Flint, MI—The year is 2003 and an eleven-year-old black boy from Flint walks out onto the stage of his sixth-grade talent show. The B2K song “Where did we go wrong?” starts to play on the speakers. The stage is open and empty, just the boy and his lone prop—a chair borrowed from a nearby classroom at Holmes Middle School. The lights flash. He begins to dance. The audience watches him move his way across the stage, flipping his chair—a whole routine he choreographed himself.
Today is a big deal for the boy. Until now, he has spent his childhood being shy, talking to no one. Today, however, he has decided to take a risk––the first of many that will come to define his life. He is dancing in front of a room full of (mostly) strangers. His mother encouraged him to do this, in hopes that he might come out of his shell and make friends. Surprisingly, he’s not afraid when he hits the stage––he’s been training for this his whole life.
Then something happens. As he dances his way across the stage, the audience starts to cheer. They are egging him on. Pre-teen girls are screaming. The song ends and they rush the stage. They are losing it for him.
“I walked down,” said the boy’s mama, “and I said, ‘That is my son.’”
Fast forward 17 years and that boy, Carl Franklin Jr., or as his friends and family call him, CJ, is all grown up and has toured across Michigan and back, performing his original music and, of course, dancing. Although now he usually has a crew of backup dancers accompanying him on the stage. CJ, who calls himself Furillostar onstage, has come far since those shy, childhood days. Recently, he made it as a Billboard featured artist and the song “Imagine” is gaining speed and getting radio play. He attributes people gravitating towards him to being authentic.
CJ’s mother, Evaughn Horton, said, “He always said, ever since he was two years old, he wanted to be a rock star.”
It wasn’t always easy. Being authentic, for CJ, meant coming out as a gay hip-hop artist, in a genre of music that wasn’t always, and perhaps still isn’t in some circles, welcoming to gay people. It was a long road that brought him to the point where he was comfortable to fully express himself. That road was filled with many hurdles along the way, both dealing with homophobia and also the curveballs that life, sometimes, just throws at you.
From deformity to dancer
CJ was born with feet that faced backwards. Doctors told his mother that her son would never walk. To which she said, “Oh yes he will!” An orthopedic surgeon had to break his bones. Every Sunday night his mom had to take the cast off and every Monday morning the doctor would reset it. This went on for months. Then one day, after the cast was off and his feet healed, CJ started walking. He was only ten months old. “I wouldn’t accept that he wasn’t going to walk, that he was going to have a really bad deformity,” Horton said. “No, he’s going to be okay. He’s going to be fine.”
Once CJ started walking, he started moving. He would watch his mother, a trained jazz dancer, rehearse. Mesmerized, he would just watch her for hours. Then, by the time he was two, he was moving, on beat. His mother called his father into the room and said, “Look at how he’s moving. He’s moving to the beat. He’s on beat. He’s on the right time.” His father stuck around long enough to see him dance.
Horton is a lively, open woman who has no shortage of stories about her son, of whom she is very proud. “I’m his number one fan,” she said with a laugh. She’s in the front row of all his shows, cheering him on. Or she is on the highway driving him there, wherever the tour takes them.
“I don’t like to drive,” CJ said, laughing. He has never gotten a license and said he jokes with people that one day he will be famous anyway and won’t have to drive.
Some of CJs favorite performances have been pride festivals in Ypsilanti, Detroit, and Flint. Even though he has been playing pride festivals since 2016, it was not until 2018 that he would finally find the courage to come out publicly.
For CJ, it was the media that reinforced the idea that you can’t be gay and be successful.
“Industry executives say that all the time, if you watch interviews,” CJ said. “That was a thing. It was always a thing.”
He said he was never prejudiced against personally for being gay. But the man CJ calls his god-dad, Bernard Jackson (aka R’Chive of R’Chive Records), remembers it differently. He remembers times where certain unnamed producers or musicians wouldn’t work with CJ because of his sexuality.
Jackson said, “I saw people talk about him. I saw people not want to work with him. I saw people start out wanting to work with him and not wanting to work with him later on because maybe some he-said-she-said, or some feedback on the whole LGBTQ thing.”
One time, Jackson said, CJ tried to hire a band, but one of the musicians didn’t want to play with him, either because of the venue or because of his sexuality, or both. It was unclear. It was the Flint Pride Festival.
“For them to have to have that conversation with him, I could see in his eyes that it was painful. I think that’s when he realized how real it is out here. How real it is in the music business, and how real it is out here in the world, that you’re going to be judged and people are not always going to want to work with you because of that. And you’re going to have to be strong,” Jackson said.
When asked about the event, CJ said that he was clear with the musician about it being a pride festival. He said, “I’m guessing, and this is just me guessing, when he pulled up maybe he saw it, maybe it was a little bit too much for him to be there.” The musician told CJ that he didn’t want to do the show anymore because he didn’t want to ruin his reputation.
Reflecting on it, CJ said, “I guess, with me, I have so much going on and I’ve accomplished so many things that I don’t even think about the things that I did go through, because I’m like I’m so happy… I don’t even notice it sometimes.”
William Ketchum, a hip-hop journalist and former editor at Vibe, said he thinks that things are getting better for the LGBTQ community in hip-hop, “but that that’s not saying much.”
“I think that hip hop in many ways reflects the real world,” he said. “The real world is becoming more accepting and more embracing of LGBTQ people, but at the same time the world is still sort of homophobic and transphobic, as it’s always been.”
He said that the industry is slowly but surely getting there, “but you’re still prone to hear a homophobic lyric.” He adds, however, that, “even if homophobia and transphobia are still realities in the world, I think that now is a better time than any other time before to be a gay or trans rapper.” He points to some successful LGBTQ names in the industry like Lil Nas X and Big Freedia. He also points to one of the biggest names in hip hop right now, Tyler the Creator, who has been vague about his sexuality, though many people believe he’s had romantic and/or sexual relationships with men. Ketchum said it’s a short list though, and that it’s more accepted in R&B than in rap. But, he said, “a person that comes out as gay these days still has the potential to have a strong fan base.”
To follow Tyler the Creator is to watch the pendulum of sexuality acceptance swing from one extreme to the other. On his debut album he used the word faggot or other anti-gay affronts 213 times, while in his recent song “I Ain’t Got Time,” Tyler raps, “Next line will ‘em like ‘Whoa’ / I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004.” He has also publicly applauded his friend and former music collaborator, R&B artist Frank Ocean for coming out, though he has not come out himself.
Then there is the rapper, Boosie Badass, who made a transphobic video condemning basketball player Dwayne Wade for supporting his transgender child. He refused to apologize for the hateful rant, even though there was tremendous backlash and rapper Jay-Z has pressured him to do so. Jay-Z himself had homophobic slurs on some of his early work, though has since endorsed same-sex marriage.
So, things are changing, but most of the success stories are very recent and very few. For CJ, it wasn’t until he started seeing that representation that he became more comfortable with the idea of coming out publicly. Even then, he was still terrified. With such a divided world, he was afraid of what people might say or do, or how they would receive him, on social media or in the real world. “Back then other people were writing songs for me so they would always say ‘girl’ or ‘she’… I just wanted to sing. I just wanted to be an entertainer, so that’s what I did. I just sang the song.”
Luckily for CJ, his family and friends have always been supportive. “I hate the term ‘come out’,” he said with a laugh. “Because I feel like I was never in a closet.”
He said that most of his family knew before he knew. His god-dad said he’s always known. His mother watched him date girls in his teen years, and take girls to dances, but she could tell he was unhappy. “I knew that something was bothering him in junior high,” she said. “I had to let him find out who he was… I remember when he found out who he was. I could tell that his life was changing and that he was happier.”
Taking the plunge to come out publicly seemed natural, but it still took him until 2018.
“I knew that I wanted to go in a different direction with my music,” he said. He wanted to make his lyrics genderless and he didn’t want to reference pronouns in his music anymore. “I feel like that shouldn’t matter in music anyways.”
So, without consulting friends or family for advice––being the self-proclaimed headstrong Leo that he is––and with social media watching, he made a YouTube video. He made the video to not only come out but also discuss gender in music.
“You listen to music because it’s a great record, you love the words, you love the music, you love the sound, and not really focus about ‘who is he talking about’ or ’what is he talking about?’”
He has since removed the video with plans of making an updated one, where he will cover more ground in the LGBTQ+ discussion.
Finding his voice
Since coming out publicly, he said things have become much easier for him. He started booking more shows and seeing record deals on the table. That year he also released an E.P. titled Pride and the following year went on his first tour, which he aptly named “The Pride Tour.”
Now, let’s back up a little bit. It took strength to finally get to the point where he was comfortable with the world knowing who he authentically was. It also took strength to find his voice and be comfortable to sing to the world.
We know CJ could dance. He was unabashed when it came to dancing. He had the kind of mom that would say, “Get up and dance, baby!” whenever they would go somewhere: weddings, birthday parties, family reunions, and dance he would. “It was like I don’t have to speak,” he said. “I don’t have to say anything. I could just get up and dance and not have to say anything. As a kid, I knew that people watching me dance made them feel good.”
When it came to singing though, CJ was terrified. He would sing at home, so his mom knew he could sing. But when it came time to sing in front of other people, he was paralyzed. Growing up, his idols had been Usher and Chris Brown. His mom would say, “Usher had to sing in front of people. Chris Brown had to sing in front of people.” It would be a long time before that would sink in.
Jackson, CJ’s god-dad, has known CJ since he was in the stroller. They were neighbors. Their mothers were best friends. Their sisters were best friends. His mom used to push him in the stroller down to Jackson’s house (they lived on Chateau Drive on Flint’s north side). By the time CJ was eight, he was singing. So, Horton called Jackson down to her house and said, “My baby can sing!” But when put on the spot, CJ didn’t let out a peep.
“He ain’t ready,” Jackson said with a chuckle. “Call me down when he’s ready.”
When CJ was thirteen, he was ready. Sort of. Actually, he was still immensely scared, but Jackson encouraged him to come down to his recording studio.
“Hey, it’s going to be okay,” Jackson said as they stood in Horton’s kitchen. “We’re just going to go to the studio.”
CJ was scared and reluctant, but deep down he was also excited. After all, he always wanted to be a rock star. They walked down the street to Jackson’s house and then down the basement stairs to his recording studio. CJ’s eyes were wide as he looked over the room. There were colorful LED lights hanging around the booth. “So, this is how they do it,” he thought. “This is how they make incredible records that blow up and become famous.”
The songwriter Robert Harrison was there. CJ sat down on a futon to watch these guys work. He was fascinated. Listening to them record, all he could think was, “these are the best songs I’ve ever heard… Yeah, Usher would sing this song or Chris Brown would sing this song.”
CJ hasn’t left the studio since. It hasn’t always been Jackson’s studio, but he has continued to record since that fateful day. Jackson has since moved to Atlanta with his production company, Brainstorm Entertainment, and CJ continues to record with another of Jackson’s protégés, YJay.
The studio, for CJ, is not only a place to get work done, it’s a place to hang out with friends and connect with his support system. His backup dancers are all people he grew up with and his best friend, Iesha Carroll, acts as a stand in manager/personal assistant. “I wear a lot of hats,” she said with a laugh.
CJ said she helps him with the day to day, everything related to Furillostar. “All the way down to getting me ready,” he laughs. “I’m getting dressed and she’s putting lotion on my knees.”
Since that first day in the studio, CJ has released twelve songs, including his E.P. “Pride,” which has six tracks. In addition to writing songs, performing them and dancing, he also creates all of the artwork for his records. Now, when he performs, the little boy who couldn’t sing in front of his god-dad is performing for crowds of 500 or more.
A final affirmation
Out of all the shows CJ has ever played, he said his favorite was hands down the Ypsilanti Pride Festival. “You just felt so much love in the room. Well, it was outside but, you know?” he said, laughing.
Carrol and Horton were at the festival watching CJ when they witnessed one of his greatest affirmations thus far. Like all those years ago in the sixth-grade talent show, he had an audience that was losing it for him. He was the headliner, and after the sun went down, he did a set that had the audience dancing and cheering and screaming his name.
“I was proud watching that,” Carrol said.
When he asked the audience to follow him on Twitter, Horton said, “People were knocking me down! ‘What did he say?’” The audience was begging for an encore. “More! More! More!” they screamed. Afterwards, everyone wanted a picture with him.
“I’ve never experienced a crowd and a stage like that,” he said.
To have struggled for so long with how he would be received for his sexuality and to find so much support within the LGBTQ+ community, was a validating experience.
“It hurts me to even think about another little boy telling himself I can’t do what I love because of my sexuality,” he said. “I want to be that representation. A little black boy from the hood, a little gay black boy from the hood can actually make it, be successful, and give back to his community.”