DJ and sexual assault awareness advocate Zeke Thomas is transforming his story into a survival guide…
By Jumol Royes
One day you will tell your story of how you’ve overcome what you’re going through now, and it will become part of someone else’s survival guide. – Author unknown
People often say that if you really want to get to know someone, you first have to know their story. The thing about stories is they’re ever changing and constantly evolving, just like people. And while it’s true that a person’s story might tell you a whole lot about who they are, where they’ve been and what they’ve been through, people are so much more than just the sum total of their stories.
Josh “Zeke” Thomas refuses to let his story define him or keep him stuck. Zeke is the nickname for Thomas’ famous father (NBA legend and Hall of Famer, Isiah Thomas), but its origins can also be traced back to the Hebrew name Ezekiel – an important prophet from the Old Testament – meaning ‘God strengthens’ or ‘may God strengthen.’ It’s a fitting name for the hardworking DJ, music producer, TV host, sexual assault survivor and awareness advocate.
Music has always come first for Thomas, who was born in Detroit, the birthplace of Motown Records. His debut single, “Regret,” was released in 2014, followed up by his club hit “#ByeFelicia” in 2015 and his single “Blackness,” which Paper Magazine called “the civil rights anthem for the EDM generation.” He’s worked at New York’s HOT 97 FM (the second-largest radio station in the US), been an official NBA All-Star DJ, and collaborated with and performed for stars like Lady Gaga, Jay-Z, Diana Ross, Cher, Snoop Dogg and Michelle Obama.
Thomas premiered his single “Dealin’ With It” on Good Morning America in April 2017 – and publicly revealed for the first time that he had been raped, twice. He told ABC News’ Robin Roberts, “Being gay, being African-American, it’s definitely something I never imagined would happen to me.” The interview went viral before anyone was really talking about the #MeToo movement, and Thomas and Roberts received a nomination at the GLADD Media Awards.
Today, Thomas is on a social awareness mission to break stigmas surrounding sexual assault trauma. As the first male spokesperson for the US National Sexual Violence Resource Center, he speaks out, shares his personal story, and encourages survivors to seek support to help them survive and thrive.
Yet he still finds time to pursue his other passions, including celebrating what it means to be part of the LGBTQ community. When we spoke, he was still riding the wave of having attended WorldPride in NYC marking the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. Thomas announced floats as one of the commentators during the parade (which ran well past midnight!) and DJed a float himself.
“It was a feeling of love and magic that entire week,” he told me. “What was special about it was getting a chance to see so many of my friends and people that I have grown up with in the community…just the energy of the city and the way that everybody kind of came together, it was very much like nothing can go wrong.”
DJing is his first love
The truth is, things did take a wrong turn for Thomas for a while, but through absolutely no fault of his own. The trauma of being sexually assaulted and the aftermath of that experience meant he wasn’t able to focus on doing what he loves most: making music.
“While I was dealing with my sexual assault, it definitely took me away from the recording studio,” he says. “I felt like the studio got almost taken away from me in a sense just because I had met my rapist at a recording studio and it kind of rang in my ears.”
But you can’t keep a musician away from his music for long, and Thomas is happy to report that new music is on its way (his most recent single, “Love Me Sober,” was released in the spring of 2018).
“Finally – actually this week – I stepped into the studio, so there definitely will be new music on the horizon. I’m very thankful that I’m DJing so much because that’s truly my first love.”
When asked which artist he’d want to collaborate with if given the opportunity, the DJ and music producer’s first choice is one of Canada’s most famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) singer-songwriters.
“I’d say Justin Bieber. I still think Justin Bieber is super talented and cool.”
A voice for the voiceless
According to the 1in6 Project, which helps men who have had unwanted or abusive sexual experiences to live healthier, happier lives, one in six men will experience sexual violence in their lifetime.
Since coming out about his personal experience with rape over two years ago, Thomas has been committed to supporting survivors by being an advocate for increased awareness around male sexual assault. His new documentary, Untold Story, shines a light on Black men who have been sexually assaulted.
“What I want people to see is that, number one: sexual assault happens to men, too, and it happens to men not just from men, but also from women,” says Thomas, the executive producer behind the documentary. “It happens at all ages; to straight men and gay men and all men.”
“The second takeaway would be that young, Black gay men are vulnerable.”
For Thomas, this issue is much more than a passion; it’s deeply personal. He recognizes that he has to balance being a voice for the voiceless and helping other people heal, with walking his own path towards healing.
“When I put myself first is when I started to heal. As I continue to put myself first, I continue to get stronger,” Thomas says.
Though he has struggled with deep depression and attempted suicide in the past, Thomas has learned to accept his activism and that he has to help himself before he can help anyone else.
“I’m in a very healthy place and I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that. It’s a place of just pure happiness. So I want to do the work to stay well,” he says.
“In doing that, I hope that I’m able to continue to talk to other people and just tell them what I’m doing. I don’t have all the answers…but I know what works for me. And I know what has worked for other people. If we could all put these ideas together, maybe one of them will work for you.”
While it’s clear Thomas believes his story can serve as a survival guide for people (especially men) who are dealing with the trauma of sexual assault and struggling to find their way through it, he believes having a strong support system is equally important.
“I feel like once you build a strong friend group and a strong family group, you can all lift each other up,” he says. “We’re all going through things – big things, little things – and it’s nice to have a valid support group and then also be able to reach out to other people.”
You really want somebody to just have your back
Even with the backing of supportive family and friends, walking through the world as a Black gay man means you’re going to be confronted by microaggressions (subtle and indirect discrimination based on things like your race or sexual orientation) and sometimes in-your-face aggression that’s up close and personal: Statistics Canada published a report recently that pegs the national average of hate crimes reported to the police at 4.9 per 100,000 people (out of a total of 1,798 police-reported hate crimes in 2018).
Thomas knows all too well what it’s like to be harassed simply for being himself.
“Just a month ago, I was walking into a DJ gig and this guy screams ‘faggot’ at me down the road,” he recounts. “I gathered myself and told the club, because I was actually DJing at the club that he wanted to go to, and I told security to not let him in. However, the security didn’t get the full message and then I had to explain to security why not to let him in and then they got the message.”
It’s an unfortunate experience that no one should have to go through, but one many of us can still relate to in 2019. For everyone out there who thinks we’re living in a post-racial, LGBTQ-friendly era, the reality is that racism and homophobia are very much alive and well. Thomas reveals how the incident affected him.
“It’s moments like that when you really want somebody to just have your back and not have to explain why,” says Thomas. “Those things are still very triggering, still very real. Especially in your workspaces and in your safe spaces, you don’t want that kind of energy in your space. Dealing with homophobia or dealing with racism, it’s something that you have to deal with, but it’s not something that you have to accept.”
Most little Black boys didn’t grow up with gay Black male role models they could look up to, but Thomas has been a big fan of Billy Porter for as long as he can remember. He’s thrilled to see the Pose star, who’s spent much of his 30-year career blazing a trail for LGBTQ people everywhere, finally getting the recognition he so rightly deserves (Porter is the first openly gay Black man to receive an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series).
“I have been a fan of Billy Porter since his song [‘Love Is on the Way’] was featured in The First Wives Club,” Thomas says.
“I’ve never really gotten to tell him what he really means; not only to me, but to queer Black culture period. This man, he’s literally knocked down walls…and then for him to not give up and to keep going…and for him to be the first openly gay Black man nominated for an Emmy…it’s truly huge and it couldn’t have happened to a better guy. He’s our flag bearer, hands down.”
The next chapter
Thomas made his own mark on television recently when he co-hosted MTV’s hit show Catfish. If he has his way, we’ll be seeing much more of him on TV in the not-so-distant future.
“Television hosting, I absolutely love it. I have always loved being on screen, on camera and getting the chance to just be myself and not even really play a role,” he says. “There are a few shows that I’m optioned for…and hopefully Catfish is going to have me back for another co-hosting gig.”
When I ask how he feels about the Raptors winning their first NBA championship, Thomas – who has Canadian connections from the time he spent in Toronto as a kid when his dad was the team’s part owner and first general manager – says he couldn’t be prouder.
“It was very a special moment not only for my dad, but also for my mom and definitely for me and my sister. I just think about [how] my dad had just retired and was like, ‘we’re going to take basketball into Canada.’ It had never been done before.
“To have that high of a mountain to climb and then to finally reach a championship, and bring a championship not just to the city of Toronto but to the country of Canada, and now I believe Canada is turning out basketball players left and right. It’s definitely becoming a basketball country; I mean I don’t know if it’ll ever overtake hockey – and I love hockey, I grew up a Red Wings fan so don’t hate me [laughs] – but it’s definitely cool.”
When the Raptors first started out, a lot of people found it hard to believe they might one day rise to the top of the heap and become NBA champions.
It’s just further evidence that everyone has a story. We also have the power to write our own endings.
JUMOL ROYES is a Toronto-based communications strategist and content writer with a keen interest in personal development and transformation. Follow him on Twitter at @Jumol.
Zeke Thomas was shot exclusively for IN Magazine.
Exectuive Production: EJ Jamele at crowdMGMT, Photographer: Hector Gonzalez, Jr., Styling/Art Direction: Brandon M. Garr at crowdMGMT, Hair & Makeup: Nathan J using Living Proof at crowdMGMT.