The 19th-century U.S. poet Emily Dickinson famously penned that “People need hard times and oppression to develop psychic muscles.” But would she make the same statement in a time that pits two casuistry experts knee-deep in their own harvested fields of bullshit, a year when our violence-addicted country witnessed its largest mass shooting in history – a shooting that took the lives of 49 people at an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando during Pride Month and on the eve of National Puerto Rican Day, and a time when 53 souls decided they were cool with suspected terrorists buying military-grade weapons as long as they don’t try to fly their friendly skies?
Brian Is Zé, formerly Biz Vicious — a 28-eight-year-old agender, pansexual African-American Houston rapper – approaches the June 12 tragedy in Florida with mindful optimism. “We can grow as people,” Zé comments on the recent tragedy in Florida. “We can pay attention to how things are evolving around us. If we are honest about our introspection and appreciation of progress, it helps normalize things for others simply by having the concepts floating around in the world more often.”
Zé released their debut album, We Lurk Among You, in 2014. (Zé prefers to be referred to using non-binary pronouns, i.e., "they," "their," "them," etc.) A landmark in Houston’s rich hip-hop history, it has no precedent. Casually listening to “All on Me” provides to no tells. The production comes from the same dug-through crates of records where producers FKi 1st and The Neptunes find theirs. Hooks for days riddle the arrangements. But zoom in closely, and the devil is in the details.
Honesty embodies the entirety of Zé’s being. A gifted lyricist, their Andre 3000/MF Doom-styled compound rhymes (matched by occasional batshit-crazy syncopation) tell tales of puzzling polyamorous relationships and even more puzzling perpetuation of paternalistic, knuckle-dragging notions of gender bias in the era of bathroom policing. “What’s your name? Fuck your sign/ What are your pronouns?” Zé spits on “Polyolyoxenfree,” a comical take on polyamory while speaking the truth on how difficult it is to make just one person happy, not just three. But Zé says something unique in hip-hop during the rest of the verse that is seldom — other than in Drake’s ambiguously polyamorous-referencing “Brand New" — heard:
Do you wanna chill when I'm passing through your town?
Queer kid weird shit I'm still repping that loud
I could be your wingman then we can go and make out
My style is outlandish
I don't spit no game
But my love life is a lot to manage
I got these queers manic
My charm is doing damage
One on each side
call that a going HAM sandwich
Brian Is Zé is to sexuality in hip-hop as Henry Miller was to sexuality in literature. Their descriptions are terse, frank and unapologetic. Morality plays no role in the verse when they offer to be the wingman – a third-fucking-wheel – and make out. Unlike hip-hop lotharios throwing parades for threesomes like Super Bowl champs, their pursuit isn’t after conquest; they want a relationship, and there are strings attached. Complications come with the territory in any relationship, but their openness to a “HAM sandwich,” whether it be with a cisgender, a transgender or a gender-fluid love interest, it does not matter. What matters here is their inimitable voice. When concepts like these get discussed more often, less stigmatizing bullshit occurs.
Zé’s recent name change came as a surprise. Like Marilyn Manson, they married the eccentric, booger-picking rapper Biz Markie’s first name to punk icon/plagued heroin addict Sid Vicious’s surname. For Zé, the name Vicious carried too negative a connotation. “The realization of how far off Sid Vicious is from who I want to be as a person and [as a] public figure – putting messages into the world – really gave me an identity crisis for a moment,” they say.
The thought of just using "Biz" did not sit well, either. “I decided on Brian Is Zé because I want to be more honest in my persona,” they remark. “I’m almost 30. I’ve still got that ‘came up with punks and want to kick stuff over just because’ in me, but I’m also very introspective and I want to take advantage of the fact that my audience always seems down for whatever journey I decide to take them on.”
Brian Is Zé walks it like they talk it, digging trenches along the front of LGBTQ issues. Cofounder of Dykon Fagatron, they, along with a group of fervent, like-minded warriors, host a monthly showcase around town, serving a purpose higher than that of entertainment; their showcases help to shed light on timely issues, encouraging those who attend each event to become more active within the community. For example, healthy, gender-based discussions continue to grow because of organizations like Dykon Fagatron. And Zé serves as a role model who once struggled to come to terms with who they are.
“In my personal life, I’ve used plural pronouns for a long time. I have become more confident in presenting my gender in different ways, especially being more femme. I picked Brian Is Zé as a backronym for Biz because I think of ze/hir/hirs as the most unapologetic gender-queer pronouns,” explains Zé. “Getting to put those pronouns out to normalize them is important to me. My friends use they/them with me some, but Brian Is Zé is all ze/hir/hirs.”
Many in Houston’s music scene support Zé’s musical and social endeavors. After dropping a surprise hip-hop children’s concept album in 2015 titled Reanimated, they decided it was time to return their focus to We Lurk Among You’s follow-up. Versatility is the name of the game this time around, and it came time for Zé to let go of micromanaging each aspect of the new album.
“I’m working with Flcon [Fcker] forever and always,” says Zé about their ongoing working partnership with Houston’s own award-winning producer and glitch artist. “He’s bestie status. I’m also working with friends I really respect, like Pitter Patter, Lucas Gorham, Alpha [Alex] Zamora from The Suffers, Brynonym and Guilla.”
The recent transformation and gender identity shifted Zé’s approach toward making music at first – further evidence of their unadulterated honesty in these much-needed times. “I realized after trying too hard to be open in a vulnerable way that I already do that I’m the same weird, self-deprecating, angry, manic nerd who loves play as I always was,” they muse. “My main thing is trying to rely less on curse words. I was talking to my partner and said, ‘My main thing as a rapper is that I rhyme [multisyllabic] words with shit,’ and they said, ‘Yeah, people like your intelligent raps!’” I’m trying to do better about that, but no promises."
Hard times happen whether people need them or not. From the margins, voices emerge. It begins with a tiny spark, and it spreads like a methanol fire. What people need in our tantrum-throwing country, especially in an election year fully soaked in venom and piss, is an honest voice who speaks from the heart, without ego, and with unrepentant scrupulousness — someone like Brian Is Zé.
Brian Is Zé performs at 9 p.m. tonight at Rudyard's with Giant Kitty and Austin's Math Patrol. They will also participate in the Pride edition of Dyson Fagatron, also featuring B L A C K I E, Evan McCarley, Gio Chamba, The Regal People LLC, Well-Fed (DJ Duo of Fat Tony and Lukas Gorham), DJs Asli and Andres, android genius, and Dad's Records, Saturday at Arlo's Ballroom (2119 Leeland). Doors open at 8 p.m.