Wayne Tennant and the challenge of being authentic about love

After being questioned about representing gay love in his music videos, Montreal artist Wayne Tennant decided to make a change.

The Montreal musician opens up about his sexuality and his new single, Crash

Wayne Tennant describes his new video Crash as an homage to lovers of all persuasions. (Nantali Indongo)

I've known Montreal singer-songwriter Wayne Tennant for about 10 years.

I've seen him set the stage on fire with his powerful voice, which runs from a baritone to a falsetto in leaps and bounds. His showmanship? A perfected art. His Prince-esque fashion? Unfaltering.

We met while singing back-vocals for another local artist-now friend, Nadia Bashalani. It was a natural connection. 

We laughed and giggled at the joy of harmonizing our voices; blending and bending notes, anticipating the chord progressions of a melody line that was being made up on the spot.

I paid no attention to the fact that he was also in a long-term relationship with another man.

But when he released his first full-length album in 2015, Life in Minor Key, I asked him for a feature interview that would include questions about his sexuality.

He wasn't ready, so I didn't push.

It wasn't a matter of not wanting to "come out" — anybody who knows him, including his family, knows he's gay — he simply didn't want his sexuality to distract from his talent.

"I just didn't want it to be the forefront," the Toronto-expat told me. "People tend to focus on that and think: 'He's gay! And then, he's a musician.'"

Wayne Tennant performing with Skinny Bros at this year's Montreal Fringe Festival. (Stéphanie Barrette)

A simple, playful video

But something changed since then. After releasing two other music videos from his album, Tennant decided to be more authentic.

People who knew him as a gay man had questioned his choice to cast women as his love interests in the videos.

"People were like 'So why did you have to have a girl in it? Why couldn't you have had a guy?'" he said.

Tennant admitted the question annoyed him. He wondered why it should even matter, since it was just acting.

But he eventually turned the challenge into the inspiration for the video of his new single, Crash, released this week.

"[I thought], let me use that as fuel and for healing with myself, as well as to say to other people, 'Yes, I can do that, and I'm comfortable with it,'" he said.

Tennant decided not to have a hot on-screen kiss in the video. The point wasn't to prove how gay he really is, but rather to show himself in the context of his community. 

And so along with Tennant, the video shows a number of same-sex couples dancing and sharing their love. 

"For anyone who is gay, or lesbian, or bisexual, I wanted to give them a visual that they could relate to," he said. 

"[The video] is very simple ... very playful ... very lighthearted, but at the same time shows people of the same sex who are attracted to each other, as well as heterosexuals."

He added: "It covers everyone. It's about inclusion."
Tennant's 2015 release Life In Minor Key mixed his diverse influences, including soul, pop, neo-soul, R&B and more. (Hector L. Rustand)

Paying it forward 

At 42, Tennant is comfortable with who he is as a gay black singer-songwriter and performing artist hustling to make his music work for him. 

And although he's had moments as a performer in less tolerant countries, where he's had to be very careful about divulging too much about his sexual orientation, it's never stopped him from getting booked.

He's had success in a variety of settings: international house music with artists like DJ/producer Fred Everything; live performances with Canadian soul divas Divine Brown and Ivana Santilli; even glitzy corporate gigs, like the recent Formula One event at Windsor station where champion driver Lewis Hamilton was the keynote.

With his new video Tennant figures he's at a place where he can do even more to help inspire others.

"For people who are younger than myself, who are just getting into the music business, I think it's an inspiration if anything," he said.

"I've been inspired by other artists who have done the same thing. Like Frank Ocean, Sam Smith, George Michael. I think if I can be an example to others, then I've done part of my job."

You can see Wayne Tennant at the Montreal International Jazz Fest performing with Liquor Store June 29th and 30th. He also performs July 6th with Le Cypher.


Nantali Indongo is CBC's Arts & Culture contributor and host of The Bridge. Follow her on Twitter @taliindongo.