Billy Porter Says New Single Is a "Call to Arms" for People to Vote in 2020

Billy Porter - Portraits before heading to The 77th Annual Golden Globe Awards - H 2019
Santiago Felipe/Getty Images

The star opens up about covering the iconic protest song "For What It's Worth," getting people to the polls in November and his thoughts on Trump as the country continues to fight the novel coronavirus pandemic: "It's his administration's fault where we are."

Billy Porter has always been a "very political person," he says.

It's no surprise then that his latest single was recorded with the intent to get people to vote in the upcoming presidential election. The multihyphenate star on Friday dropped his cover of Buffalo Springfield's iconic 1966 track "For What It's Worth," often interpreted as an anti-war anthem.

"Back in the day, protest music was a big thing. Being political as an artist, taking a stand, having a voice, using your platform to speak truth to power — that was a thing. And I wanted that to be a thing again, because that's the only way I can contribute," Porter tells The Hollywood Reporter. "That's the only way I know how. I'm not a lawyer. I'm not a politician. I'm not a community organizer. But I'm an artist and if I can use this platform that I have to make a change and make a difference, I want to."

The Emmy-winning Pose actor says that it's more important than ever for Americans to cast their ballots in November as the country fights the novel coronavirus pandemic under President Donald Trump's head-scratching direction. In 2018, Trump fired the U.S.' pandemic response team, established by Barack Obama in 2015. And, just this week, Trump suggested an "injection" of disinfectant into an individual infected with COVID-19 as a possible treatment for the virus.

"We would not be in this position had that task force been in place. Period. The end. It's Trump's fault," an aggrieved Porter says. "It's his administration's fault where we are — not the actual pandemic, but how it's been dealt with. It's the fault of the administration that's in fucking office right now."

Below, Porter talks more with THR about his iteration of "For What It's Worth," its new meaning in 2020 and his thoughts about one day running for office himself.

Tell me how this single came to be. What inspired you to cover this song?

I'm a very political person. I'm a very political artist. I always have been since the beginning. I came up during the AIDS crisis, so it's in my DNA. And I was trying to figure out what I could do to speak to what's going on in the world right now, and be of some hope, comfort and inspiration. My manager, Bill Butler, years ago brought the song me and said, "What about this one?" And I thought, "Yeah, this is one of the most iconic." That guitar riff has been used in almost every damn war movie I've ever seen.

When did you record it?

I recorded it the day after the Emmys, Sept. 23, I think. We knocked it out in one four-hour session.

Everyone from Cher to Ozzy Osbourne has covered "For What It's Worth." What's your personal relationship to the song?

I have loved it forever. I haven't followed all of those covers. But my perspective on it came from this news cycle, the way news is transmitted these days to the public. I find it, especially in times of crisis, to be very much about the statement, very much about the complaint, very much about the observation and not a whole lot of talk about how to solve it. There's not a whole lot of talk about how to move forward. And so, what I wanted to do was to take the observative perspective of this song and turn it into action. And that's where the vamp at the end comes in, where I talk about how we need to really "make a change." Because as a black queer man in America, I've seen a lot of change, but I haven't seen a lot of change for good. As we've learned these past three years, all that change that we fought for is over. So, we need change for good.

What lyric in the song feels particularly impactful to you in 2020?

"Paranoia strikes deep, into your life it will creep." That's the line, right now, specifically. Honey, there's a plague going through the land. And there's a lot of blame being placed and a lot of inaction that led us to where we are. Let's remember. The whole goal was to roll back anything Obama did. They shut down the pandemic task force years ago. We would not be in this position had that task force been in place. Period. The end. It's Trump's fault. It's his administration's fault where we are — not the actual pandemic, but how it's been dealt with. It's the fault of the administration that's in fucking office right now.

How do you hope your version of "For What It's Worth" inspires people to vote in this year's election?

It's a call to arms. When us Democrats actually get out there and vote, there's no gerrymandering, there's no voter suppression that can stop us. Historically, we oftentimes don't go out — and that's what the other side depends on. They try to do everything that they can to make people stay at home. Get off your ass and go vote. People have already died for us to have the right to vote. It's historical. It's documented. We're so cavalier about it: "Oh, I have to leave work. Oh, I have to stand in line." Yeah, people were actually killed for standing in line and trying to vote. We don't remember that part.

Last fall, the Williams Institute published a report that said one fifth of LGBTQ Americans are not registered to vote. As a beacon for the community, what is your message to those who still have yet to register?

Wake up! What the fuck is your problem? Wake up! We can't make no change or do nothing if we can’t cast our votes. Period, the end. That's how it goes.

With Joe Biden being the clear Democratic nominee, who do you hope he chooses as a running mate?

I think it should be a woman. I do love Elizabeth Warren, I love Kamala Harris, I love Stacey Abrams.

Being so politically minded, have you ever thought about running for office?

No, because you have to lie too much. And you can't cuss. I cuss too much. I'm mad right now and I don't give a fuck. I just don't care. They'd have to bleep me too much. I'm working on that side of myself, but I don't have it yet. I'm working on calming down. I'm working on that, but that's not who I am right now. I mean, maybe someday in the future when I can look at evil people and not want to kill them.

Your version of "For What It's Worth" is simple but also powerful. When it came to the production, what kind of vibe were you going for?

I just wanted the production to support the lyrics and support the voice, my voice that's singing it.

What is next for you on the music front?

I'm signing a new record deal and I'm going into the disco, funk, house, '70s music space. I'm working on an album that's going to be uplifting, inspirational, message music full of joy, hope, compassion and love. I'm trying to pick up where Sylvester left off. We haven't seen a black queer musician cross over into the mainstream since him — not that I know of, at least — and that's what I'm trying to do. It's what I've been trying to do for 30 years. That's my hope.

Are you hoping to eventually tour with your new music?

I would love to go on the road with it. It would be really fun and interesting to go on tour with this newfound position that I have. Where I'm at in my career, it's a different kind of space that I'd be able to perform in concert-wise. It's expansive now and I'm looking forward to it. I'm looking forward to doing my stadium tour, boo — once all this coronavirus mess dies down, of course.

How is music fulfilling for you in a way that acting isn't?

Acting is about me showing up and being a brilliant interpreter of other people's material and becoming someone else. When I sing my own music, I get to be me, Billy. It's all me. It's totally different.

Your show Pose centers on the HIV/AIDS crisis. As someone who lived through that, what parallels do you see between that time and the current pandemic?

The reactive terror is the same. The misinformation, the disinformation — that sometimes feels purposeful — is the same. The vilifying of certain communities as a result of this pandemic is the same. While it originated in China, it's not a "China virus." It's a virus. It just so happened that it started there, but that’s not how viruses and diseases work. You don't label it "the China virus." It doesn't have a preference for any one type of person and, as we've seen, we need to be paying attention to it all over the world.

Times are heavy, but how are you staying positive throughout all of this?

I get to hang out with my hubby, who I haven't seen in like two years. (Laughs.) And I'm writing a lot, which is keeping me sane. I'm writing a memoir and a children's picture book to accompany it. I just finished writing a pilot for a series I've been developing. And I'm writing a musical. I wake up every morning at 5 a.m. and write something. And then the rest of the day is the rest of the day. I just have to get that writing part in because, as a multihyphenate, I don't get the luxury of simply just being able to have five hours in the day to write. This is very rare for me. I'm trying to take full advantage.

For those who are feeling hopeless right now — whether due to the state of politics or the pandemic — what advice do you have?

I'm back in yoga. I'm meditating. I'm reading Buddhist writings. I come from the religiosity of it all, so I'm trying to reconnect again to that part of myself. I've always been very spiritual, and I will forever be spiritual. But when it comes to spiritual practice, I've been using this time investigating where I want to go. But I'd tell people to find a meditation app and calm your nerves — because that's what I'm doing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.