Billy Porter talks ‘Sesame Street’ backlash, upcoming election: ‘My rights as a human being are on the chopping block’

·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
·11 min read

These are tough times, but Billy Porter is trying to create the positive content that we could all use right now. In addition to working on his memoir and a new musical while in self-quarantine, the Tony/Emmy/Grammy-winning Pose actor, fashion icon, and activist has just released a soulful, Stephen Stills-approved remake of Buffalo Springfield’s anthem “For What It’s Worth” to raise consciousness and encourage voter registration. And, of course, this fall he will make his much-anticipated Sesame Street debut, which surely will bring smiles to the faces of viewers of all ages.

But not everyone is a Porter fan. As is the case with all artists who uncompromisingly and unflinchingly express themselves and speak their minds, he has his haters, and the Sesame Street announcement, which was accompanied by a photo circulated of him posing on the show’s iconic tenement steps in his famous Christian Siriano tuxedo gown, of course generated some pearl-clutching outrage.

Here, a clearly unbothered Porter speaks with Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume about his reaction to the Sesame flak. He then minces absolutely no words as he discusses the inspiration behind his “For What It’s Worth” cover and what’s at stake in the upcoming presidential election.

Yahoo Entertainment: I am really eager to watch some feel-good content right now, and I cannot wait until your Sesame Street episode is out this fall. What was it like to be on such a legendary show?

Billy Porter: It was a dream. Dreamy. I mean, it's just ... I was on Sesame Street! There's nothing that has been more groundbreaking or profound in the history of our culture in terms of teaching children how to live their lives with grace, with peace, with love. It's always been the point. It continues to be the point. And it's all over the set. It's just overflowing with love. It was so beautiful. It was such a lovely, lovely thing.

When the news broke that you would be on Sesame Street, there was some conservative backlash. What are your thoughts about that?

Luckily, I am 50 and I don't care about what anybody says about anything anymore. I took myself out of that narrative a long time ago, so I don't care. What I do care about, though, is the fear-mongering. What I do care about is this idea that because I stand over here inside of my truth and wear a gown, that somehow it's a direct line to me coming into your home and “molesting your children.”

What? People were saying that?

That's exactly what people were saying. That's exactly what [Arkansas senator Jason Rapert] said when they created the petition… to defund PBS for having me on. Because I'm in my dress and I'm going to come and “molest their children,” because I have an “agenda.” It's like, those are the conversations that actually we need to have out loud. I want to have that conversation with that particular [senator] in front of the world. I really, really want to have that conversation and say, “Why is that the only place that y'all go to [in your mind]?”

Well, on a positive note, do you think the fact that you're going to appear on this show that many children and their parents will see, and they will see you being your authentic self, that you will change or open any minds?

Of course. That's the whole point. I mean, I feel like that's what Sesame Street does when people's parents can't. Or won't. These kids are watching the television show and the messaging actually is there are different kinds of people in the world, and they're all human beings, and they're all to be respected. That's the agenda. That's the only agenda. You know what I mean? You don't have to like it. You don't have to understand it. But I'm a human being, deserving to be treated as such. That's it. Just respect my humanity, like I respect yours.

What can we expect from your Sesame Street appearance?

I'm singing a song about friendship — it's an original song that they wrote — with Elmo and a penguin and a little fairy girl.

In other news, you just covered Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” as a voter-registration anthem. Tell me the inspiration behind doing that.

Well, activism is in my DNA. I am first-generation post-civil rights era. I came out in '85 and was right at the frontlines during the AIDS crisis. So I've been here before. I've seen this before. I know what the politics of it are. Some of my favorite music from the '60s and '70s was protest music. That was a thing. That used to be a thing, when artists used their platform to speak truth to power. There are still artists who do that, but it was a broader spectrum of artists back in the day who did it. I wanted to make sure as an artist that I had a product in the marketplace during this election year. … The intention was always to have this song hopefully be an agent for change, to spark a fire under people, to reignite a fire under people to remember that we, the people, are the people who make change. And if we don't show up, it's not going to happen. Showing up is not only about tweeting and Instagramming. We've got to add some other kinds of activism to that now.

How exactly did going through the AIDS crisis at a young age put activism in your DNA?

You had to show up. … I came to New York City, and a friend of mine told me to show up for the Gay Pride parade. He threw a shirt on me that said “Silence Equals Death,” and we were marching down Fifth Avenue. Period. That's what it was. That's how it was. There was no choice. You showed up to fight for your life. It was life and death, period. … There are things that are different [now], there are things that are changed, but there's still a problem. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty — that's what Frederick Douglas told us. So with every win that we've had in this conversation for equality, my rights are up for legislation, your rights are up for legislation, people's rights seem to be up for legislation for the last 300 years. But yet there's a document that says “all men are created equal,” so I don't understand. I don't get it. But it requires us to continue to show up and fight for what we know is right. My rights as a human being are on the chopping block for my entire life.

Why do you think there are fewer artists making protest music these days, like they did in the 1960s?

Because we live inside of a cancel culture, and nobody wants to get Dixie-Chicked. And no one wants to alienate their audience. I totally get it. That's what your bread-and-butter is. That's not the kind of artist I am, though. So I'm doing it a different way.

Have there ever been moments in your career where someone has said, "Maybe you shouldn't do that, maybe you shouldn't say that, maybe you shouldn't wear that"?

Oh, all the time. "You sure you want to say that?" But they don't say that much anymore.

So, what are your hopes for this election — especially in terms of your fellow artists, your peers, showing up and stepping up?

My hope is that we can build a coalition that can get Trump out of office, and every single one of his cronies — every single one of those senators who have been complicit and have chosen their tax breaks over our lives. They all need to go. They have showed us who they are, and we need to believe them and respond in kind.

So the point of your “For What It’s Worth” single is to get people to register to vote, obviously…

Correct. It's not subtle! There is no reason to be subtle. The time for subtle is over.

The political climate is always cyclical, so do you have hope that the pendulum will swing back the other way, sooner than later?

Yeah, I do. I do have hope that things will change. But they don't change without action. They don't change with us sitting at home on our phones.

So what can people do?

Vote. And vote for Biden. Be in the game that we're in. Whoever it is in this present moment that is the Democratic nominee is the person that you vote for. The game that we're in requires for us to vote for him this time around, period. There's no sitting out. We did that the last time, and look at where we are. It doesn't matter. Nobody's perfect. It's not going to be perfect. But who [Biden] is, is what's going to get us back on track. Once we're in, then we can change the rules.

Are you referring to those who sit out the election or vote third-party if they don’t get the Democratic nominee that was their first choice?

Yes. Every single one of those people is another vote for Trump. I don't care how you analyze it. I don't care how you stack it. That's what it is. If we don't show up, we're not going to win. There's no amount of gerrymandering. There's no amount of voter suppression that could keep us down if we f***ing showed up. Period. So play the game that you're in. It's a political game. It's a game. You don't get what you want. You don't get to take your toys and go home.

My ancestors were slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation was hundreds of years ago. We're still in the same chain of slavery. It doesn't happen fast — sorry, y'all, it doesn't happen when we want it, and it doesn't happen quickly. It just doesn't. We have to play the game that we're in. If we don't get out to vote for Biden and whoever he chooses [as a running mate] and 45 wins again, we're not going to have any rights. They'll make sure of that. There ain't going to be another election.

Do you have any thoughts about who you'd like to see as Biden’s running mate?

I don't care. I mean, I like Stacey Abrams. I like Kamala [Harris]. I love Elizabeth Warren. Anybody is better than what we have. Literally anybody. I would be a better vice-president!

I know you’re currently in isolation, like everyone else. Are you planning any online rallies while in quarantine, like live-streams or whatever, to try to get out the vote?

I've been doing a lot of benefits and fundraisers and things like that since we've been on lockdown. I'm going to start my own YouTube channel and sort of try my hand at that. … I think I'm going to start it on Sunday.

You were on GLAAD’s recent “Together in Pride” live-stream event, and you expressed concerns for LGBTQ youth who might be quarantined at home with people they don't get along with or that might even be abusive. What is your advice for people in those kinds of situations right now?

God, I don't even know where to begin. My heart goes out. Not everybody is not as blessed as we are. I have space, and I have the finances to take care of myself and my own. It's very, very hard [for many others]. I would say, if they can reach out to these organizations that are in place, reach out and ask for help. I don't know. It's just devastating. It really is devastating.

Looking to the future, would you ever go into politics in some way?

[laughs] Oh, I don't know. I cuss too much, and I tell the truth too often. So I don't know that I would survive.

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The above interview is taken from a portion of Billy Porter’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of this conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app.