Almost two years ago, Ryan Jamaal Swain took a chance on himself and moved from Birmingham, Ala., where he’d grown up, to New York City to take part in an FX show called “Pose” that tells the story of ball culture and ballroom communities in the Eighties. The 24-year-old plays Damon, a driven and gifted dancer from the south who becomes one of the first members of the fictional House of Evangelista. Does the storyline sound familiar? Swain admits there are parallels between his real life and his existence as Damon (the actor studied theater at Howard University but also has a big background in dancing and singing). And in person, when we meet during NYFW, Swain is kind, sure of himself and dedicated to being an artist and activist. To him, the two are ingrained in his identity and define who he is.
We caught up with Swain, whose fashion week schedule included Kenzo, Jeremy Scott, Pyer Moss and Opening Ceremony, Friday ahead of the Kenzo NYFW party.
WWD: What’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed between your hometown of Birmingham, Ala., and New York since moving to the city?
Ryan Jamaal Swain: It’s the pace with which people move and work. There is an immediacy in New York — I have to get this moment right now, quick, fast, in a hurry. What I love about home is that it’s filled with culture, home-cooked love, hospitality and support. The commonality between everyone living in New York is their desire to make it. Being on a show like “Pose,” I’m living my dream and I’m living the dream of Damon as well. Alabama has raised me, New York is making me a fighter and an artist.
WWD: How has your Southern upbringing influenced the work you do now?
R.J.S.: Coming from Birmingham, it’s a civil rights-charged place. Birmingham breeds that mentality, and as a result of being around it, all the things I’ve done have always been on the front lines of social change. My grandparents marched with Martin Luther King Jr., so it was always instilled in me that I should be an artist who’s about social movements. And every project that I’ve done, from back home at Birmingham Children’s Theater, my first professional show, “George Washington Carver,” to “Pose,” having the largest LGBTQ cast — everything in my life has been shaping me for this moment, and for the artist that I want to be, which is the artist-activist. It also has made me warm and nice. People in New York aren’t always expecting you to be friendly.
WWD: It seems like being an actor on “Pose” is, in itself, a work of activism. Do you think that statement is accurate?
R.J.S.: That is, it really is an act of activism. Everyone on the show is fearless and brave to even be stepping into a project that — I mean, we didn’t know we were gonna get a season two. So we knew we had to put our hearts and souls on the line because it was all of our story. In order for us to have people see us and to authentically tell this story, we have to do it. Being an actor on “Pose” is my activism, but also I know there’s more outreach I want to do because I’ve been afforded this opportunity to be a vessel for a message coming from a generation of LBGTQ youth of color. A child, or anyone, needs to be told “I see you.” They need to be told that they are heard.
WWD: Right, some people don’t realize how important it is to be to told that you’re seen or heard.
R.J.S.: It’s huge. And I didn’t have anyone who did that for me except my grandparents and mother. My mom was like, “Oh my goodness, I’m gonna support you, I don’t know what the hell you’re doing, but I’m gonna support you no matter what.” Nobody was asked to be here, so when we’re here, we should be welcomed by people because that makes us a more inclusive world.
WWD: You mentioned outreach you’re interested in doing. Do you have any plans to work with certain organizations?
R.J.S.: I’ve been working heavily with the It Gets Better project, and I’m going away for the month to write my book. I’m writing a teen fiction book about a black queer youth who’s trying to figure out the highs and lows of being from the south and being queer. There’s already a duality with being black in America, but the next part of that is being black and queer in America. You’re dealing with civil rights issues, shootings, police brutality, mass incarceration while also having to fight for your identity. I didn’t see myself represented in Barnes & Noble, or in bookstores anywhere, for that matter, when I was a kid. I want to expand this book so it can be turned into a movie, then maybe a TV series — then it’s a movement. I’ve seen “Pose” do a marvelous job with [dispelling] symbolic annihilation, which means if I don’t see myself represented, I feel that I’m unworthy or not important. The paradigm is shifting.
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