Zeke Thomas Talks Favorite LGBTQ Pop Culture Moments, From Beyoncé & Big Freedia to Billy Strayhorn
Last month, singer/DJ Zeke Thomas released “Dealin’ With It.” While the subject matter about working through trauma is a bit heavy, it has a dancefloor-ready sound that’s inspired by his house music predecessors, many of them also members of the LGBTQ community.
Still, Thomas -- son of NBA legend Isiah Thomas -- has a wide-ranging taste in music. Ahead of his DJ set for Pride at Goldbar in New York this Sunday (June 25), he shared his favorite LGBTQ pop culture moments -- including everything from Billy Strayhorn to Beyoncé and Big Freedia: “I can’t even picture what 'Formation' would be like without Freedia."
1. “Supermodel (You Better Work)” by RuPaul
The early ‘90s was filled with iconic music -- in ’92 songs like “Black or White,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and, of course, “Baby Got Back” dominated the charts. But amidst all of this music was another huge cultural moment of its own -- RuPaul’s “Supermodel (You Better Work)” soared to No. 2 on the Hot Dance Club Songs, and No. 45 on the Hot 100.
Thomas says he remembers singing “Supermodel” after watching it on VH1, and notes that even more than personally, it was a big moment culturally.
“You had Ru coming out, as a drag queen, as a black drag queen, and being visible,” he says. “Even Kurt Cobain said it was one of his favorite records of the year.”
2. Alex Newell Appearing on Glee as Unique
In 2011, Alex Newell was a contender on The Glee Project, Oxygen’s reality show where young performers competed for a seven-episode arc in Glee. Although he finished as a runner-up, which Thomas calls “a snub,” Newell still ended up appearing on the show, as a transgender student named Unique Adams. After having initial success as Adams, Newell joined the cast for its fifth and sixth seasons, as a recurring character and then a main cast member.
“Glee was the first real show that I had seen that connected with me,” Thomas says. “They put it out there, but they [normally] put it out there in a Disney, cookie-cutter way -- but when Alex came on as Unique, that wasn’t cookie-cutter….that’s a moment, it’s powerful.”
Thomas says he was impressed by Newell taking on a transgender character, especially in his first major role on national television.
“I really commend him for that, and I commend Glee for allowing us to have this moment,” he says.
3. “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” by Sylvester
After a two-year run with the San Francisco drag group The Cockettes, Sylvester, a standout of the troupe, went solo. Following the moderate success of his first solo album, Sylvester released Step II, a disco-inspired album that contained the hit “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” The single topped the dance charts while also making its way into the top 40 of the Hot 100.
Thomas calls the song a cross-generational gay anthem and distinctly remembers listening to it growing up with his gay uncle, as well as seeing it in the movie Milk.
“I think ‘You Make Me Feel’ will be playing at Gay Pride for forever -- until it’s just done,” he laughs. “Everybody knows that song…and if you don’t you probably shouldn’t be in a gay bar -- like go listen to it and then come back in.”
4. “Controversy” by Prince
Prince’s 1981 single “Controversy” found him addressing, albeit not answering, speculation about his sexuality, race and other aspects of his identity. While Prince leaves his self-posed question “Am I straight or gay?” unanswered in the song, Thomas sees him as a strong ally regardless.
“Prince wore blouses, wore dresses, wore heels, had the crazy long Jheri curls -- he dressed better than most gay men I know,” Thomas jokes. “You can’t take away that that has an effect on mainstream culture.”
Thomas says he grew up listening to Prince’s music with his dad, who he says is “obsessed” with him and his musicianship. He counts Prince, along with Madonna and Michael Jackson, as one of his favorite musicians of all time, explaining that they all share a common trait: “They put on a fucking show.”
“Prince had that victory of ‘I’m Prince’ -- you can’t see behind the curtains -- and I think that is powerful, because he’s an icon,” Thomas says. “An icon in a blouse.”
5. “Vogue” by Madonna
Although Madonna’s Billboard Hot 100-topping single made it mainstream, voguing has its roots as a dance style in the black LGBTQ community. Thomas says that although some people criticize Madonna for stealing from this culture, he appreciates her as an “icon” for being the “vessel” to popularize the dance.
“Vogue is an iconic song,” he says. “It’s one of the greatest pop songs ever written, it’s there for all of time, and it came from gay black culture.”
He says that Madonna combining the dance style with high fashion made the song stand out even more.
“At that time, she was at the top of her game. It’s hard to get mad at somebody for being great just based on what they look like,” he says. “She popularized something that’s dope -- let her make it dope.”
6. Freddie Mercury
While Freddie Mercury’s sexuality was somewhat shrouded in mystery and subject to constant speculation during his life, Thomas credits him for being a strong, unapologetically flamboyant performer who connected with a diverse group of people, and for being one of the first famous people to give a face to the AIDS epidemic.
“My dad is from the west side of Chicago -- the hood -- and he was just rocking out all the time to Queen,” he says. “To have Queen, and bands like that, impact black men in 'We are the Champions,' 'Another One Bites the Dust,' 'We Will Rock You'…And these are records that I still play today when I’m rocking gay clubs, when I’m with my gay friends. They’re just power ballads that motivate you, things that give you a pulse.”
Although Mercury was known to have several male partners, he was never completely open about his sexuality. Thomas says that regardless, he made an impact on the LGBTQ community.
“You don’t think of rock when you think of gay black culture, but Queen did it for you,” he says.
7. Billy Strayhorn
Billy Strayhorn isn’t quite as famous of a name as his collaborator Duke Ellington, but he should be -- Strayhorn composed some of Ellington’s most well-known work over the course of three decades, in addition to his own songs like “Lush Life.” He was openly gay, and often in the background or left uncredited on tracks. Thomas says as he’s gotten older, he has come to appreciate not just Strayhorn’s talent but his courage.
“They were already saying you can’t drink out of the same drinking fountain…if they’re going to lynch you for being black, what are they going to do for being gay and black?” he says. “He doesn’t get the credit that he deserved, except it’s there for him in history. For him to just be in the background, play the position, make music for three decades…it’s powerful that he didn’t let his talent go to waste.”
8. “The Whistle Song” by Frankie Knuckles
Frankie Knuckles is widely considered the “godfather of house music,” a legacy that stems, most notably, from the success of 1991’s aptly titled “The Whistle Song.”
“House music is so ingrained into gay culture, into gay black culture -- into world culture now, and [it started] in underground clubs,” Thomas says. “This is what popularized dance music, now you’ve got EDM and all these genres…it started with house music, and it started in gay clubs.”
Thomas says that even his newest single, “Dealin’ With It,” has "Frankie in it.” He remembers going to clubs in New York while underage and listening to “The Whistle Song” and others like it.
“Those are the tunes that were played, it was house music…that’s what the pulse of New York is all about,” he says.
9. Frank Ocean’s 2012 Open Letter and Channel Orange
“I remember I’m walking in the Meatpacking District and I just open my phone and there it is,” Thomas says, of Ocean’s July 2012 letter addressing his sexuality. “And it’s emotional, because he’s telling you he’s black, and he’s gay, and he’s an artist, and he’s not going to be defined by it because that’s who he is as a human being.”
The letter, posted on Tumblr, came after his popular lead single “Thinkin Bout You,” and days before his debut studio album Channel Orange. Thomas acknowledges that Ocean was by no means the first artist to come out publicly, but says 2012 felt like a “turning point,” with an election around the corner and a definitive decision on marriage equality in the United States seeming likely in the near future.
Thomas says that the letter shocking people made it special -- especially for himself, who had been told as a DJ to “calm your gay down.”
“How many artists stayed quiet, how many black gay artists stayed quiet?” he says. “That moment, it not only impacted me, but I’m sure it impacted so many artists around the world after, and artists before.”
10. Eminem performing “Stan” with Elton John at the 2001 Grammy’s
While it may not have exactly changed his ways, Thomas says that Eminem coming together on stage with Elton John was a big moment for hip-hop, and helped pave the way for more accepting attitudes.
“Eminem, one of the biggest, greatest artists in hip-hop, with Elton John saying ‘This man is an ally’…that’s a moment,” he says.
11. Beyoncé’s Formation Video Featuring Big Freedia
It didn’t make the cut on the album version, but the “Formation” music video just wouldn’t be quite the same without the booming voice of New Orleans-based bounce star Big Freedia setting the tone: “I did not come to play with you hoes…I came to slay, bitch!” Outside of her Fuse reality show, she may not have been known to mainstream audiences, but Thomas commends Beyoncé for paying homage to the genre she was dipping into for the song.
“Beyoncé gave the nod and said, ‘Come here, I’m going to put you on the record because I’m coming into your neck of the woods to do this album, and I want this album to feel like that grit,’” he says. “And that was dope.”
Their collaboration didn’t stop at the song. Big Freedia’s voice was part of the Formation World Tour opening, and she even came out for an appearance at the New Orleans stop. Thomas says he’s glad she got recognized, since as an underground artist, she helped pave the way for bounce-inspired songs to become popular.
“I can’t even picture what 'Formation' would be like without Freedia,” he says.
11. “Give Me One Reason” by Tracy Chapman
Chapman’s biggest song, “Give Me One Reason,” peaked at No. 3 on the Hot 100, and became the soundtrack of countless impending break-ups since its release in 1995. Thomas says that listening to her music knowing she’s gay makes him relate to it in a different way.
“I feel like now when you look into these records [of artists] who have since come out, and you read these lyrics, you connect with them in a different way,” he says. “We’ve all been there, we want our partners to stay.”
12. Johnny Mathis Coming Out in 1982
A couple decades into his successful career (he’s now sold over 100 million records worldwide), Johnny Mathis did an interview with US Magazine in which he was quoted coming out as homosexual. After a severe negative reaction that included death threats directed at Mathis, the publication quickly retracted the statement -- and it wasn’t until recently that the “Chances Are” singer publicly confirmed that he is gay.
Still, Thomas says the significance of having such a big star come out -- even if only temporarily -- went under the radar, and notes how much pop culture has changed since the early ‘80s.
“That’s what the music industry was, and that’s what it was portrayed as -- you conform, and this is how we package you… don’t get out of line, and don’t mess up our sales,” Thomas says.
13. “Din Da Da” by Kevin Aviance
Seven years after RuPaul’s “Supermodel (You Better Work)” came another dance hit from a gay black nightclub personality, with Kevin Aviance’s vocally percussive “Din Da Da.”
“It just continues house music, it continues what the pulse is,” Thomas says. “It rose to the top, just out of the New York club scene.”
Thomas says he gets inspiration from the record as a producer, along with from Aviance himself. He recently got the chance to meet him, and says that Aviance’s confidence inspired him as an artist and a person.
“Being gay and black, you’re always trying to figure out who you are,” he says. “Once you get to that point when you know who you are and you can truly stand up and just be happy -- that’s how I feel Kevin is: ‘I’m going to be me, I’m going to make this record, and I’m going to kill it.’”