In February of 2016, Zeke Thomas was raped. It took months for him to come to terms with this -- his privacy, security and peace of mind had been taken from him in his own apartment, by a man he met on Grindr. The 29-year-old DJ, producer and musician -- and son of NBA legend Isiah Thomas -- went off the deep end. He’d spend entire days in bed and, trying to cope, fell into a habit of drug and alcohol overuse.
Not only was he dealing with the trauma of his most recent sexual assault, but the experience had brought up memories of being sexually abused by basketball teammates when he was 12-years-old. Thomas stepped away from making music, unwilling to continue doing what he loved.
After therapy and returning to making music earlier this year, Thomas decided to share his experience in an emotional, revealing interview with New York magazine. The decision to open up about his rape had been difficult, but soon, propelled by his unique perspective as an openly gay black musician and the son of famous sports figure, the story became a centerpiece of his media appearances. In late April, Robin Roberts interviewed him in a heavy Good Morning America segment. Today, Billboard can exclusively premiere his music video for "Dealin' With It," which opens with a clip from the GMA interview.
"This video is for my friends who helped me through my trauma," Thomas said. "I hope that everyone who has made it through a trauma or is going through trauma can deal with it in positive ways and get the love and support needed." We talked to the singer about his sexual assault, his first attempt at singing and his inspiration for the empowering track.
What does “Dealin’ With It” mean to you?
It’s really my song that brought me back. I’ve been DJing since I was 13 years old and working in music, from Hot 97, to Atlantic Records, to interning at booking agencies. I’ve wanted to know all about this industry, and I love it, but my love was taken away from me when I was raped. I spiraled completely out of control, and then music brought me back.
This record, my heart and soul is in it. It’s not strictly about rape -- it’s written about struggle, it’s written about trauma, but it’s written about getting over it and moving through it. That’s why when you hear it, it’s up-tempo, it’s a dance record, because you have to constantly deal with shit throughout your life, and either you’re going to let it defeat you, or you’re going to deal with it.
There is a strong message in this song -- does any particular part mean more to you?
The lyrics that I would say mean the most to me would probably be the pre-hook: “It’s coming into view, exactly what I need to do/ I’m good at preaching but I can’t be true/ Cut the strings and cut me loose/ I’ve got some things I need to do, done playing mindless games with you.”
It was really a plea to myself, a plea to move on. You have to have that inner conversation with yourself. I remember being in the studio recording it and the words just flew. I’ve written a lot of records, and there was no experience like writing this record because it was just flowing through me. I didn’t go to the studio to write this record, I went in and had this beat in my head, and started playing it and then the words started coming. And it was words saying to me, this is where you’re supposed to be, you grew up in this, you love this — do it.
So you had the beat in mind, but did you know that this would be a song about working through these things, or did that come as you were working on the song?
I had the groove in my head, but I didn’t have any words. Then, I said I’m dealing with it. I wrote the record in London, and I was out in the London gay scene. I went to a bar and they were playing house music, as the gays do, but what I love about house music is the simplicity. If you listen to the record, it’s simple, it’s a groove, but it makes you move. So I’m like, I want a groove like this. When I got there, the words just started coming out. I’m not a guy who pens things; I kind of just let it go and if it’s a good idea I make a note, but these just kept on coming.
This was also your first time singing on a record, how did you make that decision?
I attribute that to people saying “You can’t do this.” I’d never been told that I could. I had been in choirs, I had been in musical theatre, so I knew that I could sing, but when I started producing and doing DJ records and doing remixes no one ever said “Sing.” Then my team said, “Why don’t you go for it?” and I was fucking terrified, but I did it.
I feel like that’s something you have to keep going through in life. I feel like that’s a thing we have as gay men that not a lot of people have to deal with. We have to always conquer insecurities about ourselves, because we’ve been told you can’t, and you’re different so many times.
Especially on this song, which is a more personal record, what was it like to have it be your first time singing?
It felt good. I’m not saying I’m Luther Vandross, but it felt good. Being able to perform it and being comfortable, it just feels right. I’m going to be 29 years old, and at 29 I’m an artist — a full one.
What do you hope people listening take from this, other than it being a fun dance song?
I hope people take from it that there’s music in it. I’m a classically trained violinist at the end of the day. I know the ins and outs of music theory, I’ve studied this shit, and there is music in there. So from a music standpoint, I want people to feel that music. From an energy standpoint — any record that I make, there will always be a groove. I want people to take that energy, that love from it and know that more is coming. I’m not going to stop.
Your songs in the past have also included strong messages. Is that something you think about with your music? A lot of times in dance or house music, that’s not always the case.
I’m very visual. My first record that I released, “Regret,” that dealt with drug overdose. That was just me being in DJ culture all the time, it’s a true story that happened to one of my friends regrettably that I lived through. I don’t think about these things but they’re things that flow through you.
I’ve never been the kind of person to just go into something. Even when I do my DJ sets, I don’t walk in and say, “This is the list.” I let it flow, and I think that that is musicianship and that’s artistry. Now, you practice and you craft, but I don’t go in there saying A to B to this…when the music video happens, yeah I meticulously plan that out, but when the music happens you have to let that go. You have to let it flow from your soul and have fun with it.
This song comes around the same time as you are taking the role as an ambassador for the NSVRC. What has that experience been like?
It was cool because dealing with the rape and dealing with the trauma, my team -- I told them I want to speak about this, because it’s something that happened to me. I was going to group meetings and going to LGBT centers and talking about it, and I didn’t want it to get out and have it not be the way I wanted to say it, have it not be my truth. They were right to align me with an organization that has provided me so much guidance and knowledge about the subject.
Yeah, they named me an ambassador, but right now I say I’m just a voice. I’m loving the ambassadorship role, I’m going to love the work that we’re going to do, we’re going to talk about it -- but at the end of the day I’m going to speak through my music and my heart.
What has the response been like from being that voice and talking about it in your life?
It’s been overwhelming, both in terms of people I don’t know -- I can tell you, I get so many DMs that are just powerful, from all around the world. I got a DM this morning that’s in Portuguese that I’m going to have to translate, and they’re from survivors that I respond to. I respond to them all -- I no longer have to just respond to random dick pics.
Then, what’s really cool is that people in my industry -- from DJs to musicians, to people I’ve known in the music industry for so long -- to reach out to me… I was raped, and I was public about it on a big stage. For the music industry to wrap their arms around me and say, "This is awesome that you’re doing this, this is dope" -- that’s been big, for my peers to respect me. I knew I had their respect, I didn’t know I had their love.
You’ve been very candid about your sexual assault in interviews -- was it difficult for you to make the decision to come out and be that voice?
There are moments in life, you know. There was a moment when I was in that recording studio that I could’ve shied away from talking about it. I could have walked away and said no, I’m just going to write a pop song, or whatever. New York magazine said that they would do [the story], and I was OK with that. I said, "OK, I’m going to talk about the story, I know the writer, he’s a friend of mine" -- and then Robin Roberts called. And you have to make a decision. When you get the moment, you step into it and you do it or you don’t. I stepped into the moment and I have no regrets about it.
You talked about fans and the music industry, but in your own personal life, what has the reaction been to your openness about your sexual assault?
To be honest with you, this is something that I’m just coming to terms with. I feel for my friends and my family, even though they knew I was going to do it and go public... I’ve dealt with it, I’ve moved on, I’m feeling good -- I’m doing the work, but they’re having to relive this trauma. It seems like every day I’m doing an interview talking about it in some way, and there’s no outlet for them to heal, per se.
So there’s two sides of the coin for them. They’re happy I’m doing well, but every time they hear about it, they have to relive it. So I feel for them. I didn’t think about that all the way through, how that would affect them. But they still love me, they still talk to me every day.
Have they been supportive throughout your music career in general?
My friends and my family, to let a 14-year-old kid work the graveyard shift at a radio station in Indianapolis, Indiana -- I was up there at 3 in the morning, running the music board. My parents, they’ve allowed me to do this. They’ve allowed me to make my mistakes and grow, they have supported my music career in more ways than anything.
What sort of things will you be doing in the future to keep talking about this issue?
In my own life, I’m definitely going to continue to talk to survivors. I’m sure it’ll also be expressed in my music. I’m getting more active in charities, I’m working with It’s On Us, I’m doing the NSVRC, it’s going to be awesome. We’re talking about male sexual assault in a major way that we haven’t done in this country, and it’s coming from a gay man -- a gay black man, and a musician, and a DJ.
It’s cool -- it doesn’t define me, and I’m not going to let it define me, but it’s something that happened in my life and it’s something that I’m going to be active about. Music is No. 1 and it always will be, and this is an experience that led me to create my first song that I sang on, it’s very important to me. In a way, God doesn’t put things in front of you that you can’t handle.