Sonny Apollo, the self-coined psuedonym of Frederick native Joshua Diggs, just laughed when I asked him about growing up as a queer man of color in Frederick.
In 2018, the performer moved to L.A. and launched “Communion,” a dance party with drag queens and live performances from his latest EP. It’s safe to say that the singer is comfortably out of the closet. But as a young man growing up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, sexuality was something Apollo didn’t want to talk about. He purposefully avoided it in his career, too, he told me, until a few fans stepped in.
Apollo’s latest single, “DOPE,” launches Friday, a preview for his third EP later this fall. As he’s grown more comfortable as a performer, he’s also become increasingly open with identity. He hopped on the phone recently to promote his newest projects and open up about his childhood in Frederick.
Tell me about the start of your performance arts career in Frederick.
Apollo: In middle school, that’s when I really started researching people like Sammy Davis Jr. and Judy Garland and Liza Minelli. And then I got to [Gov. Thomas Johnson] High School and met a man named Jason Hoffman [director of the TJ Theatre Department]. He encouraged me to audition for ‘The Wiz’ in my freshman year of high school. I went in with the mindset of wanting to be the Scarecrow ’cause, hello, Michael Jackson played the Scarecrow in the movie version.
When they put the cast list online, I remember going to the downtown library and standing outside for 10 minutes, waiting for it to open. I hopped right on that computer, signed my code in, and I saw that I was cast as The Wiz. I remember having a muted sense of excitement, if you will, but I was kind of confused. Because I was like, ‘Well, I know it’s called The Wiz, but I don’t actually know The Wiz as a character.’ I remembered The Wiz in the movie version had a smaller part, and at that time, my ego was big enough to believe that small actors got small parts.
Did that discourage you from theater, then? Not getting the part you wanted?
Apollo: No, I studied hard, learned what I could, and brought myself to the project. It started a great relationship as far as my involvement in the arts in high school. From there, I was in just about all the stage productions, whether that was onstage or behind the scenes.
Then I went on to the [Academy for the Fine Arts] at TJ. I initially auditioned to be a part of the theater program, and I did get in, but I had this moment of realization where I kind of looked at my career goals and I was like, ‘You know, I really want to be on the radio. I really want to make albums.’ So, I auditioned for the music program last-minute. Luckily, I think I had a Whitney Houston song with me. And I was accepted on the spot.
While all this is going on, you’re also learning more about your sexuality. And I was wondering if you could tell me what it was like to be a queer man growing up in Frederick?
Apollo: (laughs) If you’re ready to dive in, here we go. You have to imagine going to an all-black, historically black [African Methodist Episcopal] Church growing up. And coming into your own sexuality and identity, juxtaposing that against winning writing competitions for the church—
What writing competitions?
Apollo: We have what’s called the Sunday School Convention, and it’s held annually. At the time, it was held at Frederick Community College. There were different activities that took place: performances, sports, and then there was this coveted writing competition where each church was presented a prompt. They were asked to select some writers from the church to write on that prompt using passages from the Bible.
I don’t mean to be cocky, but I would come back every year and win first place. It helped me gain a little bit of acceptance, I guess. But looking back, it was like, for what?
Were the passages specifically anti-gay?
Apollo: The passages I used had nothing to do with sexuality. It was more that I was the one writing it. I was the one behind the microphone, knowing the ideology of the church. You’re writing about these things that, once upon a time, you believed in, because that’s what you were told to believe in. But then as you mature, you start forming your own opinions and you realize — as you’re sitting in the congregation and you’re hearing that homosexuality or lesbianism is a sin — you realize that you feel kind of ridiculed. You feel kind of attacked, because these are not the things that you believe, and this is not the God you know or serve.
Did you ever open up about what you were feeling?
Apollo: There were people who knew. But at the time, I was very much the guy who was like, ‘The truth never needs to be shared.’ Whatever you think it is, it probably is. Some would probably say that borders on ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ but it wasn’t that I was so private and hidden because I was afraid of people from my own faith knowing about it. It was more about being private and hidden because of reputation, and what it would mean for those affected by it. You know, me winning first place in the church writing competition every year. If it got out, like, ‘Oh my God. He has a boyfriend,’ then that would ultimately affect my pastor. Because it’s like, ‘Well, what are you teaching?’ Or it would affect my mother. Like, ‘Oh, you’re not raising a man.’ Those kinds of arguments.
I always had a kind of defiance with my sexuality. I remember one Thanksgiving, my younger cousin was like, ‘Josh, we know your secret.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, what’s my secret?’ He said it, and I was like, ‘Well, then, it’s not really a secret.’ To me, at least. I mean, I’m walking in my truth. I just don’t feel like it’s anyone’s business. I’ve always wanted to be the kind of queer artist who never had to come out. My heterosexual peers, they never have to come out. They don’t have to introduce themselves to people as, like, ‘Hey, I’m straight.’ They never have to read the room to make sure people are going to be okay with the fact that they’re straight.
So, did you ever officially come out, to anyone?
Apollo: You know what? The only time I can say I ‘came out’ in a semi-traditional sense was when I was 17 and it was the pep rally at TJ. My boyfriend at the time, Jonathan, came over with some of my friends to my house after school. We were all sitting in the living room and I heard the door unlock. It was my mom! So, at that moment, I was like, ‘Well, I guess now is a good time to let her know who Jonathan is,’ ‘cause we were talking about hanging out and him coming over.
I remember walking back to her room and being like, ‘Hey Mom, how was your day?’ Yada yada yada. And then I was like, ‘Hey, Jonathan’s here. Jonathan is my friend.’ Five beats. One, two, three, four, five. ‘Jonathan is my boyfriend. He’s going to be around a lot.’ That was kind of it. I walked away. It wasn’t, like, ‘Oh, I’m gay.’ It was more a justification of someone’s presence. And that was kind of how it was left. After that, I never really came out or spoke much on my sexuality to anyone. I mean, I’m an action-based person, so I was kind of like, ‘Believe what you want to believe. I’m just out here living.’
Moving past your time in Frederick, I know that you went to Chicago after high school and spent some time at Columbia College. Can you tell me about that?
Apollo: That decision was based primarily on the fact that I wanted to get as far away from Frederick as possible, if I’m going to be frank and honest. Up until that point, I didn’t really feel like I had much of an identity of my own beyond being so and so’s cousin or being in the shadow of so and so. And I was like, ‘You know what? I want to go far enough away that you have to visit me.’ Also, I knew Oprah was from Chicago and I knew ‘Chicago’ the musical. So, I was like, ‘Okay. Why not?’ Granted, growing up, I always thought Chicago was a state. This is before I even knew about Illinoise — how I used to pronounce it before I knew it was Illinois.
I went to Columbia College for a good, solid semester. Let me tell you, I was not the poster child for college at all. I was definitely the poster child for how to socialize. I was the student who was definitely partying — partying with his teachers — but would still make class the next day and pass his sight-reading exam. I would sing in my teachers’ ensembles, I’d be a background singer, and I had teachers recommend me for different roles. But as far as the academic part? Sometimes, I would be sleeping through class. Luckily, I had a really solid, tight friend who would show up, wake up on time, and help me catch up on everything.
Then you dropped out?
Apollo: I dropped out, with a little bit of counsel. A little bit of counsel from my teachers, and also knowing that I really couldn’t sustain myself in college, especially given my financial situation at the time. But I remember one of my professors being, like, ‘You’re already starting your career. I think college is a good setting for those who need that structure, and then there are others who don’t necessarily need college as a performing artist.’ He said, ‘I’d recommend that for you, as long as you understand the risks that could come from skipping the college route’
Do you think it was a good decision?
Apollo: I guess you can say the rest is history. I hopped on Megabuses between Frederick, Hagerstown, and New York City to go audition with my really cheap Xeroxed resume and headshots. I was getting callbacks on Broadway, but I didn’t fit the bill, ultimately. Whether it was my height, my weight, my look. Then I was doing the regional thing when grandfather passed away. That kind of put me on pause. There was this bleak period of three to six months when I didn’t really care too much to be artistic or anything.
Were you close with your grandfather?
Apollo: Close enough. He was a very pivotal and strong male role model in my life. And one of the very few people who I felt really understood me and got me on a primitive level, without judgement. I mean, he was the person who bought me a blow dryer for Christmas when I decided I wanted to grow my hair out. He was always supportive.
His name was Bernard. Bernard Diggs. Actually, to segue, that’s where I got Sonny from. Because his nickname was Sonny. And his passing was ultimately the re-ignition to my artistic endeavors, if you will. Like, we all eventually have to die, so, let’s get on with the show.
The next year, 2012, I was with some friends on a farm in Monrovia, Pennsylvania. And we participated in some activities that led to the name Sonny Apollo. If you want the cut-and-dry story, we did some shrooms and we smoked some weed and we were sitting in a circle, just having fun and being liberal. I guess you could say I kind of disassociated from the moment, and I looked to my friend’s cat and I asked the cat, ‘Hey, do you think my name should be Sonny? If you think my name should be Sonny, I need you to nod your head once. And I’ll believe that you are my grandfather in the form of a cat.’ To my knowledge and to my belief, the cat nodded its head. So, my name became Sonny. And then I asked, ‘If you think my name should be Sonny Apollo, I need you to nod your head again.’ And to my belief and my knowledge, that cat nodded its head .
But you moved back to Chicago after that, didn’t you?
Apollo: Yeah, same year — 2012 — I moved back to Chicago and I lived in a homeless shelter because I was too proud to ask any of my friends if I could stay with them. I was like, ‘I want to do this on my own. I want to Drake this — start on the bottom.’ You could definitely argue that it was convenient homelessness, but it was still one of my greatest secrets. It’s still one of my greatest secrets. My friends in Chicago did not know I was at a homeless shelter. My family did not know I was at a homeless shelter.
I also heard you kick-started your career in Chicago by meeting Jimmy Butler.
Apollo: Yeah! This goes back to when I was at the homeless shelter. At some point, a lightbulb went off and I was like, ‘Okay, maybe I should get a day job to sustain myself. Grow up a little bit.’ So, I worked as a canvasser for Greenpeace. But only for a week.
I was outside of this well-known Asian fusion lounge called Jellyfish. It’s on Rush Street on Chicago’s famous Gold Coast, which is the equivalent of Times Square or downtown L.A. And I saw outside the venue that they had music. I was like, ‘I wonder if they’re looking for new talent.’ Mind you, I didn’t have a band set up, I didn’t have anything set up, but I walked in. I stopped my whole shift, walked into the venue, and was like, ‘Hey, are you looking for more talent?’ The venue manager gave me this look — I remember this look from when I was auditioning in New York City. He looked me up and down as if to say, ‘You want to perform here? What are you talking about?’ But then he was like, ‘Well, we are looking for some new talent. Do you have music on hand?’
I came back with some demos I was working on with one of my friends. I played the guy those demos and he was like, “I really f— with this.’ I will never forget him saying that. I was like, ‘Thanks!’ He gave me a Sunday night slot from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., which — for anyone in nightlife — is kind of known as a dead zone. But that’s how you pilot your ideas. You start on Sunday nights.
Sunday ended up being really good for me because that was industry night. That was when all the entertainers of Chicago came out to eat, came out to drink. That’s when all the Bulls players came out. One night, I guess Jimmy Butler was in the audience with Jake Udell, who at the time was the manager of Krewella, a well-known EDM act. And I know his name may be controversial to say now, but R. Kelly’s manager was there. All those managers were there with Jimmy Butler. At the time, my manager, Alan, he whispered to me, ‘I think it’s Jimmy’s birthday.’ Mind you, I knew a few people named Jimmy, so I was like, ‘Okay, Jimmy. Great, got you.’ So, I started singing happy birthday to Jimmy. I didn’t know which Jimmy until this man walked up to the stage and was like, ‘Wow, you have a really nice voice.’ And it was Jimmy Butler!
During my run there, he came back maybe another three times with some other friends. He even got onstage one time. He was really the first Chicago celebrity I met. At the time, it was a huge deal. He was the reason I was able to connect with Jake Udell and talk about my aspirations in the music industry.
I know you’re living in L.A. now and you’re comfortable identifying as a queer artist. But you’ve mentioned that wasn’t always the case. Why is that?
Apollo: My mission statement has always been that I never want my race or my sexuality to distract from me as an artist. Which is why during the early years of my career, I really just avoided the whole notion of identifying with my sexuality and even my race. I mean, when you grow up and see how the industry treats your race, your sexuality, you start thinking about whether or not you want that to be the focal point.
For my first EP, ‘Adventures in Paradise, there’s a song on there called ‘Scream the Escape.’ And the chorus goes, ‘Sodom and Gomorrah, Venus and Mars, life’s a party, let’s love it while we can. I wonder, can we have an orgy of love today?’ The lyrics alone are racy, but then I had a whole treatment — a video, fashion, a concept — that was even bigger. I had a costume that was covered in lightbulbs with these silver platform heels. But after some consultation with my management, they were like, ‘The reality of the situation in 2017 is that you can’t be black and queer and have a song with these lyrics and decide to dress like this. You have to find a balance.’ So, ultimately, I went a safer route, for me. But as an artist, I’ve gotten to a point where it’s like those who are going to f— with me will f— with me and those who are not will not. I’ve become more free as a result, and I’m really excited about forthcoming projects as a byproduct of that freedom.