Tony Enos: Music Man

Photo by Matika Wilbur

“If the morning is male and the evening is female, Two-Spirit people are the dusk.” This month is Native American Heritage Month. Started back in the early 1900’s as a day of recognition for the significant contributions of the first Americans, it has grown to a month of celebration and recognition. One of those participating in the celebration this month is local musician Tony Enos. Enos, a two-time Native American Music Awards Nominee, is a talented singer/songwriter/producer, electrifying live stage entertainer, and an activist. When not singing, Enos raises awareness for HIV/AIDS, domestic violence/IPV, youth issues, and Native American/First Nations/indigenous rights. He’s a council member of the East Coast Two Spirit Society and actively involved in Two Spirit youth work, and healing intergenerational trauma.

Tell me about the Enos household? 

I was born and raised in South Philly. We are a small family. It was me, my mother, father and younger sister. I call her my sister/daughter because she’s 10 years younger than me. 

That’s so cute!

Yeah, it’s just the dynamic we grew up with, she even sends me cards for father’s day. I’m 36, so I’ve had 30 years living here, 2 in Delaware and 4 in New York. I moved back at the beginning of the pandemic and I’m glad to be home. It’s a blessing to be with the folks I love. 

What did the folks do?

My mom worked in retail for a while and she was a hairstylist, and my dad also worked retail and was also a stylist. That’s how they met. We have a very musical family. My grandfather on my mom’s side was a singer/songwriter for Columbia Records and performed as a doo wop singer. They had six kids which kind of cut his career a little short. My mom has a cute voice and my sister sings on almost all of my records, she’s amazing.

What were you into as a kid?

Music, and more music. I was bullied a lot as a kid and music was my savior. I’d spend most of my time in the basement with my little green record player that I got at a flea market, playing my 45’s and LP’s. I also loved clothes, I’m still a bit of a clothes horse. I have a sneaker, hoodie and ball cap addiction. 

Can you tell me the story about you getting in trouble for singing Diana Ross?

I guess some things are just innate and I was alway fascinated with girl singers. My mother has 4 brothers and they’re very machismo, so picture my uncle sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table and here’s a little gay boy running around singing Diana Ross songs. I’d stand on the coffee table with a blanket wrapped around me like one of her furs and pretend I was holding a mic. He made some ugly comments about it and he and my mother got into a fight. Basically at 3 years old they were having a fight over my perceived sexuality. I don’t remember what was said, but I remember how it made me feel. I was so embarrassed I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me. It made me feel so small. They say sticks and stones, but words have power. I take accountability for every choice I’ve made in life, but that did have a big effect on me and probably altered my trajectory. It was the first time I was made to feel there was something wrong with me. But I still love Diana Ross! 

Why Ms. Ross?

To me she’s an example of possibility. When I was getting bullied I’d take refuge in the library. There was a biography about her life and I would eat lunch and read the same book, over and over again. She made me feel that if I could tough it out, good things could happen. 

The glamor that awaited you! When did you start to understand why you felt different?

When I was 5 years old, I had my first little boy crush. His name was Brandon and I knew he liked girls — as much as a 5 year old can grasp that — and I asked him, “If I was a girl, would you like me?” and he said yes. So I told him, “Then I’m a girl!” and we were happy for about a week until the grownups found out and then I got grounded for eternity. I just gave a presentation about representation this morning, and how it’s so important. In this instance, I had no desire to be a girl, but I’d never seen any gay people before, so I tried to mimic the relationships I did see. My parents were “Young and the Restless” watchers so all I saw were heteronormative couples. If I’d had gay role models growing up it would have made a world of difference. 

Did you have a favorite toy as a kid?

Yes, Legos. I love Legos, I love building things, I’ve always had one of those brains that liked putting things together. Even now, if you’ve ever seen how a music board is set up, it’s very similar, you’re building and layering but in sound. Oh, and I had a Scooby Doo that I slept with faithfully every night and a Simba from the Lion King. That was until they both mysteriously disappeared overnight. I was 11 and my parents cleaned out all of that. I still harass them over it 25 years later! 

How did you find your connection to your native roots?

It’s interesting, my father is somewhat estranged from his father and their side of the family. So he never spoke about our history. He and I also had a very strained relationship when I was growing up and any time I tried to talk about it, it would end in an argument. It wasn’t until one Thanksgiving that my great-grandmother came and started telling me about our heritage that I began to get informed about my Cherokee background. When I moved to New York, I learned about and got involved in the Two Spirit community. I identify as gender fluid, gender non-conforming so it was a comfortable place for me. In Cherokee it’s called “asegi” and stands for “other.” 

How is your relationship with your dad now?

I’d like to think we are friends now. My dad was sick with cancer a few years ago and that changed a lot of things. I didn’t know how much longer he had, so I wanted to make peace with him. Luckily, he pulled through and, knock on wood, he’s doing well. 

What do you do when you’re not entertaining?

I have a public health background in trauma informed counseling. I’ve spent 14 years as an HIV positive tester, counselor, case manager and community educator.

You have been open about your positive status. It must be comforting for people to be able to talk to you if they’ve been diagnosed with HIV. What was your experience like?

It was 2 weeks before my 22nd birthday. I was a child of the 90’s and there was so much fear mongering around campaigns that were supposed to be preventative that they didn’t really work. You can’t just scare people, you have to inform them so they’ll have a sense of self efficacy. And I was ignorant, I thought that to be informed was guilt by association, so when it happened I was crushed. It was heartbreaking, I used to pray every day to God to keep me safe from HIV/AIDS, so when it happened, I blamed God. I didn’t take accountability, when if fact it was my decision to have unprotected sex, nobody put a gun to my head. I was of sound mind and body and I did something stupid. The ironic thing is that HIV has been good to me, it’s given me purpose. I wouldn’t have done the work I’ve done or met so many incredible people if I hadn’t contracted it. To say I’ve been blessed is an understatement. 

What was the most memorable moment you’ve had as a counselor?

I get the chills talking about it. It was the first positive result I had to give someone. He was 16 and he went into shock. He wasn’t even planning on getting tested, back then we would have mobile testing sites outside of clubs and pride events. He was at an event and agreed to take a test on a whim and was totally unprepared for the result. It was horrible, our job is to try to connect the care right away and it was tough because he was so devastated. After he left, I left, I was done for the day. I learned to cope with it, but it was really hard at first. Now with years of experience, I can be more of a voice of reason which helped when I had to tell my family. A lot of that is chronicled in my latest album, “POSI+IVE”.

Have you had a lot of positive feedback from the album?

Yes, a lot of people have been reaching out just on a human level. I had one person whose partner was Two Spirit, the partner had passed, and the surviving partner thanked me for being a Two Spirit person who was open and forthcoming about my status. To hold that space for people is beautiful and just to be able to answer questions for people. I’ve had someone ask me, “Did you gain weight when you started treatment?” They know they can ask me anything.

And where did you find inspiration in terms of culture?

There really wasn’t much, especially in Philadelphia and especially any kind of contemporary representation here. In NY there was a very current Native American community. People were up on what was relevant now. In Philly, I think we’re more regarded as a thing of the past. It’s like we’re not a part of the living culture, just statues on the building at City Hall. As a kid from South Philly, Cher singing “Half Breed”, and Felipe Rose from the Village People were the only examples of Indians that I saw. 

But you did find inspiration from one famous (fictional) Philadelphian. Enough to model a video after him. 

[Laughing] I guess you mean Rocky. I love those films, and if the marathon comes on get the popcorn, I’m watching them all. It represents that Philly fight and that grit. I feel it represents me too. When I first learned about my status, living with it day to day — and minute to minute those first few months — it was a fight and I tried to tap into that Rocky spirit.

So do you prefer Native American or Indian? I’ve heard people refer to themselves as both.

Generally, we go with Native American, when we use Indian, out of deference to people who are actually from India, we spell it NDN. But most of us prefer to identify by nation, like I would say North Carolina Cherokee. People don’t realize that we’re not one big monolith, there are about 600 state and federally recognized tribes across the country. 

Describe what Two Spirit means to you.

It’s generally described as a pan-Indian term that has different meanings for different people and different tribes, but personally it means that I’m male bodied, male identified but part of me is also a mother. I don’t know how to explain it other than it has to do with looking after our youth and our elders, being a tradition keeper and channeling the medicine of music. Trying to speak truth and be of service to our communities. 

I know there are a myriad of difficulties facing the Native American community right now but what are the top three you’re focusing on. 

HIV, unfortunately we have some attitudes in our community that need a little healing. It’s not uncommon to hear, “That’s not our disease, that was brought here.” but meanwhile, we’re losing people. Often because people don’t know about things like PrEP, or how to ask Indian Health Services for it, and IHS is working hard to make it available to everyone. So making people aware, especially in the two-spirit community because we’re most at risk. The other thing I’m concerned with is data, which equals representation. For instance, this week when CNN broke down the voter demographics, it was Black, White, Asian, Latino and something else. And I was like, what would it have taken to type in Native American? It’s not like the old days when they had to manually hang the numbers on a big board. I thought that was unacceptable on their behalf to not take the time to include us. So data is important. And the last one is land sovereignty, we only have so many years to fix the destruction we’ve done to the planet. I want children but I can’t pretend I don’t have concerns. What kind of world are we leaving them? So I’m trying to instill a value and relationship between youth and the land. 

Now checking out some of your music, I didn’t hear a lot of Native American influence. 

I’m more of a pop artist musically, but I bring in the culture through the lyrics, like I have one song called, “Water is Life” which was written during the pipeline protests and I do have some audible soundscapes in more subtle ways, the flutes, the drums, the rattles, etc. 

If you have to do a love scene in your next video, what actor should play your amor.

Mario Lopez. He’s my universal get out of jail free card. No matter who, no matter what. 

What do you get the most compliments on?

My teeth. [Laughing] All thanks to Mentadent, backing soda and peroxide! 

What’s the dumbest thing you’ve heard about Native Americans?

Ha! I thought you were going to ask what’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever done and I was going to ask how big the paper was! The dumbest? That we don’t exist anymore. There are people who actually think that we died out. I get, “You’re an Indian? I thought they were all gone.” I think they think I’m some kind of Jurassic flashback. 

Is there a motto or saying that you love?

Yes, I speak in bumper stickers! But the one that comes to mind is one I used in one of my songs, the sentiment of it is about trying to get away from the capitalist mindset and instilling a different value system, “Not until the last fish is caught and the river poisoned will we realize we can’t eat money.”

What’s on call for the future? 

I have a Christmas album coming out in November. It’s called Mr. Christmas. 

Yay! I’m known as the Christmas Atheist! It’s my favorite time of year. 

Same, same. I’m just a big kid in that way, from one to ninety two. It’s about half traditional songs like Santa Baby, White Christmas, Deck the Halls with a little modern spin and then some originals mixed in. Something to take our troubles away.

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