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Gurls Talk Festival

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There’s always a little fear when you get ready to speak on a Zoom call. It’s sort of about the space and the many ways it can go wrong without knowing what states you’ll be dealing with. But it’s also about the people. You never know how comfortable they’ll feel in the moment: if it’s your fault: if it’s their fault: if it’s no one’s fault, but the swing-by-chance moods often have. So, I’m in the Zoom call early, waiting, trying my best to pretend I didn’t just throw on a fresh concrete black hoodie I’ve had no reason to wear for the last twelve months of COVID.

Josh “Zeke” Thomas logs into the Zoom room from his phone and says in-between shy laughs. “I’m so sorry; I’m dealing with a stye. I hope it’s okay if we do this with the camera off.”  And quick like closing hour at a strip mall, the lights of my anxiety dim.

It’s not the Zeke is less magnetic. In fact, there’s an electricity throughout the conversation we have that keeps my attention. I suppose it’s the research into any subject that always creates anxiety. Maybe it has to do with early education. You spend so long discussing these big figures who died before you were ever even a twinkle in someone’s eye you do not have to worry about how human they are. You just get told whose great and the great thing they did. You don’t worry about the fact Huey Newton probably came up with the Black Panther Party’s most formative projects over cereal and milk.  

And if you spend long enough reading on the great work of a person, from Zeke’s advocacy for Sexual Assault Awareness to his legacy in music and LGBTQ+ Allyship and Advocacy, you begin to shroud the human aspects behind a wall of expectations. But then, people get a sty, and the human presentation brings you back down.

You remember that people who do great things don’t have to be titanic and even their greatest ideas, even when the greatness of your ideas lead you to accept an award as prestigious as the Revry 2020 Queer Visibility Award, presented by none other than his father, NBA Legend Isiah Thomas.

“To receive that award, period, it’s still something that is… I’m not going to say the word uncomfortable, but it’s still a surprise. Only because I come from a family of activists and I don’t set out to get recognition or awards, but after coming out publicly with my sexual assault on Good Morning America, which was a choice that I made because I felt I wasn’t being heard as a survivor. I didn’t feel I was being heard with my family, didn’t feel I was being heard by my friends. It was a cry for help.” Zeke says, recounting his 2019 public disclosure of a sexual assault that occurred roughly around 2018 — the second of which to happen in his lifetime, which spurred his most prolific action into Sexual Assault Awareness. 

“… I had the privilege of being able to have that cry for help on national television. But I didn’t realize the impact of that cry for help. And the responsibility that would follow… Because my parents had said to me, ‘Your wound is so full flesh. You… Have you really healed? Are you ready to step out and be a symbol or an advocate, or an activist? You should take some time.’ And I didn’t listen.

“But knowing that my dad presented me with this award, it was a full-circle moment of him saying, ‘Hey. You did the work. You’re doing the work. You’re walking the walk. You’re talking the talk.’ Before, There were many interviews many times when I was missing therapy appointments, I was abusing drugs and alcohol, and I was going to interviews and saying all the right things, but behind closed doors, doing all the wrong things. So, for my parents to recognize and see me doing all the right things, that was more important to me than anything. But the recognition of the award goes even further because it actually says that a queer man of color can stand up and follow in the footsteps of a James Baldwin and lead a movement towards equality and towards making male rape a topic that is no longer taboo.”

And as such, with his previous movement, Zeke looks to lead the next series of conversations with the same earnest candidness that he led his march into sexual assault awareness and advocacy. Amplify Voices, a streaming series bringing together athletes, entertainers, politicians, activists, and other voices to engage in conversation for heightened intersectional understanding across the global Queer and BIPOC community. And it all began, in Zeke’s words, over the table. 

“Amplify Voices was really a project that came about really as kitchen table conversations between myself and my family and my manager, EJ. EJ Jamele is also one of my very close friends,” Thomas says once we’ve deactivated the Zoom’s video and stick only to voice functions. “We started having these conversations, and then I started having them with some close friends of mine and we started, as everybody did over corona, getting familiar with Zoom… And it turns out that we said, ‘Hey. Why don’t we record these and make a series out of them? Who knows what people will do with this content?’”

Joshua 'Zeke' Thomas For AMPLIFY VOICES series

Source: Courtesy Of WMA Agency / WMA Agency

Following this tabletop conversation, Zeke and his team sold the series and partnered with Revry, the largest queer streaming network in the world despite how relatively new it is. The series in conception wouldn’t just feature the Community at large, but shine a light on subjects of allyship as well in order to highlight the positive means for allies and neighbors to Queer and Trans communities to get involved with support.

”The coolest thing, I think, about coming up with these conversations was that I got so much support from people who I’ve worked with and been friends with for years. Laurieann Gibson is a hero of mine. She’s taught me so much in terms of artist development and just being a person. And of course, my dad appears also and his LGBT work and work in HIV/AIDS often goes overlooked. So, getting able to shine a light on that was very encouraging to me.

But also, there are many, many voices in our community who aren’t amplified, and being able to have the conversations about queer people of color with many allies and many queer people of color was just an opportunity that I felt we had to take. And with the election that was coming up at the time and now won, it was just exciting to get people motivated and get them able and educated to participate in democracy.”

Speaking with Zeke is not like speaking to someone I would call a Mr. Thomas. Or expect from the son of an NBA Hall of Famer. Not that I’ve spoken to many children close to any amount of celebrity. My own mother used to rap and my grandmother managed and both have more than enough stories about celebrities, but their proximity isn’t my truth.

Zeke, on the other hand, speaks on these captivating conversations as if they’re second nature, and with Amplify Voices being the brain-child of conversations he and his friends and family were already having just as a natural offspring of their intimate relationships, he speaks about the panels like they’re just another glimpse at a weekend kickback.

“One of the panels that I love features Donna Brazile and the Colored Girls, Minyon Moore, Yolanda Caraway, Leah Daughtry, who are veterans in politics. And having four Black women who literally opened the doors, not just for African-Americans but also queer people. They told me the story of when they were working on Reverend Jesse Jackson’s campaign that there was no office space for them in the DNC. They didn’t make room for them.”

Eventually, Zeke illustrates how Donna Brazile, a veteran Democratic political strategist, adjunct professor, author, and syndicated columnist, grabs a folding chair and plants it in an empty office and claims it as a room for everyone and anyone who wanted to join the cause for equality. 

“And then you saw a lot of queer voices and Latino voices and people who had been without of the democratic process step into the room and make change.” Zeke recounts the story as candidly as someone might recount speaking on a particular Aunt in the family, but his voice pivots to seriousness because there is a wider point to the story outside of the vigor showcased by his secured panelists. 

“I’m 32 now, and a lot of young people have said, ‘The system is broken and it doesn’t work and it’s messed up and we just need to start over.” And yada, yada, yada. But I have seen change over my lifetime and I have seen the prejudices that we still must fight and overcome. The false narratives of Christopher Columbus discovered America, and there were already people here, like the American Indians or the Moorish [Black] Americans. There’s so much white supremacy embedded in America that I feel was exposed and educated during this period of coronavirus and civil unrest, which I am thankful.”

In the same vein of opening points-of-view and clarification, we touch on another aspect that Amplify Voices underscores — the power of education, particularly in the connection between the learned and the learner, which is the model of mentorship: particularly in the ways mentorship can be redefined.

“I think that the redefining of mentor roles in queer spaces starts with who the mentors are, and I’m seeing a lot more diversity in those mentors. Oftentimes, I feel, as queer people, we were tokenized almost or characterized. Whether you were effeminate or a drag queen or even a cis white male with blue eyes, blonde hair and muscles on a flyer. There wasn’t the representation of a queer man of color or just your average guy, so to speak. I feel that there are now so many different people who have stepped up, of all gender types and spectrum types, that are able to now mentor the youth, not only in person but also using their social media platforms… “

Through the numerous hurdles of the emotional trauma and the particular professional hardships that is both being a musician and also endeavoring to create space and platform for Queer and Trans Black and Brown identity, Zeke is no stranger to help himself. In fact, he’s quite vocal on the ones who’ve helped him stay on task and, most importantly, on Dream. 

“I really want to give a shout-out to Dee Smith, a transgender woman who actually appears in Amplify Voices. But she’s a two-time Grammy-nominated producer and was on Love & Hip Hop as her authentic self, but wasn’t always being her authentic self and has seen so much in music and the entertainment industry that she has shared with me of people not willing to be themselves and stand up for themselves. But for me personally, I can remember her looking me in the eye when I was going through hard times and saying to me, ‘I know you’re not ready yet, but when you are, you are going to shine so bright.’ And I’m ready to shine bright.

“[But also,] Billy Porter has really been somebody who, as a black queer man, I look up to as well. I look up to him because he is authentically himself and hasn’t always been authentically himself. [And] he had to evolve into that… He was playing a straight man and then was able to go on Broadway and find his voice, and of course, the Billy Porter Law and Order episode is the best episode of all time. I don’t care what anybody has to say. Billy’s dresses was something that was unheard of, but now it’s just a norm. Now, pop stars like Harry Styles are following in his footsteps. And people in my life who have helped me evolve,”

Amplify Voices hosts a plethora of conversations in its 11-episode first season. However, the major shocker is the 11th episode’s feature on the Cannabis industry and how it relates particularly to BIPOC — and the means we can take to profiting off of the boom in the industry. 

I think that the redefining of mentor roles in queer spaces starts with who the mentors are…

“What I don’t think a lot of people recognize in this particular industry is one, yes. Cannabis and the hemp plant is definitely ours. It’s always been ours and was criminalized because the tobacco plant and the cotton plant wanted to make money. But hemp has always been sustainable, better for the environment, etc. The Union uniforms that fought in the Civil War were made of hemp. So, hemp has a very long history, but that was taken away. But in terms of cannabis, what many people forget is that in the nineties, when the AIDS crisis hit, cannabis was used as a remedy to ease the pain of so many people struggling with HIV and AIDS, and it was queer people who were leading the fight for legalization at that time.

“So, bringing that conversation on Amplify Voices, talking about it, not just from a Black point of view but also from a queer point of view was important because this is something that we have been fighting for because it is a medicine and during this time, we have seen so many people, unfortunately, commit suicide, unfortunately, become depressed, dealing with anxiety. These are things that this plant can help with, and queer people are naturally born with anxiety because they are naturally different and are told they are different and are indoctrinated to be different and to have stress and stigma. 

“It was important for me to highlight this conversation because as we legalize cannabis state by state in the United States, it is legal in many, many countries around the world. But as we legalize it state by state, I really hope that the stigmatization around it in communities and people realize that not just THC, but also CBD, CBN, CBG, the things that come from the cannabis plant and in our body is an endocannabinoid system. We are made to take this plant. This plant is made for our bodies, so no amount of medicine, whatever from the pharmaceutical industry, can supplement, truly, what the cannabis plant can do to help heal you.”

It’s in moments like these that it’s palpable Zeke has considered many things before — that he isn’t lying that his conversations might often veer into the deeply socio-philosophical. When Zeke talks, there’s a feeling that he’s only touching a color of knowledge within a kaleidoscope of education, re-education, and self-reflection. In speaking on conversations within these groups that are so very marginalized, from queer folk to people of color, Zeke consistently touches on something on labels and Black identity that stands just outside the fray of conversation.

 He touches on it, passively at first, a lot until my own curiosity gets the better of me as not only a journalist but someone whose entire academic bent leans into thinking critically and imaginatively on the ways Black folk can communicate on our tribalistic identity here in America.

The last 100 years of American culture has proven the vitality of African-Americans as a culture.

“ I’m trying not to use the terms black and white anymore because I believe that we fought forever not to be called colored, not to be called Negro, even not to be called Black… I want to encourage everybody to fight for their nationality, to fight for where their family comes from, to know their lineage. I am a Moorish American, and I think everybody claiming to be Black is being classified Black, but we do live in a caste system in America and that’s something that continues to need to be exposed. White, Black, other. It’s just status labels. When you are labeled as white, you are given certain rights and privileges.

Zeke continues. “When you are labeled as Black, you have to fight for certain rights and privileges. So, there are many people, many classified white people, who say, “Oh, you want to be Black? Okay. Call yourself Black.” Because they know what that means. Legally, that means that you are taken out of the system. You are no longer American. You’re no longer a citizen by definition under the laws of the Constitution. And that is, yes, a legal argument. It’s an unpopular argument, but it’s something that a lot of young people need to know. We are in a fight to reclaim our nationality, and nobody on this earth is black, and nobody on this earth is white. Those are just social statuses.”

It’s an extremely interesting argument, especially in conversation with Amplifying Voices and how it is, in truth, a discussion of claiming and reclaiming power not only for Queer People of Color, but for all BIPOC who’ve acclimated as much realization of wild possibility that we’ve seen take place over the last year in Quarantine. It’s also an argument that I don’t wholeheartedly feel inwardly as a self-truth: which excites me because it means it’s an argument I’ve never encountered before, and it’s exciting to see what other [Black] people will think. It’s also because I agree with many roots of the argument, but disagree on where I end up because of that.

My stance on Blackness is largely cultural and community-oriented rather than political. I see Blackness as a collective reflection of West African and Sub-Saharan diaspora, disseminated from its roots through the ethnic erasure inseminated by cattle slavery. We lost a lot of what it meant to be a part of those original points, but the ever-reaching truth is that we reconstructed and conjured a new culture over the course of that ethnic erasure. The last 100 years of American culture has proven the vitality of African-Americans as a culture.

It is true that Black as a label is designed for discrimination. And that’s not in the past tense. Black Americans are consistently the root of jokes and diasporic attacks because our ethnicity isn’t honored as a protected status. White systems have been incentivized to expect particular things when they see “BLACK/AFRICAN – AMERICAN” on white paper in black font, but I’d wager it’s a different reaction to “GHANIAN-AMERICAN” or “NIGERIAN-AMERICAN.” But Blackness in the U.S. is what Black Americans have made it. And I don’t really personally live in accordance with the worst popular opinions other groups have on my culture.

But, this is a conversation that should be had because, really, Amplifying Voices is meant to introduce choices. It’s designed to offer up a point-of-view that particularly clarifies where you’re going in your own lot in life.

Amplify Voices is available only on the LGBTQ+ Network Revry.