Awards

How Mykal Kilgore Went From Broadway to the Grammy R&B Ballot

Mykal Kilgore
David Franklin

Mykal Kilgore onstage in New York in 2020.

With his soulful debut single, Kilgore makes the rare leap from musical theater to mainstream recognition.

As paths to success in musical theater go, Mykal Kilgore’s was fairly familiar. He started out as a cruise ship performer. In 2009, he auditioned for a Dallas-Fort Worth production of the musical revue Five Guys Named Moe and was hired by director Billy Porter — who went on to win a Tony Award for his performance in Kinky Boots, as well as become Kilgore’s mentor. On Porter’s advice, Kilgore moved to New York and began booking roles on Broadway — including Hair, Motown the Musical and Dear Evan Hansen — as well as in TV musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar with John Legend and The Wiz Live!

By 2018, Kilgore was ready to make a leap many Broadway performers before him had: writing and recording an album. But the results he has seen since have been decidedly less expected: In November, he was nominated for a best traditional R&B performance Grammy for his debut single, “Let Me Go.”

“He pulled a rabbit out of the hat with this nomination,” says a proud Porter. “If an artist starts on Broadway, the music industry doesn’t see you like that. I got my Grammy from being in a Broadway show [Kinky Boots won best musical theater album in 2014], not for any of my own albums. Whether Mykal wins or not, he did it. There’s power in that.” As Kilgore himself puts it: “Just because you’re small doesn’t mean you’re not mighty.”

A nomination in a mainstream category for an artist from the theater world is rare — but not unheard of in the history of the Grammys. Melba Moore, a Tony winner for Purlie in 1970, charted a string of R&B and dance hits in the 1980s and early ’90s, and earned three Grammy nods along the way, including for best new artist and best female R&B vocal. Winning the latter category in 1981 was Stephanie Mills, the original Dorothy in The Wiz who parlayed that spotlight into five R&B No. 1 songs. Dreamgirls star Jennifer Holliday won twice in the ’80s, and Aida Tony winner Heather Headley, a four-time nominee, took home an award as well.

Kilgore, 38, joins that group thanks to a song that, like the album it appears on, embraces the great, soul-stirring R&B tradition in a modern way. “Let Me Go” is “a very emotional look at love — not just romantic, but any kind of love relationship that I don’t know is commonly looked at,” says Kilgore, who is gay. “I wanted to say and do something that felt substantial.” That impulse translates throughout the album, A Man Born Black, produced by drummer-singer Jamison Ross, a member of Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist group Snarky Puppy. Kilgore pays tribute to the likes of Donny Hathaway and Marvin Gaye by tapping into the timeless sounds of Blackness that shaped American music — gospel, ’70s soul, New Orleans second line rhythms — as he sings about navigating the world as a Black man. For Kilgore, “For Zimmerman,” a track honoring slain teenager Trayvon Martin, set the tone from the get-go: “If I was going to be this raw, then that’s what the album had to be.”

His debut is also the inaugural project for Affective Music, a Los Angeles-based label services and management firm that artist manager David S. Hargrett launched in June 2019. Hargrett, who is now Affective’s CEO, is learning alongside his artist, and drew upon his marketing background to roll out a Grammy campaign for Kilgore last May. Research led him to focus on reaching voters through advertising (a full-page ad in Billboard and spots on social media), releasing an a cappella version of “Let Me Go” and building awareness through his, Kilgore’s and Ross’ relationships in the creative community from which the Recording Academy draws its voting membership.

But they’re also hoping that the same raw talent that got Kilgore nominated in the first place — regardless of where he had developed it — will be enough to score a win. “Our approach was to be as true to the art as we could,” says Hargrett. “We didn’t have a strategy on how Mykal should go from Broadway to R&B. When people ask how he got a Grammy nomination, my response is, ‘Listen to the song, and I guarantee you’re going to understand why he’s here.’ Now we’ll see how it all plays out on March 14.”

This article originally appeared in the March 13, 2021, issue of Billboard.