Upon meeting Joshua "Zeke" Thomas, there's a good chance that his megawatt smile will hit you for one of two reasons. The first being that he flashes that grin a lot. The other being that his toothy beam is a spitting image of the one belonging to his NBA legend dad, Isiah Thomas.
But what lies behind that smile is a dark, trying past — one which the 28-year-old is using as a brave open book to bring other victims and survivors light. Last month, Zeke revealed to the world that he had been sexually assaulted twice — once forced by members of his basketball team to perform oral sex against his will at the age of 12 and another incident occuring when he was drugged and anally raped in his Chicago apartment by a man he met on the dating app Grindr last February.
"Being gay, being African-American," he told Robin Roberts on Good Morning America last month, "it's definitely something that I never imagined would happen to me."
But now, as an ambassador for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, Zeke is hauling those painful experiences out into the open to let the one in six men who are sexually assaulted know that they too "can move on." A longtime DJ and now artist, Zeke's single, "Dealin' With It," takes listeners on a groovy journey of how he dealt with those traumatic incidents and continues to march forward today.
Here, Zeke speaks to BET.com about why this was the right time to share his story, the actual sexual assaults against him and how he broke the news to his parents. He also talks about his ultimate goal as the ambassador of the NSVRC and how music has been and continues to be his refuge.
Why did you decide now was the right time to publicly speak about the two sexual assaults you endured?
Why was it the right time for me, personally, it was that I wanted people to hear my story. I thought that I had to scream it out in order for myself to feel better. The greater impact that it has had on others — especially the statistics that are out there in one in six males being sexually assaulted or raped in America and definitely child abuse that goes on in the African-American community — you’re dealing with a lot of issues that are coming to light because of the media pushing it. That was never what I could’ve envisioned would happen through my story. I just wanted to get it out and live my truth. And now, I’m living my truth. The fact that I’ve been able to help individuals or indirectly move this movement forward has been amazing.
The first sexual assault against you occurred at the age of 12. What led to you keep that traumatic event from your parents at the time?
What kept me from telling my parents at that time, at 12 years old, was I just hadn’t processed it. I didn’t realize what had occurred. I knew it was wrong. I knew something wasn’t right about it. But it wasn’t until much later that I started talking about it with my therapist and actually told my mother that this had happened to me.
Last February, you met a man on Grindr. You were drugged and raped in your Chicago apartment. What was your first thought?
Yes, I did meet my rapist on the app, Grindr. That’s not to say that these apps that everybody uses — from Bumble to Tinder to Match.com got an app now — these apps aren’t the problem. It’s people. There are bad people in this world who do want to do harm. So, my first reaction was not to blame the app. I was completely taken aback. The first thing I did was go on the app and try to find him, but he had blocked me and I didn’t have his phone number. Tracking him down at the time would have been difficult — he looked like every other white man in America. So, my first reaction was, "What do I do?" And I didn’t know that answer.
Understandably, that second assault put you in a dark place. You previously spoke about experimenting with drugs. You actually told your parents about your sexual assaults while you were high on mushrooms. What do you remember about that conversation?
I remember the entire conversation. It was a very manic conversation. I was screaming and I remember the Uber driver actually, when I was done with the conversation, telling me, "I don’t know what you’re going through. I just heard bits and pieces, but it’s going to be OK." And I think that’s the most powerful thing that you could tell somebody is, "I believe you. It’s going to be OK." So, bits and pieces from the conversation with my parents was really about that — "Joshua, we love you, let’s get you home, let’s get you some help, let’s figure this out. As a family unit, we will figure this out." But definitely, I could hear in their voices the sadness, the fear that this had happened to their son.
Your dad is a powerful speaker. Do you remember anything that he told you during that conversation?
My dad definitely is a powerful speaker, but during that conversation, there aren’t that many words that you can say. The [conversation] was more so, "We got to get you home. Let’s do this work.’
One in six men are sexually assaulted. One in 10 are sexually assaulted and don’t report it. What is your message to those survivors, their family and friends?
My message to both victims and now survivors: Victims — you can move on. You can deal with this. That’s really what my song, “Dealin’ With It,” is all about. It’s what happened afterwards. It’s how I got through this horrible period and then transforming it and learning how to become an artist. What I would tell victims is you need to find your own outlet. Music is mine, my artistry is mine, DJing is mine. Those are my loves, those are my passions. I had to go through therapy, doctors, I got diagnosed with Bipolar II, which comes from severe trauma, and I have to take medication for that now. It’s about having an honest conversation with yourself and your loved ones. Be bluntly honest. This happened, they will believe you and you will work through it. And to survivors — it’s never a day that I don’t think about it, that I don’t question it, that I don’t relive that moment. Even now speaking about it, you feel that pain. But the pain didn’t defeat me and I’m not going to allow it to. But you keep on doing that work, you keep on talking about it, you still go to therapy and do what you have to do to take your power back.
You have been named an ambassador for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC). What do you hope to achieve in that role?
I’m not an activist. I’m not trying to pretend I’m an activist. There have been people doing this work for millennia before me. I just want to be a voice and maybe one day I can be called an activist and earn that title. So, what I hope to achieve in my ambassadorship is if I can help you through my story — giving a voice to the millions of men who are abused or have been raped before — if I can help point you in the right direction the same way allies have helped me, that’s what I want to do.
How much has music been a source of strength and release then and now?
Music has always been my love. Even from shooting hoops with my dad, I was always very concerned about what we were listening to. I’ve always studied music. I have a vast knowledge of music. I studied music at Indiana University. From being 16 years old and working at Hot 97 to going to Universal and Def Jam and seeing the way the process works from all aspects, I truly am just a sponge. So, how has music helped me? If I didn’t have this backbone of knowledge and these strong people around me — who even have their own traumas themselves and have been able to deal and get through it — I wouldn’t have something to fall back on. I believe everybody should truly figure out what their path to recovery is because everybody’s path is different. Mine happens to be through music, therapy, working my system. It’s going to take days, months and years sometimes for victims and survivors to get through it and deal with it, but music is my passion that has tremendously helped me.
What would you like people to take from your single, “Dealin’ With It?”
What I want people to take from it is the words are very powerful and they start dark because I was in a dark place. Going through this trauma, yes, there was drug abuse, alcohol abuse. There were things that were going on that were not going to be productive for me to overcome this. But then you see that light and you make that decision. You flip that switch and say, ‘I need to do the work’ and it is work. It’s a lot of emotion. You’re going to feel anger, you’re going to feel sad, you may even feel happy at the relief of talking about this.
And that’s what the song takes you through. It’s about sexual assault for me, but it could be about a different trauma for you. Everybody deals with trauma and that’s what I want “Dealin’ With It” to be — a celebration of getting over it. It is a dance record. It definitely has some '80s-type, '90s-type groove to it. I’m singing on the record. I put my heart and soul into this record as an artist just because of what happened. I didn’t go into the studio saying I’m going to write about a sexual assault. It just happened.
Besides being NBA Hall of Famers and friends, your dad and Magic Johnson have been advocates for the LGBTQ community. Considering your role with the NSVRC, would you consider a joint PSA with you, your dad, Magic and his son EJ?
Me and EJ are friends. My father and Magic obviously have had a great and storied relationship over the years. Doing a joint thing together…of course that’d be welcomed. But things like that can’t be forced. You can’t just throw a bunch of celebrities [together]. When you have that cause that connects to you, you want to put your stamp on it. Magic is obviously very passionate about HIV because he’s affected by it. My father — education is very much about his life. If things align, you could get some synergies.
Sexual assault is very important to me. Sexual assault touches all genders, all races…it’s a human issue and it’s something that isn’t talked about. And we gotta start having those conversations.
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(Photo: Paul Zimmerman/WireImage)