Billy Gilman has been through it all — and he’s ready to talk about.
From being a Grammy-nominated country star as a child to breaking into the pop genre through The Voice, the 31-year-old opened up to PEOPLE about his journey to self-acceptance and finding his place outside of the country scene where he started.
With meaningful lyrics and beautiful visuals at the front of his mind, Gilman released the powerful song “Soldier” in August and debuts its tear-jerking music video exclusively with PEOPLE. The video encapsulates Gilman’s own battles after having contemplated suicide and facing an industry that rejected him for being gay.
“These are real problems that we see on the news but I haven’t seen a music video that touches it in that way,” he says about the clip that tackles homelessness, drug abuse and bullying. “If the song can inspire and help someone else in such a strong way, the song is just gold to me.”
He sings on the track: “I’ma keep fighting, fighting / ‘Cause baby I’m a soldier.”
Those lyrics have become a motto for the singer.
“Everyone has their own problems in this world, but I think when I tell you it got dark, I think people know where I’m going when I say those words,” Gilman says. “It was scary. God put me on this Earth to be one thing and no one was allowing me to do it and it was crazy.”
While he faced negative thoughts and the “actions that I tried to do,” the one thing that allowed him to “keep fighting,” as he sings, was his mother.
“I just knew I couldn’t do that to her because she’s my life,” he explains. “I just kept seeing my mom’s face so that really kept me from being very off the edge. But it was scary.”
“It’s a very heavy feeling,” he adds.
As he struggled to come to terms with his sexuality and identity, he had to face people who would call him nasty names “I wouldn’t even like to say out loud.” And much of that hate spurred from his start in the country world.
“As a child, it was almost like being pulled out of a family,” he explains. “It’s insane.”
“The sad thing is I never chose to leave country music, they left me,” he adds.
Leaders in Nashville, where he got his start, told him that the “gay vibe” associated with his name changed how people perceived his music.
“And I’m thinking to myself, the music is all that should matter. Not this,” he explains.
“I had a VP of one of the most major record labels sit down and say to me ‘Well, we don’t like our men sounding like Carrie Underwood,’” he adds. “So not only is that a gay thing, but it was also an effeminate thing.”
But now, Gilman owns up to who he is and the gift he was born with — even if he still deals with his mental health.
“I am at a stronger point, but I have to be honest. It’s a daily struggle,” he explains. “I still struggle.”
As he continues to emerge in the music scene once again, he’s excited to showcase his powerful vocals and genre-bending tracks in this rewritten journey.
“I am blessed to be able to stand face to face with some big singers and go right toe to toe. Not many men can do that,” he says. “That’s my gift.”
But as he tries this new path, one thing is for sure: he wouldn’t want his kids to have to go through what he faced.
“If I have children one day, I will beg them not to go into the music business, even if they can sing their face off because I would never want them to see or face what I had to face,” he adds.
Years after America fell in love with the “One Voice” singer, Gilman got a new chance to present a renewed singer on The Voice in 2016. And America fell in love, once again. He ended the season as a runner-up.
“I think they saw through that and they saw the vulnerability at the heart,” he says. “That’s what really helped me create the new music and new sound. I knew that my voice fit that.”
“I’m very proud of the stuff that I’ve been able to do,” he adds. “And that was because of The Voice. And probably because America could have easily gone, ‘Nah, we liked him before when he was doing this,’ but they didn’t.”
Now, he’s proud to be an inspiration to those who have learned to accept themselves for who they are — just as he did in the spotlight.
“When you’re at the frontlines, that’s scary. And changing the world like that, and for someone that chooses to come to me and say, ‘You helped fight for all of us,’” he says. “I’m just honored that I, in some way, can do it.”
With new songs and shows under his belt, the track “Soldier” truly embodies Gilman’s fight.
“I’m giving my heart and I just really hope that it shows,” he says.