Sitting in a rental home in Long Island, Billy Porter is looking for something to take his mind out of the current crisis we’re living in. “It’s time to reset,” he tells Billboard. “It’s time to go inward, it’s time to take care of yourself.”
But the 50-year-old singer and actor can’t help but look seven months ahead to see the November general election on the horizon. He knows that in order to vote out President Donald Trump, people are going to need to be galvanized to a cause. Luckily, he has a galvanizing anthem for the world to hear.
On Friday (Apr. 24), Porter released his new cover of Buffalo Springfield’s 1966 hit protest song “For What It’s Worth.” Porter’s version is similar to the Stephen Stills-penned track, with its psychedelic guitars and prescient political lyrics, but adds his own twist, with deeper drums, heavier production and Porter’s own soulful spirit shining through.
Stills himself was particularly impressed with the rendition — in a statement released with the cover, Stills said, “For many years no one tried to ‘make it theirs’ as covers are supposed to do. That an artist of Billy’s caliber has chosen to add his flourish to my song from so many years ago is totally in keeping with what I intended.”
Billboard chatted with Porter ahead of the cover’s release about life during the coronavirus pandemic, his new cover, and why the political future of America relies on people preparing for a battle now.
How are you holding up in this pandemic?
You know, I’m trying to use this time to reset. I think the message that I’m receiving personally from the universe is that it’s time to reset, it’s time to go inward, it’s time to take care of yourself. Self-care is a big deal for me, I don’t know what that means but I’m learning now, spending time with my family, my husband.
I’m working on my mental health, making sure that’s in tip-top shape, and I’ve been writing, getting up every morning at 5 a.m. and writing until 10 a.m. So I’m getting five hours of writing in every day, which as a multi-hyphenate, I don’t really ever have that luxury because I’m just moving so much and I’m tired all of the time. So it’s such a gift — that part is a gift. I only watch the news once a day so I don’t lose my mind.
Speaking of unplugging, let’s talk about this beautiful cover. What made you want to cover this song specifically?
I’ve always been a very political person. I came up through the AIDS crisis, we went straight to the front lines to fight for our lives, so it’s just in my DNA. In this process of trying to find my recording artist, my mainstream crossover voice, I knew that one of my ways in would be with protest music. That used to be a big deal back in the ’60s, protest music — the idea of doing something older sort of shifts the focus back to the old to remind us of our history so that we don’t have to repeat it.
“For What It’s Worth” is the state of the world, an observation of what’s happening. I find that in today’s news cycle, the observations very often do not come with ideas for solutions. That’s what gets everybody so anxious. What do we do about it? What is the next step? So I wanted to bring that energy into this remake. That’s how we came up with the “change for good” part, because that’s what I want people to believe in, I want folks to be energized and ready for November, so we can get out and do our jobs. Do our civic duty and get this monster out of our midst. And all of his cronies, who have showed us who they are.
You got a fan of the song in Stephen Stills, who had quite a few nice things to say about your cover!
Well, I mean, that’s the golden ticket! That’s all you want! His song has affected all of our lives since ’66. The idea that he had been so moved by this interpretation is a blessing and I am humbled. He went on and on for a while, too! I said, “Oh, he really likes it!”
A lot of people at the moment are having a hard time focusing on anything but the COVID-19 crisis. Why did you want to get this out there now?
Because we have to start thinking about what we’re going to do in November. Music is a universal language, and music is not didactic, so it can be received in a creative way. This is just my way of saying, “Lock this in the back of your brain, remember this when we come back to real life, ’cause it’s not going away. Get it stuck in your head for later.” Like, it’s not a book, it’s not some long essay, it’s music, baby. Sit down and let it wash over you.
There’s the flip side of all of this, where being stuck inside has all of us looking at these White House press briefings and seeing what the President is doing more than ever. What have you seen from the administration lately that’s scaring you for November?
Hmm. I just find it repugnant that there is absolutely no leadership during all of this. And what’s terrifying to me is that it’s all so unprecedented and unethical, but not illegal. Our laws in our country have not been able to shut his ass down, and that’s what scares me, is that our infrastructure is set up so that he can exist in the way that he has for the last three plus years, destroying everything around him. Our laws allow for this to flourish. So that’s scary.
What would you ask the people who listen to this cover to do in order to keep the fight alive — even while they’re stuck at home?
You have to stay engaged. Stay knowledgeable, stay loving, stay compassionate, and fortify yourselves for the fight that’s to come. Because they are not giving this s–t up easy. It’s been a long haul for them to get the world exactly to where they want it.