Bartees Strange: Opera Singer, Football Player, Genre Breaker

This is No Cover, a production of KOSU and Oklahoma State University and hosted by Matthew Viriyapah. On this episode is Bartees Strange.

One of Bartees’ fears is just being one thing.

Born in England, Bartees Cox Jr. grew up in a military family that bounced around from place to place until they settled down in Mustang, Oklahoma. His mother is an opera singer and he sang in church choirs and operettas, before taking up football.

He even planned to walk-on at the University of Oklahoma. Things changed, but for most of his life, he’s felt like he has been forced to just do and be one thing at a time.

Now as a musician, he released his debut LP Live Forever, where he wants his songs to be able to continue the conversation started by artists like Tyler, The Creator.

Why do we have these lowkey racist specifications for how we classify art?

On Opera

When people ask, “What’s your first instrument?,” mine would probably be singing. My mom’s a singer. She also sang in churches a lot all over Oklahoma and I sang in all those churches too.

I actually sang at the Cimmaron Circuit Opera company, which is an opera company based in Norman that my mom I think helped found with the late baritone Thomas Carey, who was a Black baritone that taught at OU for a long time that a lot of people don’t talk about.

That was a big chunk of my young life, performing in those. But I definitely wasn’t afraid of singing on stage after that, because I was always performing at a young age and I grew up with so many performers. It was just a part of being alive.

On Mustang, Oklahoma

I feel like race is a huge factor in a lot of spots in Oklahoma. Like at my high school, there were a handful of Black kids… and it was a really tenuous time. I remember, there was a house back behind from where we lived. And there’s this guy… and he had a confederate flag draped over the entirety of the house. And it was like rumored he was a Klansman.

You’re just always surrounded by fear and pressure. And you know, we played football so we were just high visibility people.

I think it’s like really great that the song (“Mustang”) is getting shared. And people like it. And I love that when people see it, they see like Mustang. That’s just where I’m from. That’s who I am.

I always was running from Oklahoma.

I had all of these negative connotations. But as I got older, I realized that the things that kind of separated me from people or made me like shine or do well at something was actually from things I learned from when I was in Oklahoma.

So I thought, how appropriate would it be to lead the first single to be this is who I am and this is where I’m from like proudly.

On ‘genre boxes’

One of my fears is I don’t want to ever be one thing. That’s kind of something I was always forced to do. I’ve always felt like, “Oh I’m going to play football, and that’s just what I’m going to do because I’ll fit in that way and my life is just going to be a lot easier if I keep my head down and do that thing.”

And I feel like people just expect Black people to just do like one thing. I don’t know. I hope there’s a lot of Black people nodding their heads in silence hearing that.

It’s very easy to be pigeonholed as a Black artist. And I don’t want that for my music. I want to stretch my music and put out things that are great and not be like hurt, because it doesn’t fit into a traditional pop white standard.

Kind of like that Tyler, The Creator record, the last two, Igor and Flower Boy. Those are like pop records in a big way. And it started an interesting conversation. I wanted to make something that continued that conversation. Like why do we have these lowkey racist specifications with how we classify art?

We need to rethink how we’re doing it. We’ve got countless examples over in just the last two years of artists breaking genre lines and the exciting future it paints for music.

Music featured in this episode:

  1. Bartees Strange – Jalousy
  2. Thomas Carey – Hold On
  3. D’Oyly Carte Opera Company – For He Is An English Man
  4. Bartees Strange – Going Going
  5. Bartees Strange – Mustang
  6. The Antlers – Epilogue
  7. The National – Fake Empire
  8. The National – Mr. November
  9. Bartees Strange – Mr. November
  10. TV On The Radio – Wolf Like Me
  11. Bartees Strange ft. Lizzie No – Get Over It
  12. Bartees Strange – Boomer
  13. Bartees Strange – Far
  14. Bartees Strange – Fallen For You
  15. Bartees Strange – In A Cab
  16. Bartees Strange – Flagey God
  17. Bartees Strange – Mossblerd
  18. Kelly Rowland ft. Nelly – Dilemma
  19. Bartees Strange – Kelly Rowland
  20. Bartees Strange – Ghostly

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