Nothing can seem less likely in 2019 than a classic jazz quartet being warmly received in today’s NYC gay bars, where if five minutes go by without an Ariana song the kids get antsy and bored. Well, maybe the kids are really just aching for something old and something new. And maybe it doesn’t hurt when the quartet’s frontman sings like a golden angel calling out to you from the other end of an ocean of despair… an angel who happens to inhabit the body of the gogo boy of your dreams. Thotyssey is honored to share the story of singer, songwriter, poet, dancer and ex-drag queen (!) who overcame great hardship with the help of his art… Richard Cortez!
Thotyssey: Richard, hello! Thanks for talking to us today, how are you?
Richard Cortez: I feel really good lately in general! How are you, more importantly?
I am hanging in there and doing my thing… and excited to be talking with you! We’re certainly getting into some nicer weather, perfect for last night when you and your jazz quartet premiered your outdoors residency at Metropolitan! I bet that must have been a great time.
It was honestly just so, so lovely. People are responding in ways to my work that are always surprising me. I approach every gig with the same anxieties I imagine a lot of performers do… “What if no one comes? What if it doesn’t go over well? What if I’m not hitting every note perfectly?” But I’m so grateful for nights like last night. It was everything I had hoped it would be.
You are certainly getting a large following at your live shows in Brooklyn, the East Village and beyond. Could you have predicted that there was a need in today’s small attention-spanned, pop thirsty gay kid culture?
Well, I think people in general instinctively respond to things beyond what they’re told to like… things that come from the heart, and feel organic and genuine. And that’s what I strive for in all my work: music, poetry, activism, etc. In fact, it’s how I try to live my life and engage. Even as far as social media, and my presence, and what I share. I think LGBTQIA people are layered, beautiful and magical beings who have overcome so much and display such strength. I never underestimate their capacity.
Before we talk more about about all this, let’s revisit the beginning. Where’s your hometown, and how did you begin in the world of the arts?
I’m from South Florida. I disclose a lot about my childhood in my last book of poetry, The Hurting, illustrated by Michael Hildebrand. But in short, I grew up the child of a mother with untreated bipolar disorder who was very violent, and a sexually exploitative father.
My escape was music. I used to lock myself in my room and listen to my mother’s old records. The music and singing served as an escape from all the abuse I was experiencing. It was where I found peace and could resonate comfort through the vibrations of my own voice in my body. I have a deeply profound respect for the space music can create for those who are longing for release or healing.
In 2001, at 16, I was hospitalized for PTSD and other mental health related issues multiple times after being sexually assaulted and putting a man in prison. I bought a $75 guitar a pawn shop between hospitalizations, and soon learned that the pain of pressing down on the strings was similar to cutting myself. So I traded in self-harm for guitar. I played and played and played anytime I wanted to hurt myself, and soon after started to write songs. Then I started recording them.
Fred Phelps, the owner of godhatesfags.com, came by way of me in a video I participated in educating the school district of Broward County about hate speech. He planned a protest at my school, and I counter-protested, making headlines. I was then suddenly given a platform, and people asked me to start making appearances to speak on my experience. I would bring my guitar and sing my songs, and speak about being young and queer. I’ve been recording and releasing music ever since. It saved me.
Westboro has been on a rapid decline in recent years, with many former members coming out against it and its hateful outlook. That must be satisfying to see on some level, at least.
Beneath all hate is fear. I’m always pleased to see people become stronger and learn to love and accept.
So what brought you to New York?
I went to college here, but at 18 and dealing with some substance abuse issues, I wasn’t quiet ready to be on my own. So, I returned to Florida and went on struggling for number of years before getting sober. Coming back has been enlivening. I spiritually felt I had unfinished business here. So I came back.
We’re happy to have you! Aside from music, you are definitely a favorite gogo boy of many in the nightlife scene… how did that come about?
I was in the locker room at the gym and I got a DM on Instagram that basically said “hey, you look amazing without clothes on and seem really comfortable in your skin and being nude, would you ever consider gogo dancing?”
After a few months of working for various nightlife promoters and finding my identity as a gogo dancer, Frankie Sharp happened upon me at The Cock and the song “Hot Lunch” from the movie Fame was playing. We bonded over the song, became fast friends and I soon after become an exclusive dancer for him.
All the best stories start with “I was in a locker room at the gym.” But on a serious note, Given your history as an abuse survivor especially, does it ever cause you discomfort to be in those hypersexual, exposed situations as a gogo boy? Or is it therapeutic?
Being a survivor of any abuse is an individualized experience, and everyone handles it differently. I have found that being in control of how people interact with my body has been empowering and liberating. Reclaiming my personal power in sex has shed a lot of light in the darkness of my past.
That’s makes a lot of sense. As far as being a gogo boy goes, do you have a favorite memory or gig, aside from meeting Frankie?
Oddly, I’m really old friends with a lot of the girls from Rupaul’s Drag Race, as I used to do drag a million years ago. Getting to reconnect with them at gigs has always made me feel really good. There’s a quote by Ani DiFranco that I love, “there’s nothing like looking at your own history in the faces of your friends.”
Oh wow, hold the phone! What were you like as a queen? And what was your name?
Ha. Oh God, I opened up a can of worms here. My name was Rita Leon. My drag mother is Noel Leon. We’re a pretty family. Classic Florida pageantry drag.
Did you do pageants yourself?
No. haha! I used to help Noel prepare for pageants a lot, though. When I was essentially homeless in my 20’s, after my mother moved out of the house I grew up in, she said “you’re on your own now, figure it out.” Noel took me under her wing. Some of my favorite moments are of me stoning gowns with her and watching Paris is Burning, or old Miss Continental tapes. The gay community is an amazing place. It’s saved my ass time and time again.
Why did you stop doing drag?
Back then, it was “be datable” or “be a drag queen.” You couldn’t do both. It wasn’t as understood or sensationalized as it is now. Now you can do both. You can be a sexual being and do drag. It’s amazing how different things are now, and how far we’ve come regarding accepting drag queens as people beyond their craft. I opted to be datable… and yet here I am, single at 33!
So as a gogo boy in New York, were you still playing and writing music the whole time?
I’m a musician first and foremost. Gogo dancing is just a fun way to make extra money.
In fact, I use nearly all the money I make doing it to fund my creative projects. It’s like a GoFundMe, but with dicks. Basically a GoGoFundMe!
It’s a living, in every sense!
I produced three music videos, an EP, and two books last year with gogo money. I often tell people, with my dick in their hand, “thank you for supporting the arts.” but they think I’m kidding.
That EP was The Welder & The Lark, a very sincere, stripped-down and eloquent record that Jordan Hall, aka Boy Radio, produced with you… in just six days! Was that, like, a huge rush and pressure to put something out that quickly, or did it just occur naturally that way?
That album nearly ruined me, and came to me during a time where I was truly struggling. It may very well be the last bit of original work I put out for quite some time… we’ll see what life has in store for me. I met someone who moved me… he was and remains to me just so, so beautiful. More than he knows. Songs and poems started pouring out of me. Just after what appeared to be quite a long creative lull, he ignited a spark in me that still burns low to this day.
But I do this thing with music–I sit with it. I write a song, and I keep it for myself for awhile before I give it to anyone… meaning listeners. Once you release music into the world, it’s no longer yours to emote through alone. It belongs to your audience. I get into relationships with my songs, I learn them front and back, I learn the deeper meaning of my own lyrics. I study each line instinctively through the meditation of playing the song over and over again. So, when I approached Jordan about the project, the songs and I were ready to say goodbye, and I knew them like the back of my hand.
It was a mostly very straight forward, seamless effort and Jordan was extremely supportive, grounding and kind. He honored my vision and still skillfully left his touch on the recordings. It’s my favorite of all my original work released. I’ve only played those songs once live, and I nearly sobbed through each song. To this day any time The Welder walks into a room… I’m at a loss. He has a way about him… it’s dangerous, wildly intoxicating, and I have to stay away despite how much I love him.
I’ve seen you perform a bunch of times as a solo singer with a guitar, and it’s soulful and gorgeous… how did the jazz quartet begin?
I have always loved jazz, but it slowly became nearly all I listened to for the last five years or so. After releasing ten records of my own work, I wanted to try something new. I met Alex Mejia, my guitarist, at a party on the Fourth of July last year, and we got to work right away on playing together.
Giving a queer perspective to classic American compositions has been both really provocative and fun. Taking very gendered, heteronormative lyrics that were never given a chance to be seen as queer has inspired me so much. Queer stories and the experience of being queer when applied to a song like “Lover Man,” for instance, written in 1941 for Billie Holiday with lyrics like:
“I don’t know why,
but I’m feeling so sad.
I long to try something I’ve never had.
Never had no kissin’
Oh, what I’ve been missin’. Lover man, oh where can you be?”
You take that, and have a gay man sing it. It has a different story. It lands differently and I love that.
Alex and I played solo for a number of months–and as the crowd started to grow, we started to incorporate more musicians. The Quartet now consists of Myself, Alex Mejia on guitar, Louie Leager on bass and Walter Cano on trumpet. They are some of the most warm and wonderful men I’ve ever met, and working with them has been healing in so many ways as I’ve experienced my fair share of homophobia in my life. They’re all straight, but have openly stated how much they enjoy the work we’re doing and how wonderful performing in queer spaces for mainly queer people has been. A jazz quartet with straight male musicians and a gay front man isn’t something you see often in the jazz world.
What an exciting time!
It should also be said, Frankie and working for Frankie has been the connection I’ve had to all of these venues. He’s been so supportive of me moving beyond just gogoing. His support and the platform he’s given me has played a very vital role in all the exposure the band is getting. I made every first move in those spaces being first booked by Frankie, either gogoing or briefly having been in the cast of Mary.
Frankie is a King (and Queen) maker! Tell us more about “Jazz in the Backyard,” the new Friday at weekly happy hour show at Metro featuring the Quartet.
Metro and the bar manager, Steven McEnrue, holds a special place in my heart. I’ve been gogoing there for going on three years. I’ve never missed a Saturday. From what I understand, there has never been anything like this at Metro, and it already feels so right. It’s a different feel from our monthly show at Club Cumming where we get all dressed up, debut our new arrangements and perform shows often with a theme. Metro is a laid back more casual vibe.
Your next night at Club Cumming is Tuesday, May 14.
“Music for Lovers” is going to be major. It’s the first time I’ve had an opening act and a drummer. It just keeps growing, and I am continuing to take chances and push myself. Our shows at Club Cumming is where we showcase our newest arrangements. It’s a whole new show every time, with new special guest vocalists and musicians.
And next month, I hear there will be something new!
We’ll be performing at Rebar every Thursday starting June 6th. Each space is unique, and brings out a unique side of our work.
Anything–or anyone–else to mention?
A few things. One: Thank you to anyone who has ever tipped me gogo dancing. Your money has gone directly into the creation of queer art.
Two: I’ve been collaborating with the same branding and marketing director for the last 15 years. He handles all my visuals. His name is Nick Kask. He designed my very first album cover and business card in 2005. And has stuck with me all this time.
Three: All my albums are available on all streaming music services and my music videos are on YouTube. You can order my poetry books on my website.
Four: If you are reading this interview and have experienced childhood trauma / abuse or are struggling with your mental health… there is help out there if you need it, and you are forever seen and loved by me. Never, ever give up on yourself or your journey.
I think that’s it.
Thanks so much, Richard, and have great shows!