(photo by Jim Barcus)
There may not be a more colorful singer/songwriter/performer in town than Stephonne Singleton. Fiercely proud of being Black and queer, on stage he embraces lollipop costumes, sequins, revealing lingerie, red stilettos and suggestive gyrations. Having liberated himself, his goal is to liberate the audience. Stephonne makes a spectacle of himself — but has the singular talent to back it up. His voice ranges from breathy and throaty to silky — always sultry, always soulful. His songs are heartfelt and illuminating, often “raw” in style and message. He mashes it all — R&B, rock, jazz, funk, classical, masculine and feminine. His strongest influences are Billie Holiday and Prince, and he strives for their same “honesty of lyrics and emotive quality.”
Stephonne wasn’t always so sure of himself — getting to this point has been a long road. Musical expression and therapy have helped him deal with the meanness and trauma that once surrounded him and caused debilitating self-doubt. His mother has been a constant support.
Growing up in Kansas City, Kansas, he was singing with the adult choir at his Catholic church at age 7 and writing songs in his notebook from age 10. When Stephonne was 14, his father took him to a pawn shop and bought him a guitar that he taught himself to play. Music was always in the house and in the car. He heard Mary J. Blige (one of his mother’s favorites), the Beatles, Luther Vandross, Barbara Streisand, Jill Scott and D’Angelo. He took full advantage of his library card, checking out all kinds of music. Despite his lack of any formal musical education (he admits he was actually “scared of the piano”), he was admitted as a classical and opera student at Benedictine College, where he learned he had “relative pitch,” in some ways more flexible than “perfect pitch.” He conquered his “pianophobia” and went on to earn a master’s degree in entertainment business.
Stephonne became a regular on the stages of Missie B’s and Hamburger Mary’s and performed in “Valley of the Dolls” at the Folly (among many other Late Night Theatre productions). When he appeared last fall in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” for Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City, Kelly Luck of broadwayworld.com described his “solo turn accompanying himself on the bass” as “quite an emotionally moving moment.”
Stephonne has expanded to numerous venues across Kansas City and before the pandemic numbered 40 to 50 performances a year. He put out his first song in 2015 and his first album in 2018, “Caged Bird Sings Songs About Red Beard.” “SIS: Side A” was released in 2020 (his “Want Me” video is available on youtube.com), with two singles following it last year. “SIS: Side B,” a “marriage of rock and R&B,” debuted June 24, 2022. SIS stands for “summoning insatiable spirits.” He’s performed in Chicago, Nashville, New York City and more, and garnered a loyal and appreciative audience of fans and critics — including an international following through online streaming — both for his vocals and song stylings. In September 2020, a headline in “The Pitch” read: “Stephonne is the future of KC’s Sound.”
When Stephonne began writing songs seriously as a teen, he would buy beats and learn to make them before going to the studio. As he progressed, his ear (that could hear every instrument) and his formal music education allowed him to scribble down lyrics, pair them together to demo, and direct his band. The melody and the lyrics usually come to him at the same time, and he then adds the chords and keys. And not in the traditional “145” chord progression. His music is as original as he is; his philosophy is to “give music space to breathe, discover and reveal itself.” Believing “the music industry encourages monotony,” he’s motivated to blow that apart.
Stephonne has moved on from the “gloom and doom” of some of his earlier work to incorporate joy and hope. And, he says, “I’m done watering down and censoring myself.” His music is both “non-genre conforming,” “non-gender conforming” and highly cathartic. He’s long past the “impostor syndrome” he suffered for a period.
Stephonne is a 2021-22 Charlotte Street Studio Resident, which has been a blessing, offering him a space to create and rehearse with his band, The Gay Rodeo. He’s wildly enthusiastic about his bandmates, Ahafia Jurkiewicz-Miles, Benjamin Hart, Spencer Thut and Mikala Petillo, and how they all gel. Adam McKee and Johnny Hamil have also played essential roles in his recordings and performances.
Spring and summer 2022 found Stephonne and The Gay Rodeo at Manor Records, The Folly Theatre Lounge, Lawrence Pride, the Crossroads Music Fest and Lemonade Park with his “Tribute to Sade.” He hopes to develop additional such tributes to other “current but timeless” artists — perhaps Erykah Badu and Jill Scott. He said he dreams of playing the Uptown, the Kauffman and the Midland. A new single, “Rocket in My Pocket” with Shawn Stewart, just arrived and is now available on all streaming platforms. Stephonne hopes to release a another new single with The Gay Rodeo this month too.
With his mom, The Gay Rodeo, his many fans, and his 12-year-old beagle-mix, Maverick Michael Harper Singleton Cook, beside him, Singleton just might make them all happen. “If not,” he says, “I’ll just combust.”
See Stephonne and The Gay Rodeo with Miss Boating at The Ship, 1221 Union Ave., Sept. 22. For more information, www.theshipkc.com.