Athens Boys Choir is not a bunch of Georgians draped in robes, singing their praises to Jesus. It's just multimedia artist Harvey Katz showing his sense of humor about growing up as a queer trans Jewish man in the Deep South.
Pictured: Athens Boys Choir a.k.a. Harvey Katz
Instead, Athens Boys Choir is a blend of homo hip-hop and spoken word that defies genres and boundaries. Katz delivers important messages about gender, sexuality and politics through hip-hop beats, a sprinkle of kitsch and a huge helping of humor. Katz has shared the stage with the likes of Ani Difranco, Bitch, the Indigo Girls and many others. Katz started touring with another man in 2003, but has since gone solo, and just released a new album, Bar Mitzvah Superhits of the 80s, 90s and Today.
Windy City Times recently spoke with Katz, who will be bringing Athens Boys Choir to Chicago's Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace, on Tuesday, Nov. 4, for a special election-night 'Barack My World' performance with 8 Inch Betsy, Anaturale and Lemmy Caution. Doors open at 7 p.m., and the show begins at 8 p.m. The election will be televised during the show.
Windy City Times: So, you'll be coming to Chicago on Election Night, of all nights!
Harvey Katz: Yes. I am so excited about this show! What a cool concept.
WCT: Can you believe the election is only days away, at this point?
HK: I know. It's crazy! I'm starting to get a little nervous now. I bet Chicago is nutso right now.
WCT: We're a little on edge.
HK: I bet. It's so critical, at this point.
WCT: Did you closely watch the debates?
HK: I listened to the presidential debates and listened to the vice presidential debates. ... It's panic-inducing! Their nervousness made me nervous. I was sweating bullets watching [ the last presidential debate ] . As soon as McCain said the words 'pro-abortion,' it just killed me. ... It's an exciting election. I'm just glad that everyone is so into it. Even my roommate, who has never voted in her life—no matter how much I yell at her—is voting in this election. That is a huge deal.
WCT: Maybe people like her will make the election. So, let's talk about how you got your start in spoken word. I know you used to share the stage with another guy, and touring wasn't for him, so you went solo. But how did you start? Was it something you wanted to do for a while?
HK: You know what? There is no way I would have ever guessed that I would be doing this. I hated everybody. I hated being in front of groups of people. I had such microphone panic, I couldn't even tell you. But I had a bad break up, and I just didn't care after that! I started writing and being really involved in the creative process. I always liked writing. I even liked writing reports! I got a P.E. degree, so I never thought I'd be doing this. [ Laughs ] It just sort of came. I started going to these open mics, and literally, the longest piece was 30 seconds long. My buddy, Rocket, and I started doing it together, and then he said, 'Let's do this together for this one show.' I was like, 'No way!' I hated it, and through the entire experience I was sweating bullets and all these things. Then I went away, came back, and I had all sort of grandiose ideas at that point because of the bad break-up. I was making my own underwear because I needed something to do, so I was like, 'Alright, let's do this!' I'm the type of person who wants to do it big. So, I thought how funny it would be if we could get on a label, and we did! [ Athens Boys Choir was first singed on to Daemon Records, owned by Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls ] . It was all happening, and now I've been doing it ever since!
WCT: It's funny to hear that you once had microphone panic, and here you are now, playing for big crowds with people like Ani.
HK: Now I think about what would I do if I had this void to fill. The road is exhausting—totally exhausting—and I miss my friends and my dogs, but then I think, God, I love being on stage. I really do.
WCT: What do you think you'd be doing now if it wasn't for this?
HK: I think I'd be in medical school, honestly. I love medicine. I want to open my open my own youth center someday, but go to medical school first. I'm sort of into punishment. I want to do everything!
WCT: I learned from your music video for EZ Heeb that you came out as a man in 2002. I was kind of wondering if that experience helped lead to your work on stage.
HK: In 2000, I sort of came out as trans and then publicly came out in 2002. I didn't feel that it was a big switch for me, but it was a big switch for everyone around me, you know? I found that I was in this constant state of explanation. I didn't know how to explain something that was so black and white and frustrating within me. So, I found that I could go on stage .. .and do it this way. There wasn't any other trans people in Athens that I knew about, except me and Rocket, so we said 'Hey, let's do this quasi-educational fun.'
WCT: You are from the Deep South, so do you feel that your coming out was any more difficult than if you had lived in the Midwest or New York?
HK: I think everybody's experience is probably different. I liked coming out in Athens, Ga. I really didn't have trouble here. People don't really have a vocabulary about it. They have what you give them. Call it the control freak in me, but I love being in charge. I'm really chill. I take my legal name, Elizabeth, because I love having my work cut out for me. I met a bartender the other day who saw my ID and had no clue. She was like, 'No way!' I was like, 'Yeah!' and having fun. She could see that I was not panicked about it, so she had no need to be panicked about it. I spent so many years hating myself and upset with myself. Now my experience as a trans person is that I do love myself, and I'm sorry if that doesn't fit your image.
WCT: Is the trans community growing in Georgia?
HK: Well, Atlanta does have a fairly large trans community, which is an hour away from Athens, but Athens doesn't. It's growing, though. There are about 15 of us. It's a 100,000-person town. It's small, but we're there. It's cool. There are out trans people in Athens, and I think it's been going pretty smooth. I don't feel like it's a big issue around here. For the most part, they get a lot of respect. There are folks around me who are trans. I wouldn't say we've managed to build a community [ laughs ] , but we can find each other.
WCT: When you are on stage, have you received mostly positive feedback, or are there areas where you don't feel as safe because maybe people aren't as receptive?
HK: I've always had really positive experiences, even when I go into other spaces. There is this sports bar in San Jose, and I go back over and over because it's a sports bar! You have to wait for the football game to be over, you know? There's an amateur boxing team drinking there. I love when people come in, expecting a spoken word show. I don't know what I do that's considered spoken word. There is no proper definition. I'm also a musical performance, so maybe there are different terms for different types of spoken word. I like to see that moment where people feel they had to go because they were compelled to. I like people coming here and saying, 'Oh my God, I was dragged here, I won't lie to you, but I had such a good time.' That moment is my get off point. I love it. I love when folks unexpectedly really like it. I get that a lot more. I actually never get negative comments. I do get people who say things that are not trans intolerant but trans ignorant, you know? They might say, 'I didn't know you were a girl!' I'll just say, 'Well, neither did I!' [ Laughs ] . I used to spend a lot of time being uncomfortable with statements like that. But now, I'll just say stuff like, 'Guess I'm just that type of lady!'
WCT: In your work, there is a lot of humor, wit and fun beats you can dance to. Do you think that makes what you have to say more accessible to people, than your stereotypical spoken word stuff?
HK: Yeah, and for me, this is a show that I would like to go to. That's sort of what I want to put out there. We've done a lot of fighting, and the spoken word community is very 'Here is my belief. Here is my religious belief. This is who I am with the world.' I am a sarcastic person. I tend to not take things too seriously, but it's therapeutic, and therapy to me is humor. It's what works in my brain. In that way, it's really accessible. I'm not going to give you a piece that is so personal that you can't relate to the experience.
WCT: I think there's been a big shift in the queer music community. Remember in the late '90s when we had fist-in-the-air queercore and riot grrrl? Now, we can dance to it. It's about celebration. What happened there? Did we get sick of being pissed off all the time?
HK: Yeah! You can't be mad all the time. I was mad for a really long time, too, so I get it. But I think we were at this place where we were mad because we were wondering, 'Why aren't you mad, too?' I'm pissed off, and you should be pissed off, too. Now, we are all pissed off. You have Republicans pissed off at Bush. The country is pissed off. So, I feel like now we are saying, 'C'mon, be happy!' We always want to be different. [ Laughs ] . We're always out of the game.
WCT: What do you hope people take away from your shows and albums?
HK: I really don't know. I wish I had a good answer for that. I just really hope they come back because they've found something that relates to them, you know? I'm such a lover and a community kind of guy. I just sort of want for them to take away some sort of experience. I want them to come away with having such a good time at the show and maybe not expecting to have a good time. I want them to enjoy the experience and maybe go home and write, paint, do math—whatever they love to do.
WCT: Your latest album contains a lot of nostalgia for the '70s and '80s. What were some of your favorite things from those eras?
HK: ...I was really an '80s man. ... I think I like the whole part of the '80s that was so crazy and eccentric. It was neon, you know? I'm not a neon guy, myself. I'm a jeans and T-shirt kind of dude, but I do like how people got a little bit out of hand. [ Laughs ] . That was my favorite part about it. They weren't afraid to get a little sassy.
WCT: What should people expect at the Nov. 4 show?
HK: Well, my show is a mix between spoken word and really stupid homo hop. Homo-hop isn't stupid, but the way I make it is really stupid. [ Laughs ] . I'm really excited about the whole lineup of artists. 8 Inch Betsy are such kick-ass girls. I'm really, really excited to show the guy that I'm touring with. I'm touring with someone who is so amazing. Wait until you see Anaturale. So nice! So sweet! His music is so much fun. I like his heart on the sleeve lyrics with gay-in-the-pants beats. He's a wonderful guy and I'm really excited to be touring with him. I'm totally jazzed that it's Election Night. The last election, I was alone crying in a bar. I'm so psyched. It's Nov. 4—let's to this together! We all got to do this together! It's Chicago. It's Barack Obama. No matter what happens, I think this show is going to be so powerful.