The singer, songwriter, and actor on how his character Ricky inspired his music and why it’s so important for him to present his most authentic self.
by Jodi Taylor
By the time he turned 12 years old, Dyllón Burnside was already performing as the lead singer of a boy band, touring with the likes of Rihanna and Stevie Wonder. He grew up surrounded by music, and following a decade of creating music with 3D, tapped into musical theatre, landing a role in the Tupac-inspired musical, Holler If Ya Hear Me on Broadway, which was where, as he tells us, the worlds of hip-hop, R&B, and Broadway collided for him.
From there, he made numerous Broadway appearances, worked as a film producer on the award-winning short The Jump and theatrical producer on Hold Up The Light, starred in various TV shows and movies, and taught performing arts workshops. In 2018, Burnside landed the role for which he is widely known for on the highly-acclaimed FX series, Pose, where he plays newcomer Ricky. The role was written specifically for Burnside after co-creators Ryan Murphy and Steven Canals saw him audition for another role.
Unbeknownst to many, as viewers were glued to their screens following Ricky’s complicated path through Pose’s dramatized reimagination of the 80’s Harlem ballroom scene, Burnside was tenaciously tapping back into his earliest passion of music, writing and recording during any spare time he had. The artist had been preparing for his solo debut, which he made this past Friday with the release of his new single, “Silence,” a slow, heartfelt track that speaks to loneliness, love, and turning to dating apps for validation. It’s our first taste of what is to come from his forthcoming EP.
We hopped on a call with Burnside, who dialed in from his mom’s home in Atlanta, Georgia, to chat about the details behind what got him to this point in his career, why he chose to release music at this moment, and how he is tapping into his creativity in today’s ever-changing climate.
BeatRoute: How is your week going? How are you feeling creatively right now?
Dyllón Burnside: My week’s going pretty well. I think all of the stuff that has been going on has been catching up with me, so I’ve been a little drained, but other than that I’m doing pretty well. I’ve been quarantined since the second week or third week in March, and initially, I was trying to do any and everything to keep myself busy. Then I got to a point where I was like, okay, I should figure out how [to] do things that [will] make a difference in my life right now. [Being in] quarantine with my mom shifted things for me in the way that I feel more purposeful, which energized me, and really helped with my mental health and emotional wellbeing. Finding purpose in how I spend my days has helped.
BR: You’ve had a lot on your plate as you prep for your solo debut. Are you feeling excited?
DB: Absolutely. I’m excited for people to get a chance to experience this piece of my artistry, this thing that I’ve been doing since I was 12 years old. I really love the studio—I love the process of creating. It’s such a great way to channel your thoughts and feelings. I’m a creator, so being able to see something through from the seed of an idea into something that you can move to and something that moves you, that’s the thing that I love.
BR: Why did you choose this exact moment to come out as a solo act?
DB: This moment, for me, has become about what do I want to say in the world? It’s about not being afraid to let my voice be heard. This song is about being connected to yourself as opposed to looking for some sort of external mode of valuation or external distraction from getting to know yourself more intimately. Now felt like the perfect time to release the song as we navigate what it’s like to feel isolated and navigate the many ways in which we relate to ourselves.
BR: Your entire career has been so entrenched in both music and acting. How do you feel that the two personally intertwine and connect?
DB: All of my favourite musical performers are incredible storytellers, and that’s all acting is. I started a boy band [3D] when I was 12, and our performances were all about stagecraft. I then went on to study musical theatre and was on Broadway.
Pose is also a show where it’s very musical. Music is another form of storytelling, and storytelling is a way for people to connect with our common humanity. That’s what I’m always seeking to do, share a piece of myself that is akin to the things other human beings are experiencing so that we can all feel more connected and grow.
BR: Did you ever find it challenging to step out of your role as Ricky on Pose and switch over to songwriting and recording?
DB: No, actually, working on Pose really inspired me to get back in the studio and record this project. This single is just one of the many songs that I’ve worked on in the last few years. I was inspired by the things that Ricky went through; I was inspired to write by just being on set and stepping back into the late 80s, early 90s. The music of that time was so rich and so dramatic. I love rich, and I love drama [laughs]. If anything, the difficult part was balancing schedules and timing. All of the recording happened during my hiatus between seasons, but while filming Pose, I was able to write and conceptualize.
BR: Do you ever hit creative blocks? How do you get through them?
DB: Absolutely! Oh my god, I feel like I hit a creative block every day. As a creative, the work never stops. You pepper in work on the business side or media interviews like this one—which I love, I love talking to people about my work—but the business of entertainment oftentimes creates a barrier for me to be creative.
I love being in my little isolated space of creativity; that’s a sacred space for me. But even within that, I find moments where it’s just not flowing. What I have learned to do is to give myself breaks. Just a couple of days ago, for instance, I was like, I’m going to sit down and write and work on this pilot that I’m writing right now. Nothing was coming out. I had Nina Simone playing in my ear—I like to listen to Nina when I write—and I just got up and I started dancing. I was out here on my mom’s deck and before I knew it, I was having a full dance concert like I was dancing at the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. I was one of them for a moment [laughs].
That lasted for about 45 minutes, and before I knew it, I was unlocked in another way, and I just started singing. What I’ve learned is that I need to give my inner creative child room to discover as opposed to confining it to just doing one thing.
BR: What advice would you give to your younger self?
DB: I would have told my younger self to arrive at this place sooner. To not care about what other people think. If you feel like saying the F word, say the F word. If you want to talk about sex with a man or being in love with a man, that’s okay because that’s who you are. It took me a long time to get to the place where I could even go to the recording studio and talk to a producer about my song ideas and talk about the fact that I want to write a song about a sexual interaction with a man. That was very difficult for me, allowing myself to be vulnerable in that space and trying to develop a relationship not being sure how that would be received or if they would be uncomfortable about it.
BR: How does it feel knowing that you have created a space and are part of a show that is expanding young people’s dreams on what they can accomplish?
DB: Grateful. I feel incredibly grateful to be a part of seeing the revolution that we are currently experiencing both in the media and in our world. I feel incredible to be a small piece of that change and that representation. I’ve always wanted to do something positive with my work.
What I have come to understand is that it’s not so much about censoring my words or censoring my life; the positivity for me is found in showing up authentically. Saying this is who I am, these are the things I’m going through, and I’m presenting them to you in a way that isn’t shying away from the things that may be viewed as taboo. I’m really proud of the fact that I’m able to do that kind of work that challenges societal norms while also [maintaining] integrity that people can look to and see themselves in because it’s honest. People can relate because of its truth.