Damez fell in love with music as a Black queer youth in East Atlanta, Georgia, so it was only a matter of time until the out rapper honored his hometown on one of his own tracks.
Long before he was covering Out magazine or dropping EPs, Damién Denzel Ross Henderson, a.k.a. Damez, dreamed of emulating the recording artists who soundtracked his youth and adolescence. They run the gamut: Prince, Michael Jackson, Usher, Eminem, Lana Del Rey, and of course, Beyoncé. "In kindergarten, my mom threw me this birthday party, and she had this gift bag," he tells Logo. "All the kids at my table were like, 'Oh, I wonder what he got for his birthday,' expecting some big toy or something. And it was The Writing's On The Wall by Destiny's Child. Everyone was looking at me like, 'What the fuck?' But I was so excited."
That unapologetic passion has served him well. Since 2014, Damez has carved out a niche for himself in the majority-heterosexual world of rap and hip-hop. He didn't have any family connections or prior experience in the entertainment industry, so his success was hard-won. In fact, his music career was catalyzed by a life-altering tragedy: In 2012, his older brother, Ryan Henderson, was shot and killed at an off-campus party as a freshman at Mississippi's Jackson State University.
"We were a year apart," says Damez, who was just 17 at the time. He recalls Ryan protecting him in the halls of their predominantly-Black high school in East Atlanta, where being openly gay usually resulted in bullying. "He was the only person on this planet who had been with me my entire life. Losing him was like losing my other half."
Shortly before Ryan's death, Damez's great-grandmother had passed away, and his parents had divorced. The string of tumultuous events in his personal life offered some perspective. While finishing up his college degree, he decided to lean into his passion for music. "I just said, 'You know what? I don't know how much time I have left. This is what I want to do. This is what I want to give the universe.'" He used a refund check to buy some basic equipment for a "makeshift studio"; come 2014, he released his debut EP, Midnight on Cloud Nine, on Bandcamp and Soundcloud. He hasn't looked back since.
Damez's star continues to rise, a fact he attributes at least in part to his hustle. Since 2014's Midnight on Cloud Nine, he's dropped two EPs and three albums — including 2021's Coverboy, a trap-tinged collection that contains some of his most popular songs to date. But there's an authentic quality to his music that has drawn other Black queer listeners his way. When Damez began releasing music, he was newly out to his family and had yet to receive their full acceptance. It was a "bad chapter" of his life, but he turned to songwriting as a way to parse through those challenging feelings. He points to "Sinner," a song off his first EP that directly references his coming-out journey.
"I've always been a very honest person," he says, "and I never liked the idea of trying to be somebody that I wasn't. But over the years, as I put out more music, I've become more and more open and more and more free with my lyrics. ... Early on, I thought, like, oh, I can't really put this in my song because people aren't going to want to listen to it, or the world isn't ready for it yet. And I just had to get to a point where I was like, this is my art. This is what I'm going to put out in the universe. I want to be as truthful and as honest as I can."
Of course, the hip-hop landscape has changed, too. The astronomical success of artists like Lil Nas X, a self-described "power bottom rapper" who dedicated his Video of the Year win at the 2021 MTV VMAs to "the gay agenda," reflects shifting attitudes among both industry executives and music consumers. Damez even name-dropped the "Montero (Call Me by Your Name)" rapper in "Higher," a single he released in 2020 during the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests nationwide.
"Being black and being queer, there are so many obstacles that come along with that, especially within our community itself," Damez says. "To see people allowing us to take up space and show our art, and to see our art to be valued like heterosexual artists — I think it's beautiful. I'm excited to be a part of that renaissance."
A true self-starter, Damez also produced and edited an autobiographical docuseries called Go Hard, which chronicles his journey making music and rehearsing for the Atlanta Meets World concert in 2019. He has partnered with Revry, an LGBTQ-centric streaming platform, to distribute the series and plans to release future episodes in 2022. He teases more new music in the works this year, too.
But first, Damez has another project to share with the world: the music video for "Up Down," a standout track off Coverboy.
The sexy, self-assured cut boasts clever rhymes over a playful, dance-y beat, and its neon-hued, strip club-set visuals convey a similar vibe. It was inspired by The Player's Club, one of Damez's favorite movies, but above all, the rapper wanted to pay homage to the city he calls home. And what better way to tribute ATL than nodding to its storied strip-club scene? "It's a huge thing here," he explains. "Magic City in particular is a staple. Anybody from Atlanta, when you hear Magic City, you know exactly what time it is."
Damez wasn't able to shoot in an actual strip club, so he and his collaborators fashioned his own "colorful, more inclusive" version of Magic City. The video features shirtless, oiled-up men and scantily clad women, a creative choice Damez made to appeal to people of all sexual orientations. "Whether you were straight, whether you were gay, whether you were male, whether you were female, there was something in the video that you could enjoy."
Grab your $1 bills and hit play on the music video for "Up Down" below.