Trans women aren’t just music’s future, they’re its past and present
Photos by Mason Kilpatrick, Trae Mayberry, Spencer Chaney, Sheppa.
Too often, the groundbreaking and earth-shattering music made by transgender women artists is dubbed “the future of music” or “a vision of what’s to come.” While this is a nice sentiment—it certainly is poetic to dream of a future utopia where the music of trans artists reigns supreme—music created by trans women has already been woven in and out of music’s canon, communities, and its very history. The narrative of the music made by trans women being strictly futuristic begs the question: are they only the future because they’ve been pushed out of the present?
Some trans art is beginning to be recognized globally for their contributions, like the shuddering and clanging vision of pop music created by Scotland’s SOPHIE or the harrowing, haunting production by Venezuelan artist Arca. But more often than not, less famous trans women musicians face extreme discrimination in their own communities by a money-hungry and vicious music industry rampant with racism and transphobia. Through solidarity that bridges the gaps of class and genre, trans women are building a more equitable industry for themselves.
Kansas City’s UN/TUCK collective, a queer and trans-focused record label, are at the forefront of this ethos locally. As an entity, UN/TUCK promotes the work of the individual members, while also using a collaborative effort to put on intricate live shows and orchestrate music connections both locally and nationwide. Founded in 2017 by Zoey Shopmaker, Mazzy Mann, and Lorelei Kretsinger, UN/TUCK was crafted out of a need for music venues where queer and trans people could feel safe and showcase their art.
“I strongly believed that if I could elevate the voices of those in my community, I could elevate my own,” cofounder Mazzy Mann says, of this need for change. “Therefore, I was creating a stage for myself, because I wasn’t being given opportunities. Even up until right before COVID-19, it was like fighting tooth and nail to book a show with venues.”
While queer artists are beginning to gain traction in the mainstream, they are disproportionately white or cisgender compared to the vast diversity of queer art at large. While it is truly historic to see SOPHIE, Arca, or Kim Petras recognized for their contributions to music as transgender women, Quay Dash still does not own the rights to her music and faces harassment in her own neighborhood. Mykki Blanco was originally not paid for their contributions to a Teyana Taylor song. Big Freedia’s vocals were featured in two top ten songs on the Billboard charts in the last five years, Drake’s “Nice For What” and Beyoncé’s “Formation,” yet was not credited as a feature on either track’s title.
In general, trans people are in the minority, especially Black trans people, says Zoey Shopmaker. “To break through these certain barriers, like representation, is honestly still a problem. Cis white people get booked way more than Black trans people. The music industry likes to tokenize trans people, but it doesn’t necessarily like to create level platforms for trans people. When I think of successful trans artists, it’s a handful.”
“Everywhere you go, your identity is just put into question in some way, shape, or form,” local punk artist Clelia Walking of Bath Consolidated says. “That doesn’t stop when you get in the music industry.”
In Kansas City, transgender performers are placed at a distinctive disadvantage to their cisgender peers. Even when club promoters are interested in booking trans artists, often exorbitant fees stand in the way.
“It’s hard, because in the Kansas City area, it’s just hard to get paid [at many venues]. You kind of have to put money down, and there’s not really a guaranteed audience.” says Lina Dannov, a member of UN/TUCK. “UN/TUCK is cool because it’s creating its own spaces. The three shows we did last year, they were all in DIY spaces. Transportal was in Washington Square Park, so that was interesting. We get to come into a space and take it over, rather than have to be coming into someone’s [venue].”
Moving forward, these women say venues and shows have to change in order to give everyone a fair shot. Through UN/TUCK, Mann says that they are able to create brand new “pop-up” style events and performances, which are more equitable all the way around. By centering their own talents as well, the crowds they draw are queerer, and therefore safer for everyone involved.
“It was so much better for me, for us, to do the ideology of the ‘pop-up space,’” says Mann. “We did a three-part series, last year, called the Portal series, that was: Transfiguration, Transportal, and Transhuman, and these were three giant, DIY pop-up events. No venues, we just got the grant funding for it, and we just did it.”
“We’ve always been struggling to have space and find space,” Mann continues. “So, the ideal musical landscape is that we would have our own spaces that would not be infringed upon by the venue. As soon as we start talking about profiting, having to save the space as a business, it’s no longer about the community, and what the community needs in order to provide safer and more accommodating spaces. It’s no longer about the people, it’s about the institution.”
COVID-19 has upended all aspects of the live music industry, but because of a reliance on the need to reinvent, UN/TUCK is at a distinct advantage compared to straight and cisgender music alliances. While the coronavirus has wreaked havoc on our world, it offers the opportunity to intent something new and to change the things weren’t fair or weren’t working. Throughout the pandemic, virtual and livestream concerts have thrived, often harnessing their viewership to collect funds for mutual aid, the transition funds of Black trans people, and a multitude of other organizations.
FAIRYWORLD, a wide-ranging group of DJ’s from across the globe, hosted Zoom parties featuring a heavily queer lineup consistently since the spring. Open Pit Presents broke ground in Minecraft to create in-game server parties with a multitude of transgender performers, and they raised more than $20,000 for the Okra Project, which provides meals and money for groceries to Black trans people. TransgenderAvenue used their Twitch music streams to donate directly to trans peoples’ aid funds.
Moving music experiences onto the internet may also solve a problem of accessibility for people with disabilities, who are often not made to feel safe in a traditional live setting. However, if online live music wants to be a sustainable model for performers, it’ll have to adapt into a model that rivals the profits of live shows with liquor sales and cover charges.
In an Instagram Story post on December 6, Mann called out the hypocrisy of KC venues asking for monetary support to remain afloat during the pandemic after being denied access to perform at these same venues during the span of her career.
“I have been making music, playing shows, and providing platforms for a good eight years now in Kansas City, and the amount of blacklisting from radio and venues I’ve received is innumerable,” she writes. “So, no, I don’t want to #savethestage. I want to work harder when this is all said and done to continue to build spaces that are more inclusive and more accessible to a large number of people who are not represented in the Kansas City venue.”
Zoey Shopmaker echoes for this need for major change, saying that to her, a more ideal music landscape looks like “more money in the pockets of Black, queer artists. To me, that’s really what it comes down to. The music industry is going to be broken so long as the systemic racism in the industry is not addressed.”
UN/TUCK’s members and changes to the Kansas City music scene have already inspired other creators. Local musician Sloane Wednesday speaks of the way it has affected her own career as a musician.
“My friend Mazzy, and Zoey Shopmaker have this collective that puts on a bunch of shows and raves, and that’s where I was exposed to their music, and inspired by them doing it, that made me think ‘Oh, I wanna do that too,’” Wednesday says.
In conversations with these prolific local musicians, it is clear the effect of seeing other trans artists perform on their own musical journeys cannot be downplayed. Representation matters to queer people. Shopmaker found representation in Octo Octa’s performance at UN/TUCK’s first ever show, a tribute to pioneering force Wendy Carlos.
“She played this live set for us.. She is this six foot three, gorgeous trans woman, super smart, extremely talented,” Shopmaker says, eyes aglow. “It was kind of a revelation, having her out and seeing her play. That night that she played, I think, was just a really transformative night for me. It was a packed dance floor the whole night, everyone played amazing sets. She just killed it and introduced me to house and techno music in a way I had never experienced it before.”
Transgender women artists help shape music in huge ways, but too frequently either go largely unrecognized or are pushed out of their careers before they can gain notoriety. The aforementioned Wendy Carlos—a legendary artist who composed the scores to movies like The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, and Tron—goes all too often uncredited for her huge influence in movie scoring and synth music. Y2K revival pioneer Ayesha Erotica and electronica noise pop duo Black Dresses both can be credited with the development of niche internet genres (that go on to influence larger genres, in a trickle-up sort of way), but both artists had to give up online personas and the release of music due to transphobic harassment.
The aforementioned battle between Mykki Blanco and Teyana Taylor’s management is a hopeful one that some trans people are able to fight for their right to be credited in their contributions to the music of cis artists. Blanco’s eventual crediting on the track was a win against the tokenization without accreditation of trans artists, Mann says.
“I think that, when you start thinking and talking about representational queer politics, it comes down to, it’s easier to commodify, tokenize, put it out there, as if these people are cool, awesome props for your video, but not paying them. There’s this divide, even with the narrative that’s placed on, say, a SOPHIE, or an Arca, that they’re really edgy, they’re really cool, and we don’t really talk about the lived experiences of queer and trans people, which is that they have less access to opportunity,” Mann says.
Shopmaker agrees that although we are beginning to see more trans women actually being credited for their work, it is usually much more nuanced than it seems. Even the more famous trans artists still face harassment and discrimination, while the tokenization of those artists sometimes swings in their favor.
“In this world that I’m a part of, being a trans woman is actually kind of a leg up.” Shopmaker says. “I’ve [only] been in it for two years, and I was working as a DJ full time before the pandemic. I was booked out from March till the end of June. In the underground dance music scene, people want to put you on. Because that’s what underground dance music was built on, it was built on Black queer people. So that ethos of wanting to represent marginalized artists more definitely gives me a leg up in my industry.”
“It’s really weird,” she continues. “And that, on some level, feels kind of token-y. But I’m not gonna complain about it, because I appreciate people wanting to put me on, as an artist.”
No matter what the future holds with COVID-19’s disruption of live music and in-person musical collaborations, the work of collectives like UN/TUCK and solidarity being built at the ground level by trans artists across the country are going to have major effects in the next few years. When asked what an ideal music future looks like to them, trans women artists are not looking for their art to be more important than all others—they simply want to exist and be treated fairly in music.
Local artist Diyana Shipp is optimistic about things changing for the better. “I’ve seen so many scenes, I’ve been touring since I was 17, and I’m 28 now, so that’s 11 years of going around the fucking country, and seeing how other people operate,” Shipp says. “I have been incredibly grateful, in the sense that I have seen other trans people flourish in a capacity I never even understood. We’re so fucking capable of making music that is incredibly beautiful and profound, in whatever capacity. That’s the beauty of music, just the expression of it, and its aspects.”
“I wanna see grandmas front hardcore bands,” Shipp says, laughing. “I wanna see trans-ass fucking grandmas front some fucking hardcore bands, going crazy, losing their goddamn minds, because they never got to before!”
“We’re gonna be those grandmas,” Walking says. “And we’re gonna be helping the other grandmas. That’s the future.”
UN/TUCK, online venues, and informal collectives of creatives lifting each other up are all building new spaces and opportunities that help create a better world.
“We should have our own spaces that are centered around queer voices,” Mann says. “And Black voices. And femme voices. And trans voices. And underrepresented art and music stylings. All those things that are not represented in the mainstream.”
While under the surface of the mainstream, those spaces are out there, and they are waiting for us to show up. Music created by trans artists has shaped Kansas City’s underground music scene considerably, and they deserve credit for it. So don’t wait until the mystical trans future arrives; the future is already here. We just have to find it.