On stage with The Lesson at Arlene’s Grocery in New York City, J Hoard walks on stage with a full-length red sequined jumpsuit, starts to sing with the biggest, natural smile on his face, and it’s clear that the audience can’t take their eyes off him. His expansive voice and utter warmth keeps the crowd in a state of feel good usually reserved for the weekend. Mind you, this is a Thursday.
Albeit more low key off the stage, his tall, effeminate, glittering power isn’t something you’d miss. It isn’t long until he opens up about his personal style and J Hoard persona, nonchalantly mentioning that three years ago, “I was never this gay.”
J Hoard began his solo career in 2015, with the release of his single, Tidal Wave, which appears on his debuting EP Follow Me Now. J Hoard is a compilation of the artist’s history growing up in the church, as you can clearly hear some of his gospel roots, and electro jazz and soul that goes from inspiring to dirty and back again. A graduate of Berklee School of Music, his voice has the control and range of an artist who truly knows how to use it.
Fresh off of a Grammy nomination for collaborating with Chance the Rapper on his 2016 song, “No Problem,” J Hoard has made it out of Ohio, out of the closet, and on the path to an impressive (and stylish) career.
I sat down with him in the East Village to talk wearing women’s fashion, queer representation in hip hop, his church background, and his new EP, which drops October 12th.
I’ve seen you perform with The Lesson and your stage presence is incredible. Do you have an alter ego when you perform or is it totally you on stage?
I would say it’s totally me. I’m super extroverted, so I love to make people feel good. But I also love grey days…. I love being alone. The biggest thing that overcomes me when I’m on stage is knowing that literally this is not for me. Anybody could have had this gift. It is mine, I did go to school. I did learn about it my whole life. I’ve sang every style. But it’s also a gift. So when I get on stage, I know it’s for me to give.
How else has working with The Lesson changed you?
The Lesson helped with my solo project so much. I was never this expressive. I remember when I first went to The Lesson and said, ‘I’m considering painting my nails.’ Our drummer, Lenny, said, ‘you should do it.’ Not only am I painting my nails, he paints his nails. The whole onesie situation, I’ve never worn onesies before this year. [The Lesson] provides an opportunity for me to be free. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be this free, and let’s revel in this moment of freedom for us all.
Especially in this political climate.
Especially in this political climate! Especially at The Lesson. I’ve sang with other rap people. This is not what is rap. You know what I’m trying to say?
Yes. Because stereotypically [being queer] has not been an accepted part of hip-hop at all. It’s mostly been homophobic.
Not even mostly, not even kinda. It’s like definitely. In 2017, Busta Rhymes and A Tribe Called Quest they put out [“We The People”]. They performed it at the Grammys the year that I was there with Chance. It was just very profound for me at that moment because it was like, here I am, and here I am listening to people talk about these things.
What’s the difference for you as a solo artist compared to working with The Lesson?
With my songs, they definitely tell stories. Stories of introspection, transparency, understanding that difficulty is there for everyone, like life is never just easy. The song I did my video for is all about that, “Not So Fast,” it’s all about not running from your problems. You don’t have to run, you don’t have to go so fast. My band plays more quietly than The Lesson. We’re very much interested in dynamic. If we can perform softly and people respond to us, then we did a good job.
What are some of your influences and how do you evoke them?
The influences mostly these days are Stevie, Carole King, Zeppelin, and Aretha with added electronics. So, once we go from the Stevie Wonder, Carole-esque type of songs to the Led Zeppelin type of songs, it’s like the 4th or 5th song in the set, and it’s like, ok, this makes sense. We basically help them travel throughout the set to that point.
How is this EP different from your previous work?
There are two back to back songs that aren’t explicit, but the lyrics are very grown for a person talking about learning to walk on water, and “not so fast.” This EP starts out introspective. It starts out very inspirational. And then it goes to, I’m also about to be 30, and I love men. My sister asked if I’d applied to the Pride Festivals to perform there next year.
That would be great!
It would be great. But that’s something I never would have conceived of. I just came out three years ago. I don’t know if I’m even ready. I came out to my mom 5 years ago, and came out to dad 3 years ago. That’s when I officially wrote it on Facebook and all that. It’s very new.
What was that like?
Easy. So much easier than I expected. He’s the pastor. He’s the one that’s always spoken the most against homosexuality. I’m not saying that now it’s ok. Last time I saw him I had darker blue nails. I went home because my mother had a stroke in May. He didn’t care, never once mentioned it. I know that what I thought would happen is that he’d be like, “you can’t come into my house, you can’t sleep here, you can’t come into the car, you can’t eat with us, you’re super gay.” Because all my life that’s what I heard him preach. But that’s not what he’s doing.
What do you hope to give to the queer community?
All of it. The more that I do things that aren’t just for stage, the more that I’ve wrapped my hair and worn the onesies, I’ve recognized how uncomfortable it makes people. If I were just wearing skin-tight jeans, sneakers, and a skin-tight sweater, like your average, regular gay boy, ok, that’s fine. If you add nail polish, women’s clothes, if you add head wraps, then it’s like, ok, I don’t understand you. I just want the black, gay, church kid to know, I want all people to know: ‘you’re ok.’ I’m here to say: it’s ok to be you. It’s ok to be butch, tall, and extremely effeminate when you’re on stage. I know that that’s what I represent these days, and I’m ok with that. I was never ok with that. I hated my mustache. I hated my body hair, still do kinda. But it’s like, it’s ok. It’s still ok.
Dakota is a poet, journalist, and right in the damn center of the Kinsey scale. Follow her on Twitter: @Likethestates.