Kiddy Smile Talks Ballroom Influence on 'One Trick Pony' & the Importance of Queer Black Voices

Nico Bustos
Kiddy

On his debut album, Kiddy Smile’s voice is not the first that you hear. Instead, an interlude kicks off One Trick Pony (released Aug. 31) featuring the voices of ballroom staples: the icons Sinia Alaia and Jack Mizrahi, both of whom appeared on the first season of Pose. The inclusion immediately identifies the project as both black and queer, the intersection from which ballroom and voguing originated but also speaks to Kiddy’s own identity. Having been called l’enfant terrible du voguing (a bit of a misnomer, as Kiddy does not vogue, but instead walks runway categories at balls), the Paris-based performer is one of the faces of the community in Europe and is currently a member of the House of Mizrahi.   

The artist is becoming known well outside of the ballroom community, though. Having traveled throughout Europe as a DJ, in June, he was asked to perform for the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, bringing with him a troupe of voguers. To make a statement and sidestep any possible exploitative photo op, Smile controversially wore a shirt that proclaimed “fils d’immigrés, noir & et pédé,” translated to son of an immigrant, black and gay. While there was push back, it helped catapult the former dancer -- who has also created soundtracks for Balmain fashion shows -- into the public eye, not only giving a new platform for his music but also for his voice.

With the recent drop of his album -- which was celebrated at his Candy World Ball in Paris on Sept. 2 -- we talk to Kiddy Smile about transitioning from dance to music, what informs his sound and the response to his outspokenness.

I know you were a dancer prior, so how did you get into making music?

I've been dancing since I was 13. But at some point my size made it very difficult for me to achieve what I wanted, which was to be a background dancer.

It was very difficult for me to book jobs. I would book jobs, but they were ... I was always different. It was weird the way I was used, and it wasn't really fulfilling for me. I was just like, maybe I should just be true to myself, just be honest with me and say yeah I love music obviously. I had been hanging out with people in the industry and had seen lots of people that didn't have the talent, didn't have the drive, they don't want to be there, but were being offered a music career.

I had grown up thinking that to do music you have to be extremely gifted and educated on music. Because music isn't really about ... music is about music but it's not just music. It's also about who you are, what you're saying and what you're trying to do. So I decided that I was ready to do music and really bring what I’ve learned to my music.

Thinking about that, what did you want to say with your debut album One Trick Pony?

I think that it's important that voices like mine are heard. For the past five years there's been a lot of talented black queer artists in the industry, but it wasn't the case when I was growing up -- it wasn't the case when I started playing music, to be openly gay and black and being able to do music and at that scale. So, I wanted to put stories out there that would talk to people like me that would like help me.

The story that I told in the “Be Honest” music video about being a gay kid at church and being fired from the church choir. That’s my story and that's the story of thousands of black kids -- gay, black kids. And it’s never been shown before.

It’s quite true, there’s artist like Serpentwithfeet and Big Freedia who in some way grew up in the church and that influences their work. I was actually going to ask you about it because on “Be Honest” there’s the gospel choir, but also on “Summer Rain” I think I heard an organ.

Yeah, “Summer Rain” has an organ in it. It’s a gospel organ. That definitely influences me because that music has always been a part of me, of my education, it was blasted in my household. My mom likes gospel music -- we were raised listening to Aretha Franklin. My brother is named after James Brown.

So, that's a lot of background, even the music my dad used to listen to a lot. So there's definitely influence, and not just gospel. But I think it's just more like black American music has been very present in my upbringing.

Is that the reason you sing in English?

Well I grew up listening to a lot of music in English and there is a lot of English music in the top 50 in France -- American and British music. Before I started doing music, I went and studied at UCLA for nine months and I had many, many friend I kept in touch with. I always speak to them in English.

Then it also just happens to be easier to use American words because I feel that English is a very dramatic language and there’s so many more nuances to talk about feelings we don't have in French. You know in French, "I like you" and "I love you" is the same word. You have to actually add a word in order to diminish from intensity of the verb. So [English] just felt natural to me. Also because I studied French literature, to me writing in French feels like a task, or homework.

When you were listing your influences before, you didn’t really mention house or dance music. How did you land on that as your genre?

I've always been interested in house and in disco music — even though when I was a dancer, I wasn't that much into house music because I felt it wasn’t my background with all these white French dudes. In France, everybody thinks that it's white. But when I started getting access to information about Frankie Knuckles and learning that that the roots of house music, of house and techno is black and LGBT, I actually found out that it is something that is actually closer to me and spoke to more to me than what actually people think its for me.

In France, the people will say ‘Hip-hop is for you.’ Okay, that is kinda not for me. Hip-hop speaks to me but to a part of me: maybe it speaks to my blackness and maybe it speaks to sort of my background. It’s a class thing. But I think it also left out a lot of my personal identity and my identity in LGBT. In that way, I felt that house music was just perfect for me.

In addition to the religious aspect of the album, there’s also a thread of songs that are quite sexual.

I didn’t want the record to be a sad record — I didn’t want my debut album to be something too serious. I really wanted that record to be something that talked about deep issues, but it still had to be able to make people dance.

I think the “Slap My Butt” track is just funny because it's about somebody who's delusional. It's about somebody who thinks that everybody is into her, everybody wants her and then when she gets to talk to a guy, she thinks he’s hitting on her and he’s actually not into her. She cannot believe that so she made up her mind that that person is too scared to admit it, and that’s okay for her. She’ll do the job for him.

With “Dickmatized,” I had so many friends in poor relationships but that still go back there for the dick and I was just like, you can get dick anywhere. There's cheaper dick than what you're getting right now. There is dick that won't beat your ass up. You know?

So, I didn't understand and then one of my friends from America was just like, ‘oh she's dick-matized,’ I was like, ‘wait what?’ We don't have that in French and you have it in English. So that’s how that song came about.

Another part of your influences is the ballroom community. You were recently in New York for the Heritage Ball and won grand prize in the “labels” category. But there’s also Kelly Mizrahi’s voice on an interlude.

Well I really want to include mothers of mine. Even though I started doing music before I entered ballroom, I will always feel thankful because of this community, black people invested in my music. So, I always feel like I want to give back to this community. Even though it has been complicated because I had to impose on people — not everybody wants to be involved with ballroom and stuff like that — but it was very important to me that they see the person I am today and the person who helped me build who I am as a ballroom person because it’s also part of my identity now.

With Kelly [the New York mother of the House of Mizrahi], she's always been there supporting me because I speak up a lot when I see things that I don't think are right, here in Paris.

You mean like politically and in the general community, or specifically in ballroom?

No, I mean there in the ballroom community. They give me tough love. I do a lot for them and introduce them to people at venues. We hadn't had an Awards Ball in two years because they couldn't find a venue, and I knew that my community needed the Awards Ball, so I gave it to them. They always throw shade at me and I call them out on it, and because of that they say I remind them of Kelly.

But I mean, that's ballroom. You’re here. You build your tough skin to go out there in the real world and be strong enough to survive.

I get the sense that you’re quite an outspoken person in general, not just in the ballroom community. Do you get a lot of criticism with that or is it support, or a mix?

To be honest, it's only recently that people are paying attention to what I’m saying. But now I’m here, and I am speaking my mind. People are like, "Oh, so refreshing." It’s like, but what were the people telling you before?  

When I started doing music everything was so controlled. You cannot say you're gay, you cannot say this, you cannot say that. It was too guarded and people could not get through to me and the minute I start sharing stuff about my life, stuff about what I feel and what I think about that, people start take an interest in me. I know it's gonna come and bite me in the end at some point because sometimes I think I say too much -- but for now, it's working.

*This interview was edited for clarity and legnth.