Of course MANifesto has a manifesto. It’s right there in the freakin’ name.
No rush on thinking it all through, though. Catch up with the Toronto “Man Band” — a self-described “gaggle of grown-up gays covering songs originated by girl groups” — belatedly via last summer’s entirely lovable mid-pandemic debut “Pinky Swear” and its accompanying volley of glamourpuss videos for tunes like Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade” and All Saints’ “One Strike” or MANifesto’s brand-new cover of local ’80s one-hit wondertwins Tu’s “Stay With Me” and you’ll soon realize there are numerous layers of subtext and social commentary operating amidst all the fun.
“Oh, the layers are many. They’re plentiful,” concurred founder and frontman R. Kelly Clipperton, relaxing over cocktails on his patio with singularly named bandmates Twaine, Dionisio and Brayo after an evening rehearsal in Liberty Village last week. “Even in just doing the research for the album and trying to pick the songs and understanding that the majority of them were actually written by men for women to sing for men — to sing what a man would want to hear — I realized there were even more levels to it, that the Supremes and the Chordettes and LaBelle and the Pointer Sisters were essentially puppets within a concept. So the idea was to take that and pull it back and empower not only us, but the women who originally sang those songs and kind of turn it on itself.”
Clipperton, already well established in Toronto as the frontman for bands such as Merkury Burn and Kelly and the Kellygirls — not to mention a photographer, occasional playwright and hairdresser of no small repute — had been toying with the idea of forming a mature, out-and-proud version of the typical, dubiously heterosexual “boy band” for more than a decade when he finally forged ahead and recruited the MANifesto lineup through contacts in the worlds of music and theatre in late 2019, just in time to have the whole project derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The chemistry between the nascent MANifesto lineup (originally a five-piece) was so evident to all involved that the men decided to steam ahead amidst the lockdown era, kicking out harmonious covers of the Pointer Sisters’ “Automatic,” Girls Aloud’s “The Promise” and the Spice Girls’ “Say You’ll Be There” before finally electing to release “Pinky Swear” last September even though there appeared to be little foreseeable opportunity on the horizon to actually take their decidedly theatrical oeuvre to the stage.
“I just felt that we didn’t have a choice. It was, like, ‘We can’t sit on this. It’ll disintegrate. It’ll just go away,’” said Clipperton. “I’ve always wanted to sing with other gay men. All the projects I’ve ever created have been very diverse with regards to gender and sexual orientation and race and sound and everything and it’s always been like that, but I’ve never really had the opportunity to do something that felt really at home for me.
“Even with the number of gay men who are pop stars who are now ‘out’ and doing their own work, Ricky Martin released a video just recently and there’s, like, zero ‘homo-evidence.’ And he’s been out for 15 years now. There’s still no ‘gay’ evidence. It’s all still kind of washed over. It’s still too dangerous. I’ve always said that gay men are the last greatest taboo. Lesbians will always be accepted because straight men think lesbians are for them, right?”
MANifesto finally gets to stage its long-delayed, official “coming-out” party towards the peak of Pride celebrations on Friday at the Buddies in Bad Times theatre with an elaborate stage show entitled “MANifesto Are Gay.”
Needless to say, there’s a lot of pent-up performative energy waiting to be unleashed after two years in stasis.
“It’s definitely gonna be a bit of a spectacle,” said Traine ahead of the performance. “We want to stand out a bit and we want to have a lot of fun but we also want to share the connections to all the talented people around us we have in our own lives. So we’ve got dancers, we’ve got singers, we’ve got costumes, we’ve got projections …”
“We’ve got makeup. We’ve even got some Cirque de Soleil s-t happening,” added Dionisio. “We wanted more pyro but it’s not in the budget. However, we’re gonna be on fire. I can’t hardly wait.”
If there’s a more sobering side to all the camp and conviviality of the MANifesto experience, it’s embodied by the group’s unflinching support of Rainbow Railroad, an organization that helps LGBTQ people from countries where being queer is a genuine threat to their lives and livelihood escape to more accepting climes. All proceeds from “Pinky Swear” are donated to Rainbow Railroad and MANifesto has vowed to advocate for the non-profit as long as it has a platform from which to sing out.
A native of Uganda, Brayo has personally benefited from the charity’s good deeds, having arrived in Canada just in time to experience the last true Toronto Pride party to go on before the pandemic three years ago. His story is, sadly, a reminder of why events like Pride have come to exist in the first place.
“My social media accounts are still monitored by my persecutors. They still monitor. My family is home so anything that they see I do, they know they can’t attack me directly so they attack my family. So that’s a dilemma,” he said. “But when I got here and I saw the way people were free and enjoying life I made it my personal vendetta to support Rainbow Railroad. And when I shared my stories with these queens, they all got on board.”
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