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BWW Interview: Britton Smith of SUMMER OF LOVE at Feinstein's/54 Below

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"I'm dreaming of a world reality because, as an artist, I can visualize what the world can be."

BWW Interview: Britton Smith of SUMMER OF LOVE at Feinstein's/54 Below Artists spend their lives working on their craft. Hopefully, those artists and their work will get their moment, maybe even a moment that lasts a very long time. Sometimes, if they are lucky, their moment becomes a movement, and theirs becomes a voice, the voice, for many.

This is Britton Smith's moment, and it is already a movement.

An arduously industrious actor, Britton Smith spent years auditioning, landing the job, and playing the parts... parts written by other people. He spent years saying other peoples' dialogue, singing other peoples' music, telling other peoples' stories. One day that just wasn't enough for him, and a chance meeting with a New York transportation worker inspired Britton to strike out on his own. Before he knew it, he had a band and that band had a mission. They had a sound, and that sound had a name. And now Funk-liberation is a movement through which the fans of BRITTON AND THE STING find life, expression, love and freedom. After snagging the attention of many who dug the sound and the message provided by Funk-liberation (not to mention some glowing reviews from some prominent publications) Britton and The Sting are booking their act into more clubs and bigger venues, and reaching new devotees.

As Britton Smith prepares for the band's June 22nd opening at Feinstein's/54 Below, he was kind enough to spend a little time on the phone with me, talking about the origins of Funk-liberation, his guardian cab driver, and his unending quest to live and to create as authentically as he is able to.

This interview has been edited for space and content.

Britton Smith, welcome to Broadway World! How are you today?

I'm good. How are you, man?

I'm happy to hear from you. How are you handling the heat?

(Sighing and laughing) It's not cute. I'm up in Harlem right now and it's sweaty. It's sticky. It's time to drink a lot of water right and sit by the refrigerator.

It's not a happy time for those who don't like it hot.

No. Where are you calling from?

I'm down in Hell's Kitchen.

So is that not too bad where you are or is it still very bad?

I don't know. I came home from my job, I turned on both air conditioners and I refuse to leave the house.

(Both laughing)

The hard part about it is that I just turned on my first AC in my bedroom, that I tried my best to not put in because it gets a little pricey. I was in Los Angeles for almost seven months during the pandemic and the heat there is kind of pleasant because it's kind of breezy. I got back to New York maybe four or five days ago, and I was brought back to reality very quickly about what home feels like. I still prefer it over LA and I want that to be known.

I am a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, but I have to admit those sea breezes off in Los Angeles can be really sweet.

Mmm-hmmm! But the people in New York are better than the sea breezes if you ask me,

From one New Yorker to another. It's different than any other place.

It's so vibrant. I was out in Harlem yesterday, and this woman, there was something going on with her car and the whole community gathered to help her buy fish. Absolutely. That feels like that's like: that's where I'm supposed to be. I'm supposed to be around moments like that, where I'm reminded of how crazy and beautiful and rare humanity is. And I'm constantly reminded here. I grew up in Texas, but I moved here in 2008 for college.

Well, welcome home.

Yeah! Thank you, sir.

So I hear that your band, Britton and The Sting are having a debut - your first time Feinstein's/54 Below?

YES!

The show is called Summer of Love. Is the show titled that because of the songs you will be performing or is it a prophecy of the next few months of our lives?

Oh, it's a prophecy! And I'm dedicated to that prophecy in every form. Our band - we call it a funk-liberation band, and every time we meet to perform, yes, it's about the music; but the impact of our shows is really it being a container of permission for our audience members to really dive into who they really are. What's their most authentic self? How do they dance in the shower, when no one's looking? I ask everyone to participate in this crockpot of love, that we call it. Every ingredient is important. Everybody matters in this room. We went through a lot through this time, and so I'm so grateful that one of our first shows back is going to be in a room with people I can name, whether you guys know it or not, they're all survivors. So let's lean into gratitude right now, let's practice what gratitude looks like, a hundred percent, for this next five minutes, during this song. Listen to my words, but really pay attention to the other grateful people around you. Every song offers us a pill to go deeper and deeper into love, and I hope that it infects our city and our summer. Love is beautiful and powerful. It's totally a prophecy.

How did you come to coin the term funk liberation, please tell me that you made that up.

I did! I did! (Laughing)

WERQ!

(Laughing)

Tell me all about funk liberation.

I grew up in church, so I'm really a gospel being - It was the only thing I was allowed to listen to. I found so much freedom and liberation in the music, but I found so much chains and confinement in the Bible teaching me that because of my queerness, I was doomed to hell. So a lot of the music, though funky, though gospel-y, though church-y, it's really meant to break chains and whatever chains they are for you. Every show I do, we check-in as a band and we say, "Hey man, what do you need from this show?" Our background singers, our bass player myself, we all are equals in our pursuit to gain something in the next 90 minutes. And we all name it: "I want to gain surrender." "I want to gain an understanding of this part of my life that's been confusing." We go into this expecting something. So there's a bit of a church and there's a bit of funk in it... and I was like, "Yo, this feels like funk liberation." There's something about those two words that have a certain pace and a certain sound to it that allows people to know what they're going to be getting into when they come hear us.

I think that we are all doomed to hell; it's just up to us to change our trajectory.

(Laughing heartily) Oh, okay. You think we're all doomed to hell, but it's up to us to change that

When we're born, we're very pure but we're born into a society that is filled with negativity, a society that tells us that we're doomed.

Aaaaaah, I see.

They convince you that what you're doing isn't right because if it doesn't fit with their plan, they want you to think that you're in the wrong and you're going to go to hell, and we have to break free from the teachings of the people trying to control us.

YES!

You are liberating people through your funk.

BWW Interview: Britton Smith of SUMMER OF LOVE at Feinstein's/54 Below Oh! Yes. And the best part about it is I'm still liberating myself. I know that I lead by example when I say I'm still working on X. I came this far, but I know that there's more freedom for me to find. I love that I'm able to offer up a moment for folks to liberate themselves but I'm also so grateful that I'm in a space and a band and a community where I can practice my own liberation, and what that looks like. I look back at videos sometimes of our shows and I'm like, "Oh my God, is that how I dance? Is that how I clap? Is that how I look? It's almost shocking to watch yourself so free, so in your own juice, and then you learn from that, like, "Wow, that's what my juice looks like when it's not afraid of fully overflowing." It's a lesson every time,

No matter what you look like when you dance or clap or anything, as long as it is authentic and preaches to people your joy, your authenticity.

Yeah. And I watched people in our shows, our audiences, throughout the set, they begin to lose their mind because they're in a space where they know they have full permission to clap, dance how you dance, cry how you cry, yell how you yell. It's amazing, it's so amazing. I can't wait. I can't wait for it!

Do you remember... in the 1920s, after the prohibition era ended and everybody was so free, and they'd had a pandemic, do you think that because of our pandemic, and now we're coming out of it that we're going to be as free as they were in the 1920s?

I have no doubt. I think that, particularly in New York, we're so close to each other, and we feel everything - when George Floyd was murdered last June, the whole city had grief over it. I think that because we're in such close proximity to one another, we feel everything collectively. There's nuances to who cares about what, but I can feel it now: there's a readiness happening, even now, in the city - I think once things start to open up more... even in the street - I find joy even looking out the window. I think people are going to come back from this ready to celebrate, ready to listen, ready to connect, ready to celebrate the Bible, and to dance with one another. I think it's going to be insane. But we also learned maybe 20 Tik Tok dances all together. So imagine being in a room where 200 people know this dance that they have been doing at the house by themselves, it's going to be like Austin Powers on drugs, dancing down the street. I can't wait for it, personally.

Did you deliberately choose Pride month to debut your show at 54 below?

I didn't! But it's so right on time. There are so many things that I don't do deliberately that I look back on and my gosh, the universe is so deliberate, and so right on time. I didn't even realize that it was going to be an offering of our music in a time where it's intentionally honoring queer voices and queer identity, and queer struggles by our ancestors who allowed it to even be possible where I could be openly headlining, singing, the way I am: it's just right on time, but it wasn't my timing.

You take the timing that comes.

That's right.

You have experienced success as an actor on Broadway, and off-Broadway, joining companies of actors that create art, but you are now a member of an artistic family where you are the leader of that family. How has your life changed as your artistic station has evolved?

Wow. I'm more rooted in who I really am. And therefore, I think what I have to say is more impactful. I think my voice is stronger and what I have to say, and how I'm saying it with my music, because of where it comes from, it comes from my life experiences. It comes from my vision for the world. It comes from my struggles, my hopes for community. When you're on Broadway, it's like the Olympics of theater, it's such a destination, but truth be told, it's never offered me the type of lesson that I've learned through this music. There are still songs that I sing that I sang three years ago, but they were meant to minister to me in this moment, in another way. They're always like prophecies that I have to catch up to. When you're reading a script, I've always felt, "Oh, this is an amazing story. I want to tell this story." "Oh, I got the job - I'm the guy to tell this story." I put my whole being in it... but in theater, I feel like my whole being goes to my solar plexus. In my own music and in my own ministry, it's a calling. I am fully immersed in it, like I'm drowning in it, and I've never felt drowned by it until I stepped into my own music,

Put a picture in my head of the creation of Britton and The Sting.

The creation of Britton and The Sting takes place in a cab. I was in a show called The Sting - I write down my prayers, near my altar on a notecard. I was up for the lead with Harry Connick Jr. and I was praying, "Oh God, God, God, come on, I see it. I see it. I'm going to chant for it. I'm going to be the lead with Harry Connick Jr. And I didn't get it. I was the understudy. I was like, you know what, it's fine, I'm just going to still go. And all this time, I've been writing music for years. So I was in this cab one day and this cab driver spoke into my life; without asking me was I an artist, without asking me do I sing, do I write, he said, "Do you have a band?" I said, "No, I don't have a band." He said, "You need to get a band." I kind of was shocked because he didn't know that I had been praying at my altar, "How do I mobilize my music now? How do I step into my calling?" And he told me, "You need to start a band." I said, "Wow, that's incredible." And he looked back at me and he said, "What? You think I'm some regular taxi driver?"

(Laughing)

I called my best friend, he's now my keyboard player and my Musical Director, and we started a band. That was two and a half years ago; we've done shows in New York, we're working on an album, we've had great success, beautiful shows, great reception. We've been written up in magazines and publications, I'm talking to you. It's fabulous! It's all happening! It's great! I feel very seen as (for the first time in my life) a gay man of God. I never thought that I could be used for God's work. I feel like I can be my full self and still be a vessel. I had felt like only Moses, only this person, only that woman - if they were straight - could be used by God. And I'm like, "Naaaaaah, man, you're very Queer. And you're very being used by God." So I'm grateful for that knowing, now.

God, who loves you exactly as you are

EXACTLY how we are. Yes, exactly how we are.

The members of your band are wonderfully individual artists and they meld together in this one artistic family you've created. As you were putting the band together, how could you tell that each of these humans, each of these artists, were the right fit for the band that you wanted to create?

Wow, that's an amazing question. Wow. You just put a smile on my face. There's something in each of our bandmates that feels churchy... like we felt the same - we all grew up in the church, in different ways, all of us. We all have come to a different understanding of where church really lives, and how an internal sanctuary can be created. We're all so deeply silly and ridiculous. I think we laugh in the same way. We think about talking about love in the same way. We're really connected. Beyond the music, we have a connection of family. We eat together. We pray together. I'll call my friends in the band and say, "Hey, I know you're having headshots today, girl, and I'm sending you power - don't forget how beautiful you are." And it's not work for us to do that with one another. There's a real sense of responsibility and a real sense of ease with each other. Oh, I was so happy I got to even say that out loud! That just felt so good!

When a new band starts out, their audiences are usually just friends and family; as you've gone along, how have the fans and followers that go beyond family found you guys,

Word of mouth. Thank God for Instagram and social media. It wears me out because I have to be so active on it - I have to make a post today about our upcoming shows - it's work, but it really keeps people there. I also think my work in theater brings people and they're like, "Oh yeah, he was in "Be More Chill" - let's go see this band." And then they're like, "Whoa, completely different thing!" I also have a non-profit called the Broadway Advocacy Coalition - that work is about liberation as well, but it's not about the liberation itself, but the liberation from harm and systems of oppression in the industry and outside the industry. So there's a link to my work, even outside of the singing, that brings people to liberation. And then my music is like groooove. It gets people into their bodies around liberation. So I'm thinking just networks and word of mouth.

I'm glad that you mentioned the Broadway Advocacy Coalition. How is the work that you're doing going, how are you guys doing over there?

We are so positioned right now to continue thriving. We're five years old, no one really knew who we were (in the industry) until our last first forum in June for Black Lives Matter, and it brought a lot of attention to us. So we're finally in rooms where we're talking with leaders who have real power and influence, and we're asking them to think of a set of questions that get them thinking about how they have benefited from systems of white supremacy, what their accountability can be, how we can all work together to form our lovely industry into a less harmful, more impactful, more welcoming, more inclusive industry. We're part of a lot of those conversations and I'm around other liberators who are doing this work and it informs my art more. We're working with many companies, helping them identify what a safe work environment looks like and how to hold that accountable. But also it really reminds me of where impact comes from, how to have impact, not just change, but impact, which I think is different than change.

Talking with you just now, I get an enormous, overwhelming sense of love and humanity. When you create something, when you work for something like the BAC, a lot of the time, it requires the mentality and the drive of an activist. How do you manage to balance out this person that overflows with love with a person that has to place themselves in the headspace of an activist?

I think of myself less as an activist and more as an art-ivist. I think my weapon is my art - even though I'm on zoom calls, talking to theater owners, they don't know I'm using my art to influence their thoughts. They don't know I'm using my art to remind myself of what's possible. I'm dreaming of a world reality because, as an artist, I can visualize what the world can be. I can visualize and really feel the ability. So I'm not an activist, I'm an art-ivist.

Feinstein's/54 below has a very loyal clientele and they will come to see any show just because it's a Feinstein's/54 Below show. Funk shows can get pretty wild. What should the newcomers to a Britton and The Sting concert prepare for at 54 below?

Oooh... Every show we have, we love to get dressed. I remember, at church, when they would say, "Hey guys, it's the first Sunday." The first Sunday, in the black church, in the South, everyone wore all white. There was something about how me, and my mom, and my brother would get dressed with a sense of expectancy, right? We would get dressed, knowing that we were going to be a community with other people who were pairing in a similar way to receive and gain a similar thing. So we always ask our audiences to dress up with us - they become the theme. They need to come ready to dress up. We will announce the theme... it may be like, "Guys, the theme for the first one is the resurrection, so come in your florals, come ready for rebirth, come in your garden-wear. Resurrection.

BWW Interview: Britton Smith of SUMMER OF LOVE at Feinstein's/54 Below

When they're preparing for that, they're going to come into a room with other people who are expecting that, and that creates this environment of participation. They need to come ready to participate in creating a sense of elevation. I know I've been like 54 Below shows, and sometimes the audience is very passive because they're allowed to just sit and drink their wine and listen to a lovely voice. No, no, no, no, no. You may leave here sweaty. You may leave here catching the Holy ghost. They need to come ready to get dressed and ready to participate.

So in preparation for your shows, where should the audience go online to find out what the themes are?

They can go to @brittonsmithworld on Instagram and in my bio, I'll have links to where to buy tickets and I'll have (laughing) very loud explanations of what to wear. We also have a Britton and The Sting Instagram page. Those are our best forms to share messages very quickly.

Play with me for a second and, in one high concept sentence, tell all of our readers who and what Britton and The Sting is and does.

Mmmmmm. Britton and The Sting is a funk liberation band designed to bring you closer to yourself and others.

What is the motto of Britain and the sting?

Hmm. A motto. I think of key words: authenticity, transparency, liberation, surrender, unity,

Britton. I want to thank you for chatting with me today. This has been a most enlightening and incredibly enjoyable talk,

Very enjoyable. And your questions are so... I'm still kind of in the moment, so I'm going to go calm down and still think of these. You've asked me such beautiful questions, I thank you for your thoughtfulness.

Have a good meditation.

I would love that.

Britton and The Sting plays Feinstein's/54 Below on June 22nd and 23rd. For information and tickets visit the 54 Below website HERE.

Learn more about Britton and The Sting at their Instagram page HERE and the Britton Smith Instagram page HERE.

Photos provided by Britton Smith.


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