For Dezman Lehman, who goes by the name Dezi 5, it’s been four solid years of shaking his leather-clad buttocks, shimmying and vogueing with a sweat-drenched brow from stages across North Texas to the forefront of the Dallas music scene. According to Lehman, it's been a hard-fought battle for recognition from local media and would-be fans.
Despite what Lehman refers to as a lack of recognition from local media (the Observer notwithstanding), his name is ubiquitous within the music scene; he’s celebrated by artists and musicians and he’s pals and collaborators with many of the movers and shakers. He curates regular lineups at the Crown & Harp and headlined a show of some of Dallas’ best musical acts at the Kessler in August that he also put together. He performs at AT&T Stadium for the Cowboys’ post-game shows and opened for Keith Urban at the Emmitt Smith Invitational Gala.
In short, he’s kind of everywhere, which makes it even more surprising that for all of the buzz surrounding him, it took him four years to finally win a Dallas Observer Music Award, the public voter-based competition, after being nominated nine times before.
Winning a DOMA this year for “Best Performer” was huge for Lehman. He finally got some of the validation he's been working for since striking out on his solo project in 2012. Yet after fighting his way to where he is, he’s leaving Dallas on Jan. 30 with a one-way ticket to New York.
“I'm having a hard time getting people to understand the style of music I’m trying to give. I can't find the producers who make the songs like 'Father Figure' and 'Kiss From a Rose' — those songs that last,” Lehman says, referencing hits by two of his role models, George Michael and Seal. “I’m not saying experimental music and hip-hop music isn't good, I just feel like that's not me. I need to be with better singer-songwriters — not saying that we don't have good ones here — but ones that are compatible with me.”
Lehman says despite becoming known for feel-good pop and dance anthems, booty-shaking and wearing leather-and-fishnet, he wants to get out of the box that the Dallas market may have inadvertently put him in, and return, on occasion, to the suit-wearing crooning of guys like Seal.
Many artists talk about the struggle, but Lehman had to overcome his share. He was raised by his Pentecostal grandmother, the owner of the Deep Ellum soul food restaurant Vern’s Place. He knew he was gay from an early age, which wasn’t allowed in the church. Popular music wasn’t allowed either, so along with hiding his sexuality, Lehman hid his CDs — and his voice — until college. His music teacher at Florida A&M, where he attended on a scholarship for playing clarinet, discovered he could sing.
After school and back in Dallas in 2011, Lehman started working as a professional musician, singing mostly with cover bands. It wasn’t until the end of 2013, what Lehman refers to as his “freshman year,” when he saw a friend, Renato Rimach, frontman for the Latin band MAYTA, on the cover of the Dallas Observer and thought, “I want that.”
“I was aching for this to happen to me. So I feel like if you put yourself in the area and surround yourself with the right people, it happens. I stuck a feather in my hat and called it macaroni, literally,” Lehman says with a laugh, recalling the top hat he wore to the 2013 DOMA ceremony.
Lehman says he started showing up and showing out at events around Dallas, meeting the right people and trying to get noticed. He wore ostentatious get-ups to art galleries, and was embraced by the art crowd. His outlandish fashion sense is something he’s still known for. He was working overtime trying to get gigs in North Texas, playing a weekly spot at The Free Man and by the following fall, “sophomore year,” Dezi 5 was nominated for the Best Funk/R&B act even before he’d put out any music.
“That was the reason I released the 'Lose Control' [single] immediately after I got nominated because I was like, I'm the only nominee on the board that don't have anything out there. So it was released on the day of the DOMA ceremony.”
Since he broke into the music scene, Lehman has had no trouble keeping up his reputation for provocative performances. In an oft-referenced show, Lehman “crucified” himself on a wooden cross that was hand created by him and the artist Eric Trich at a Vice Palace event in August 2015 — his “junior year.”
It was symbolic of him crucifying his insecurities from growing up a gay black man in the South, and he encouraged attendees to shed their insecurities too. He was building buzz for the release of his EP, Crucifixion on the Dancefloor, on Halloween. And that fall, Lehman jumped from one nod, to a nomination in five categories including Best Male Vocalist, Best Pop Act and Best Live Act, but still left empty-handed. At least he was getting noticed.
If that gay black man struggle sounds old hat in 2016, Lehman can assure you it’s not. He still comes across people who are sexist, homophobic and racist, even within the so-called “woke” creative community. And that is part of what’s spurring him to leave Texas.
“As much as people say that they're open to everything, they aren't,” says Lehman. “I have to get out of the southern mentality. I am not a slave, I am not a faggot, I’m a king that sings great music and should be treated as such.”
In his “senior year,” Dezman has played some of the most visible shows in Dallas, including the bill at the Kessler, Artopia, the Pin Show and Oaktopia. He was nominated for four more DOMA awards. And he'll be rounding out his domination of Dallas nightlife in 2016 at a New Year's Eve bash at Three Links, where he'll headline a bill featuring 88 Killa and DJ Ursa Minor, with visuals by Eric Trich. Not to mention, he's been gearing up for the release of his first album, Expose You.
Lehman said he wouldn’t leave Dallas until the album was released. But after getting a taste of New York, with two performances there this year, he says he’s ready.
“My second show at Leftfield, the crowd was thick. In Dallas, I started with two or three people in the audience, and it's only my second show in New York and there were 70 people, and they were feeling it,” Lehman says. “I felt good about myself.”
Lehman says TurnStyle Music Group is helping represent him in New York, and he’s hoping to perform across all the boroughs at least twice a week. He says he can already tell the Lower East Side is going to be his Deep Ellum.
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Despite the new home base, he’ll still be working with his Dallas collaborators to get the album out. The first single “Expose You,” along with a music video by Jeremy Biggers, are slated to come out in mid-January, and producer-DJ John Stewart of the popular All/Everything series is in the finishing stages of mixing the album.
“I want to expose different sides of me that haven't been exposed, but I want to expose people to things they haven't experienced life-wise, or people that want to run to another city, because they feel like it's not working out for them,” Lehman says. “I'm all across the board – I’m a gypsy and a peaceful man. It's an album to expose my experiences and the human experience.”
One of the producers on the “Expose You” track, Justin Gabrielli, named the project, and Lehman said it’s the perfect send-off as he’s reaching for more exposure in a bigger market after having tapped the North Texas scene.
“I'm comfortable here, which is part of the reason why I'm leaving. All of my people are here, I make great money singing in weddings and stuff,” says Lehman. “I don't know what's going to happen to me, I'm nervous as shit, I'm scared, terrified. But I have to do this.”