Inspiration can strike almost anywhere. It comes through a dream, through an experience, through a thought in your head. Sometimes, inspiration comes to you in a coffee shop. For newcomer Kodi James, it was a Saturday morning in a coffee shop while researching the AIDS epidemic that sparked the inspiration for his first project.
Kodi’s debut single is “Elizabeth Taylor” which is as unapologetic, vulnerable, and genuine as Elizabeth Taylor herself. “Creating and releasing queer content is crucial at this moment in time. The cultural and political pendulum has shifted so greatly in the last couple of years which has ignited and promoted so much ignorance and bigotry. While Elizabeth may no longer be with us, her fight and legacy will always be relevant,” Kodi explains when I ask him how this song introduces him and resonates with where we are now and where we have been.
He continues, “It is so important that we look to history and understand the shoulders that we stand upon as inspiration for how we can and should respond to the increasing hatred we are seeing in our everyday lives.”
He’s noted before in a previous interview the determination he has to not only defy binaries but challenge the narrow-minded. From having to break free of the homophobia in his upbringing and finding a community/space where he could find acceptance in being free to express and embrace himself, looking back at what’s been done in the past and what that means for the present and the future is ever-present with Kodi along with his interest with intention and impact. “In hindsight, I think the name recognition of ‘Elizabeth Taylor’ is endearing and makes one happy,” he reflects when I ask about how the upbeat instrumental juxtaposes the almost desperation for love in the lyrics. “There is a message and story within the lyrics and video that provide the balance you speak of,” he adds. “The video amplifies this message, but the song is about realizing one’s self-worth in the midst of so much turmoil; realizing that we are all queens much like Miss Taylor.”
“Before we even finished writing/producing the song, I knew I wanted to play an androgynous Elizabeth and recreate iconic moments from her career,” he gives a shoutout to Julian Buchan for his work in directing the video and bringing Kodi’s vision to life to the caliber that he did. “It was a very strategic decision to choose the most recognizable moments from her unmatchable career and put our own spin on them.”
It is so important that we look to history and understand the shoulders that we stand upon as inspiration for how we can and should respond to the increasing hatred we are seeing in our everyday lives.
The video also holds a special place in Kodi’s heart from his grandma visiting the set. “She is my best friend and greatest inspiration,” Kodi expresses with gratitude. “She’s lived a very traditional and simple life, but she’s a closeted queen and I truly hope that I’m successful solely for the purpose of giving her the life that she always secretly dreamt of but never felt worthy of even saying aloud. She’s naturally a peace-maker and I like to cause a raucous, so we balance each other out quite perfectly,” he gives love to his grandma.
With the debut of this song and video came positive response (including from the estate of Elizabeth Taylor, but more on that in a moment) which Kodi couldn’t be more grateful for sharing at the time of our interview that he’s cried more in these last two weeks than he has in the last five years. “Every artist hopes for such a positive response, but you just never know in this game how things are going to turn out. I’ve been trying to be as present as possible to take it all in, which can sometimes prove difficult as an independent artist trying to cover all the bases of what an entire team would typically cover, but I can’t complain at all,” Kodi reassures. “I think the hustle of being an independent artist, starting from the ground up, curates an awareness and appreciation for how each facet of this industry works that will help in the long-run.”
Kodi’s awareness of the industry and what his place can be is ever-present throughout our interview; Kodi James is looking to change lives and make space. “Elizabeth was always present and aware of her worth, platform, and the impact she could have. From the early days of her career, she fought and made it clear that she was not going to be put into a box and be marginalized for any possible reason,” he recounts the moment that Elizabeth uttered her first curse word at MGM Co-Founder Louis B. Mayer for the way he disrespected her and her mother. “One has to understand that for a woman in the 40s and 50s to speak their mind in that sort of manner was revolutionary. From being the first woman to be paid $1 million for a single film in Hollywood [with Cleopatra] to spearheading the fight against the AIDS epidemic, Elizabeth has always been one to set the standard. She is everything I want to represent as an artist and public figure,” he explains.
When I ask him about the Elizabeth Taylor estate reaching out to him and sending him a beautiful ring in support, he notes how his feet “have still not touched the ground from this happening.” To set the scene for how it began, we have to go back to June during a pride fundraiser for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation where Kodi got the chance to talk with members of the family and foundation. “Once we had a draft of the music video ready, I sent a few emails explaining the project and requesting permission to use some of Elizabeth’s audio for the credits as well as doing a plug for donations to the foundation at the end of the music video.” Unexpectedly, Kodi received a response approving his request and pledging support for his work. “It’s extremely difficult to put into words how incredibly validating and special having the stamp of approval from her foundation, estate, and family is.”
As a music artist, Kodi admits to being inspired by modernizing the sounds of the 70s and 80s. But also being inspired by Classic Hollywood and wanting to incorporate that era to now especially shedding importance on prioritizing diversity and inclusion. I mention how Classic Hollywood is almost contradictory in the way that it’s carried on by being a staple of Queer Culture despite its efforts onscreen to sideline Queerness and Black and Brownness. Kodi agrees with me. “I also think it’s important to note that Queer stories have always been there, but they usually were silenced,” he adds. “Classic Hollywood stories and socialites are embedded in the hearts and minds of our culture. So when we retell these stories that people are familiar with–including marginalized communities–it stirs the pot in the best way possible and forces one to engage in and understand a perspective that they might not have otherwise,” Kodi responds when I ask him how he personally insert himself into what Classic Hollywood brings into artistry and how he’s interested in reinventing it.
If the root of one’s message is not stemming from love, I disregard it.
Kodi’s road to here steered from different outlets. In terms of his catalyst, he credits it as being his form of escapism when he was a child. “I grew up in a very abusive and toxic home and community. When I would sing, I discovered that it brought healing to myself and those around me. So from a very young age, I knew that music would be a major factor in my life in some way, shape, or form.”
At that point, he was a pastor’s kid singing in the church choir, which is often an entry point for artists but can also be conflicting based on what that church upholds in terms of binaries and acceptance. When I ask about it, Kodi admits that he no longer identifies or finds personal value in organized religion, “[But,] I do consider myself a spiritual person,” he clarifies. “And though I have not touched a bible in years, one verse that I will always believe in is 1 John 4:8, ‘God is love.’ And if the root of one’s message is not stemming from love, I disregard it,” he says simply.
Eventually, Kodi would go on to studying theater in college where he would himself falling in love with making pop music. “Theater is a multifaceted endeavor that requires one to be present, connected and aware in every aspect at all times. I believe a background in the performing arts prepares you for this specific industry as well as for life itself.” When I ask him what would be some dream roles, he already has his eyes set on some heavy-hitters. “I have this fantasy of playing The Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera whenever they decide to do a live-version for television. Many entitled thespians and opera enthusiasts give Phantom the side-eye, but it was my first touring and Broadway production I attended and will always hold a special place in my heart,” he defends his choice also throwing his name in to play gender-reversed takes of Miss Hannigan (Annie), Dolly Levi (Hello, Dolly!), and Ursula (The Little Mermaid) on Broadway.
Being free to express yourself stems from knowing who you are and understanding your worth.
So carrying a background in gospel and progressing to musical theater, how did Kodi land on pop for his own personal music? “No pun intended, but pop music is the most popular and influential platform within the realm of music. I knew that if I was going to do this, I wanted to do it in the grandest way possible–and the pop genre is the avenue to do so,” he starts when I ask. But making a splash for Kodi is more about more than just how big the splash could be, it’s also about genuinely making a difference, “I also noticed from a young age that there wasn’t another male in the pop realm that I identified with, so it has been a conscious decision to be the pop artist that I wish I had growing up.”
He keeps us in suspense about what we can expect with his upcoming music giving us instead, the tease that he’s just getting started with the visuals, the songs, and the concepts all being very exciting.
“Much like every other artist, I’m extremely hard on myself and have certain milestones I’d have to achieve before I will have felt like I’ve ‘made it’,” Kodi explains sharing that a few of those things include being signed to a record label, being a guest judge on RuPaul, and meeting Oprah. For now, however, he’s living in the moment and taking that in, “But being known by Miss Taylor’s family, foundation, and the estate is a pretty astounding and unexpected start.”
Kodi as an artist and a person aims to explore the joys of allowing and celebrating self-expression. Which in and of itself is what pop music is typically meant to embody and celebrate. When I ask him what’s required for his own self-expression and liberation as he makes this effort, he begins as a way to close out our interview, “Being free to express yourself stems from knowing who you are and understanding your worth.”
“Once you know and claim your worth,” he says, “other’s opinions are null and void and you are free to dance.”
Kodi James Mini-Playlist For Readers [Listen Here]:
“I have been obsessed with the leading ladies of old country music lately. So I think a little Pasty Cline, Dolly Parton, and Loretta Lynn would do these readers some good. For the longest time, I was resentful of country music because I associated it with conservatism which I felt like I didn’t have a place in. But I had a bit of an epiphany that if we want to enjoy and be a part of something that traditionally alienates us, we have to claim it… and maybe I’m implying an interest in doing a country cross-over album down the road. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
“You Ain’t Woman Enough” – Loretta Lynn
“Dumb Blonde” – Dolly Parton
“Rose Garden” – Lynn Anderson
“She’s Got You” – Pasty Cline
“Lovesick Blues” – Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, and Patsy Cline
“I Fall to Pieces” – Patsy Cline
“Elizabeth Taylor” is available on all streaming platforms.
(photo cred: TBA)