Forging a New Path: Transgender Singers in Popular Music

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June 24, 2017
Music Theater Transforming
Music Theater Transforming Lives
June 28, 2017

When working with transgender singers, the teacher has the obligation to create a safe place where students can sing without fear of discrimination and be supported and affirmed in being who they are—singing with their authentic voices. What a wonderful opportunity for us all, and what a gift these brave singers have given us.

 

Some of the first issues that a cisgender voice teacher of transgender and gender nonconforming singers faces is finding role models and repertoire for the student. After all, with most students we have well established ideas of what their musical niche might be. But transgender or gender nonconforming singers might seem to bring an entirely blank slate, as if nobody has ever developed a following or composed songs as a transgender singer. Thankfully, that is not the case. There are talented transgender singers in almost every genre, and many people have cut paths for our students to explore.

Few people have more expertise on music of transgender performers than JD Doyle, archivist of music of LGBTQ performers spanning the last hundred years. His websites, Queer Music Heritage and JD Doyle Archives, are both sources of understanding, appreciation, and exposure for LGBTQ singers. JD has an uncomplicated way of shining light on appropriate repertoire: “What is queer music, and what makes it different, and the same, from what straight artists write and sing about? It’s the same because of course LGBT people write about relationships, falling in love, wanting to be in love, and losing love . . .”

Doyle offered a number of recommendations of artists to consider that I have supplemented. It is exciting to hear the authentic and meaningful music of these artists, some who sing from their hearts with insightful, serious lyrics about their transitions, some who perform songs that say nothing specific about their transitions, and others who use comedy and bring up the edgier side of their lives. One of the singers who provides insight into the emotional journey of transition is Namoli Brennet.

Namoli Brennet is a folk-rock singer/songwriter based out of Iowa. Her poetic lyrics have been described as insightful, moody, and inspiring. I find her ballads to be heartbreaking and her up-tempo music to be nothing but fun. Her music has been featured on the radio and in films. Namoli tours for part of every year and uses a combination of acoustic instruments and digital gadgets to create a rich tapestry of music (www.namolibrennet.com/).

Joe Stevens of the folk duo, Coyote Grace, is another immensely talented singer/songwriter who pours his experiences and emotions into brilliantly crafted songs. Many of Coyote Grace’s songs lean toward Americana with beautifully flowing melodies and poetic lyrics. One exception is “Daughterson,” a comedic but unflinching solo song, which is a direct product of Joe’s transitioning journey, with lyrics such as:

“Well, you say I’m going to hell
Well, I’ve been down that well
And God is a big boy, he can speak for himself”
(www.coyotegrace.com).

Jennifer Leitham is a career jazz musician, bassist, composer and vocalist. Jennifer transitioned from being known as John Leitham in 2001, well into her career as an instrumentalist; but her first recording utilizing her singing voice is The Real Me (2006). She is the subject of an award-winning documentary, I Stand Corrected, which won the best film award at the American Documentary Film Festival in April, 2012 (jenniferleitham.com www.istandcorrectedmovie.com).

Lucas Silveira is best known for being the front man of Toronto band, The Cliks, and has also released a solo cover album. The music of The Cliks is pure, exciting rock infused with an infectious beat, guitar driven instrumentation, and vocals that cry out with emotion. The Cliks has opened for Cyndi Lauper as well as Ian Astbury (www.thecliks.com).

Simon de Voil is a Scottish singer-songwriter whose specialty is sacred music, now living in the Pacific Northwest. His lyrics are rich with meaning oriented toward spirituality and healing for all people. The simple guitar chords and flowing melodies pull the listener into a quiet, meditative, and beautiful place. He has released several albums, but perhaps the most intriguing to the voice teacher or FtM transitioning singer is the soundtrack of the documentary Funny Kinda Guy. Simon’s transition from female to male is the subject of the movie, and the soundtrack contains songs recorded at different points in the transition, voice cracks and all, as his voice lowers. The soundtrack is available on his website. (www.simondevoil.co.uk).

Alexander James Adams spins tales of fantasy and magic, history, and spirituality with his Celtic and World Music and spoken narration. Alec has recorded many albums, first as Heather Alexander and then, as of 2006, as Alexander James Adams. Alec lives in Wisconsin and tours regularly. He is also accomplished on fiddle and several other instruments (faerietaleminstrel.com).

Jayne County, performer in punk, rock, and boogie-woogie, is perhaps one of the longest performing and most memorable transgender performers in North America. She has been performing, first as Wayne County and then as Jayne County, for over five decades. She is currently singing with her punk rock band, Jayne County & the Electrick Queers (www.jaynecounty.com). Jayne’s groundbreaking work has paved the way for many transgender singers to follow.

K.B. TuffNStuff (also known as KB Boyce) is another groundbreaking artist. S/he composes and performs music that pays homage to African American and Indigenous legacies of resistance through art. S/he conjures the spirit of cross dressing blues performers and deals directly with hir gender fluidity in the lyrics of powerful blues songs. Hir smoky voice and expert guitar playing make King TuffNStuff a formidable blues presence (www.reverbnation.com/kbtuffnstuff).

Veronica Klaus has a dual passion of jazz/blues and funk. Veronica’s smooth, full voice and unique style make for an exciting new take on jazz standards. Especially notable are her new verses to “Fever,” which are full of passion and excitement, rather than the cool seduction we are used to (soundcloud.com/veronica-klaus).

CN Lester is a British singer-songwriter who excels at lush, moody, lyric, piano based songs. They [Lester’s preferred pronoun] are also a voice teacher and activist for gender rights, and have given several insightful interviews about gender binary and genderqueer issues for singers (www.cnlester.com).

The lists of transgender and gender non conforming singers JD Doyle and I love go on and on. Other performers who must be mentioned include:

The Shondes, Brooklyn based queer rock, pop, and punk band, was founded by singer and bassist Louisa Rachel Solomon and transgender violinist Elijah Oberman (www.shondes.com)

Joshua Klipp has a perfect sound to front the California based blues rock band, The Klipptones (klipptones.com).

 

 

Lipstick Conspiracy, the girls “your mother warned you about,” performs power pop with delicious harmonies (lipstickconspiracy.com).

Isabella “Bunny” Bennett of steampunk band Steam Powered Giraffe creates beautiful harmonies and solo vocals with her identical twin brother and other members of their band (steampoweredgiraffe.com).

Asher Brown is a singer/songwriter from Iowa City. Skills honed during his Berklee education are clear in his beautiful arrangements (asherbrownmusic.com).

Good Asian Drivers delivered riveting pop rock with spoken word poetry. The group is no longer together, but their music is still worth seeking out (www.last.fm/music/Good+Asian+Drivers).

Jenny Slater, a singer/songwriter, provides a throwback sound of British new wave dealing with struggles surrounding transgender people (myspace.com/jennyslater).

Tough Tough Skin was a successful Minneapolis-based queer punk nerd-core band. Although the group is no longer together, their music can still be found and the effort would be worthwhile (www.last.fm/music/Tough+Tough+Skin).

Finally, I would like to share a few performers who deserve to be mentioned for their contributions, but who are outside the scope of transgender people who have devoted careers to singing.

Rocco Katstrophe is a top tier Brooklyn based hip-hop rapper and producer. His music also contains some singing (soundcloud.com/roccokatastrophe).

On the international front, Israeli DJ, producer, vocalist, and entertainer, Aderet, is making waves from the Middle East to the UK. Her music and interviews can be heard at soundcloud.com/dj-aderet.

Alexandra Billings is a well-known transgender actress who has also done some cabaret performing (www.alexandrabillings.com/).

Joey Arias is an accomplished New York-based drag performance artist, jazz, and cabaret singer. Although not transgender, Joey has helped pave the way for gender fluid expression in performance (www.facebook.com/joeyariasnyc).

The Transcendence Gospel Choir is one of several choirs for transgender and gender nonconforming singers, but especially stands out as a historic and pioneering ministry of the City of Refuge United Church of Christ in San Francisco, CA. Transcendence is the first transgender Gospel choir and was also highlighted in the documentary The Believers (www.transfaithonline.org/explore/christian/traditions/black/transcendence_gospel_choir/).

Paige Elliot Phoenix is an Australian based public speaker, educator, author, transactivist, and musician. He was the first openly transgender contestant on The X Factor (www.paigeelliotphoenix.com).

Riot Acts, a film directed by Madsen Minax, is a documentary representing the multifaceted lives of transgender and gender variant musicians. Featured interviewees include Anderson Toone, Lipstick Conspiracy, Katastrophe and Trannysaurus Sex (San Francisco), Basic Fix (Portland), Ryder Richardson (Seattle), Tough Tough Skin, and Venus Demars (Minneapolis), Adhamh Roland (St. Louis), Ryka Aoki De La Cruz (Los Angeles), Jessica Xavier (Washington, DC), The Shondes and Novice Theory (Brooklyn, NY), The Degenerettes (Baltimore), Systyr Act (Boston), The Cliks (Toronto), and Coyote Grace (Sonoma County, CA) (riotactsfilm.com).

As vast as the array of artists, singing styles, and genres represented on the list is, so too are the individuals who make up the transgender community at large. As stated by the National Center for Transgender Equality, “Transgender people come from every region of the United States and around the world, from every racial and ethnic background, and from every faith community. Transgender people are your classmates, your coworkers, your neighbors, and your friends. With approximately 1.4 million transgender adults in the United States—and millions more around the world—chances are that you’ve met a transgender person, even if you don’t know it.”

Having the opportunity to work with a transgender singer can be one of the most fulfilling highlights of a voice teacher’s career. It offers a chance to not only enhance a singer’s life through skilled, creative expression, but also to help a student who is likely to have experienced a daunting amount of trauma through physical and mental abuse as well as the serious emotional distress that comes from gender dysphoria. When working with transgender singers, the teacher has the obligation to create a safe place where students can sing without fear of discrimination and be supported and affirmed in being who they are—singing with their authentic voices. What a wonderful opportunity for us all, and what a gift these brave singers have given us.



 

Nancy Bos, cisgender female, has maintained a thriving independent singing studio in Seattle, Washington since 1995. She has served as adjunct faculty at Cornish College of the Arts and is affiliated with Bellevue College. Her instructional CD set, Singing 101: Beginning Voice Lessons and Vocal Workout has been used by thousands of singers, including music students at Hesston College and members of the Southern Rock Society. Ms. Bos has given master classes and presentations in popular contemporary singing styles, pedagogy for transgender singers, vocal acoustics, and music theater across the USA and Canada. Her students perform at major venues in Seattle, Los Angeles, Nashville, and New York City.

Nancy has worked in the recording industry, film, and theater. A versatile performer, she has been the mezzo soprano soloist for music tours of Peru and southern Europe, belted out music theater character roles, and appeared as the soloist in a bluegrass concert. She also plays bass, keyboards, and works as an audiobook voice artist.

A longtime member of the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS), Nancy is the Northwest Regional Governor for NATS. She has served as the Associate Editor of Inter Nos, on several national committees, including co-chair for the NATS national committee for Collegiate/Private Studio Relations, as Western Washington District Governor, and in several board positions in the Puget Sound and Tahoma NATS chapters. She is a founding member of the Eastside Vocal Federated Music Club, was a NATS Intern in 2005, and is a Distinguished Voice Professional through NYSTA (www.studiobos.com).

Nancy Bos
Nancy Bos
Bos, a singer, voice actor, and voice teacher, has introduced the joy of singing to people all over the world with her lessons, books, and podcast. “It’s been an amazing journey, and so meaningful. I feel like voice teachers and voice actors are the luckiest people alive. We get to live our passion every day and experience the joy of transformation every minute we are working.” Bos has loved singing since she grew up in South Dakota and later in Iowa and New Mexico.

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