Athens Boys Choir isn’t a group of cherubic, sweet-voiced boys like you might think. It’s actually the performance name of Harvey Katz, aka Katz (“I forget I have a first name most days!” he jokes), a transgender man who has been taking his unique blend of spoken word poetry and hip hop/80s-inspired music around the country for several years. Provocative, hilarious and blunt about a number of hot button issues, Katz will perform at Mestizo Café, 631 W. North Temple, Ste. 700, on Nov. 21 at 9 p.m. as part of the Utah Pride Center’s Transgender Awareness Month.
I caught up with Katz on a break from his busy November tour schedule to talk about his music, politics and just how he picked such an interesting moniker.
JoSelle Vanderhooft: When I first heard you were coming out, I thought: “Athens Boys Choir. That’s got to be the most unique name I’ve ever heard for an artist.”
Katz: Believe me [laughs] I’d love to change the name at this point, but it’s too late.
JV: How did it come about initially, then?
K: It used to be not just me in the choir. It used to be myself and a guy named Rocket. He’s Catholic, I’m Jewish. We liked the sort of innuendo of the boys choir. It was fun, it was memorable, you know?
JV: So Rocket’s gone to pursue other projects?
K: Yeah, he didn’t want to be on the road so much, but we’re still good buddies.
JV: That’s good to hear. I’d love to hear how you got started performing.
K: Well, I sort of did it in this really bizarre way. I didn’t even really write spoken word poetry until about six months before I really started [performing full time]. I had this girlfriend, we had a real nasty break up, and she told me she didn’t like my poetry. So I told her, “Well we’ll see.” [laughs] and decided to make this CD with Rocket and send it out to a bunch of record labels, just sort of thinking, “Oh, whatever. It’s $1.06 to send this. Wouldn’t it be hilarious and awesome if somebody actually called us?” And two days later I got a call from Amy Ray [of the Indigo Girls].
K: I was so hung over I thought it was my brother calling. I answered real mean. And then, that was it. On Monday we were in Atlanta for a meeting with Daemon Records [Ray’s label] and we were signed. It was so bizarre and fast and amazing.
JV: I’m also a poet, though I don’t work in spoken word. And I hear all the time: “Oh, poetry is a hard sell.” I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on that, because clearly you’re making it work for you.
K: Yeah, poetry’s a hard sell. I’ll give that to you.[both laugh]
K: It’s like music. It’s such a vast spectrum of styles. Poetry is rap. Poetry is sonnets. Poetry is Shakespeare. You have all thee things, and I think people have it in their minds already what poetry is. It’s like saying, “All music is rock. I don’t like rock.” I got so in my bio I put ‘it’s the spoken word you didn’t expect to like,’ you know what I’m saying? I put myself down to bring myself up. I feel like the 90s was a real huge time for spoken word. And now people are like, “OK. Please get on to a new project.” I have to say, on that note, I have been extremely lucky and grateful for the people who have really opened their minds to it and listened to what I have to say.
JV: I’d love to hear what the typical Katz/Athens Boys Choir show is like.
K: I like to pay attention to the crowd, and I really like to say, “OK let’s have a fun one. Can you stay with me through a serious one? OK, let’s have a serious one.” But I think a typical Athens Boys Choir set is a bit of a roller coaster. I really try to give the audience what they want because they’re giving me what I want.
JV: Since this is Transgender Awareness Month at the Utah Pride Center, I’d love to talk about your thoughts on the status of transgender people in the broader lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement.
K: In the large spectrum of things, I feel like the world is becoming a lot more aware of trans people. I live in Athens, Georgia. There are about 120,000 people here, maybe eight or 10 transgender people now. When I came out I knew no other trans people. I knew of Rocket, and once I met him I was like, OK there’s two of us. I like to think of everything in an Athens, Georgia sense, because I feel like it’s this contained space where I can get a view on things. [Around the time I came out] I went to a doctor listed in the gay phone book here, and he was like, “I’m gay, and I don’t know what you mean when you say you’re transgender.” It was a really horrible experience. I went to the bank the other day. I’ve been to this particular bank maybe two or three times, I usually use a different bank. And they were like, “Hey Katz.” Everybody knows me in town because I’m that transgender guy. And now I feel like you have a space where the whole country is really so much more aware that transgender people exist. You don’t have to explain yourself to everybody every time there’s an interaction. I feel like a lot of the biases and expectations of trans people are slowly melting away. We’re just becoming part of a society. … I feel like the biggest change that everybody can do in their brains, and that we’re working on, is taking transgender people and taking them way from the Other and bringing them back to human experience.
JV: What I love about your work is that you’re very frank about everything. Not only about politics and about what it’s like being transgender, but even about, well, plumbing for a lack of a better world. I’m thinking of “Fagette” where you mention that you have a vagina, not a penis and “Tranny Got Pack” [a parody of rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot’s classic “Baby Got Back.”] That’s often a very personal issue for trans people, for obvious reasons and rightly so. I’d love to hear about why that’s something you do.
K: I do a PSA before “Tranny Got Pack” where I talk about the word “tranny” and how unless you’re self-identifying you shouldn’t use it because it’s like “fag,” which has been used really derogatorily. It’s a first person narrative. And the “Fagette” piece —and again first person narrative — I don’t really care that I don’t have the penis. It’s not something I think about it anymore, it’s not something that even bothers me anymore. It’s not something that I think will ever bother me — not to say that it has never in my life, or that my opinion is the only opinion on the trans body, by any means. I do these trans 101 workshops all the time, and the first thing I say is, “You can ask me about anything except my body.” Because I feel like, nobody in this room will ever know what’s in my pants. And I won’t know what’s in anybody’s pants here, and it’s never going to affect our relationship.” It’s weird now that I think of how I’ve written all these things about the body, and in talking I’m like, “Who cares about my body?! It’s MIIINE!”[both laugh]
JV: What other issues are important to you?
K: The main issue I have with everything [is] I feel like I need to [make] it simple. Health care, queer rights, it all comes down to human rights, what we deserve in this world. We deserve goodness, and we deserve to be OK, because we work hard, and we love the people around us. Politics don’t have to be hard. You just care about the human condition. I just feel like, do whatever you want to do, just be good to the people around you. That’s my political stance.
JV: Any final thoughts?
K: In the general sense, don’t forget that the world is good, that people are good, and there’s a space for everybody. It’s like a toast! [laughs]
Visit Katz online at athensboyschoir.com.