Atlas O. Phoenix (they/them/theirs) is an award-winning director, writer, and producer based in Minneapolis. In 2018, they were consumed with creating their short film, Little Men, shot entirely in Minneapolis. Their works have been screened at multiple film festivals, Intermedia Arts, online, and MNTV. In the late 90s, as a crew member, they had the rare opportunity to work for Prince, their childhood hero.
This year was all about the “rose bushes” in my “backyard” and all things coming full-circle. My picks are everything local to Minneapolis, because that is what had the most impact on me as an artist this year. I didn’t have to search too far to find myself. Sometimes, what you need isn’t far away. Also, some things have a way of traveling back to you when you’re wiser. My wisdom has increased exponentially this year, and it was humbling. This year has been all about growth and development for me as a legitimate artist and human being. What I’ve listed below, is a map of sorts—starting with the first inspiration to the last. I can only hope that 2019 will be brighter and “Beyond the Future” with hope and glory.
1. PRINCE’S 1999
This year, I’ve been working on a screenplay loosely based on my senior year of high school, and this album, in heavy rotation, has been my nostalgic muse as I write—sometimes all day, every day for weeks. Here’s the day I discovered it: Monday, December 26, 1983 would be the day my life would change forever, and I would grow into the individual I am today. As customary, my father, on his days off, would disappear from our house from 10 am until roughly when the bars closed. That night he came home at around 11:30 pm. In his hand was a flat, light brown paper bag. He handed it to me. Curious, I quietly said thank U and disappeared into my bedroom. In the bag was a rolled poster and the album, 1999, by Prince. I opened the poster first. It was my favorite image of Michael Jackson. The backdrop was purple. He wore a brown bomber jacket, and his Jheri curl was perfect. He had that 1,000-watt smile all his siblings shared. I quickly rearranged my posters to include it on my wall—which was hard. For reference, my room was literally wallpapered with Michael and his entire family (including some distant cousins). I finally got to the album. I carefully removed the plastic and placed it aside. I reached my hand inside the album and pulled out one of the sleeves from the double album set. It was a photo sleeve with lyrics on the back. The photo was of Prince’s band. Maaaan, they looked tough. Invincible. This was my first Prince album. I had heard of him and saw him on MTV, but never had anything like this before—something tangible. The second photo sleeve took me by surprise. He was naked in a bed with his rear-end showing. At the tender age of 13, I had never seen anything like that—ever. As I lay in bed, in the dark with my black-light on, I listened to the album. I still remember what I was wearing, a white T-shirt with a screenprint of an ocean wave which glowed under the black light and black parachute pants I had gotten the day before for Christmas. Laying on my bed, listening to this record, I went down and down into the rabbit hole. I think if my father had known what Prince was saying on that album, he never would have bought it! I lost my innocence, learned about myself, my worth. It was a therapeutic release for me. Soon after, with my allowance, I purchased his earlier albums up to date that year and every album after. I loved the way he bended gender and made it nearly nonexistent. His love songs were tender. His anthems were powerful. He was truly something different. He encouraged me to be an individual responsible for myself and to be true to myself as an artist and human being. As a result of listening to this album, I took down all my Michael Jackson posters, photos, stickers, and whatever else I had and put them in the basement. In my room, I put up a single poster of Prince. I felt as if I could breathe for the first time. I didn’t feel like I was being watched. I felt accepted. After a while, my room looked like a record store dedicated to the Purple One. As I was writing about my life story this year, I relived every moment of that first listening journey. Rediscovering myself, I partied like it was 1983.
“1999”: This song says it all for me. “Trying to run from the destruction, but U know, I didn’t even care.” “Little Red Corvette”: Used to put me in a trance. Still does. I remember holding onto the wall at a roller rink in Dayton, Ohio, in a fog, while skating badly to this song. “Delirious”: The baby cooing at the end?? “Let’s Pretend We’re Married: “Look, you Martian!” Martian!? “D.M.S.R”: My anthem. “A-U-T-omatic”: This song is EVERYTHING from the past to beyond the future. It also explains what made me a brooding, hopeless romantic. “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)”: Most of my relationships! May I suggest bottled water, Madame? “Free”: My absolute favorite song from Prince. Gratitude is a stress reliever. “Lady Cab Driver”: So sexy and rebellious. I’ve actually been a lady cab driver—not inspired by the song, of course, but inspired to pay my rent. It wasn’t sexy (or lucrative). “All the Critics Love U in New York”: This song is about self-love. It doesn’t matter where U are, cuz there you’ll be. If U believe in URself, the world just might sign on. “Don’t give up. I still Love U.” “International Lover”: I heard it a couple of times on the radio without paying attention. When it played on my speakers, I shot up in bed, because I previously thought the song was performed by a man and woman. After listening to it, I don’t know why I thought it was a duet??
2. ESMÉ RODRÍGUEZ: MA, PHD, DRAG QUEEN, ACTIVIST PRONOUNS: THEY/THEM
My ace up my sleeve. One of my besties. Mi Familia. And also, the reason I got into drag in the first place. We are brutally honest with each other. We met on OkCupid. In the three hours it took, I read all 2018 answers to their questions, most of which were not just easy multiple-choice answers. They were accompanied by thoughtful, intelligent, reflective answers. I thought, “I want to get to know this person regardless of how it turns out.” Three months after I sent my initial email, they replied. They were seeing someone, so we immediately decided to invest in a friendship. Things have not been the same for me since. I would discover that, as a PhD-educated activist, they worked for OutFront Minnesota, an organization whose mission is to make the state of Minnesota a place where LGBTQIA+ folx can live their best lives with the freedom, confidence, and the protection they need. With Esmé, I met all kinds of people and tried all kinds of things. When not on a stage as a drag queen, Esmé uses their drag persona as a way to teach equality to eager LGBTQIA+ children, adults, schools, and institutions. I got involved with their mission. I volunteered for an event. Then I became their drag assistant, traveling to Duluth, where I helped with costume changes and other rituals. To those college kids, in the small hamlet of Duluth, Northern Minnesota, Esmé Rodríguez was a Goddess. Pure light. The audience saw themselves in them. A few months later, I got an instant message asking if I wanted to join them in Superior, Wisconsin for a drag-flip show. It’s where the queens are kings and kings are queens. They wanted me to be a drag king (mind you, I had no prior stage or performance experience), and the song we were to perform was Cypress Hill’s, “Insane in the Membrane.” It was probably a little too ethnic for Superior that night, but it was super fun. I had discovered another hidden talent of mine. The audience feedback was contagious. Ez taught me about makeup, poise, and to believe in myself. To own it, they said. They also taught me to gender-bend, something David Bowie and Prince had inspired within me a long time ago. Through Esmé’s confidence in me, I learned to see my light and release my power. I haven’t been the same person since. Thanks, Ez.
3. DYKES DO DRAG
Also, Mi Familia. A few years ago, I was introduced to this group of “misfit toys”—as Heather Spear (aka The Gentlemen King), our co-founder, calls us—when a friend said her wife couldn’t make the show and asked if I’d like to join her. I had always heard of Dykes Do Drag for years, but this was my first opportunity to check them out. I said, “Yes! I’d love to!” During the show, I watched, wonderstruck. I wondered if I could ever do something like what they were doing. The performers revealed so much about themselves through performances that were sometimes spoken word, drag, song and dance, parodies, and nudity. Surely, that took a kind of confidence I knew I didn’t have. I felt it was Minneapolis’s own queer Saturday Night Live. They tackled today’s issues and had contagious fun. I was infected for sure. Later, I met someone from the group by way of a date that was set up by a mutual friend. Our date was the day after yet another show I had attended. I had an idea that I shared with my date—an idea I thought DDD should do. It was about a silly cat lady who sings Prince’s “Adore” to her kitties while they got up to shenanigans on stage. Being a silly cat lady myself, the idea was from my life story. I was nervous as I explained it, worrying that I might be full of myself for even suggesting something to such a talented group. “They’ve got their own ideas, Atlas. Stay out of their soup,” was in the back of my mind. I’m glad I don’t listen to myself sometimes. As I explained the idea to my date, I was encouraged to give more details about it. She liked it a lot! She mentioned it to another costar in DDD, and months later I was on stage with them performing this silly sketch in front of an audience. The Gentleman King invited me to come back. This year I was in a few of the shows (we only have five a year), and I really stretched beyond my limits. I zoomed out of my comfort zone more and more and learned to think less and accept more. DDD is a catalyst that provides another avenue for my creativity to wander down. I’ve been included as family and made close friendships that will last a lifetime. No matter where I go, my chosen Familia will always be with me. In February 2019, DDD will turn 20. I can’t wait to see what 2019 is going to bring on all levels of my life, especially, with this group of talented folx. I’ve written two ideas for our 20th-anniversary show. If you’re in town, come check us out—February, April, June, September, and November at Bryant Lake Bowl in south Minneapolis.
4. MAYDA: SINGER, SONG WRITER, AND MUSICIAN PRONOUNS: SHE/HER/THA
I first saw Mayda many years ago live at a street festival in Nordeast Minneapolis. Her music is a combination of funk, pop, synth, and acoustic glory. Like the Purple One, she defies category and genre. I was struck by how self-aware she was in her stage presence. She skillfully wielded her guitar as if it were a part of her tiny, fragile frame. I was an immediate fangirl! This year, we were in a play together at the 20% Theatre Company called The Naked I: RECOGNIZE/D. Over the year, as we performed in Dykes Do Drag together, we became friends. This year she held a show at Bryant Lake Bowl called ReMayda’d. It was a stunning one-woman show that asked the simple question, “Do I qualify for love?” Do I qualify for LOVE? I didn’t realize I had been asking that same question for years until it was presented to me in this format. And the answer is, “Yes.” We all do.
5. SHANNON BLOWTORCH: DJ PRONOUNS: SHE/HER
Candid, quiet, and powerful. Voted City Pages People’s Choice for best DJ five years in a row now, I’ve been following Shannon Blowtorch for years but only recently met her. One of the world-renowned DJ’s the Purple city has to offer, who also spinned for Prince, I asked her when out for coffee one day if anyone had ever done a documentary on her. I volunteered to do one. And I will. From stripper to stage production to youth worker and now DJ, she has one of the most interesting personal stories I’ve ever heard. And when she spins, it’s from her soul. She knows how to move your booty! Not just what people want to hear, I mean, there’s that, but she is on another level. I feel so high when she spins. It takes me somewhere else full of hope and belonging. Listen to her live sets here.
6. JON MONTGOMERY MAGGS: FASHION DESIGNER PRONOUNS: HE/HIM/THEY
Jon is my cast mate in Dykes Do Drag and also just happens to be an eclectic fashion designer who makes designs that are what I call, “Beyond the Future.” Something so inventive it makes you ask the question, “Where will my wardrobe take me today?” His high-concept designs are not only wearable in everyday life, which provide distinct style and comfort, but also if you’re wearing this jumpsuit in the winter, you’re doing winter right!
7. 20% THEATRE COMPANY’S THE NAKED I: RECOGNIZE/D
The Naked I: RECOGNIZE/D was created by the 20% Theatre Company in collaboration with more than 60 LGBTQIA+ artists. My life changed again this year because of a whim. I hadn’t done any real acting, so to speak. I had always wanted to act before, to learn the process from an actor’s point of view. I thought it would be helpful as a director. When I heard about the opportunity to act in a play, and I didn’t need any experience, on a whim, I jumped at the chance. In the past, laying in bed, my covers clasped in my fist, I had practiced my Oscar speech for best director, screenplay, producer, actor, and picture at least a dozen times in my life. Also, this year my power word was, “Yes!” I never imagined how much the experience would change me. It was humbling. Here I had never acted before, and I was doing a five-minute monologue! I was standing in front of strangers on sold-out nights, telling a story that was not my own, but something I could relate to. People approached me after the show, assuming it was my story and were surprised to find out that it wasn’t. It was actually the story of one of a set of triplets, who shared her trials and tribulations of being biracial (which I am) and queer (I also am) and the flack she received from her white grandmother, who wanted nothing to do with her and her siblings, and also the rage and misunderstandings of society at large. The piece was called, Triad. The first night, I was horrible. I was nervous, forgot some lines, and I paced back and forth on the stage. When I got backstage, I was mortified. Then we had three or four days off, and I practiced. And practiced. Flustered, I tried to remember the notes my director, Kayann Comeaux, had given me, and I tried to emulate the confidence she had in me, which was more than I was used to feeling about myself. It worked. Every night after, I crushed it.
8. JEW DREAMFIRSTBORN: DIGITAL ARTIST, PHOTOGRAPHER, FILMMAKER PRONOUNS: HE/HIM
“I can tell I’m gonna like working with you,” Jew said to me when we first met. “You’re calm.” And yes, he goes by Jew. Later, he would come to my apartment and see on my corner wall a framed poster of Prince. Days later, while we were shooting my short film Little Men in my apartment building, my producer and he snuck a framed, rather large original print of a photograph he’d taken. It was of The Revolution playing at First Avenue the year that Prince passed away. I was at that show. The photo was stunning. It was like being there all over again. Remembering why the concert happened in the first place, I was moved to tears. He told me that when he saw my place, he knew it belonged there. Jew is generous like that. One spring evening, we shared stories about Prince under Jew’s tree by Paisley Park. That was an awesome and chilly night—the butt of my jeans damp from the dew on the grass… Over the course of the summer, we shared more stories about the times we met Prince and the impact he had on our lives—the album 1999 in particular. Jew is a talented, generous artist. His works speak volumes. But I do a have a word or two.
If you look closely, you can see that the text is the Declaration of Independence. This is breathtaking to me. It arrests me.
Effervescent, stunning, and visceral. Any more words, and the meaning is lost.
9. XIAOLU WANG: FILMMAKER, STORYTELLER PRONOUNS: SHE/THEY
From China, and now a local talent in Minneapolis, this young woman is a visionary. I admire her ability to use “feathers” and lightly “brush” the story into existence. She has a delicate touch as a storyteller and a keen eye as a director. This film is breathtaking. She knows her film history and how to use strong imagery to tell her stories. You will see more from her in the future. Check out info about her short film, Dumpling.
10. MMYYKK: SINGER, SONG WRITER, AND MUSICIAN PRONOUNS: HE/HIM
Love In Synthesis is beautiful. I first heard both songs “Soulmate (Heartstrings)” and “Love (In Legato)” this summer. Friend and mentor, The Local Loc Scott McDonald, turned me onto MMYYKK (pronounced Mike) of Astralblak, an inspiring funk, soul, and hip-hop Minneapolis band. Together, Scott and I were going to hold my second fundraiser of the year at the delicious Pimento Jamaican Kitchen to continue raising money for my short film, Little Men. We needed a variety of local musical acts, some of which included Proper-T & Kiana Marie, Jibra’il, and Champaign Jamboree. The first person he recommended was MMYYKK. “He’s on Soundcloud,” Scott told me. Soundcloud? I didn’t use Soundcloud. Two days later, I was blown away from the first beats of “Soulmate (Heartstrings)” and “Love (In Legato).” It’s funny how songs mean something one day and, upon deeper reflection and as time passes, they mean something completely different the next time you hear it. You realize how much you’ve grown. This is indicative of spending time on Hindsight 20/20 island. For the rest of the year, I’ve been listening to his music on heavy rotation, and those two songs are still bittersweet. His latest album, Trouvaille, is on Spotify. Enjoy.
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