Brody Ray on His Emotional 'America's Got Talent' Audition: 'It Was So Validating for Me'

Trae Patton/NBC
Brody Ray auditioning on America's Got Talent. 

For singer Brody Ray, being seen for who he is has always been the goal. Based in Nashville, Ray decided that if he wanted to take control of how he wanted the world to see him, he was going to find a platform to declare his truth proudly.

When Ray appeared on Tuesday night’s (June 26) episode of America’s Got Talent, the judges asked him why he chose to sing a cover of Jordan Smith’s “Stand in the Light,” allowing Ray to live in his truth. “It kind of applies to my life, to overcoming struggles and battles,” he said. “I actually was born female. I’m transgender.”

What followed was a stunning rendition of “Stand in the Light” that got Ray a standing ovation from the crowd, had Mel B in tears, and got everyone on the judges panel to offer him a yes vote, moving him forward in the competition.

Billboard caught up with Brody after his audition, and he talked about making it through to the next round, his transition process and finding a community to call home in Nashville.

What got you interested in auditioning for America's Got Talent rather than the various other singing competitions on TV?

I think what really drew me in was the fact that they take the time to focus on the individual and the act by itself. They kind of take their time, and they work with the story and who you are. They can get into more details about your life and the things that went on to lead you where you are that day. It's more of a variety show. You've got all of these sorts of people for all of these different acts, so you're not all competing for the same act.

I get that. Well congratulations on the four "yes" votes. It was a beautiful performance at your audition. What did that feel like, getting those votes and a standing ovation?

Oh, wow. It was very emotional, I was very emotional, and it was so validating for me. Because, it was almost like, in that moment, everything had come full-circle for me, everything that I had been through and worked for, that moment was ... exhilarating. I could hardly stand, my legs were shaking. I have been looking so hard for a moment like that for so long, that it finally came, and I didn't know if it would ever come. And for it to happen, it was just like the beginning to my career.

Simon did ask that you start performing your own music next time you're on. What made you want to do this cover of Jordan Smith's song rather than an original?

I feel like going with a cover song is more impactful because people know the song, they can connect to it, they kind of know what to expect, as opposed to picking a song that I wrote where people don't know what's going on with it. If I know, and I'm the only person that knows where it's going, it kind of really is hard to do an original song, because people critique you a lot more from it. They're critiquing the lyrics and musicality of it. This way, I don't want to say it was easier, but it had more of an impact this way. And the song was so well-written, and it just really, really fit my life and my story so well. It matched everything that was going on, and I don't think I could have picked a different song.

Was "Stand in the Light" something that you listened to and identified with following your transition? Was there other music that helped you maneuver your transition?

Yeah, that was definitely a song that I could relate to and I listened to. The first time I heard it, I was driving my car, and it was so emotional. It was on the radio, and it just captured me right away. I had to pull over because I was just so overwhelmed with how it was just speaking my story and my truth. I knew then that that song would end up having some sort of an impact on my life, whether it be right then or later on down the road. And I shared it to my Facebook, I think, with an emotional post -- I should go back and try to find what I said. It was a couple years ago, and ... I just, I don't know. There's something about artists like The Fray and OneRepublic and ... just artists like that, like Jason Aldean, and a random array of everything that helped me.

Let's talk a bit about your transition. When did you first realize that you were trans? What was that experience like for you?

I always knew in my heart that I was a boy. Like, the second I could think for myself. My mom says I was 3 years old, and I would kick the back of her seat in the back of the car until I got the boy toy in my Happy Meal. She was struggling with me, and she was battling me with dressing in girls' clothes and cutting my hair off around 3 and 4 years old. When I was 8 years old, she pulled me aside into my parents' bedroom and they just said, "Hey, we just want to talk. Do you feel like you should be a boy?" And I said, "Yeah, I do." And we just cried together. We waited [six] more years, and I was 14. I took a test and said, "I can't wait anymore, I need to change. I can't live like this, I can't live in the wrong body. Living in the wrong body is not worth it to me." I took a psychological evaluation when I was 14, and I got diagnosed with gender identity disorder -- all of these terms and diagnoses are changing now, it's an actual medical condition now. I was able to get the green light to go ahead and start my physical transition to male. My mom was like, "It's too much when you're in high school, you're too young." She kept wanting to put it off, hoping that maybe it would blow over. I was like, "OK, I respect that, I'll respect you, I'll wait."

So I waited a few more years, and I got to college and said, "I'm done waiting, I'm gonna move to California or wherever I have to go, and I'm gonna start this transition. I would love to stay together as a family and do it together which could help. But if you're not willing to do that, I'm gonna go." And my mom broke down in tears and said, "But I'm losing my daughter." And I told her, “You're not losing your daughter, you're gaining a son. I'm still the same person, you're just changing the pronouns." She got it, and we went to get my evaluations with my top surgeon. That moment right there was like, "Oh my gosh, I get to start my life now." I finally got to start living the way I feel like I should live and I want to live. I got my top surgery in 2010, and that changed a lot for me, in terms of confidence. I finally had a purpose and a meaning, and now I could finally chase my musical career and my dreams of music, because my voice had changed, and I actually wanted to hear my voice back. You know? It was incredible to hear my voice on a record. I was like, "OK, so now I can record songs and I can write the songs that I want." I was confident, I was in the right body, and I chased my music career.

Thank you so much for sharing that. Now I've been examining how Nashville has significantly changed over the last few years and become a much more welcoming place to LGBTQ musicians. Do you feel that's the case? Do you feel at home in Nashville?

I really didn't know much about Nashville and what I was getting into when I came down here. I joined a band here, and I was living with the band. It wasn't working out and it was really, really awful. I had to get out, and I found my own apartment, and I was struggling really bad. I couldn't get anything -- I was trying to find jobs, and I finally landed like three different jobs, so I was struggling to get by and pay my bills. So I spent probably 80 percent of my time here working and trying to just have enough money to survive. Finally, after I got settled in and caught up on my bills, I didn't have to work so hard. I dropped a job, and I was able to kind of feel around in Nashville and get to know some people and talk to people and start writing again and start playing in some writers' rounds.

I started meeting people, and what I didn't know is that there is a huge LGBTQ community here. I experienced that first-hand when I was invited to come to Ty Herndon's Concert for Love & Acceptance hosted by Cody Alan. I got to run the red carpet with everybody, and I got to see all of the artists who are allies, and I got to see artists who are out in the open and openly gay. I was working with a team at Buddy Lee Attractions. They are one of the only LGBTQ agencies in Nashville, but they are also one of the biggest management agencies in Nashville too. Just to see that it's becoming a part of the nature there ... it just makes me feel more comfortable here and more at home and more safe to know that there are people here that want to help me even though I am transgender. I feel like being trans kind of puts me in my own box, and people are afraid to take that step and that leap to work with me, because it's a risk. There's people out there that are not going to get it and are not going to agree with it and it's going to be controversial. For them to take that risk on me and really just step out of the box and say, "Hey, we're going to help you out here ..." that has just meant the world to me.

What does having this kind of platform, one where you get to be honest and open about your identity, mean to you?

I think what it means to me is that ... the world is changing, and we are becoming more open-hearted and open-minded to all of the different ways that we are created. People are finally understanding that we're not all going to be male and female, black and white. We are not always going to be that way. For me to be able to stand up in a time like this, when it's still very controversial and divided, for them to give me that kind of a platform is just a miracle. Because we need it so bad right now, and there's just so much hate still, and there's so much going on -- people are being discriminated against and we've got so much work to do. For them to open their doors to me and to say, "Go tell your story, and we will help you get it out there," I just couldn't be more grateful. I am so overwhelmed with gratitude that they would help me do this. It takes a village, it takes a team to help and educate people. This could not have been a better moment or a bigger platform. I couldn't have asked for a bigger or better platform.

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