of conversations that I was having, throughout the pandemic, that really exposed the differences in perception between myself and my family and some of my closest friends. It really brought to light the internal conflicts between social groups.
I also like to play with doubleness a lot. I think it has a lot to do with my Gemini sign, but I love to play devil’s advocate… I tend to not really grab on to one side, because things are always shifting. Ideas are always changing. People are always changing.
Collom: I’m a Scorpio but I have a lot of Gemini placements in my family. That’s super cool you reference that! You also make a lot of pop culture references in your music… My favorite was the Hank Hill reference on [your track] “Trust No Mo” because “King of the Hill” is my favorite TV show. Do you find yourself turning to other media for inspiration for how you put out music, or is it mainly events in your life?
Thomas: I think it’s definitely both… I feel like the point is that I’m trying to reclaim or put myself in these narratives because there aren’t people that look like me that have been idolized in that fashion.
So like with [the record] “Rocky Barboa,” it was really fitting because a lot of the work was about internal struggles and fighting and proving yourself in this battlefield or in the ring. It really resonated with Rocky Balboa. However, I often lean into pop culture, because I feel like it allows for a universal understanding.
Collom: You have a track called “Trump vs. Biden,” which I was talking about before. In that track, you expressed frustration with American politics and all of the systemic injustices that stem from US imperialism. This sentiment was carried out by a lot of young people this year… Do you think this increased outspokenness will change the art that was put out during our generation?
Thomas: What’s funny is, I think it’s always been that way. Hip hop is extremely political – whether people want to admit it or respect it in that way or not. But, I think at this moment right now, it’s impossible.
There are artists that are still putting out club bangers when we’re all in our house… but it feels a little bit unsettling to release the songs that have nothing to do with the people that support my work. It would show that there’s a disconnect between me and my communities if I didn’t address some of the collective things. For me, it is definitely about advocacy… exposing things that are really uncomfortable in a public format.
Collom: There is a lot of significance in putting out stuff that’s timely.
Thomas: It’s bizarre. It’s nice sometimes… I think [joyful songs] are necessary. I’m not trying to downplay the importance of “WAP” by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, but I also think that it’s necessary to allow people to experience those other emotions that are difficult and challenging and find solace there.
Collom: You’re a queer, non-binary artist in a very historically masculine and heteronormative genre. Does being an independent artist give you the chance to be more who you want to be? Are there challenges… in sticking to your guns and doing your own thing?
Thomas: I never really thought about it that way. I think it’s been coming up a lot more lately, with the whole idea being independent, and not having to follow a format or not having to look a certain way.
When you are saying something that is challenging a system, or whoever it is, there’s always this pushback and a fear because people may stop listening; people may stop inviting you for interviews. I feel like [with] great art, there’s always going to be somebody mad, you know what I mean? You can’t please everybody.
Collom: It’s a really interesting balance to have to eke out as an artist. In some ways, you want to be palatable, and you want people to like you… but then you also want to be yourself. It’s a fine line to walk between.
Thomas: I guess the cool thing too, is that by virtue of being myself and being queer and black and non-binary, I’m already in opposition to all of the social norms of what is acceptable. So, what’s dope about being myself is that I don’t have to be the answer. I don’t have to fit a certain mold of what a pop star looks like.
Hopefully in the future we can have amazing popular artists that actually defy all of those cultural norms, which would be great. Like, how cool would it be to have a top charting artist that’s non-binary and brown and is not oversexualized like that? That sounds like we’re asking for a lot, right?
Can we ever get to a place where somebody that’s non-male is not sexualized with this format in this music industry? I think it’ll be tough, but I think eventually we will get to that place.
Collom: We’re headed more so in that direction more than any other time. But you know… the music industry is so volatile, you never quite know what’s going on.
Thomas: The more I learn about the structure of the music industry, I don’t actually think it’s as volatile as we think. I think there are a lot more administrative things going on that make things appear to be fresh and new and make things appear to be a certain way.
If the music industry’s values and mission were a little bit more in alignment with social justice and advocacy, I think we’d see a lot more artists that are political and talk about real things. They’re [the music industry] designing it to play certain people front and center. That’s why we don’t see [rapper] Little Simz winning. She’s absolutely incredible… We’re not seeing these incredible queer, non-male musicians winning everything, because the industry is not really putting money in supporting them in that way.
Collom: There’s almost like this stage show going on. You are a public figure putting out your music… is it like a persona when you’re performing? Do you get into that zone? Or do you feel like you’re totally the same on stage and in your day-to-day life?
Thomas: I basically created this person that I’ve used as a portal to be more of myself, if that makes sense. So it feels a little heady. It was also a way for me to access and feel more comfortable in my gender identity … like, stepping into the person that I want it to be… I still have this safe space of being around family and friends and people close to me that allows me to remove myself from the “performer” self.
But I won’t say being Billy Dean Thomas is an act or persona. I think it’s just another vehicle for me to be more parts of myself that I may not have been in the past.
Collom: There are different people you show different parts of yourself to.
Thomas: I graduated with a psychology degree and, [in] one of my classes, we talked about this thing called imagos, which is basically personalities within your one being. So Billy Dean Thomas is like my performance imago. It’s still me, but it’s like a more confident me, an alter ego, that says what they want to say, is who they are and is unapologetic.
Collom: In one sentence, or tidbit, what do you hope that your listeners – the “Dean’s List,” your fans, or just anyone listening to your music – take away from [it]?
Thomas: I hope that when people listen to my music, it inspires them to be an agent of change in their own life; to stand up for what they believe in; to stand firm in what they believe in, and can inspire other people to do the same.
Collom: I have one last question! So you’re a very talented rapper, writer and artist, but you’re also definitely a fashion icon. If you could swap clothes or a wardrobe with any celebrity, who would it be and why?
Thomas: Whoa. This is a crazy question. I love it. This is so cool. I don’t want people to be mad at me for this. I have to say Kanye West. I’m sorry.
Collom: You’re all good.
Thomas: I was just building a mood board three days ago for my partner, who’s also a designer and a stylist. It was really embarrassing, because all the images that I found were of Kanye. I was like, ‘Maybe this is just a Kanye fan page.’ I like how he plays with the classic looks. I like how he plays with casual, but still chic. I mean, I just really like him and I’m really angry with him, but I do like his fashion.
Collom: Yeah, that’s definitely Kanye. He’s an icon for better or worse, I guess. You can really apply that to anything!
Thomas: (Laughs) Exactly. ★