In one part of his video for “POSI+IVE,” an anthem about living with HIV, native Philadelphian Tony Enos runs up the steps that Rocky made famous in that iconic moment of cinema.
Not being from Philly, I ask the singer/songwriter if a run up those steps is a rite of passage for those who live in the City of Brotherly Love. Tony laughs.”I think it is! It’s definitely symbolic of that ‘fight’ to keep going and to plow through adversity,” he says, explaining why he added that moment to the video.
Resilience has been hard-won for Tony Enos. He has faced oppressive forces on several fronts and has countered what tries to hold him and others back with empowering songs. One of these songs celebrates living as a two-spirit person as an Echota Cherokee (“Two Spirit,” which garnered him a 2017 Native Trailblazer Indie Music Awards “Artist To Watch” honor). Another describes HIV-centric empowerment (“U=U”). Other songs explore social issues, like the environmental preservation (“Water Is Life”), and love and relationships (“Be My Boyfriend”).
The two-time Native American Music Awards Nominee has performed at the U.S. Conference on HIV/AIDS in 2019, an experience that gave him the courage to be publicly open about his positive status.
Whatever strength he has, he seems to want to share it with others, with the LGBTQ2S community, with Indigenous communities, with the HIV/AIDS community, with the global community. Music is his main vehicle. His powerful voice radiates outward and he is comfortable across genres——R&B, EDM, New Country. And don’t forget holiday music!
Tony started releasing music professionally under lil’ T Entertainment LLC., his own label, in 2008. His first album, DID IT RITE, introduced listeners to his sweet, smooth voice (and often sultry lyrics).So far he has recorded four studio albums and has released multiple singles.
Tony also performs on stage as an actor, and recently appeared in Ajijaak on Turtle Island, which, according to the play’s website, “tells the story of Ajijaak, a young whooping crane. Separated from her family in a Tar Sands fire caused by the monstrous Mishibizhiw, Ajijaak must make her first migration from Wood Buffalo, Canada, down to the Gulf Coast on her own, finding her voice and a family through the interconnectedness of all of creation.” The play celebrates this Indigenous interconnectedness through puppetry, music, traditional dances, animations, and kites.
Asked about acting and the Ajijaak experience, in particular, Tony says, “I love live theater and performing live! I think I love the danger of it! [Laughs.] One night on tour in Wisconsin, everything that could go wrong did in my last quick change and I made my mark in the final scene by the skin of my teeth. That’s when I feel the most alive! [Laughs.] I had done several off-Broadway shows in Lower East Side theaters during the time I lived in New York City, and I’m grateful for those roots and that type of theater training. Ajijaak on Turtle Island was a tremendous blessing and a magical experience! The show was so beautiful thanks to Heather Henson and Ty Defoe’s amazing vision and talented production team, and the fact that it was a show written by an Ojibwa and Oneida playwright [Defoe] playing on 42nd Street was incredible!
He continues: “For Native theater to make it uptown is always a pretty big deal, and I’m proud of what our show was able to do. I had worked with everyone in the show for years before we went to Broadway, so to share that time and space with them——some who are no longer with us——was incredible. For me as a live performer and actor, it’s really more than you can ever wrap your mind around no matter how hard you try. When we did our stint at the New Victory Theater on Broadway, there’d be nights I’d be on stage singing my solo during the show and I’d be saying to myself, ‘Remember this moment! Don’t forget this! Don’t forget what this felt like!’
“When I was a kid, the bullies would cross the street to spit on me. I didn’t know what the feeling was at eight years old, but I felt degraded and mortified. I never imagined that that kid who felt so low would ever have the opportunity to do anything like that. I don’t think he was even able to imagine such a blessing.”
When he is not performing or fine-tuning his music, Tony loves being out in nature. “I’m really thankful for all the green spaces in Philly. You can find me out hiking or roller blading on a sunny day!” he tells A&U.
Looking ahead, Tony says, “I’ll finally be back on the road this year, touring and performing. All dates are listed at tonyenosmusic.com. I’ll also be releasing more Christmas videos this holiday season from my Christmas album, Mr. Christmas. I’ve also just begun working on my fifth studio album, Indestructible, slated for release in late 2022/early 2023.”
A&U recently had the chance to correspond with Tony Enos about his music, journey of empowerment, and activism.
Chael Needle: How did your love of music start?
Tony Enos: I come from a musical family. My grandfather was a doo-wop signer and songwriter with Columbia Records in the ‘50s, and both of my parents always had records playing in the house, so I grew up with music constantly in the air. Seeing Diana Ross perform live when I was two years old changed my life. Thats when I thought “that’s it! That’s what I want to do!” One of my favorite songs as a kid was “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” from The Wizard of Oz. When I graduated kindergarten at five years old, my Dad asked my music teacher if I could have a solo and sing it at the graduation ceremony. That was my first public performance! [Laughs.] It was the pulse point of when it all started. Nothing was the same after that.
It sounds like you had a musical education and a support system for your talent all in one. What was it about “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that you loved?
It’s so funny that you ask me that at this point in my life. My memory starts from two years old, and as far back as I can remember, I was always bullied by other kids for being different. At that age it was “You act like a girl!” Or, “Why do you act like a girl?” “You sound like a girl!” I was just doing and acting in a way that was natural for me. Then around six years old it became, “You’re gay!” “You act gay!” Then the pejoratives and gay slurs started around seven or eight. Kids have such visceral reactions, and I didn’t have the language as I do now at thirty-six years old to say I feel bullied, or oppressed, or I won’t tolerate this toxic behavior or violence against my spirit. Most of the time I just wanted to disappear. I felt mortified. After so many years of getting bullied every day, my young mind and spirit were troubled and heavy. I didn’t understand it all, but I knew what I felt, and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” became a way to express those feelings. Albeit totally subconscious. I longed for a place where I could be myself and not be accosted for it. Even when I hear it today, just those opening strings from the movie score, I get a feeling in my heart and in the pit of my stomach. That song became a safe space for me, and I’m faithful to it today. Fast forward to present day, I’m working on my fifth studio album, and I’m covering “I Will Survive,” for the very same reasons. I fell in love with that song around six years old because it expressed for me what I couldn’t express on my own.
Well, I’m glad you found the words to speak back to oppressive forces and protect and nurture your spirit. On your fourth studio album, POSI+IVE, your voice, which is lovely by the way, comes across clear and confident. Empowering. “Losing Season” had me in tears. Why did you decide to record this album?
Thank you for your kind words; I appreciate that. Also, thank you for mentioning “Losing Season” specifically. That was the toughest song on this record to get through. We would have to stop and come back to it once the air cleared.
The vehicle for the POSI+IVE album was really when I was the opening performer at the 2019 United States Conference on HIV/AIDS in Washington, D.C. Here I was in this amazing affirming and safe space for people living with HIV, and I decided to stay closeted about my status. It caused me so much more anxiety and discomfort, but I also wasn’t able to commune with other people living with HIV and share that lived experience and say “me too!” or “I’ve been there; it will get better.”
When it was over and I was on my way home thinking of those lost opportunities to experience community, I thought to myself, “This is so stupid; I’ll never do this again! I’ll never keep myself closeted in an affirming and safe space like that again!” I think at that point, I just got tired of carrying it. So we started to talk about what it would look like if I came out publicly about my status, and what would have a positive and healthy impact on the lives of the community. One night on the way home from the grocery store, I wrote the song “POSI+IVE” and I thought, “Well, no turning back now”! [Laughs.] So I decided the album would chronicle the past thirteen years of my living with HIV up until that point. My hope and prayer is that it can be good medicine for people and that folks living with HIV will feel seen, and their experiences validated.
Yes, we cannot ignore those experiences that show us there could be another way forward. What has been the response to the album?
I’m thankful that people have really been receptive to it and everyone seems to be able to find something that speaks to them and apply it to their life in their own way. That said, somebody’s always gonna hate. [Laughs.] And I’m okay with that. That’s art, and that’s the business. I think it makes it that much more special when someone really does get it and appreciates it. I’m just grateful anyone is interested in what I have to say and wants to empathize with me through music. That’s the miracle of music. Where words fail, music speaks.
You have a lot of clarity about staying on track! I love the song “U=U,” where you educate about how an undetectable viral load means one cannot transmit HIV. It’s not easy to create a song that raises awareness and works as a dancefloor anthem, but you have done it. Why did you think it was important to spread this message?
Thank you for that. Initially I think I was motivated to do it out of a bit of anger and frustration really! [Laughs.] As humans we’re habitual creators and most of our knowledge is recycled knowledge because, at some point, it became commonplace, or “the norm,” to know something. The fact that people living with HIV who maintain an undetectable viral load through treatment CAN NOT transmit HIV is a GAME CHANGER! WHY ISN’T THIS COMMON KNOWLEDGE?! Why isn’t it part of school sex-ed curriculums, why isn’t there more pop-culture representation and commercials from big Pharma [side eye]? With that said, we all know the answer. The “business of the United States” has two key principles: (1) Control the people with religion and keep them stupid so we the government can do what we want in the name of “God” and no one will question it; even religion shames them into hating their own enjoyment of sex; and (2) Corporations are God. Anything that negatively impacts these principles and tips the scale of power towards the people becoming aware and having the ability to make informed choices is instantly and quietly carted away and buried. PrEP is a wonderful tool for prevention, but it’s not treating root-cause. Making sure that all people living with HIV have access to viral suppressing medications and the support to maintain an undetectable viral load is treating root cause.
However, soapboxing like this isn’t always the most effect mode of education or advocacy! [Laughs.] So I decided to use a dance song as an educational tool. The knowledge of U=U attacks all the road blocks we face in ending the epidemic: Stigma, access, MORE STIGMA, and culturally appropriate education. Again, I feel where words fail music speaks, and, if people can have a good time and dance while learning, why not?
In 2020 I was also blessed to be chosen as a U=U Ambassador for the Prevention Access Campaign’s U=U movement and campaign. My amazing fellow ambassadors, and being a part of the campaign have been such tremendous inspirations! I wanted to give us something! Something that celebrated us coming together and our resilience, but also that would give voice to what we’re out here fighting for. People are still dying from HIV. It’s not over yet. So we’re here, and we will be here. Until there’s a cure, and until it’s over.
Agree. It’s not over yet. Speaking of resilience, what do you rely on to handle life’s difficulties?
I think in it’s most simplified form, it’s love. After that would be awareness. There’s only two actual energies in the world——love and fear. Those energies create our emotions, which create our experiences, which creates our “reality.” What you think about grows, so you have two choices: to grow and nurture love within yourself, or feed fear, which inevitably becomes a monster.
My awareness helps me to remember that I’m connected to all things. Being aware that I’m a spirit that has a body and a mind has been a cornerstone in how I conduct my spirit. I’m aware that I’m not the thoughts that I think, but that I’m the observer of the thoughts that I think. I can observe them and cultivate healthier patterns of thought, and catch fearful thoughts much quicker that way. Thinking and thoughts are experiences in my awareness, as is “having” HIV. Living with HIV is an experience in my awareness, but I am NOT HIV. I’m not defined by it, or by any other experience of this world. I am what I am. We all are.
So I’ve chosen to liberate my self from the stories of the world, and conduct my spirit in a way that I feel fills me with good things, so that I have good things to give to myself, and to give away to other people. You can’t give away what you don’t have. So we’re all responsible for filling ourselves with good things. Our spiritual health isn’t anyone else’s responsibility but our own! The good news is that there’s no shortage of good things. The world is full of immutably good things, and they’re good for no reason! Not because someone is paying them to be, or for political or financial gain, they’re just wonderful things! Trees which breathe life into our bodies, the birds and other pollinating animals which are responsible for about 35% of the world’s food, the life-sustaining sun, these are things that we all have access to noticing and appreciating. The saying “your best life begins with gratitude” is true!
When you realize how full of love the universe is, and that you can never be disconnected from it because it lives inside of you, you can’t help but be filled with love. In turn, the things of this world, even the most horrible, we’re able to keep from having holds on our spirits when we choose to turn our attention back to love and make the choice to be love. I’m not perfect at it, and of course I have my moments, but it’s a commitment one makes to themselves and their spirit.
These commitments can be lifesavers. Your response reminded me of the lyric in your song, “Two Spirit”: “difference shouldn’t stand in the way of love.” In your video, I love the way you enlisted a diverse range of individuals who are two spirit. In what ways has being two-spirit helped you in your journey living with HIV?
I think having a wonderful and supportive two-spirit community has been an essential key to making me feel safe enough that I could come out publicly about my living with HIV. I feel the role of two-spirit also speaks to a time when we lived according to a different value system of life, each other, and the world around us.
A great deal of the shaming and villainizing of people living with HIV can usually be traced back to a root cause of christian-institutionalized, or catholic-institutionalized belief. I think underneath that superficial layer is christian sex-shaming, and the thought being that “someone with HIV did something dirty or unclean to deserve getting HIV. They got what they deserved for being a sexual deviant.” Two-Spirits were here before colonization and the tyranny of christian religiosity. The role of two-spirit reminds me that I don’t have to admit that toxic and oppressive school of thought into my spirit, and that that’s not who I am.
When I was first diagnosed I carried around so much self-loathing due to my own internalized AIDSphobia. I felt lower than the scum of the earth, and it was all other’s shit that I was carrying around inside of me. Taking up my two-spirit role has fueled my resistance and reminded me that I am not other people’s thoughts of me.
For more information about Tony Enos and where and when he will be performing, visit: tonyenosmusic.com.
For information about the photography of Holly Clark, visit: hollyclarkphotography.com.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U. When he is not editing or writing HIV journalism, he writes fiction and poetry. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.