In 1930, famed painter Grant Wood would create arguably his most famous piece of work: American Gothic. When he trekked out to a small town in Iowa, he fell in love with a small white house, its curved windows and straight wooden planks built in the Carpenter Gothic architectural style. Wood imagined what type of people would live in the house. Almost immediately, he set to work painting them: a white, elderly farmer holding a pitchfork with a white, collared woman next to him, presumably his wife or daughter. Their lips are thin, their expressions grim, and the landscape dreary from the weather of work. Though the painting initially earned him a bronze medal and $300 cash prize from a competition at the Art Institute of Chicago, it’s since achieved iconic status, becoming one of the most familiar images in 20th-century American art.
Yet as memorable as American Gothic is, the emotions it prompts come from a nearly completely fabricated background. The people weren’t farmers or even those who lived in the house. The house’s history went unexplored. And the small town in Iowa never got a chance to explain its contextual backstory. Wood combined personal imagination with limited public knowledge to generalize a Midwestern lifestyle and, in the process, simultaneously makes his lack of understanding of such apparent. That’s what makes American Gothic by Gordon Parks, the first well-known parody of Woods’ creation, feel twice as powerful in its imagery. In Washington, DC, in 1942, Parks created his own version of American Gothic: a black-and-white photograph of a black cleaning woman named Ella Watson standing before a draped American flag, a straw broom in her right hand and a mop leaning against the wall behind her left. It was a bitter slice of commentary on American racism; Parks went on to call his work “an indictment of America.” It exemplified the anger and dejection that stand in the wake of racism and the gutting betrayal of America’s so-called promise.
Art history may have felt like it dragged on during your school days, but it’s one of the few subjects in the American school system that weds history with pop culture as vividly as it does. It documents its surroundings and then questions them. It uses a canvas to eventually double as a mirror. You’re left wondering not only why things got to the point they did, but how someone could let that happen—and what you would have done different. Art can impact you whether you expect it to or not. That’s exactly what happened with Boston-based rapper and composer Billy Dean Thomas when Gordon Parks’ version of American Gothic flashed before their eyes.
“I was so inspired by this image of a black woman in front of an American flag with a broom and a mop in her hands,” says Thomas. “It stuck with me for years. It still does. And a few years back, I wanted to personify that woman, to write a song from her perspective.”
Thomas went on to create that song, yes, but, over time, it fell into the cobwebs of a computer storage system, sandwiched between faded song ideas and various unfinished lyrics. It wasn’t until Thomas, now 27 years old, stumbled across that ode in their iTunes library a few months ago that they came to a new realization by way of old inspiration.
“We’re living in a time right now where a lot of these racial injustices are front and center,” says Thomas. “Feeling that discomfort of labor, to have a job where you’re doing more admin work and feeling exploited in a way using labor. So I wanted to bring that back, to specifically highlight what it means for me as an artist and a queer artist of color to personify that idea, of what it truly means to be an American Gothic. I wanted to create a big event that delves into all of that.”
The irony of Thomas telling me this while on their lunch break isn’t lost. Thomas has spent the past year working in the Cultural Investment Portfolio department of the Mass Cultural Council, helping the administration dole out grants for capacity needs and smaller project grants based on cultural events in the state. Bent on finding a way to give back, not just in terms of solid ground but in regards to the arts, Thomas seems to take on more than they can chew, but winds up chewing it anyway. By the look of this upcoming event, it was worth the multiple-year-long delay.
On Nov 2, Billy Dean Thomas is throwing a massive show at Oberon, aptly dubbed American Gothic. Joined by creatives like Anson Rap$ and Rilla Force, Thomas’ event will be a tour-de-force evening of live music, silent films, and storytelling, a dazzling culmination of Thomas’ talents to highlight the important, but dark, periods of their artistic journey as it relates to American history. And to top it all off, the audience is advised to arrive dressed in all black—which is how you know it’s going to be a party.
This idea has been culminating for a year. In its early stages, Thomas just knew that they wanted to do a production with vocalists they love and new talented folks to work with. That idealized roster of collaborators took shape faster than expected thanks to a long list of nearby artists who had inspired Thomas in passing. First came Tashawn Taylor, who blew Thomas away with his voice with an a cappella piece at an open mic and will sing at the event. Then came Liz James, whose speaking voice and work as a playwright left them hypnotized, eventually leading to bringing her on to create a monologue for the event. The next logical addition was Anson Rap$, who taught Thomas about using the space in a room as part of performance, who will rightfully command space during one of the songs at the event. Soon Anais Azul was roped in, whose extensive work as a composer and chamber writer adds a surprise element of refined levity to the event. And lastly comes Rilla Force, a fan-favorite producer and DJ who will be spinning after Thomas’ set is over.
The biggest component of American Gothic is the massive amount of new music. Over half of the event’s runtime will be taken up by new music, nearly all of which Thomas wrote and recorded over the past few months. While it’s true that older songs will pepper the set, like “Rocky Barboa” or “Jab,” Thomas tweaked them compositionally to carry a new vulnerability, giving those songs the feeling of something new. In addition to the live band that will back Thomas throughout the night, there will be a live quartet playing along to the visuals. It’s a first in Thomas’ professional career not just because of the complexities of performing together, but because Thomas themself composed all of the parts for the strings using logic. By thinking of hooks and recording vocals in place of the instrument, Thomas was able to push their composition skills to a new level, learning how to break down the layers of a song—harmonies, melodies, beats, instrumental layers—to help flesh it out further with help from Azul. American Gothic marks the music’s official debut.
But before these new songs took shape, Thomas needed inspiration. By digging into their background in filmmaking, Thomas was able to highlight the cinematic aspects in music by playing off specific images. A film shaped together from music videos, old and new, will tell the story at American Gothic. By music-directing their own videos, Thomas was able to better understand how to fit the vibe of the event and shape the songs to deepen it. Then, the material was passed off to videographer Malcolm Digital to paint special effects and darker images in the videos. Thomas calls them “video flips,” a play on the term of producers remixing tracks. The finished products will be projected behind Thomas while they perform. Given Thomas is nominated for Music Video of the Year at the Boston Music Awards this year, it’s no surprise they went all in creating the American Gothic short films.
Ambitious dreams like these were always penned in Thomas’ notebooks growing up. Seeing those dreams play out in real time, however, was always capped with a question mark. It wasn’t a lack of desire or determination that got in the way of Thomas creating more art early on in their career. It was a lack of representation, and American Gothic is a step forward to help fix that.
“When I wrote the song “The Queer B.I.G.,” it was because [The Notorious B.I.G. and I] were both from NYC, he’s my favorite rapper, and we’re both heavier black folks who oppose the Western beauty standards of what people would like to see,” says Thomas. “I’m really into finding ways to have a space in popular culture, because there aren’t as many queer artists of color that—well, I don’t want to call myself plus-sized—aren’t skinny or appealing in the traditionally marketed sexual way. I connected to Biggie in that sense. I had confidence that you learn to place on yourself because society isn’t going to show you that support. I was practicing that self-love and confidence, and I felt like he had it and so did I. The only difference was that I was queer.”
With less than a week to go until American Gothic’s debut this Friday, Thomas is eager to share the creative effort with the audience. Technically, the show could range from 45 minutes to 60 minutes because the length depends on audience reactions. Without knowing it, the audience determines where the show will go. That communal interaction is key. And now that Thomas and their friends have been rehearsing regularly for over a month, it seems like Thomas is readier now that they’ve ever been—and not just for American Gothic.
“I’m in the middle of some crazy growth spurt,” says Thomas. “I’m breaking out of every label I set on myself. I’m breaking out of every idea of what I thought I wanted. I love the big projections and the big showcases. But I’m really starting to understand that everything I thought I liked and wanted is shifting to the opposite direction. I’m finding beauty in the intimate and stripped-down approach, and how great that can be on its own. The less moving parts that you have, there’s something great you will notice that you may not have been able to notice for a while. [American Gothic] is going to be the biggest ensemble that I’ve ever had, and I think it may be the last one for a while. I’m hard-headed, so I didn’t realize until I produced this entire show by myself with no management, no label, and no help while having a nine-to-five job. I don’t know how this is possible, but I’m getting to a point where I have a huge hunch about my next project. I will not be working for anybody anymore when it comes out. And it’s definitely going to make some waves.”
AMERICAN GOTHIC: BILLY DEAN THOMAS AND FRIENDS. FRI 11.2. OBERON, 2 ARROW ST., CAMBRIDGE. 9:30PM/ALL AGES/$15. AMERICANREPERTORYTHEATER.ORG