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Beatbox, harmony, genius, and a looper are hallmarks of Denver’s beloved sound-machine

When I spoke to local R&B producer and singer Sur Ellz, AKA Khalil, I was struck by how well he seems to know himself. It’s one thing to be in the closet as an artist, or to be out but try and downplay your identity at every turn, and it’s another to completely latch onto that identity by ensconcing yourself within the gay community as a drag or “queer” performer.

These are often the routes taken by gay artists. But what Sur Ellz is doing is truly brave and unique. He is allowing his identity as a gay man to guide his music, to shine through in his choice of inspiration (Prince), his natural femininity, and his LGBTQ-positive choice of working with a lesbian couple for DJ support. But he isn’t completely relying on that identity to define his music, as he realizes he is so much more than just his preference for love. Sur Ellz spilled it to OUT FRONT on the topics of music, style, inclusion, and creativity.

Who are some of your biggest musical and style influences?

I would say that there is a very wide array of different influences that I’ve come into — I’m very inspired by Prince and Timbaland, very inspired by Pharrell and the whole N.E.R.D. project that he put together. I’m also very inspired by Beyoncé as far as her stage presence and how she can command an audience. She has inspired me to enhance my ability to sing and dance, give that theatrical performance.

How would you describe your sound?

I would say that my sound is alternative soul, because it’s very influenced by some of the artists I named earlier, but also very non-genre, because it incorporates so many different genres. I grew up on 90s R&B so that is very present, but I’ve also grown into liking and appreciating different styles of alternative rock, like psych rock, garage rock, etc. I’ve kind of created by own flavor of what I feel like music should be like today.


[quote]I want to be proud to be out and comfortable in my skin, and I owe that to people who have come before me, who have been fearless and experienced huge amounts of success.[/quote]


How does identifying as queer in any way factor into or influence your creative expression?

I am just now coming into a place in my life where yes, I’m an out artist, and I don’t want to fall into that genre where I am just a gay artist, but I want to be proud to be out and comfortable in my skin, and I owe that to people who have come before me, who have been fearless and experienced huge amounts of success.

How does identifying this way factor into your perception as an artist, and how you are received?

Generally unless people have heard about me, people don’t really know; my lyrics are very non-gender-specific. I don’t really say “boy” or “girl” when speaking in love songs. For a while I was very insecure and I let that stifle me from being where I’m at right now — I wasn’t ready mentally, and I didn’t feel society was ready to see an artist like me perform to the caliber I am capable of. I always kind of feared people not really accepting me, but the times are changing, and I think the way people perceive me is changing. I think when people see me on stage they won’t see me as Sur Ellz the gay artist; they will see me as Sur Ellz the artist.