If you want to elicit a strong reaction from actor Brian Tyree Henry, play “Smokin’ Room” by Chaka Khan — the song moves him to tears during our interview (“I wish I could tell you why, but it just does”). Henry stars as rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles in “Atlanta” and won an Emmy for an episode of “This Is Us” in which he performed “We Can Always Come Back to This.” He’s now on Broadway in “Lobby Hero.”
How did you first become involved with music?
When I was in marching band. My school had the dopest arts program — the dopest show choir, the dopest marching band. I couldn’t sing or play an instrument a lick, but I was just going to fake it till I make it.
I’ve discovered people in my lifetime who are like, “I always wanted to sing but …” It’s like, well then did you try? My thing was always not caring about failure. When people ask me, “Are you a singer?” I say, “No, I’m not a ‘singer’ — but I love the craft of singing,” going in and finding out what that means or why the hell I’m singing in the first place. My thing is really the craft of it. Music has always been a part of my life, and it helps me a lot because it speaks for me when I can’t speak for myself.
Where does that fearlessness come from?
I’ve been dealing with this for most of my life with people saying, “Well, maybe you were just special.” Maybe I was, and who’s to say you weren’t? But just because you think I was “special” doesn’t mean you should try to squelch this down.
How does that affect you?
My thing is you’re not here by accident. Because life still happens. My mother still died; I’ve had to bury two of my best friends. I was happier … making no money and walking 20 to 40 minutes to a theater that paid me $60 than I [have been] to live a life of notoriety and not having my mother be next to me. That may sound completely idealistic. I’ve had so many people use the word “idealistic” in a negative way, which I didn’t know you could do. I thought idealism was a good thing.