From brimstone to ballroom, musician James Baley prevails to tell a powerful story

The singer-songwriter grew up in a church where being queer was a sin. Now he’s performing in his truth.

The singer-songwriter grew up in a church where being queer was a sin. Now he’s performing in his truth

From brimstone to ballroom, James Baley is singing his truth.

1 year ago
Duration 19:08
On this week's episode of The Intro, we're featuring James Baley.

Musicians regularly draw on personal experience for inspiration, but few have walked a path as complex or emotionally fraught as James Baley's, which he explores on his debut album, A Story.

"The story that I'm telling with this album is my journey to realizing myself as a Black, queer singer-songwriter and performer who was raised in a religious community," he told CBC Music, ahead of his appearance on The Intro, streaming above.

Baley was one of three boys being raised by a single mother, who was heavily involved in praise and worship at a fundamentalist Baptist church in Mississauga, Ont.

"You could say music entered my life from the time I was in the womb," he mused. "Music was always around me, you know? Just the skill around how to use your voice and what harmony is and vibrato and breath control — I learned it from my mother."

Looking back, Baley understands what she was doing. "Trying to keep us calm and occupied while she was doing her thing onstage, but also teaching us these skills that were exciting [and that] we could use down the line, whether it was us taking the reins on praise and worship or doing solos for Christmas concerts or whatever. We learned quite young."

'If you're gay, you are going to hell'

That early exposure to music comes across today in Baley's effortless singing and comfort in front of an audience. But growing up in a church that espouses a literal interpretation of the Bible as a "final authority in all matters of faith" left scars, too.

"Being queer, being gay — it's a sin in the Baptist faith," he said, recalling the trauma of that realization. "It seemed like a garden of Eden, it was just so perfect — until it wasn't. Realizing that I was different, and feeling like I have to continue to follow rules … and whatever you read in the Bible. But it's like, if you're gay, you are going to hell. That's it. And for a long time, I sat in that shame and fear."

The contradiction of being surrounded by people who both loved and condemned him would find expression in a song called "Saviour," the lead single from A Story.

"The song is very much me responding to my relationship with God, but also my relationship with my mom," he reflected. "My mom always wanted you to have your own voice and find your own way. But she was also very good at influencing people. I called her a pusher. She pushed you to be the best version of whatever you should be. Like, 'Do whatever you want, live your life, be you, you're amazing,' but also, 'You'd be an amazing nurse' [laughs]. And I'm like, 'Mom, I want to be a singer.'"

After extricating himself from the church, Baley discovered a community in which he came alive: ballroom.

"Ballroom is a community, but it's also a competition," he explained. "It was created by Black and brown trans women and drag queens way back, you know, and it's a safe space for queer Black and POC folks."

James Baley walks at the Kiki Ball in 2019. (James Baley/Instagram)

He described a scene in which he felt confident performing in his truth.

"Wearing wide-leg, red sparkly pants with a tight, sheer top and a harness and being comfortable in front of a whole bunch of people, do you know what I mean? Now, that kind of thing feels like nothing, but the first time walking in the scene, I was scared even though I was so excited. I was like, 'Oh my God, what are they going to think? And there are five judges at the front, so if I get chopped, then I am worthless.' But then, after your first chop, it's like taking your first hit in rugby: it could just keep happening, but you're obviously going to learn from mistakes."

Ballroom-walking is now second nature for Baley. "When someone calls your name all of a sudden, it's just like [snaps fingers] you switch and it comes on and you just walk and people are chanting your name. That kind of high really prepares you for when you have to go out on a stage where there's only 10 people in the crowd [laughs]."

'Oh, wow. You're giving me money for this?'

While today he's a bête de scène (his album launch in October 2021 was described as an "immersive exploration into the multi-dimensional, ethereal and fantastical world of James Baley"), it took a while for Baley to get past his insecurities and realize music could be his profession.

"The first time I got paid was when I performed for the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention's Joyful Giving Fundraiser," he recalled. "I think it was like 2011 or something. And I was just like, 'Oh, wow. You're giving me money for this? I was just happy to be here.' And they're like, 'James, you travelled, you practised, and I'm pretty sure you bought an outfit for this, so you should get paid.'"

He also began singing at Sunset Service. "This is the place where I started to reconnect with spirit. [It's an] art- and faith-based collective trying to get people to connect with their spirituality and not have the shame and the fear attached when it comes to you being queer."

His abilities as a backup singer caught the attention of techno/house DJ Dinamo Azari, Leah Fay of July Talk, and Zaki Ibrahim, all of whom gave Baley opportunities and the confidence to eventually step out as a solo artist.

"Zaki is like my mother and my sister," he said of Ibrahim's presence in his life. "Our relationship is like best friends, but she also just has more experience in the industry than me. So she just naturally felt like this parental-guidance kind of mentor — especially through the creation of the A Story project. And being in the pandemic and everyone going through their emotional throes, she was very much like, 'James, whatever you do is going to be worth it because you are making it.'"

That kind of unconditional support is at the heart of another affecting song from A Story, "Keep the Light On."

"Knowing that someone out there is rooting for you and is going to check in on you — that's the light," he explained. "We can't touch each other, we can't be in the same space because, you know, COVID. But, I will give you a call, I will send you a message, I'll send you a meme, you know? Or, go on a walk and have a long, honest and eventually encouraging conversation. So that's 'Keep the Light On' — a song of hope and encouragement from a lot of perspectives."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

Being Black in Canada highlights stories about Black Canadians. (CBC)