America’s Got Talent alumnus Kameron Ross stands apprehensively outside the restroom of a country music bar. As he peered out at the crowd of muscle-touting, whiskey-drinking macho cowboys, a lump formed in his throat.
The openly gay country singer is due on stage. He feared the crowd’s reaction. What if they didn’t understand him? What if his music, performance, or being didn’t resonate with them? What if he was judged, made fun of and ridiculed? Just as he was about to walk, RuPaul’s Drag Race’s Alyssa Edwards walks straight out of the men’s restroom — a fairy godmother appearing out of thin air.
“You go out on that stage proud and you slay it, Kameron Ross Martin-” Edwards says to Ross before he cuts her off.
“I don’t think they’re ready for that just yet,” Ross says.
This is the heart-tugging opening scene to the music video for Ross’ latest release, “Sway,” a feel-good song whose music video champions the power of drag, a gender-bending art form. It was filmed at the historic Round-Up Saloon in Cedar Springs, one of the city’s most notable gay clubs.
The real Round-Up wouldn’t have been as hostile, but Ross has lived that scene elsewhere. No acting was required.
“We didn’t have to do many takes of that scene because it’s real,” says Justin Dwayne Lee Johnson, the man behind the globally-acclaimed Alyssa Edwards persona. “This is a real story.”
For many queer artists, talent is the least of their concerns. Their mere existence can put them in a vulnerable position. Vetting the crowd is an instinctual defense mechanism. Ross and Lio Botello, Ross’ partner and the video’s executive producer, are shining light on these vulnerabilities and the misunderstood art form through “Sway.”
“They could have done this project without anybody, they chose to share it with all the people that they love in a community that is under attack,” Johnson says.
In recent years, anti-drag rhetoric has run rampant in Texas and around the country. Anti-drag protests and campaigns have characterized the expressive artistic practice as nefariously sexual. North Texas is at the epicenter of the controversy, with drag-friendly venues receiving threats and deciding to shut down shows out of fear of violence.
Senate Bill 12, known as the Texas drag ban, was set to go into effect Sept. 1. The bill criminalizes performances that have nudity or a “prurient interest in sex” and was originally targeted at drag performances.
A temporary injunction was issued by a federal judge on Aug. 31. Despite the darkness, Dallas’ drag community came together.
“Dallas is so full of so much community and love, even in dark times we still rise,” Johnson says. “Texas is a powerful state and it is powerful because we have people like Kameron Ross. We have a community, and we have unity within the community.”
“Sway” stars Dallas drag royalty including Cassie Nova, who has spoken up against anti-drag legislation at the state capitol. Also making appearances are Barbie Davenport Dupree, Kylee O’hara, Karina Love, Sierra LaPuerta, Rocky Tacoma, Arya Jealous, Nayda Montana, Cherise Maraschino, Dia Monte, Aaron Rey, and Celestia Moon.
“We’re not going anywhere, as drag entertainers or as gay people, or as a gay country music singer,” Ross says. “We’re not going anywhere. We’re going to stand our ground and make sure we’re pushing forward.”
At this point in his career, Ross is no longer masking for the audience. “Sway” is a reclaiming of his whole self, he says.
Up until the release of the music video, only those closest to Ross knew his full name. Edwards’ unveiling of his name was a line that almost didn’t make the final cut.
“If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this and we’re going to do it the right way,” Ross says of the decision to go public with his full name, Kameron Ross Martinez.
He says he is reclaiming the parts he shed to fit a mold he was destined to break.
“When I was young, the only Hispanic country music singer that I knew of was Richard Trevino,” Ross says. “He was big in the 90s, but he was the only Hispanic country music singer, so I dropped my last name for that reason, just to kind of fit in with what I thought this genre was expecting.”
His sexuality was not up for negotiation.
“When you start thinking of country music legends like Garth Brooks, I think of Kameron Ross,” Johnson says. “He is so authentically himself, and that is so inspiring.”
Queer representation in country music is in its infancy. In 2010, Chely Wright became the first openly gay country music singer. In 2021, T.J. Osborne of Brothers Osborne made country music history when his coming out crowned him the only openly gay artist signed to a major country label.
“I’m a queer country music artist in a very narrow space with very narrow expectations of what a country music singer should be,” Ross says.
This year, Kelsea Ballerini ruffled feathers at the CMT Music Awards when her performance featured Ru Paul’s Drag Race stars Manila Luzon, Kennedy Davenport, Jan Sport, and Olivia Lux.
“We can have drag queens in the country music video, we can have them win an arm wrestling match, Kameron can play a gig to a bunch of masculine macho men,” says Botello, the mastermind behind the music video’s creative direction. “We can do anything we want, if we set our mind to it, and if we all stand together.”
The music video is Ross’ proudest work yet.
The Dallas-centric music video is directed by Daniel Engal and Gabriel Lee. It was filmed at The Round-Up Saloon on Cedar Springs and serves as a call to action to donate to the American Civil Liberties Union’s Drag Defense Fund, the organization that sued Texas and temporarily blocked Senate Bill 12.
“Dallas, we are very lucky to have a talent like him,” Johnson says. “So everyone better get their autographs now and their pictures now, because it’s just a matter of time because this, this human is going places.”