TLD Interview: Popstar & Activist Ari Gold

Ari Gold - by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis for thelodownny.com

What does a talented R&B star/gay icon/political activist like Sir Ari Gold have to do with the Lower East Side?  It turns out he has some serious L.E.S. roots – and has lived in the Hillman Houses, in Coop Village on Grand Street, for the last 12 years. I sat down with him recently to discuss his career, as well as his ongoing relationship with the neighborhood:

TLD - So, your history with the L.E.S. goes back a ways?

AG – I grew up in the Bronx but we would come here to visit pretty much every Sunday to visit my Bubbie.  And we would go shopping on Orchard Street, which I hated.

TLD - Why was that?

AG – It was just very boring to me – it was shopping for pillow cases and stuff like that, but I always loved visiting my Bubbie. And once we found a great apartment and I started to make peace with living here, as opposed to say, the West Village, where we were also looking, I completely changed my tune because – (my Bubbie passed away before I moved here) I just loved feeling like I was still close to her, like I was close to my “roots.”  You know the bialy place? We would go there all the time.

TLD – Kossar’s?

AG – Yeah. Where else is there a bialy place ? There’s no other bialy place I can think of – in the world.  I mean maybe there is but I don’t think you can get a better one, or a fresher one (anywhere else).  In fact, I was just commuting everyday to Rye, to the studio where I’m finishing up my album, and my co-producer was telling me he and his son love bialies, so I brought the bialies with the scallion cream cheese all the way up to Rye for them.

TLD – That’s too great.

AG – So I now really love it and I really love –  how should I put this – you know, the Seniors. I like older people. I mean you can come across the  curmudgeons here but you can come across one (curmudgeon) in their 20’s here, too. The older people in my building are so friendly – you  feel like you’re in a community. I mean you move any place else in the city and there’s a coldness.  I think there used to be, maybe in the East Village and other neighborhoods, a more neighborly feeling than there is now.

I mean, you come a few blocks up here (above Delancey) and it’s obviously very hip, but around me it’s older. My next door neighbors – they’re not from the “old guard” but they’re retired and they are the greatest folks – they seem like they’re happy with the choices they made in their life and it’s just great to see that. It’s inspiring – and they’re very kind.

TLD – Twelve years ago was before the co-ops went market rate, right?

AG – Yes, it was.

TLD – So how did that happen, was it Bubbie?

AG – In a way. Basically my mother knew someone, her oldest childhood friend’s ex-husband had lived there and passed away – so my mother knew him (and knew about the apartment). In fact we had looked at one apartment and I was denied by the co-op for the first one but we got approved for the second one.

TLD – I think it’s a fascinating place. Maybe one of the more interesting neighborhoods left in Manhattan.

AG – I think it’s the only neighborhood left in Manhattan that still has everybody, except maybe the Old Money, uptight people on the Upper East Side – I mean you have Chinatown, you have the projects right here, you have the hipsters, you have Latinos, African Americans. I see a lot of new gays moving in to the area, too.

TLD – Maybe out of Chelsea, even – what do you think?

AG – Well, it’s more affordable – but the truth about Manhattan, that not everybody who comes here from out of town realizes, is – once you’re on the island, nothing’s that far. So yes, I’d say gay people are everywhere, but here, I was a pioneer, once again.

TLD – You felt like you were a pioneer here?

AG – Well I guess that’s really the only change I’ve seen (since I’ve been here), I mean the hipsters were already here (Ludlow Street, etc.) so the biggest change was that, and the closing of Ratner’s – that was disappointing. When I say pioneer I mean it’s like my role has been in music, doing things that no one was really doing before, if I may be so bold.

(Gold is one of the first openly gay pop stars to incorporate his sexuality in his music.)

TLD – Is that something you set out to do intentionally, in a way that shaped your music career from the very beginning?

AG – It was. I did have those intentions. I didn’t know what the journey would look like, but I certainly was conscious of the fact that there was no one else – I mean I always loved pop music, music on the radio and R&B – and that was always my thing.  But I was always very conscious there was nobody else on the “scene” who was openly gay, let alone anyone that was exploring it in their music. I mean, at the point when I was working on my first album, which was in the late ’90s, that old guard of artists that was famous first, had come out of the closet – like George Michael, Elton John, KD Lang and Melissa Ethridge – so I was conscious of (them) but there was no one else making music that was being played in the main stream so much.

I guess it was the rebel in me – once I found resistance (from others) about the decision – that only made me want to do it more. I thought I should “represent.” When producers would tell me, “Oh no, you can’t have male pronouns in this song, no one’s going to buy it!” then I became more adamant about doing it.

And since then (around the year 2000), there’s been a lot of independent artists who are openly gay and exploring it in their music but there’s still a lack of it in the mainstream. I mean, Adam Lambert is the only one I can think of that has been out since the beginning – although he got famous from the American Idol platform first…

TLD – Were there producers that didn’t want to work with you because of that?

AG – One producer basically said, “You’re not gong to be successful if you do this,” and a few years later, he saw that I was figuring out how to have a career as an openly gay artist and he called me and apologized. Now he’s one of my longest collaborators. A lot of it was record companies, execs – and unfortunately some of these execs were gay themselves but were very negative about it being “out” in the music. One of the biggest challenges for any minority or disenfranchised group is overcoming the internalizaton that happens – when your parents, and religious leaders and the government are telling you that who you are is not okay.

TLD – That’s got to be so tough.  What are you working on now?

AG – I’ve been developing what I call an “autobiographical, homotheatrical multi-media musical.” It still needs development but I’m working with director Colman Domingo, who was just on Broadway in The Scottsboro Boys and did a one-man show at The Vineyard. He’s helping me develop it. And I have a new album coming out in 2011 – the new single is out already.

TLD – I watched the video.

AG – It’s very dark and twisted.

TLD – What are you doing to that little boy? That’s too much blood. Don’t eat him.

AG – (laughing) It was just corn syrup – no children were harmed during the filming! The director and I actually call it a “vampiric deconstruction of heterosexual marriage.”

TLD – Wow.

AG – You know, a lot of attention is placed on the issue of gay marriage and whether gays should have the right to get married but are we looking as deeply into heterosexual marriage and what goes on in that relationship? You know, it’s as if heterosexual marriage and family is something that is this perfect institution, that gay people might actually corrupt, which is not true. I mean there’s plenty of bad parenting that happens, so part of the theme in the video…is ways in which parents sometimes abuse their children for their own selfish desire – so it’s a metaphor.

In fact, the psychological well-being of children is something that I’m very concerned about – as a gay man who understands that most gay children are raised in homophobic environments. We have to pay attention to the self esteem of children.  You know, why are we having children? So they can fulfill some need we have? We want them to grow up and be like “this, this, this” or what…?

TLD – Is your family supportive? (Gold was raised as an Orthodox Jew.)

AG – Very. I don’t know if I would be able to do it with out their support. I feel like it’s important work.

Gold has been actively involved with Live Out Loud – an organization devoted to supporting LGBT youth by connecting them with successful LGBT professionals in their community. He will be performing live on Christmas Eve for the F-Word’s “Jesus Was a Jew” ball at Splash Bar.  You can catch him DJ-ing on Saturday nights at The Cock in the East Village.