Raised in Detroit, but coming of age in Grand Ledge and Lansing, Lansing musician Bilal Baeza is a black and nonbinary — indentifying with neither traditional male nor female gender roles — artist navigating a predominantly white and straight music world.
Baeza, who prefers to use gender neutral pronouns they/them, creates music that’s hard to label. Their current projects, Brillo, a solo act, and Crawl Spaces — which features Jaxon Kolhoff, Nathan Hallman, Thalia Wells and Ezra Kelly — have a unique, gothic electronic flavor. But one important aspect when discussing Baeza’s music is to avoid mislabeling it as rap. It’s a common faux pas Baeza suffers as they are black and don dreadlocks.
“Being black and nonbinary in the music industry, it does get a little weird. Everything from tiny things, from people just assuming I’m a rap artist and dismissing before even giving me a chance. It’s disrespectful to me, because I love rap so much,” Baeza said.
Baeza is best friends with Crawl Spaces member Jaxon Kolhoff, who is an international model as well as a musician. “He’s very calm and peaceful, like a turtle. It was refreshing to meet him and I wanted to know more immediately,” Baeza said. “The next day we started playing music together. From then on, either him or me will say, ‘Wanna jam?’ And we’ll bust out the instruments and work on something.”
Baeza’s other close friend and frequent collaborator, Thalia Wells, sings on the track “No Mo” from Crawl Space’s EP “After The Sun Goes Down.” While Baeza and Wells met on the dating app Tinder, the two just ended up becoming best friends instead of romantic partners.
“Just from hearing her voice without any instruments, my jaw dropped. She has this amazing natural talent and is so much fun to work with,” Baeza said. “Her vocal range is ghostly, as if a ghost was singing to you from a different floor in a house.”
When discussing influences, Baeza rattles off locals Nonbinary, a group formed by two of Baeza’s closest friends, Ezra and Marshall Kelly. The Kellys are transgender twins whose captivating story of helping each other discover their gender identity side by side has received national attention from LGBTQ media outlets and has made them popular fixtures in Lansing’s young LGBTQ scene.
Baeza, who was still figuring out their own gender and sexual identity upon first seeing the Kellys perform as Nonbinary, was immediately entranced by the sense of freedom they two effortlessly displayed when performing their music to an audience. Baeza managed to witness Nonbinary’s first performance, which was a concert at The Fledge’s original Grand Ledge location.
“I saw how much they enjoyed expressing themselves through their gender, identity and their music. Watching them perform live is insane, and that alone is enough for anyone to be inspired to play, in my opinion.”
Baeza met the pair personally while still attending Grand Ledge High School. Their first encounter came by chance at the Edru skate rink in Holt. Baeza remembers being immediately enamored by the Kellys’ striking, gothic thrift shop fashion sense.
“The twins are, first and foremost, my best friends. We met at Edru. I used to go there when I was bored, and me and my best friend at the time, Red, saw Marshall and Ezra and I immediately swooned so hard. I tried to come up with a plan to hit on them, but I didn’t even get within 10 feet of Ezra. I tried but I gave up and turned around,” Baeza laughed.
As Baeza became closer friends with the Kellys, self-exploration became easier and Baeza became comfortable with being out as nonbinary. “Up until I met the twins, I hadn’t been able to have conversations about it and being more open; expressing myself and not caring what other people think. The internet helps, but it isn’t enough. It takes somebody being there for you and saying, ‘You can do what you want to do and you won’t burst into flames over it.’ It’s important to have friends that are open and not afraid to have the conversation.”
Ezra Kelly, who also uses they/them pronouns, said one of the most important things when somebody is going through a coming out process is receiving validation. The combined efforts of Marshall and Ezra Kelly gave Baeza an overwhelming amount of comfort as they began accepting their nonbinary identity and writing the music that would eventually become the source material for Brillo and later Crawl Spaces.
“Bilal had two people on each side of them, saying ‘Yes, it’s OK that you feel this way,’” Kelly said.
“Being invalidated in anything, regardless of the situation, leads to feeling alone; cast out; not quite on the same par with everybody else,” Baeza said. “That can compromise the presentation of your gender and sexuality, which can lead you to stuffing those feelings down and pretending they don’t exist, which is a damn shame.”