From James Baldwin to Donny Hathaway, Billy Porter shares his Must List
The Tony-, Grammy-, and Emmy-winning actor-singer Billy Porter shares what’s on his list of pop culture obsessions.
At the moment, there are no red carpets for the Tony-, Grammy-, and Emmy-winning actor-singer Billy Porter to rock, but he’s keeping busy in isolation cooking and making music — including his galvanizing, newly released cover of the classic ’60s protest anthem “For What It’s Worth.” We rang up the delightfully voluble Pose star, 50, to find out what’s on his list of pop culture obsessions. (And if you're in the mood for something else uplifting, check out his amazing cover of Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed.")
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
I’ve been rereading it in this moment for inspiration. I’m writing my memoir as a black queer man. I didn't grow up with any examples. They don't teach James Baldwin in school. They didn't teach James Baldwin in my church. I didn't know who James Baldwin was until I was in my mid to late 20s. Everything that is on-page is what I feel in my heart and in my soul. The fact that there was somebody before me documenting what it was like to be black and queer in America in that time has inspired and allowed me to step into this place, this blessing that I’ve been given. Step into this season and really show up in the way that I need to.
Kenya Barris is a f---ing genius. When black-ish came on television, I couldn’t believe it. It’s like Norman Lear s---, what he’s done. It’s really amazing. This is like the black Curb Your Enthusiasm to me. Is it real? Is it fake? It’s so funny. I need to reach out so that I can be on it. I need to be his gay brother or something. I also have gone back, all the way back to Nip/Tuck.
When it was on, I was sort of in my down period. I didn't have any place to live. I wasn't really watching a lot of television. I definitely didn't have cable so I literally missed all of Nip/Tuck. [Series creator and Pose executive producer Ryan Murphy] is the boss man! My husband and I have been gagging the whole time because it's like this was 2003? What he's doing on this television show, it is major!
I’m a fan in the sense that it has just changed the game. It’s brought a version of hip-hop to Broadway, through a lens that is digestible by people who go to the theater. The most brilliant part of that show is the fact that we’re talking about immigration. It’s this old story through this new way of music for Broadway.
Romeo + Juliet (1996)
One of my all-time favorites. I love that [director Baz Luhrmann] was able to truly contemporize the telling of that story. And I just love his filmmaking style. It still resonates with me today. The Color Purple, too. That was really the first time that I, personally, had seen Black people with a budget like that.
"For All We Know." And I'm also partial to "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know." I started singing in church and then I was introduced to theater. I went from gospel music to theater music. Pop music, I knew it, but I didn't own it in my house. I knew it because pop music is ubiquitous, but I didn't own anything. As I started singing outside of church, people kept saying to me, “You sound like Donny Hathaway.” I didn’t know [him]. Finally, at 17, I was in the store, and here was Donny Hathaway’s greatest hits. I bought it and cried, thinking, “Wow. Everybody thinks I’m that good?” Because that’s one of the greatest voices of all time. I also didn't know that he was [starts singing the theme song to Maude], "Lady Godiva was a freedom rider...." After I learned his voice and then 10 years later, a re-run of Maude came on. I was like, "Oh my God! That's Donny Hathaway singing that!" Literally, I had no idea. [Laughs]
BONUS: The Beach
Any beach. It’s very calming for me. It’s like you look out on the water and it just puts everything in perspective for me and reminds me how small we are. It just takes my breath away.
—As told to Sarah Rodman
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