For rising musician Nehemiah Akbar, being black and gay in the R&B music world isn’t the contradiction it once was
For a lot of young gay men — especially, it seems, those reared in the African-American community — coming out is a process fraught with risk and tension. Add to that an interest in making a name for yourself in the R&B music scene and, well, you have to stretch to think of a famous name.
Or at least you did until this summer, when up-and-coming hip-hop sensation Frank Ocean came out … and his fans barely seemed to care.
Now, Nehemiah Akbar wants to be part of that trend.
“You know, I have a very diverse family and [they are] very accepting of the lifestyle I have,” he says. “And I know it’s a taboo when you talk about a ‘lifestyle,’ but there you have it.”
Akbar — who lived in Chicago while working on his music, but who grew up in Oklahoma, where he’s currently attending college — has long felt comfortable with his feet in two worlds. Case in point: He’s currently working with multiple record producers (including Frank Yoder, who produced three of R. Kelly’s albums) on singles for a planned 2013 album, while working on his degree in public policy at the University of Oklahoma. (If that doesn’t strike you as cognitive dissonance, you might be working on the Romney campaign.)
But to Akbar, it’s all one great tapestry — one he hopes to bring from the down-low to the up-front.
“When it comes to down-low brothers in the black community, people want to associate being gay with being feminine, and that’s wrong,” he says. “I think Frank Ocean will have a huge impact on music, especially music in the black community and our overall acceptance, by breaking the glass ceiling about what a homosexual male is. He can be a masculine guy, an alpha male. He’s on a spectrum. [Like Ocean], I want to open up a door. Who really cares? We’re all humans at the end of the day. What does it matter?
Though in the black community we definitely have an issue with HIV being on the rise with African-American women. [Coming out is] going to do more positive for our community.”
Akbar will be in town as one of the featured entertainers at Dallas Southern Pride, Dallas’ black gay Pride weekend. He’ll perform two sets at The Brick — one on Friday and one on Saturday, “… and maybe another impromptu if we can arrange it,” he teases.
His performances will be something of a homecoming for Akbar: “I used to live in Dallas about five years ago — actually in Allen — but I haven’t been back since this, so I’m really excited. The new Brick looks very modern,” he says.
Akbar started writing music when he was about 9 years old after his mother took him to a Janet Jackson concert in Las Vegas. “I didn’t know what she was actually talking about but seeing her perform I thought I totally wanted to do this,” he says.
If you already are familiar with Akbar’s music, it gets in your head. Two of his singles — “Make My Move” and “First Class Boy,” both of which he wrote or co-wrote (to add to the duality, one of his co-authors is a sportswriter for the Chicago newspaper) — are available online, and have a poppy, dance-y edge like Lady Gaga (especially “Make My Move”), but with sharp turns into more soul/R&B beats about halfway through. He says he can see why.
“I think it has everything to do with how we grow up,” he reflects. “My mom played Earth Wind & Fire when I was growing up, and I heard that all the time. That kind of R&B style rubbed off on me. I’m also a big fan of Michael and Janet Jackson — everyone has borrowed Michael’s military style of dance, including me,” he says.
The major influence Gaga has had on him, however, is somewhat different. “She’s so brave about her sexuality which has encouraged me,” he says. “I think after Lady Gaga came on the scene with her songs of diversity, and Frank Ocean coming out in hip-hop, this is the time for an artist to come out. I think the American public will embrace it. Everyone thought Ellen [DeGeneres] would be marginalized when she came out, but look at the impact this woman has made!”
The process, however, has been arduous. Akbar hopes to have all the songs finished recording by December, with a CD drop date in the first quarter of 2013. But he also wants to redo his music video for “Make My Move” which he thinks has changed “after discovering who I am as an artist — I want to share the truth about myself,” like having a boyfriend in the video.
“That’s been my drive, to make that dream a reality. It seems like it’s speeding up. Last semester, just before I finished school in Chicago, we were doing the promo video and rehearsing and I was taking 19 credit hours and it was hell. But I loved it so much it felt like something I had to do before I entered the next phase of my life. I can’t stop this journey until people know about me and my mission to promote diversity.”
Which is, of course, what Pride is all about.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 5, 2012.