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10-in-10 with VCU's Shy Lennox

A black, queer, opera major has a voice, and a story, you need to hear.

by Sophia Welch
June 19, 2020

Shy Lennox graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University Arts in December with a degree in operatic vocal performance. Yes, opera, and a bass baritone so beautiful, he was actually named the best collegiate male vocalist of 2018 by the National Association of Teachers of Singing.

Lately, though, he’s bidding a form of farewell to all that, with a reason as logical as it is poetic. “I’d rather make music that would last hundreds of years from now,” he explains, “than consistently perform works from hundreds of years ago.”

His current sound is mesmerizing, a unique, modern take on alt R&B, intimately and unapologetically informed by his race and sexuality. “They don’t know what we’ve been through,” he sings on Signs, a recent single. “He can’t do the things I do for you, babe.”

Quadio caught up with Shy in Richmond, Virginia, where he’s quarantining before his life, he tells us, takes a new turn.

It’s Pride, so let’s talk about what it means to you to be a queer artist, and a black queer artist.

My music is just me sharing my experiences and my dreams and my thoughts, and usually those are within the frame of a queer black man. That’s the only life I know, and that’s the life I live. So of course my music is going to be about that.

Is there a message just in that?

Well, I like being that voice for people like me. If I could choose more people to listen to my music, it would be young queer black kids, because when I was growing up, there weren’t a lot of people like me at the forefront of music. I think it would’ve made it a lot easier, knowing people that look like and sound like me were doing what I’m doing.

You grew up in Virginia?

In Woodbridge, which is about 30 minutes from DC. Not much goes on, it’s kind of a smaller town. A great place to raise kids, but not really a good place to live your dream.

Not much of a music scene?

I attribute a lot to my high school choir teacher. I was really involved in choir, and it was great having that space to shine, away from all of the weirdness that comes along with discovering yourself in high school. So yeah, shout out to my choir teacher.

But it’s not like there were hundreds of Frank Oceans when you were coming up, to look to as an example.

Right, and he didn’t come out immediately. People assumed he was straight. Whereas I get to come at it like, “This is me, this is my music, and I’m queer.” I want to make sure my music is at that intersection. And I want people to know that it’s not separable.

We’re in the middle of very complex times -- for the black community, for the queer community, not to mention the pandemic. Where’s your head right now?

For me, hearing about black men, black women, black trans people being killed by police, is sadly not a new thing. It’s just that people are starting to really talk about it. I’ve always lived with that fear of being killed by the police, since I was young. As black people, we’ve fought so much, we’ve spoken out so much, and we’ve been silenced so many times. You get this numb feeling… But, I try to stay vigilant and to keep creating. It’s always made me feel like I could go at any minute or someone I know could go at any minute. So it’s important for me to keep doing what I’m doing while I’m on earth.

You say you feel numb, but your music is emotional and lush and romantic.

I try to stay optimistic, I try to promote peace and positivity and healing in my sound. I don’t really try to sing about vindictive thoughts. I’m hoping things get better. I really do.

I’m also still growing. I'm still evolving and I’m still creating. Who knows, maybe a few years from now, I get angry and I start to put that into my sound. We’ll see.

What’s next for you?

I’m moving to San Francisco in July.

A far cry from Richmond!

I want to be in a more centered place while approaching my next phase as an artist and as a musician. It’s really important to me to have some sort of clarity despite there being so much tension in the world right now. I just kind of want to find my zen.

You said earlier that you want black queer kids to listen to your music. What would you say to those kids right now? Kids who maybe feel like they’re struggling?

Keep trying to shine and don’t let your light be dimmed. There’s so much pressure to be perfect, and you don’t have to be perfect. Realize that queer is perfect.