Billy Porter is no stranger to starting over. With a career spanning music, fashion, acting, writing, and more, the multi-hyphenate artist is preparing to go on his first proper music tour this spring for his new album Black Mona Lisa. “It is full circle. And it's also redemptive, because my first R&B album came out in 1997 and they kicked my Black gay ass out. And I can say it now, and everybody knows it's the truth,” he says. For Porter, it’s a satisfying moment, considering he’s become a superstar since then, saying with characteristic candor (and confidence): “Y’all kicked me out and I did it anyway. Now I get to come back on my own terms and you all have a front row seat to what you all said I would never do. Because my queerness was my liability. And it was for decades, until it wasn't. Now it's my superpower.”
Between releasing his eponymously named first R&B album in 1997 and his upcoming tour, Porter has become a household name. He’s starred in seven Broadway shows, including Kinky Boots for which he won a Tony Award and a Grammy Award; helped produce the Tony-winning musical A Strange Loop; written his memoir Unprotected; earned recognition for a series of screen credits, including the TV series Pose for which he won an Emmy; and graced the best-dressed lists for several red carpets. Now he hopes to bring people from across his fan bases together through his music. “What I'm trying to do is embrace everybody,” he says. “I exist in a lot of different creative spaces. And oftentimes they don't talk to each other. Hopefully, this will be me using the power of music, which we all know is the universal language, to embrace all of these audiences and bring us all together.”
The tour, which will kick off its 25-city journey April 29 in Seattle. It will also play Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Porter’s hometown of Pittsburgh. He’ll play New York City’s Beacon Theatre May 31. “Baby Was A Dancer,” the first single revealed from the new album, dropped March 24.
Creating positive change is an important mission to the artist who believes in art’s ability to heal. “We need to heal collectively. That is something that I'm trying to do with all of my art, but in this particular moment with my music,” he explains. But the first step in that process of helping others heal starts with healing himself. “If there's anything we've learned, it's the self-care conversation. It's about taking care of yourself so you can be present for others when they need you.” It’s a journey and a message that Porter has been intent on for some time. It’s also at the heart of his 2021 memoir about his trials growing up Black and gay, where he was bullied and sexually abused, and how the arts saved him.
With 25 years between his albums Billy Porter and Black Mona Lisa, it’s no surprise that Porter’s time performing on stage and screen has influenced how he approached this new album. “There’s a narrative, there's a reason for all of it,” he shares. As the artist feels, it’s all well and good to have a vibe and have a bop, but “you can have a vibe and a bop, and be saying something at the same time. That's what music used to be.” He goes on to clarify that there’s “no shade” against artists sharing music about their money or status, or “watch my booty shake.”
That focus on intention is also a part of the approach to how the concert will be staged. Though, Porter admits that part of that comes down to money. “I don’t have a Beyoncé budget,” he makes clear. As such, he’s keeping things intimate. “The focus for me is on the integrity of the music, the singing. You should expect a more traditional kind of concert, old school R&B and soul like when you went to see Al Green or Aretha Franklin,” he shares. He wants his return to tour to be “a celebration” of the music.
Though it is his first major music tour, Porter’s extensive history performing has kept his confidence high. As he says, “I’m good in concert.” He acknowledges that it will be different this time around, however. “Showing up as yourself in front of an audience is different than showing up as a character.” He’ll have more freedom to be spontaneous, he explains, because there’s no script, no choreography and staging that he has to follow as set by a production every night. “Not that I have a problem with that,” he quickly clarifies.
In the 90-minute show, Porter will be accompanied by a full band. The set list will include his songs “Love Yourself” and "Baby Was a Dancer," the latter of which was penned by Porter. Black Mona Lisa will be released at a date yet to be announced.
As Porter looks forward to life on the road, the 53-year old reflects on what it means to keep pursuing his dreams. “It really speaks to there being no limits. There’s no age limit. There’s no time limit. There’s no ceiling. There’s nothing. We put all of those limitations and restrictions on ourselves. And I stopped doing that a while ago,” he says. “I'm so grateful that I lived long enough to see this day.”
On the tour, he will be playing to audiences of 1,5000 to 5,000 people. Though in typical fashion, Porter has his sights set higher: such as stadiums and a Broadway residency à la recent engagements like The Jonas Brothers. “I didn't even think about that,” he admitted when Playbill brought up the latter as an option. “I would love to do that. It would be really cool.”
Take a look as Billy Porter walks through his legendary career with Playbill, and tells us about how he didn't get an agent until 2019.