While traveling across America, the multi-hyphenate star finds connection and acceptance
This year, when I was about to go on tour to promote an album that I truly love, the idea of leaving New York City to go visit 25 cities across this scattered, angry country—well, let me tell you, it gave me pause. But it wound up reconnecting me to humanity.
I think we’ve all been in this collective trauma for quite some time: fearful, isolated in our homes, separated from humanity, and able to dehumanize others. I’d found myself becoming fearful and detached too. This tour put me into places where I could touch people again, hug people again, and realize that we’re not as different as our news cycles would have us be. It made me remember the things I’ve always loved.
First among them is singing. I began singing in church when I was 5, and it saved my life. Singing was my weapon, my savior, my power. It gave me the confidence to live in this world authentically—it just took a while for the rest of the world to catch up. In 1997, I released my first R&B album to a homophobic record industry that had little use for me.
Now, after almost 30 years—after decades in theater doing shows like Kinky Boots on Broadway, doing films and TV shows like Pose, recording show tunes, and representing cutting-edge fashion—I’ve been able to put all these experiences into a new album, Black Mona Lisa, which I consider my magnum opus. Doing my first pop-music tour at age 53, playing to sold-out houses, and doing it as me, not as a character in a show, was truly life-altering. The tour ran from April to June, and I’d been nervous about several places—Omaha, Nebraska; Tempe, Arizona; Texas—but what I found at each stop was people in need of healing. From the first stop, the Paramount Theatre in Seattle, I could see it: These people came in ready for me, and I gave them everything.
Since the album spans so much of my life, I could tell that different people had sort of boarded the train at different stops along the way. This show brought the whole crowd together, ranging from age 9 to 90, spanning all colors, creeds, sexual identities. It was the kind of audience a pop star spends a lifetime generating. You know who stuck out to me? The 80-year-old straight white couples! I knew to expect my Black aunties, Black mamas and grandparents, my Black church people, but every place I went there were white octogenarian fans on their feet, dancing like everybody else. They moved me so much. Every night, I was able to minister to people, because I really believe that my music is a ministry.
Even the meet-and-greets were a kind of ministry. At the Palace Theatre in Louisville, I connected with a mom who’d driven with her 17-year-old trans daughter all the way from Atlanta, where she’d been having a really hard time in school. Backstage, she and I had Champagne, fried chicken, and cupcakes and talked for quite a while. She told me that when they left that night, her daughter was feeling inspired enough to at least continue living. To be confronted with that reality, with maybe being able to help transition someone out of that space where they want to end their life—it still takes my breath away.
I had so many important meetings like this throughout the tour, but the most special to me, personally, was probably going to Pittsburgh, my hometown, and walking past Heinz Hall and seeing my name up on the marquee. I’ve spent my whole life trying to make it to Heinz Hall. It was the first theater I ever went to, when I was 11 years old and my grandmother took me to see a touring company of The Wiz. My show was sold out. Pittsburgh showed up. About 200 people came for the pre-show meet-and-greet; it ran for two hours, and local boy Mayor Ed Gainey gave me the key to the city. From the very first tour date, my intention was to give the world a big bear hug—and I did that. And I gave myself one as well.
Billy Porter is a Grammy-, Emmy-, and two-time Tony-winning actor and singer. His new album, Black Mona Lisa (Island UK/Republic Records), is out now. He also stars in the film Our Son, in theaters December 8 and available on demand December 15.