interview TIMI & JANA LETONJA

Jeremy Pope is an Emmy, Golden Globe, and two-time Tony-nominated performer and multimedia artist. His debut EP, ‘Last Name: Pope,’ is out now. This EP represents Jeremy’s artistic evolution, vulnerability, and vocal versatility, and with the EP Jeremy fearlessly embarks on a musical journey that explores his identity in a profound and authentic way.

What inspired you in creating this EP, and what does it represent to you?

Music is one of my first loves and I’ve been so fortunate to go on a journey as an actor, and to be able to do all types of different creative things, but music has my heart. To be able to express myself through music and through this EP was so important for me. I found I’ve been able to learn a lot about myself, all the things that are going on in my heart and my mind, through music, writing music and producing music. This gave me an opportunity to not play a character, to learn about myself and to learn what my sound has evolved into over the years of being on Broadway and writing music, but never putting it out. It was nerve wracking at first to really hear and understand where I was coming from, but ultimately I feel so grateful to be on the other side of this project and to have learned to love my sound and to love what it is I have to say. And it seems that people are responding to it, so that feels like a blessing.

What does music and musical exploration in general mean to you, and what role does it play in your life?

It is such a universal language and there’s something that happens sonically to the body and to the mind and to the heart. I think there’s certain songs that you’ll remember throughout your childhood and your adult life that take you back to a specific moment and a specific feeling, so music has the power to do that. It’s interesting writing your own music, you remember exactly where you were in your life. When you’re writing something or you’re working on something, it marks the moment. So when you’re coming from an honest place and you’re writing it yourself, you’re really unpacking where you are in life. Sometimes you don’t know where you’re going to go or if things are going to be okay or how things are going to resolve themselves, but they do. And I think that’s the beautiful beginning, middle and end of writing this project. 

How long were you working on this EP?

Officially three and a half, but it was probably almost close to four years. And just to hear the different iterations of the records, how they changed, how I changed, or how certain things stayed the same and the vulnerability and the voice, or the record or the production was amazing. I didn’t want to change too much, but I think the thing that’s been the most beautiful now that the project is out is hearing people from all over the world respond to the music. 

A lot of wanting to find love, losing love, figuring out our purpose, wanting to feel sexy, wanting to not be taken advantage of, all of these different examples of experiences in life are universal. We all go through them in different phases of our lives, so it’s been beautiful to hear people are responding to the types of certain records. And that’s cool to know that an experience or a feeling that I had that felt very intimate to me, is being received by so many thousands of people.

Do you have any specific music memory from your childhood that you remember in a big way? 

I think the one that feels the most important to me today was when I was 16 or maybe younger, about 12. My dad bought me a Dell computer and installed this program called Fruity Loops on it, which is the program I used for so many years on how to produce music. He bought me a computer, he bought me a microphone, he bought me all the tools I needed to begin to really produce music. And it changed my life. I was gifted an opportunity to really take it seriously. 

And it’s like any new program or any new job, it’s terrifying at first. But I learned and I self taught myself how to produce and how to make things sound like things on the radio. To listen to my first demos and songs I wrote when I was 12 to now, the evolution of it is like wow. I didn’t give up, I just kept trying, kept learning and evolving, and that’s what we’re supposed to do. It’s been beautiful to witness that sonically I was writing about heartbreak and I had never been in a relationship at 12, but the passion for writing music and wanting to connect with people on an emotional level was always there. 

As you mentioned, you taught yourself to produce and write original music. How does your process of creating music look like, from the beginning stages to recording of the songs?

Things kind of hit me like a tsunami in a wave. I was here the other day and a melody popped in my head, and I usually will start a voice memo or just record myself rambling or singing a melody. A lot of times music comes to me when I’m in transition or moving, driving or anything. If I’m walking, it’s almost like I’m putting miles on my heart and my mind to create music. And then I’ll usually get to my computer or piano and just try to pluck out chords and figure out what I want it to sound like or what the energy is. A lot of times for me, vocal layering is something that I do because I’m not a master musician, I don’t play a lot of instruments. I’ll do that with my midi or my piano, and then I’ll use my voice. Sometimes the voice is the best instrument for me. 

I’ll layer a lot of things and that’s usually how records begin, a rough demo of me humming or just trying to figure out what the vibe is. A lot of times songs usually come to me very quick. As soon as I know what it’s like I, I go for it and I’ll stay up days without sleeping to finish something. It takes so long to finish it is as I sit with it for a while and I need the feeling to stay consistent because sometimes you’re feeling yourself, you write a song, you think you’re doing it, and then you listen to it the next morning and think that’s trash. So it’s about feeling confident about the lyrics and the production, and then a year later still feeling the same confidence about the record, even if you’re in a different place emotionally. I stand by what I’m saying or I stand by the musicality of it, and that’s one thing I feel like I can say about this project. Three and a half, four years later, I still love the records the same when I wrote them.

Besides music, you’re also a two-time Tony nominee, making history for receiving two nominations in one season. Describe us the feelings you felt in that moment when you wrote this historical moment.

I didn’t know that I was making history, I just knew that I was nominated for two things at the same time. But I think I was shocked just because if I was in control of my life, things would’ve looked a lot different. And I think that’s the thing for so many of us, if we could control what happens in our life, we would give ourselves this, that and the third sooner than we’re ready to receive them. There was something about my journey of being patient and waiting, and saying no to certain jobs and yes to the right jobs to be at this moment where I was affirmed by the theater league. And it felt right because I definitely felt like I had worked for the moment. And not just in those jobs, but I had endured things and been let down, but this was a moment of being lifted up. When I think about that moment and it being historic, it definitely was a marker for me that nothing is in vain and everything leads to the next thing.

You’ve just starred in Calvin Klein’s PRIDE campaign opposite Cara Delevigne. Why does this campaign in particular hold such a special meaning to you?

That campaign every year is something I know the LGBTQI community looks forward to, as far as who are we uplifting, who are we celebrating along with ourselves, but Calvin has done a great job of really highlighting individuals in their journey and in their uniqueness. I think because they’re a brand that’s selling underwear, there’s something that’s so close to the skin, there’s something about having to show up as authentic as you can be, which is very different than any other brand where you’re wearing the seasonal collection. This is something where you’re showing your skin, you’re showing your heart and your soul. For me, the campaign was very important because many years ago it would’ve felt like the scariest thing to ever do, to put myself in a position where people knew that I was gay or to put myself on a billboard where I was showing my body or feeling very vulnerable in that way. But this year I felt strong,  I felt confident, I felt sexy, I felt okay to be seen. And I’ve had different experiences, whether it be on screen or off screen, where people see me. But this was being seen in a different way. It’s like these moments that happened in my life, you get affirmed. The dreamer in you is like “I see myself doing X, Y, Z”. He wasn’t wrong, he was right, he felt it, he saw this moment. I maybe couldn’t articulate what it was when I was younger, but I knew what I wanted to do, that what I wanted to create would be important to someone, that it would mean something to someone. And it starts with me, and then it becomes to other people. 

For Calvin Klein, it was really cool to be in New York City, where I’ve sweat and worked so hard to make the creative things and choices that I’ve been able to make come true. To see that billboard in Soho was really special. And the photo of my head up flexing was a reminder for me. Whenever I see that image, it’s like “You keep going, don’t allow anyone to rock what you know to be true and to get in the way of your purpose”. 

You explore and expand your creativity across various mediums, with one of the recent projects you’ve done being your photojournalism series ‘FLEX(bitch)’, that was exhibited at The Scope Art Show during Art Basel in Miami. Tell us more about this series and topics it delved into, and what impacted your decision to do this photojournalism series.

in addition to writing and producing music since I was young, photography was a big thing for me when I moved to the city. It was how I paid my rent. I would shoot headshot and I would take pictures of friends for their big moments. A lot of people knew me just as a photographer before an actor. So, it was important for me during this time off that I had in between shooting something, to pick up my camera. And it was a project that was just for me. I had this vision of showing duality and understanding my duality between masculine and feminine energy. I think specifically in the black and brown communities, there’s such an extreme idea of what masculinity is supposed to be and feel like and look like. And I think sometimes me being a black man, I can create a new currency of what that looks like, me walking in my truth as a new currency of what that looks like. You see me in these spaces, whether it’s a Met Gala or a campaign or whatever, and it becomes something new to look at. That is a version of a black man who’s in his truth, so the series started with that idea. 

My dad is a pastor and a bodybuilder, so I wanted to unpack that. I think those are two extreme ideas and performative ways of what black men are supposed to look like, so the series was about unpacking what we think masculinity looks like. The definition of flex is to bend, so it was about bending the way that we see things and allowing ourselves to bend. That’s why you have me set up around a bunch of bodybuilders, but wearing kneehigh boots, or that’s why we have this beautiful portrait session I did with Simone in drag selling fish, serving fish. The community knows when you’re serving fish, you’re serving ultimate. But also, I grew up in the South and that is a hustle of selling rib sandwiches and fish sandwiches, so I wanted to kind of show the duality and allow people to see both in the same breath. If you have a feeling or a conflict with one of them, I need you to go internally and unpack what that means for you. Why are you in conflict with seeing the same people in the same spaces doing two slightly different things, but it evokes a feeling.

So, it was flex and then its’ a word bitch. When I grew up, that was the thing people say. And by that, they were like “Don’t be such a girl, don’t be such a b****, don’t be so weak”. In our community, we know work, we serve. That’s the ultimate win, so it was about reclaiming this thing that was used to minimize someone. It’s about bending the first half flex, but then serve in your ultimate, serve in your highest of vibration. It was a beautiful photojournalism experiment that I went on and I was able to premiere it at the Art Basel.

You are also hugely involved in fashion. What does fashion represent in your everyday life, and how would you describe your style?

Fashion for me, it’s storytelling, it’s theatrical, it’s about expressing yourself and learning about yourself. I think you can look at an old photo of yourself from years ago and you go “Well, why was I wearing that? Why was I doing that?” But you believed it so confidently, like you chose to wear that out. And fashion for me, is trying on different energies. Whenever I’m on red carpet or stepping into spaces, I’ve tried to reimagine silhouettes, reimagine what a man is allowed to wear. I allow fashion to be like trying on an energy, trying on a fabric, trying on a silhouette and different silhouettes to make you feel different things. They feel stronger, they make you feel more sensual. When you’re wearing silk, you feel a certain type of way versus wearing denim, so I’ve just been able to play. I allow myself to play, I try to give myself no limitations. 

Sometimes, I’ll try things on and I may have a feeling like I wouldn’t wear this, but then I go “Why wouldn’t I wear this? What is the reason why I wouldn’t wear this?” Sometimes I just don’t like the way it looks on me, but then sometimes I realize there’s an internalized homophobia that I’m trying to unpack as far as what I’ve been conditioned that a man should present itself to look like versus a woman, and not showing your feminine side because that is considered weakness. I think women are the backbone of everything and they are the most powerful creatures, so I love to lean into my femininity and honor that. So yeah, I like to explore and play, and learn more about myself and learn more about designers and the history of fashion. I think it is so interesting and so innovative. A lot of times it is people rebelling against what systems or societies are telling them to be or to look like. And to me, exploring that with fashion is so freeing. 

You kicked off your music campaign with the release of the trailer for a short film you wrote, ‘God is Good’, through which you explore masculinity as a queer black man in America. Tell us more about this journey of yours and the challenges you had to, and still face daily.

Like I mentioned with Flex, my dad was a pastor and I consider myself to be a spiritual person. I think a lot of times in my experience, organized religion can push any outcast away if you’re not by the book belief of what they believe to be an example of Christ or whatever. I’ve had to spend many years really trying to understand if am I allowed to have a spiritual experience, if am I allowed to have a spiritual connection. So this film, ‘God Is Good’, comes from a place of me feeling like sometimes walking this earth feels like an audition. It feels like whether you do good or bad means you go to heaven or hell. And I hope I make it to heaven. I hope I’m doing good, I hope that what I’m creating is coming from a good place and ultimately going to serve good in the world.

But who is the judge? If you grow up religious, you’re taught who God is, but then there’s people in your lives that feel like God. They feel like they have a power or control over you, or what they say makes you feel some type of way, so it was about me exploring that. It was about me talking to God, asking questions. Where I grew up, the Bible is considered black or white, it’s this or that. But if you’re ever looking at black or white, what you’re looking at is a bunch of gray. It’s not just black and it’s not just white, there’s so many hues of gray. And people talk about what happens in the gray. There’s a lot of murky, unanswered questions, so I think this was an experiment about let’s talk about what’s in the gray, let’s talk about the things that we don’t necessarily have a black or white answer for. One of the commandments I remember growing up was honor thy father and thy mother. And I’m honoring thy father and thy mother. I’m presenting masculine and feminine. Ultimately, we don’t choose to be here on this Earth. We just arrive and then we’re told to survive and figure it out. And I really do believe most of us want to do good. We have just been dealt different cards and have different things happen to us in life. 

So in a very long way, ‘God is Good’ was me exploring these questions that I had to God or to the higher power or to people, and creating a new currency for what a black man can look like, what a black man can say, what strength can look like. And it’s something that I independently created with the director C Prinz, who’s a dear friend. We spent our money and invested our time. We shot it in Eastern Europe, which was really interesting. We shot in Latvia and Estonia, and there was some really great locations. It was super ambitious of us to shoot this film because it was a film, but that were also the visuals for the EP. There was a lot of pieces and things that we were shooting, and if anyone like yourself has produced something, trying to do one thing for one day is a lot. We were trying to do eight different things in three days, with a cast of people we had never worked with before. But it was one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve ever experienced. And I think it’s because I had to invest in myself first. I had to put everything on the line first, not knowing what the return would be, but I knew spiritually and emotionally that I need to do this. I need to show myself that I know how to create and that I can create. 

It ended up being one of the most beautiful experiences that I’ve been a part of and people have responded so well to the trailer. We hopefully have some exciting news about where the film will live soon. We’re almost ready to share and I think we’ll be teaming with some really great distribution on the film, and people will be able to see the full form of it. The goal is to take it around the world, to build experientials and to show that art isn’t just one thing. Just like us as humans aren’t one thing. You can have something that’s a music video, also be a short film, also be a monologue, also be a museum piece. I think as artists breaking that ceiling and limitations on who and what we can present ourselves as is so important because then people just begin to create from the most honest place. And that’s when we always see the most beautiful work.

talent JEREMY POPE

photography & art direction DEON HINTON

styling IZAAKE ZUCKERMAN

grooming JAI WILLIAMS

set design VANESSA RAMIREZ

photography assistants ALESSANDRO BUZZETTA & KYLE MANNING

editor TIMI LETONJA

cover design ARTHUR ROELOFFZEN