A few years back, a high school kid named Donyae Lewis portrayed Sonny in a production of In the Heights, at Governors State University. Lewis had started writing songs and poems that year to "get through life" as he approached the end of his senior year and prepared to enroll at DePaul University.
Recently, Donyae Asante strutted in front of a small Edgewater theater crowd, clad in a leopard-print rainbow onesie and a glitter-covered eyepatch, and crooned about sleeping with older men.
There have been some transformative years for the singer-songwriter, who dropped the single "Business Casual" in June and "Clapback" in early July. The former is an explicit ode to casual hookups, and Asante promised that ( and more ) with a forthcoming album out as soon as the end of the year.
Asante is unapologetic about the emphasis his songs place on sex. "Being sex-positive is knowing your worth, knowing yourself," he told Windy City Times. "As long as you're safe, as long as you're healthy, be a badass."
Asante wasn't always a voice of sexual freedom, but he always had a voice. Growing up in a "gospel home" where his grandma and uncle were regulars in a church choir, Asante started singing at age 5. He got involved in musical theater in the seventh grade, which usurped choir after he dropped the activity his freshman year of high school. At one point he performed with a group at Taste of Chicago, singing about math.
As a freshman at DePaul, he called himself "Yae" and sang covers at a weekly student showcase. He wasn't yet comfortable performing his own songs and would tell people he was bisexual.
"It wasn't necessarily that I was lying," Asante said. "I just didn't have the vocabulary."
He came out as gay by the end of his freshman year and started posting his music on SoundCloud and Bandcamp, using his middle name for his music persona ( "Donyae Lewis sounds like a CEO. Donyae Asante sounds like an artist" ). An early track, "Be Yourz," put Asante's sexuality front and center, with a music video showing him in bed with another man and interspersed with footage shot at PrideFest and on Hollywood Beach.
Asante tiptoed around the idea of an album but initially struggled to find a producer with whom he was comfortable. Post-graduation, he worked as a freelance writer for Gay Pop Buzz and then for South Florida Gay News, but it didn't stick.
"I'm all about healing and about connecting to people beyond words," Asante said, adding he didn't feel he could do that through journalism. Ultimately, he returned to DePaul for a master's in school counseling and mental-health counseling.
He had, however, found a producer: Thomas Fagan, known professionally as Linus, who helped release Asante's eponymous debut, Donyae Asante, earlier this year. Linus said Asante would come into the studio without written notes and would describe the song to Linus, who then composed instrumentals that Asante wrote over.
That debut ultimately took four years to produce and went through four titles. Asante felt he sat on the album for too long, but that he had to experience life in order to write the album.
"I was reintroducing the world to who I am," Asante said. "[Ages] 1 through 17 [weren't] meI [identified as] straight then, so clearly that wasn't me."
Asante said his new album, Flaws and All, focuses past the "lovey-dovey" material of the debut. Slated songs include a tribute to a romantic partner who committed suicide and a track entitled "HIV." ( Asante, who is dismissive of criticism, also plans to attack gay panic on a future track. )
Asante emphasized that he's interested in more than the shock value of his material, and says he wants to offer a message of support to young gay menspecifically young gay Black menlike him and to put his master's degree to work through music therapy. He also spoke about a mission of combatting homophobia in hip-hop in an interview and during his performance in Edgewater.
"Being gay means so much more than breakups and makeups," Asante said. "My lyricism and my story are gonna show people that I'm not doing it for 'sex sales.'"
Explicit sex will remain central to Asante's work, however; he cited outspoken Chicago rapper CupcakKe as one his latest influences, and a lyrical sample of an unreleased track invokes voyeurism in graphic terms ( "sit back and watch while my man makes me cum" ).
"If gay people having sex in their private homes, in their houses, makes people so nervous, how about I just put that on display and make you more nervous?" he asked. "We're not going anywhere, we're going to continue to have sex [and] we're going to continue to love ourselves in a world that does not love us."