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Music

Keiynan Lonsdale gives us hope for what pop music can do

Keiynan Lonsdale has been starring in teen dramas and covertly making slow jams for years. Now, with his new single 'Rainbow Dragon', he's showing that he's got a vision for who he's going to be going forward: a queer, anime-inspired triple threat who wants to break down every binary imaginable

Among his previous musical ventures and scenes from his TV shows, there’s a really prevalent theme to how interviews with Keiynan Lonsdale tend to be sold on YouTube:

"Keiynan Lonsdale Interview – coming out, Love Simon, anxiety, music, mixed race"

"Keiynan Lonsdale on How Coming Out Changed His Life"

"Love, Simon's Keiynan Lonsdale Says Falling In Love With A Friend Sparked His Journey"

"How 'Love, Simon' Inspired Star Keiynan Lonsdale to Come Out Publicly"

It’s incredibly easy, it seems, to find out everything you want to know about Keiynan Lonsdale coming out. But it’s also incredibly hard for anyone to seemingly understand what exactly he came out as. Lonsdale – who rose to international prominence as the love interest in major gay teen romance movie Love, Simon – revealed on Instagram in 2017 that, "I like to change my hair. I like to take risks with how I dress. I like girls and I like guys (yes)." Since then he’s been called pansexual, or bisexual, despite him saying he prefers not to label what he is. When I asked him at the start of our phone chat what he’d like to be defined as, he chose “queer” and thanked me for asking: as if nobody else had bothered to check. A lot of people seem to want to hear Keiynan Lonsdale open up. But the thing is: he’s being open. The question is whether people are choosing to listen to what he has to say.

Lonsdale, an Australian artist born to a Nigerian father and Australian mother, grew up loving dance. His first acting roles are very focused on this: Razzle Dazzle: A Journey Into Dance in 2007, a regular role on the Aussie teen drama Dance Academy. Then he caught the YA wave with a role in the Divergent films and got a big break in the surprisingly vast DC Comics TV metaverse helmed by Greg Berlanti. Next: Love, Simon playing the charming, quiet Bram Greenfeld, who comes out online under the pseudonym "Blue". Since then he’s become such a fixture of queer culture that he even earned the ultimate badge of honour: he was a thirsted-after judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race alongside Gus Kenworthy.

But throughout his acting career, Lonsdale has been producing music. His previous singles are slow jams perfect for getting high, cooking brunch, coming down, getting laid. We were speaking on the launch of his latest single, “Rainbow Dragon”, the first from his upcoming maiden album, and it was a very different side of the artist than he had previously offered up: he dances, he raps, he’s in drag and he’s not, he serves braggadocio and verve and rage as well as kindness and humour. He mentions quitting his role on CW's The Flash with the same wryness Beyoncé joked that, “Sometimes shit go down when it's a billion dollars on an elevator.”

It's a bold statement of a single and it was never intended to be the lead. “It was the first one that I wrote for the album, but I realised that it presented an opportunity that I got to showcase a lot of different sides to me,” he explained, “and that felt like the right thing to do for the first visual.”

Lonsdale’s humility, manners and ASMR baritone belie someone who is fully aware the world sees him as a very polite celebrity. He didn’t plan to rap on “Rainbow Dragon” when working on it, but it happened. “It was when we were creating and the video was getting made, you say, ‘Oh, I guess this is the artist I’m becoming.’ Once you can see it, you can learn more about yourself,” he explained. It felt odd to hear him be as audacious as he is there: “I realised I could eat some ass if I wanted to. I could smoke some grass if I wanted to. I could quit The Flash if i wanted to.” But that doesn’t mean that the personas in the song aren’t part of who he is.

“I feel it was important for myself to know that you can be me: polite and respectful, but it’s also important to stand in your power,” he explained. “Sometimes you can be a little badarse and not to be afraid of that.”

The song feels like a turning point for the artist Lonsdale wants to be: he’s cleared out his Instagram and now the only images are of looks inspired by the video. There he is in a dress and braids. There he is in a pastel blue wig dressed like a Weimar Republic cabaret performer goes to Berghain. “I think I needed to start fresh, just for myself,” he explained. “I just wanted to cement a new beginning.” They are bold looks for any artist to choose to display. He’s had a tough time with Instagram in the past: it’s not only the place he came out, but a place where he explored showing images of his body even when he wasn’t feeling especially confident. “Dance naked, lose followers, gain leaders,” he wrote beneath a now-deleted post, “I’m not at all at the confidence level to be neked in public lol, maybe one day i hope.”

© Matt Winkelmeyer/MG19

Are the rules of social media, I wondered, different when you’re queer as well as famous? “The rules were not necessarily equal and people’s perceptions can often be skewed to think one thing is maybe inappropriate, but if they see it in a straight form they might think it’s standard and fine,” he said. “That’s the reality. But it’s also changing a lot.”

Lonsdale is becoming an artist with a very clear, very queer, aesthetic: when he collected his MTV Award award for Best Kiss he turned up with a third eye on his forehead, dressed in a flowing white skirt and what looks like a golden sherwani jacket. I mentioned that before he’d cleared out his Instagram, I’d seen him post images of the Pharaoh Atem from the anime Yu-Gi-Oh. He says he grew up on Saturday morning animes: “When I go back and watch episodes here and there, I really am attracted to the spiritual nature of the show.” When he started working on the new album the producer, Louis Futon, had grown up watching the same shows and playing the same video games. “That otherworldly quality is there,” said Lonsdale, “and I try to bring that to the visuals as well.”

Anime is present in the artistic choices of queer and straight artists alike: queer rapper Aja plays with anime imagery all the time; Lizzo has previously posted videos dressed as Sailor Moon; Ariana Grande has a tattoo of Eevee; and even Zayn Malik and Gigi Hadid played Pokémon cards in their Instagram stories. But it’s amazing to see an artist draw so brazenly from such an undersung cultural cornerstone: you could see it, too, in his wildly under-discussed Met Gala look from this year. In a year when men heavily under-camped, Lonsdale came out dressed like a late-game Final Fantasy boss. It was a sign that an artist with a powerful vision was emerging.

“It was a collaboration. I had one week to prepare,” he explained. He said he wanted to do something extreme, beautiful and colourful. That’s when he saw the dress by Manish Arora. “I knew if I was going to attend, and I was so fortunate to be invited, and it was that theme. I really wanted to live it up as much as I could,” he explained. It seemed odd, to me, that little credit was given to men like him who really explored the theme. “My whole life I’ve been terrified to do anything like that. It was important for me, in my own growth and self acceptance, to do that.”

Maybe it’s time – with this new, confident queer artist out here serving looks and giving you a triple threat – to stop talking about when he realised who he might be and start talking instead about how he's showing us who he is. “It’s been a lot of things. It’s been really beautiful and very enlightening. And at other times it’s been very challenging,” he says when I ask what it’s like navigating being a young, queer artist. “You need to be able to make mistakes, and explore whatever you want.

“Because we’ve never been allowed to have a balanced amount of queer entertainers in the public eye, on the front line, people can often misunderstand the intentions,” he explained. It seem's that the chance to act and make music and dance all at once is just another binary for Lonsdale to shatter, another one that he doesn’t need people labelling. “One hundred per cent,” he said. “I think anyone should be able to create what they desire. That can help to uplift and hold up a mirror to culture and society.”

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