An Interview With Genderqueer Singer-Songwriter and Interfaith Minister Reverend Yolanda
Back in 2003, the popular New York City newspaper "Gay City News" featured a cover story about the newly-named "Outmusician of the Year". That musician was a unique singer-songwriter and downtown Manhattan scenester who went only by "Yolanda". It would be one of the first prestigious awards for an artist and LGBT activist who was gaining attention and gaining many fans with her forcefully soulful voice and delivery, combined with an outrageously larger-than-life persona. This was a performer, after all, who would appear in a wedding dress and full beard for a marriage rights benefit in 2005 (ten years before nationwide marriage equality), gear up in KISS-inspired rock 'n' roll drag for a Bear music festival in Nashville, and dress as a Christmas tree for a holiday-themed music event in New York's East Village. Today, Yolanda more resembles the Southern church-going lady on her way to brunch-- complete with big hair, unapologetically loud colors, and the occasional funny hat. Since 2003, however, Yolanda has started wearing some new "hats". She still describes herself as a "genderqueer singer-songwriter"... but she's also found a new calling as an interfaith minister.
By now you may be expecting me to introduce the man underneath the wig and dress sets. However, there's no alter ego sharing a body with Reverend Yolanda. Although she takes no offense to the terms "drag queen" or "transgendered", the artist born as Roger Anthony Mapes prefers the term "genderqueer". She clarifies that "drag" often implies playing a character, and "transgender" is more commonly used to describe people seeking to live as their identified rather than biological gender. The singer tells me, "I don't call myself a drag queen. Yolanda is not a character to me. Yolanda is truly my authentic self, no matter how I'm dressed. I don't consider myself male, but I don't consider myself female either. But for convenience's sake: When I'm in a wig and heels, you can call me 'she'. When I'm not, you can call me 'he'. To me, it makes sense and it makes it easier for people. I prefer the 'she' over the 'he' in general. But I don't want to be confusing for people. When they ask me, I try to explain it to them... but sometimes they still just don't get it! What I have come to understand is that I am truly a person who lives in the middle. Call me 'Yolanda', regardless of how I am dressed! I don't ever want to take away the binary male or binary female. That's not my intention. But there's a lot of range between the two. When I lived in Vermont in the '90's, a group of people and I helped to change Vermont to make it safe for transgendered people to walk the streets. Today, the kids there don't even know who I am... but when I first moved to Burlington, I'd walk the streets fully dressed. I'd get catcalls, and people would come after me and all that kind of stuff. Today, it's safe to walk the streets. Transgender people move to Vermont because they know it's safe to live there. And I was a part of that! It's incredible. I didn't know I was 'doing anything'. I was just being myself, wrapping myself up with plastic and walking around Church Street in Burlington in glitter and makeup trying to look like Divine. But because of those things that we did in Burlington in the '90's, it really shaped the LGBTQ movement there. I'm just so proud to be a part of that history!"
Gender semantics, however necessary they may seem, go out the window when Yolanda performs. Her powerful, take-no-prisoners voice combine with equally powerful, homegrown lyrics for no less than a delightful surge of emotion from her audience. Approaching her 60th birthday, Reverend Yolanda is bringing her fiercely unique persona and talents to New York City's famous Metropolitan Room on August 6th with a new show, named "Peace, Love, and Yolanda: Celebrating the Reverend Yolanda Songbook". The artist spoke with me about music, spirituality, gender, and her upcoming show-- which promises plenty of all three!
Hello Yolanda. Thank you for speaking with me! Back in 2003, you had been named Outmusician of the Year. How have you evolved since then, both personally and professionally?
Boy, that's a big evolution! Right after winning that award, I got involved with Fig Jam Records and a project called "Abbalicious", and I really thought that it was really going to take us somewhere, with a little more mainstream attention-- a real "ticket" for all of us. That didn't happen. It was very disappointing. Right about that time, I met my future husband Glenn Ganaway. At that moment in time, I was really disappointed in everything, and I decided to stop performing for a while and just focus on being with Glenn. It wasn't until about 2006 or 2007 that I started performing again. I've always been a person who has approached life from a spiritual perspective. I was born down South and raised in Christian culture, but it meant more than that to me. It wasn't a fundamentalist thing, not a "You must be born again" message or anything like that. It was a message of love, and always was. During that hiatus, I began to read a book called "A Course in Miracles" which I had started to read in the '80's but never delved into. Both Glenn and I became very interested in putting the principles of that book into practice. That really changed both my life and Glenn's life. I decided to go into seminary: One Spirit Interfaith Seminary. When I graduated in 2011, I was Reverend Yolanda. So, the transformation that happened during those years was my finding what I really considered my purpose or mission all along: being a "music minister". Even in the early years, the message was always about being your true, authentic, beautiful self. I always had that message in my music. After I graduated from seminary, I created "Reverend Yolanda's Old Time Gospel Hour", the show that won two MAC Awards. That created a platform for me to really speak to churches and people in the Christian community and beyond-- because I had an interfaith connection. I toured all over the country and met with great spiritual groups and individuals. I began to realize that there are more people in spiritual communities who are our allies rather than our haters. Slowly but surely, I found places where LGBTQ people were coming out about their spirituality. Since 2011, I have seen a real spiritual revolution within myself but also within the LGBTQ community. When I first started going to the New York City Pride marches a few years ago, I'd see Dignity-- the Catholic group-- and the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC). Now, I see that the message of embracing the LGBTQ community is reaching the more mainstream Churches, even the fundamentalist/evangelical Churches. My purpose is to build bridges of love between diverse communities, through the power of inspirational music and entertainment. It really put me on the right path as a person. And of course, with Glenn I found a partner who I never thought I'd ever find! I really feel powerful and confident in a way I never have before. I have been asked to do really interesting things, such as going to people's homes and blessing their children-- both straight and LGBTQ. It's really heartwarming and beautiful.
Wow! Thank you for that! So, you were born and raised in the Bible Belt, which has often had a reputation for being anti-LGBTQ. I've never heard you speak negatively about your hometown or home state. By contrast, you've written a song about Muscle Shoals, and you even were honored there when you came back for a visit years later.
Yes. I have to really give kudos to my hometown, because after all these years they finally started a Pride festival in Muscle Shoals. That was really hard for them to do. They got death threats. It's odd, because my hometown-- and this runs true all across the South-- is home to a lot of LGBTQ people. Where I grew up was full of musicians and artists and intellectuals. There was a University there and all that. It was a pretty good place to grow up, because there was a certain type of openness for "sissy boys" and all that. People would just say "He's artsy!" (Laughs) But when you come out as gay, there's a huge backlash that happens, because "that's what you're supposed to do". It's like a strange custom. If you come out publicly as gay or trans or whatever, people react because they feel they are SUPPOSED to. So, it took a real lot of courage for them to create a Pride celebration. This is their second year. I'm really proud of that. I travel a lot through the South. I go to Tennessee, and North Carolina, where there is a music festival every year. I've been to all kinds of little cities in North Carolina, and I have family living there now. This whole thing with the bathroom law: You know, I just do what I gotta do. I may be dressed up or not. Honestly, by and large, most people are just pleasant and nice. They didn't call the guards when I went to the bathroom. On the ground, people are mostly like "No problem!" There's a redneck every now and then, and then you just go your own way. Sometimes I do have to get up in their face and be like, "Fuck you!" (Laughs) However, this whole political climate of hate is really strange, because on the ground, the people I meet are loving. They really don't care. I go to my hometown, and I have had lifelong friends since fourth grade who are supportive of what I do. I haven't had one hate message from anybody in Alabama or anywhere else. And these are conservative Christian people! Hate is manufactured somehow, and I don't figure out how. It's some kind of political power that has to be held onto, and the processes of hate fuel that power somehow. I don't know. It's so mind-boggling to me.
I agree. When you figure it out, let me in on it too! (Laughs) So, you've been out and proud for a long time, as well having been an independent artist for so long. As independent artists, a lot of us do what we do strictly for our love of doing it. It's certainly not for financial gain or success! You have to have that desire to keep on creating. Where do you get your drive and your strength from?
Thank you for that question! I like to think that I popped out of my mother's womb an artist! (Laughs) I have never wanted to do anything else. I've tried to work nine-to-five jobs, and it's always been a failure. I was a good waiter for a while, and I liked that because it was very social! But I've always had some strength about staying true to myself, that my life wasn't worth living if I couldn't live intimately as the artist that I know I am. It has been hard. When I first started playing guitar and singing professionally, I was 17. I learned how to write songs, and that was all in the confines of church and gospel music. It was a new music called "Contemporary Christian" which was on the rise at that time. I was a part of that scene when it first started. I came out of the closet in fourth grade, but then I had to sort of "put it away" to participate in the Christian music scene. But then I couldn't hold it back anymore, because I fell in love with one of the band members! (Laughs) That was an end to that particular part of my life. I finished college and moved to New York. That's where I found the whole performance artist/drag queen/gay world in the East Village in the '80's. I knew I wanted to be a part of it but I didn't know how. I felt like an outsider. Larry Flick really took me by the hand and helped me figure out what kind of music I wanted to do, how I wanted to sing, and how to present myself. In those early years-- which I'm going to revisit in my new show-- I began to write songs that we couldn't really use as pop songs. They wound up many years later on my album "Country Gospel Kirtan". They always had some kind of spiritual message to them. I knew I had to go down this path. It's been very hard for my financially, but even that's been OK... because I know that this is what I'm supposed to be doing with my life.
You wouldn't believe the amazing e-mails that people write to me, from our wonderful LGBTQ community. Recently I got an e-mail from a woman who bought my CD. She was a security guard who was standing outside the concert hall where I was performing. She wrote me an e-mail a week later saying, "Even though I am an atheist, I love your music. I keep playing the song 'Love and Light' over and over again. Thank you for your gift to my life." I was like, "No way!" This woman, whom I had no connection to and who didn't even see the concert, heard something and felt some kind of vibration, and bought my CD. And she's an atheist. I love that.
That's pretty inspiring!
Just recently, the City Council Commissioner of Union City, New Jersey called me and asked me to do an invocation and a small concert at their vigil for the victims of the Orlando massacre. They rose the LGBT flag for the first time in the history of Union City. The Mayor was there, the City Council was there, all these people giving speeches... They were saying that, as a city, they welcome all people. It was just really impressive, and they asked me to be a part of it. It's those times that show me that what I'm doing is the right thing to do, regardless of money I make or whatever it is.
That's being a true artist! How do you identify in terms of religion? Do you call yourself a Christian?
I believe that all spiritual paths are essentially the same. My favorite spiritual teacher is Jesus. That doesn't mean I'm a Christian. It just means that He is my favorite spiritual teacher, because of the message of love. Sadly, some people have perverted that message. For me, even atheism is a spiritual path. I find it fascinating. I love to talk to atheists, because I also don't believe that there's this personality by the name of God who's sitting on a throne somewhere wagging "His" finger at you telling you what to do, and that if you don't do it then you're going to be punished. Obviously that's ridiculous. It's Stone Age mythology. But I also know where that comes from. I don't care if you believe that. That doesn't bother me. The Hindus have a whole range of gods and goddesses, and I think they're beautiful. They represent different aspects of the life source energy. At the heart of all spiritual paths is the understanding that we are all one... and that there is a divine life source energy that animates all life on Earth. That energy needs to be respected-- not just in humans, but in animals and plants and in the Earth itself. The way we treat the Earth is a spiritual process. I do not subscribe to any one religion, but I do connect with that universality which is in all paths. I love paganism and Wicca and goddess-based spirituality which really honors the Earth. That, plus the teachings of Jesus, are really my favorite things about spirituality. I also love Ganesha. I do a lot of Ganesha chants!
In addition to a spiritual awakening, what surprises can we expect at your upcoming show at New York City's Metropolitan Room on August 6th?
This is my first show at the Metropolitan Room. It's a very classy venue. I really wanted to have a special event, because it's celebrating my 25 years of songwriting. When I realized that I've been writing for 25 years, it really blew my mind. I've been to other composers' and songwriters' tributes after they died, and I said, "No, I want to do it while I'm still here!" So, we've gone back to the beginning, with Yolanda and the Plastic Family, all the way to my latest CD, "Country Gospel Kirtan, Volume 1". What's unique about this show is that I'm having guest artists sing my songs. I'm singing too, of course, but I'm having very special friends of mine who have helped me grow and develop along the way. I've never done that before. I've never heard anyone else do my music. They're all really excited, and I'm excited to see and hear them. It's gonna be full of incredible performers. Kenneth Gartman, who directed my MAC-Award winning show, is going to be my musical director.
That sounds absolutely divine!
It's exciting that I'm just able to keep going, and to keep doing all of this. And, I still have so much more to do. I have another new album coming out in the fall. I even have songs for an album after that! (Laughs). I have a lot to say and a lot to share, and I just wanna get it all out there. Honestly, I have been HIV-positive since 1997, and I did not think I would even be here today. I lived in New York in the '80's and I did all those things that you do when you're young-- I had so much sex, and hung out on the Piers, and just didn't give one thought to protection or anything like that... and here I am! There are a lot of us who are still here, and of course we saw a lot of our friends pass. But so many of us are still here too... and THAT'S a cause for celebration! I really want to celebrate that. I mean, just realizing that I've known you for 13 years is amazing! (Laughs) It's incredible what one can do with their lives if they just follow their authentic path.
The feeling is mutual! See you at the show!
"Peace, Love, and Yolanda: Celebrating the Reverend Yolanda Songbook" is Saturday, August 6, 3PM, at New York City's Metropolitan Room. Visit here for more info and tickets. Visit Reverend Yolanda's website at www.Yolanda.net.