It’s an age-old tale. Mykal Kilgore, a pastor’s kid who was raised in the church, is also, of course, a singer. And a groundbreaking one, at that: Kilgore is the first openly gay male to be nominated for a Grammy in the Best Traditional R&B Performance category.
“I started singing in church when I was really little,” Kilgore, 39, recalled. “Mostly, because I was given two options: I could be an usher, or I could be in the choir. I didn’t want to stand the whole service. So, I chose choir.”
It was clearly the right decision, and Kilgore’s passion for music was soon evident. Local audiences can see that passion in person this month when Kilgore performs a holiday show as part of the free Cranbrook Christmas Jazz series in Bloomfield Hills, with appearances on both Friday, Dec. 16 and Saturday, Dec. 17.
Given his life as a performer now, it's hard to imagine that there was a time when Kilgore wasn't considering himself a singer.
“I didn’t think of myself as a singer until middle school,” he told Pride Source recently. “I would sing outside at the lunch table with my friends. People would request songs. I’d learn them that night and then come back and sing them for everybody. That’s how it started.”
He liked the attention when he was young, and a visit to his Orlando high school by members of the TV show “The Mickey Mouse Club” confirmed for Kilgore that he wanted a career in entertainment. Kilgore said he was “starstruck” and “blown away” by the cast members. “I think the closest I ever came to that feeling was when I met Patti LaBelle. They were the Patti LaBelle of my childhood.”
Kilgore was convinced to join the choir at school. His choir director was so impressed, he told his student that he could get a scholarship for his gift and go to college for free. Kilgore chose Florida State University.
“I thought I was going to teach choir,” he said. “When I got into college, musical theater grabbed me, and I went on a journey that took me all over the world. I sang on cruise ships and in theme parks, and eventually on the Broadway stage, which was amazing.”
Kilgore was encouraged to move to New York and try Broadway by none other than queer superstar Billy Porter, who he met while auditioning for a project Porter was spearheading. Porter was hugely influential to Kilgore. “We would have lunch together as a company and he said, ‘You know, you need to move to New York,’” he recalled. “I told him, ‘I don’t know that I’m prepared or ready,’ and he said, ‘You sound stupid. You need to move.’ That basically encapsulates our relationship. He is firm but fair.”
Kilgore did eventually move to New York, but not before soaking up all the knowledge from Porter that he could. “His superpower is being authentic,” he said. “So, if you’re not being as authentic as he is, it becomes glaringly obvious.”
Porter, said Kilgore, “was one of those people who made me feel like it was OK for me to try to do what it is that I do now. So, really, I look at him as my example of how to maneuver in this industry.”
In New York, Kilgore appeared on Broadway in “Motown the Musical,” “The Book of Mormon” and “Hair.”
“That led me to feeling it was my time to record my own music,” he said. “I recorded an album, I got a Grammy nomination and the rest is history.”
That album was titled “A Man Born Black,” and that norm-shattering nomination was for its single, “Let Me Go.” The 2021 nomination marked the first for an openly gay man in the category of Best Traditional R&B Performance.
Kilgore said the nomination, while remarkable, was “bittersweet."
"I love to be the first queer person nominated, but it’s also like, ‘Why is this taking so long?’" he said. "I don’t want to be the first Black person, the first queer person, to do stuff anymore in 2022. I want those doors to already be burst wide open.”
Regardless, the album did well. Kilgore credits the pandemic with giving people the time to listen to it. “For a lot of people, it was the worst year of their life. But, for me, it was a year that, without it, I think so many things in my life wouldn’t have happened. People were home and they were focused and able to sit and listen to the music and enjoy it. I think that might be why I got my Grammy nomination.”
Music critic and SoulTracks.com columnist L. Michael Gipson told Pride Source that Kilgore’s talent “reminds us of the best of both soul and Black Broadway’s past while daring us to reimagine a more liberated future for Black male performers.”
Gipson went on to say that Kilgore is part of a lineage that includes Black queer male artists who were often “denied the fruits and honors of the industry,” including the legendary Sylvester, and of course, Porter. “Their candor about their sexuality was buried in brave but little spotlighted quotes in articles only aficionados read,” Gipson continued, “which makes Kilgore being the first to get a Grammy nod in the Traditional R&B category as an out Black gay man that much sweeter.”
Currently, Kilgore is at work on a follow-up album. He has also released a new single called “The Man in the Barbershop.” He calls it “the song that the 12-year-old me wished existed on the radio.” It tells the story of a barber falling for the handsome man who ends up in his chair. So far, it’s really resonating with fans.
“It’s been a blessing to have people send me DMs and text messages and emails,” he said. “When they meet me, they shake my hand and look me in the eye, and they thank me for this song. … I really don’t have the right word for what it has done for me, except to say that I told the truth on the record, and people received my truth. It makes me feel like I can continue telling the truth.”
The new album, Kilgore said, is about “reclaiming."
"I wanted this album to be an opportunity to reclaim American styles to Blackness," he said. "I believe the lexicon of American music wouldn’t exist without the contributions of Black Americans. Every genre that we associate with American music was influenced, shepherded and built by Black voices, minds, bodies, hearts and souls.”
Kilgore said the currently untitled album will feature lots of '80s and '90s influences. “I tried to pay tribute to the Patti LaBelles, the Luther Vandrosses and Aretha Franklins and Donny Hathaways. The people who have listened to it have said, ‘What you did was uniquely you,’ and that feels like the biggest compliment in the world.”
As for the holidays, Kilgore again looks to the pandemic as influential on his feelings about Christmas. “Realizing that these special moments when families get together, when chosen families get together, was taken from us and we had to do what we had to do for the safety of others.”
Being able to come together and “be reminded of love and the importance of each other in our lives, that’s really what the holiday season means to me. Anytime we can stop and let go and think about the love that we have in our lives and think about ways to show each other that we love each other, I’m all for that.”
Performing at Christ Church Cranbrook in the Cranbrook Christmas Jazz series, Kilgore said, is especially significant to him.
“I’m really thankful as an openly gay, queer artist that I’m being invited into church spaces,” he said. “[I feel] these spaces should be open to us. We should feel welcome and we should feel comfortable there. We shouldn’t feel like we’re going to a stranger’s house.”
If you’re wondering what you can expect from Kilgore’s live show, he said he’s going to “sing, and I mean sing with a capital S. They should expect that. You’ll hear what I feel and what I think. My full humanity will be on display on that stage."
For more information on Kilgore and his upcoming shows, visit mykalkilgore.com.