by Lauren Means | photo courtesy Sam Sparro
Michael Love Michael is a queer pop artist from the Midwest. As a Black child growing up queer and nonbinary in the Midwest, Michael didn’t always feel encouraged to be themself. With the current revolution for marginalized voices, they are determined to use their voice to call attention to issues affecting the LGBTQ community and beyond. Michael seeks to help people awaken to social ills so as to address them while also encouraging people everywhere to unlock their voices and raise them to the rafters.
Michael’s newest release, “6 Jaguars,” is a perfect example of using their voice to bring attention to injustices we are seeing played out in real-time. The song blends irresistible hooks, cinematic ‘80s pop sounds, and glittery hip-hop beats to tell a lavish, but tragic story of a white woman hidden behind extravagant wealth and privilege, and thus protected from the worst parts of systemic oppression.
We had an opportunity to learn more about Michael Love Michael, their music and what we can expect from them in the upcoming months.
Who is Michael Love Michael? What is your background, where are you from, what did you do before music?
I grew up in a Black middle-class family in the Midwest. Hard work was everything and I understood early on that nothing in my life would ever be handed to me. I’ve been writing as long as I could remember.
When I was a kid, I often asked for composition books and CDs for Christmas instead of toys. I filled those composition books up with poems, song lyrics and short stories. I created whole worlds in those pages: diary entries fantasizing about the boys I wish I could kiss but knew I couldn’t as a person socialized as a young male, superstar pop bands I made up who toured the world, lyrics written as a teenager about wishing I could win millions on game shows or struggling with depression.
I read books all the time. I learned the choreography to Britney Spears’ early videos and performed them for anyone who’d watch me. I think I was really just trying to find relief from what I knew was a harsh world in all those fantasies I dreamt up, subconsciously protecting myself from any and all ways anyone could harm me. I made my first song at 16, and I believe it was called “Little Star.”
The sound of your two songs, “Rope” and “6 Jaguars,” are very different in terms of sound. “Rope” has more of an alternative feel while “6 Jaguars” is a blend of 80’s synth + hip hop. What are your musical influences and how do you feel them coming through your music?
I think in terms of musical influences, it’s always been super eclectic — really anything and everything I’ve had an emotional connection to. When I was younger, it was songs by everyone from Stevie Wonder and TLC to Tupac Shakur.
I think I am moved most by people who can make poetry out of difficult moments, whether those moments are occurring in their own lives or in society around them. There’s something incredibly empowering about being able to do that, I find. Some of my favorite albums were Madonna’s American Life, Kelis’ Tasty, OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, Aaliyah’s One In a Million as well as her incredible final album, and Nine Inch Nails’ With Teeth. I also feel like I got more into female/femme artists almost exclusively as I moved into my teen years.
I read Rolling Stone reviews online and checked things out sometimes by their covers but also if something got rave reviews for originality. I remember discovering M.I.A.’s first album and what that did for me in terms of teaching me that music could sound almost homemade, yet massive and completely unlike anything I’d ever heard. I remember hearing Bjork’s voicebox-heavy album Medulla and knowing that I could make any sound I wanted to with my voice and embrace all of its textures and contours.
I love Lana Del Rey, I find her incredibly poetic and prolific. She has helped me believe that songs don’t need to fit within clean, easy three-minute radio confines to be widely beloved. You could take your time with phrasing, you could change and abandon established song structures in favor of something new. You could have a simple, pretty melody carry your song, but the most important thing is the words.
I feel that my music is expansive and textured and somehow mashes up all of these ideas, because music is never about one genre, but about finding a way to communicate an idea, no matter how it comes out. I pride myself on being able to tell stories through my lyrics. I hope to give people the same sense of starry-eyed wonder and possibility so many of my favorite artists have given me.
It does not seem you shy away from “political” topics. How do you view our current political situation? What is your assessment of where we are and we are headed?
I believe that as a queer, Black nonbinary person, I don’t really get to be apolitical. Sometimes I wish I could. I get tired. As a Black person, I hate seeing headlines about racist police brutality with said brutality playing on loop in every corner of the internet. As a queer person, it’s hard to experience discrimination from people who can’t accept themselves, and it’s harder to know that it’s worse for other people in the world, depending on where they are. As a nonbinary person, it’s hard bearing the brunt of people’s commitments to black-and-white thinking. If only those people knew that in some societies, people living free of enforced gender constraints are sometimes the leaders, healers and lightworkers of their communities. Anyway, it’s all very traumatic and exhausting.
Those who’ve walked the path before me have helped me understand that my entire existence is political and an act of resistance all on its own, usually without my even trying to make it so. I think that is just something I’ve learned to accept: if you are true to yourself, you’re bound to become a lightning rod for someone else’s crusade, and on the positive side of that, you can help others realize that they can be true to themselves as well. I think my life — the way I live it, the choices I make — is my best example of how true this can be.
I won’t get into what’s happening with the current administration, but I certainly believe that we are in dire need of a global redo. Too many people are suffering as a result of greed or misplaced ideas of success or pressures enforced by oppressive governments, environmental regulation, financial structures, doctrine, belief systems, etc. Empathy is something we are now realizing, especially with the current pandemic, that we’ve neglected for far too long. Empathy not only just for one another, but for the Earth, who is also suffering irreparable damage caused by all of humankind.
I don’t know what it will take to create a new paradigm, in which there is true equality among all people, but we all play a role in shifting the tide. Some play a heavier role than others. It takes a willingness to go deep into self-awareness, then out into our immediate families and communities, then the world.
It is no secret the LGBTQ+ community faces discrimination on a daily basis. Have you personally had to deal with it head-on? If so, how did you handle it and what advice would you give to someone struggling now?
I know what it’s like to feel isolated by the hatred or ignorance of others. I could say “don’t let it get to you,” but that’s not always possible. We’re only human.
I can only speak from my experience, really, but I’ve had to find likeminded people that I could trust and in those people, I’ve found a sense of communion. I moved to New York as soon as I realized the Midwest could only support my dreams for so long. I saw a movie called “Muppets Take Manhattan” when I was eight that inspired me to put New York City on my internal dream board, and I just never stopped thinking about it.
There were many times I couldn’t be myself either, for fear of ridicule, bullying or being totally ostracized. That’s why reading, writing and music was so important to me. I hung out in libraries and I created the stories I wanted to see in the world. I think doing that gave me a sense of hope. I read real stories about people who had creative visions that New York supported, such as Langston Hughes, Madonna, Zora Neale Hurston, Keith Haring, Kevyn Aucoin, Anohni, and countless others. Find those figures you admire, try what they tried, but do it in a way that pleases you. It’s your life, after all. Nothing in life worth having — especially the freedom to be — comes without inspiration, risk and courage.
What are you working on now? What do we have forward to seeing from Michael Love Michael?
I’m currently working on finishing up my debut album and am hoping to have it out at some point this summer. It’s really been filling my spirit up during this time of quarantine to have a purpose beyond a 9-5, especially one that allows me to make up my own rules as I go. I think once I release the album, I’ll plan some sort of content around it, but honestly, I’ll feel so happy to just have it out.
It’s been so cool to decide I wanted to make music in a much more serious way and to actually release it. I imagine release day, whenever that comes, will feel cathartic, but I’m already so proud of how far I’ve come. I feel really blessed to have a voice and to able to share it and speak to issues that I care about. The best is yet to come.
To learn more about Michael Love Michael, you can follow them on Instagram: @michaelxomichael or Twitter: @LoveMichaelXO.