Alex Boyé discusses finding, embracing his racial, religious identity

Last year, singer Alex Boyé appeared in the film “Saturday’s Warrior” in what might be considered a notable role, given his black skin: He played an authoritative celestial being in a Mormon concept of heaven.

“Halle-freakin-lujah, right?” Boyé said in an interview earlier this year. “It had nothing to do with me. It was (creator) Lex de Azevedo. He said, ‘I want you to be in “Saturday’s Warrior.” ‘ And I was automatically thinking of ‘Saturday’s Warrior,’ just thinking, you know, it was very milky and vanilla, you know what I mean? Excuse the term, but I … thought, ‘Where am I going to fit in this whole thing?’ “

But de Azevedo pitched to Boyé that he wanted him to play the Heavenly Patron character.

“And I’m like, ‘Wow,’ “ Boyé said. “All right, let’s do it.”

Depictions of heaven in films produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (and its members) have largely reflected the predominance of whiteness in the church’s American population, and although church leaders today decry racism, Mormon scripture includes passages that present dark skin as a curse that can, at times, be lifted by God.

Nevertheless, Boyé was quick to point out that in his mind, the presence of a black man in a Mormon heaven is exactly what he would expect.

“Ideally, the place is full of them,” he said, laughing. “And all other colors too. You know what I mean? Not just one variation or one flavor. So it was definitely cool to do that. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to do (the role).”

A multi-faceted identity

As a performer, Boyé embraces his own varied background. Having had homes both in England and the United States, with Nigerian parents, and as a Mormon, Boyé’s music reflects each part of his kaleidoscopic identity.

Putting on various parts of his cultural identity at once is something Boyé is accustomed to — in his music, but also in his personal life. For example, when talking with his Yoruba-speaking mother.

“She hardly speaks English, in fact,” he said. “She has a very, very strong accent, so I have to even speak to her, when I respond to her, I have to respond to her with a strong African accent, or else she doesn’t understand me. It’s hilarious.”

Boyé was momentarily homeless as a child, after his mother moved back from London to Nigeria, where she grew up. When he moved in with foster parents — first a white couple, then black — each added something to his developing musical tastes.

“(The first foster parents) kind of introduced me to, at the age of 11, 12, 13, to Phil Collins and Genesis, and you know, Elton John and Billy Joel. And then I kind of ran away from there and I ended up being in a foster home with black foster parents, and they introduced me to Bob Marley and Motown and all the black artists, so it’s kind of interesting because I noticed that I feel the influences in the music that I do.”

Boyé was a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and on Friday and Saturday, he will headline the choir’s Pioneer Day concerts on Temple Square, replacing “Hamilton” star Christopher Jackson, who had to pull out last week due to a scheduling conflict.

In his solo career as a musician, Boyé has infused a number of covers of popular songs with influences of African sounds, starting with Coldplay’s “Paradise,” which he did with ThePianoGuys, with the song, “Paradise (Peponi) African Style,” which he layered with Swahili and Yoruba.

The idea to, as he calls it, “Africanize” American pop songs, first came from ThePianoGuys, Boyé said.

“I’m like, ‘I’m from England. What do I know about Swahili? I have no stinkin’ idea,’ “ he said. “So I started going to the library and getting these, you know, Rosetta Stone tapes, and learning Swahili. Failed miserably.”

That’s when Boyé called his mother.

“I figured that if she gave me some of (Yoruba) to use, they wouldn’t know the difference anyway,” he said. “So then I remember going into the studio and I started singing in Swahili and Yoruba and stuff, and the craziest thing is that it came so naturally, and it was almost eerie, because I had never really done that before, but it came so natural, and that was the day that I realized, ‘You know what? There’s so much more to you that you have to embrace.’ “

African, Mormon, Utahn

Putting African influences into his music was something Boyé’s mother had been advocating for years, he said.

“I’m like, ‘Mom, I live in Utah, no one wants to listen to African music,’ “ he said. “So from then on, I remember I called my mom after the success of that song with the ‘Peponi’ song, and she was like, ‘You stupid boy, I told you, 20 years I’ve been telling you to do this, you’re acting like it’s some kind of revelation.’ So I guess the moral of the story is listen to your mother, but she always said, ‘Just be you. Embrace everything about who you are.’ “

Boyé’s next album will be called “DNA,” furthering the themes of embracing multiple parts of his background.

“It’s really all about the different cultures that I’ve embraced or are a part of me,” he said.

One signature part of Boyé’s look is a white mark he paints on his face. He said it is a reference to African cultures — and also to the slave trade.

“When the families would be split, you know, a family member would be sent to Spain, another family would be sent to another part of Europe, sent to America, all over the world, and you’re never gonna see your family again,” Boyé said. “That’s it. But the mothers had this ingenious idea of marking their kids’ faces with blades … in the hope that one day, if they actually did see them, they would recognize them.

“So when I marked my face, it was like symbolic of a hail to my culture and my mom, but also saying, it’s kind of funny, because you see all these black guys on TV and everything, and I get confused for some. People call me CeeLo, R. Kelly, or whatever, but whenever they see the white mark on my face, they know exactly who it is.”

Boyé said that when he moved to Utah, he had to discover his identity yet again.

“I started taking upon me the Utah culture and identity,” he said. “It was a struggle for me, because then I was just like, ‘What am I? Am I a Utah kid because I’m Mormon? Does that mean that I’m Utah culture?’ And then I meet people from outside of Utah who are Mormons, and it’s a different culture, and then I got confused again. And then I slightly just had to relax and just say, ‘Look. Find out whatever it is that you’re comfortable with and stay that.’ “

When it comes to his Mormon identity, Boyé’s recent single and music video, “We All Bleed the Same,” was made as an expression of his religious identity.

“Every time you tell someone that you’re Mormon, then all these things, automatically they think, ‘Well, you hate gays, and you’ve got a problem with black people,’ and you know, there’s all these things, ‘You’re a polygamist,’ or whatever, I’m talking about people from outside, so my thing was just really, to just say who I am in this, in my space,” he said.

“I felt it was really important, for example, to have two gay people holding hands in my video,” he continued. “And that was something that I knew that was not going to sit right with a lot of my conservative Mormon friends, but I didn’t care, because it’s not about them, this is just about me. … So to me, that was what that was, to say, ‘Well who’s Alex Boyé?’ If someone ever asks, ‘Who’s Alex Boyé?’ ‘He’s Mormon, he’s a black dude,’ ‘Well what else about him?’ I’d just show them that four-minute video. That’s pretty much what it is to me.”

A declaration of identity: ‘I’m a Mormon’

Boyé was featured predominantly in the early push of the LDS Church’s “I’m a Mormon” promotional campaign. Through that effort, Boyé saw his face in many surprising places, including in the same London neighborhood where he was once homeless and hungry.

Boyé’s face could be seen on a billboard in Times Square in New York City, on double-decker buses in London — even in the playbill for “The Book of Mormon” musical, where the church had purchased advertising.

“(It) was real trippy,” he said. “Trey Parker and you know, the writers, they went on ‘Jimmy Kimmel,’ and they were just talking about (the show). And you know Jimmy Kimmel, he just rips everything to shreds, but in a funny way. … And he was like, ‘Well, what’s the reaction from the Mormons to your musical?’ And they were like, ‘Well, they’ve been really good. We’re just telling our story,’ and stuff like that.

“And he said, ‘Well here’s something that really impressed me: You look in the playbill, and there’s a picture there, and it says, “Now that you’ve seen the play, go read the book.” ‘ And then there’s a picture. So they show a picture of me with this big, cheesy grin, with a Book of Mormon in my hand, and he puts it on the table. And then he says, ‘I didn’t know there were black people in the Mormon church,’ and then they all started laughing. And so people started sending me this, and I’m like, ‘This is flippin’ hilarious.’ ”

To hear the full conversation on the “What Say Ye?” podcast, visit whatsayyepod.com or heraldextra.com/podcast.

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