Wherever a Song Takes Us
Drake Jensen tunes us in to AIDS awareness
by Raymond Luczak
I don’t recall how I’d first heard of Drake Jensen, but when I saw his music video for “Fast Enough for Me,” I was surprised. It was a far cry from the 1980s when gay music videos like Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy,” showing its lead singer Jimmy Somerville having to leave home because he had been bullied, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax,” showing the seamier side of a leather bar with a snide wink. “Fast Enough for Me” shows Drake, certainly not a typical gay boy and yet something of a wary bear, ultimately connecting with a man around his age with bits of humor tossed in. It revealed a different kind of relationship rarely seen in gay music videos. And the song was…country? And he’s from Canada?
I say this because Drake has challenged many people’s ideas of what a gay country singer should be. Starting with his first album On My Way to Finding You in 2011, he has become more out onstage and on record. His second album OUTlaw has an exquisite anti-bullying song called “Scars.” It was startling because you’d think that such a confident performer couldn’t have experienced such bullying. You can feel his pain in that song.
When I heard that he was going to release a new record in the fall of 2020, I had to find out more.
Raymond Luczak: Could you tell us a bit about your background?
Drake Jensen: I was born in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. I am the grandson, and son, of two generations of coal miners. A small town boy with big dreams is what I was while living there. It all seems so long ago now. To reference what Glace Bay was like? Think West Virginia with an ocean surrounding it.
It appears that you’ve suffered a lot from being bullied while young. How has that affected your sense of identity and pride?
I really don’t regard what happened to me as bullying any longer. The real terminology is assault. I was assaulted for years while in school. It took its toll on me mentally, killed my sense of self and self-esteem, and set me on a trajectory to years of therapy to find my way back. However, it did shape me to be a more compassionate person. I have a great in-depth understanding of those who’ve been abused and the afflictions they cause. Today I see it as a gift.
Assault is worse now than it ever was. Now kids can be in a classroom and “text terrorize” other kids. Technology has been a blessing and a curse. I don’t think it’s ever stopped. It’s an ongoing battle. There’ve been way too many reported accounts of these happenings to disregard it in any way.
After being bullied for years it has taken me much applied work, and a lot of mental strength and therapy, to get to the point where The Advocate magazine calls me the Daddy of LGBTQ Country Music. I stand confident now in both my music and my message. It is one of inclusion. Never exclusion.
This may be a provocative question, but do you think that discriminating against people living with HIV/AIDS could be considered a form of bullying?
The continual perpetuation of stigma against those with HIV, especially online, is staggering to me. I’ve always said, How can we expect compassion, understanding, and education to prevail between us, as the LBTQ minority, and the larger straight community, if we ourselves cannot give it to each other? Online apps are the portal to this type of behavior. To those who ask me online if I am “clean,” I always respond with, “Of course, I just showered an hour ago.” If you’re asking about my HIV status, you really need to take a different approach and educate yourself. Don’t even get me started on this——the soapbox cannot hold me that long. I consider this mental abuse, or mental assault, on those who are on the receiving end. It really affects how I see some people.
What was it like growing up in the age of AIDS?
In the 1980s there was a couple who’d contracted AIDS in our small town. I cannot imagine how they both felt. Everyone talked about them. First one died, then the other. I remember seeing them, as one was my grandmother’s nurse. Both very good people. That was my first experience seeing the toll on people. It was very sad and left a definite imprint in my soul. In retrospect I had been very sheltered and the world was turning around me.
What have you learned from friends who are living with HIV?
Someone I work with directly is HIV-positive. We really don’t talk that much about it, and this person really doesn’t dwell on it. We did have one really big conversation about it and I really was given true insight to all of it from him, as he was infected in the 1980s. I have been fortunate to have people in my life to open my eyes. I am open to enlightenment at all times, and in all situations. We are here to learn. If we stop learning, we die mentally. My mind is wide open. My ideology remains the same. Treat everyone equally regardless of their life circumstances. If my husband were HIV-positive when I met him, it wouldn’t have made any difference to me.
Who are among your HIV-positive heroines and heroes?
Well, my friend in my answer to the above question is my hero. He has not disclosed his status publicly, and I do understand why he doesn’t. Stigma still exists. But his tenacious nature and zest for life has been my inspiration for years. I also have a friend in North Carolina, who used to be a nurse and contracted the virus and since became an activist for people living with HIV. Wanda Brendle-Moss is an inspiration also. They never let anything get in their way! They take life as it comes, and even in the greatest time of challenge, still think of others.
What about musicians who are living with HIV whose work you really love?
Freddie Mercury was an entity. Anyone who would vacuum in a leather mini and a pink top for the music video of “I Want to Break Free” during the 1980s is a hero of mine. Queen’s last video, “These Are the Days of Our Lives,” was one of the very most brave, and striking, pieces of art I have ever seen. His desire for people to see him for who he was at any given time in his career was admirable, but at this place in time it was pivotal. He died three days later, I think. The visual in this video defined the face of so many who suffered. I still cry every time I see it.
One last thing. Tell us about your new album!
I actually have two new projects. I’m releasing an original EP in 2021, but these days I’m excited about my latest single “Burn the Floor,” which is a revolutionary sound for me. I’m also working on an all-Canadian covers album, which will be released in October 2020. Iconic is a tribute to some very great songs and artists. Artists must constantly change. I am a bit of a chameleon. I have an eternal desire to try new things. These days my music is changing, and with change comes new learning experiences that fill my soul. And there’s lots more where that all comes from!
This past June we experienced wonderful radio play success in Australia as I am one of their very first LGBTQ out male country artists to ever have a Top 40 hit three years ago with “Wherever Love Takes Us.” So we’re building on that success with “Burn the Floor.” Music is life for me! So much more to come!
Readers can learn more about Drake’s work by logging on to: drakejensen.ca.
Raymond Luczak is the author and editor of over twenty books. His latest titles include Flannelwood (Red Hen Press), Lovejets: Queer Male Poets on 200 Years of Walt Whitman (Squares & Rebels), and the forthcoming Once Upon a Twin (Gallaudet University Press). Previously the editor of the queer fiction journals Jonathan and Callisto, he is currently the editor of Mollyhouse. A ten-time Pushcart Prize nominee, he lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Visit his website at: raymondluczak.com.