On March 31, International Transgender Day of Visibility is a reminder to honor and support trans people around the world — a diverse community that encompasses all ages, races, and faith backgrounds.
Below is a list of trans artists to check out, if you haven’t already. As rapper Quay Dash notes, “being pigeon-holed as just a trans artist sucks. People label you, but I’m not going to stop representing my community.”
Laura Jane Grace
Best known as the founder and frontwoman of the Florida punk rock band Against Me!, Laura Jane Grace was one of the first punk musicians to come out as transgender publicly and has been vocal about her experience ever since, releasing the album “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” in 2014. On tracks like the rollicking “F**kMyLife666” Grace addresses her relationship with her wife and the alienation she felt before coming out, as well as anxiety about where the marriage stands. It’s a song you can easily headbang to with an uneasy core: now that I’m me, where does that leave us?
Mykki Blanco once confessed to The Guardian “I didn’t want to be a rapper. I wanted to be Yoko Ono.” From the onset of their career, Blanco has traversed many realms from performing industrial rock under the name No Fear, to releasing riot grrrl-infused rap as Mykki Blanco. Blanco rose through the New York City Afropunk scene releasing a series of experimental mixtapes and opening for the likes of Bjork and Death Grips, to become one of hip-hops’ most visionary influencers. In 2015, they disclosed their status as HIV positive and has been an activist for LGBTQ+ rights around the world.
As avant-garde pop was prompting music journalists to employ terms like “net art” and descriptors like “writhes like a wad of cellophane,” Scottish-born dance pop phenomena Sophie Long emerged on the scene in 2015 with club-ready tracks like “Lemonade” and “Bipp.” Two years later on her debut album “The Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides,” she stretches and smooths the sugary bounce of those early releases and offers something deeper: herself. On “Immaterial” the album’s core message is delivered with giddy, pitched vocals. “I can be anything I want,” Long proclaims, because, after all, social constructs are “im-ma-ma-material.”
Shea Diamond makes raw, revelatory ballads about resistance and Black liberation. On the song “Don’t Shoot,” she catalogues a childhood of ostracization when she felt silenced by gender roles, later choosing to run away at age 14, serving a ten-year prison sentence from the age of nineteen, and unable to afford what she needs in her forties. “I’m not saying I’m the only one/ But damn some days it feel like it,” she sings. “Modern slavery tried to get the best of me/ That’s a lot of anybody.”
St. Paul’s 4th Curtis, the self-described “indie rock trio of gay trans people,” won hearts with their 2017 debut album “I Won the Pageant.” Songs like “Anjali” and “Everything’s Gone Wrong” are buoyed by infectious melodies and Lex Noens’ wry lyrics, but listen carefully, and you’ll be swept into a world of storytelling couched in powerful life experience. “We started writing all these songs that were really bitter, but also they sound almost celebratory,” Noens told City Pages. “’I Won the Pageant’ is about someone poised to be in power, but isn’t yet recognized.”
In 2016, visual artist and composer Anohni stepped away from her 20-year run with chamber pop group Antony and the Johnsons to produce something more expansive. “Hopelessness,” released just months before the 2016 election, crystallizes current events, from the Arab Spring to the Black Lives Matter movement, into looking glasses for listeners to viscerally interpret the cultural attitudes that undergird humanity’s drive towards self-destruction. On “Why Did You Separate Me From the Earth?” she evenly surveys violence done to human bodies and entire ecosystems like a child resolved to cut ties with her parents. “The rotten bodies threaded gold/ The pitch of hair and sticky meat,” she sings. “I don’t want your future/ I’m never, I’m never coming home.”
“Drone Bomb Me” is sung in the voice of a seven-year-old girl whose family is caught in an airstrike. It sounds almost euphoric, like many of the songs on “Hopelessness,” but Anohni’s voice cuts through the abstraction of news reports to a gut-wrenching moment of impact. “Let me be the one that you choose from above/ After all, I’m partly to blame,” she sings.
In May 2019, the folks at NPR Music crowded their Tiny Desk Concert winner out of over 6,000 entries. In his winning video, Anchorage’s Quinn Christopherson stands in front of a painting of Denali at the Anchorage Museum and poignantly reflects on his complicated experience with privilege as a transgender man. “I got a voice now and I got power,” he sings. “But I can’t stand it.” Christopherson told NPR that the song bloomed out of experiences he had at work witnessing misogyny in a new way. “I would just hear terrible things that men would say when they think women aren’t around,” he explained. “And that is what started the process of writing this song because, I don’t know, the misogyny — it just got worse as I came onto this ‘other side.'” The singer-songwriter has yet to release a full-length project; in the meantime you can listen to his two singles here.
In the 1960s, Jackie Shane was a leading voice in the Toronto soul and R&B scene, achieving chart success with her 1962 single “Any Other Way,” and garnering comparisons to the likes of James Brown and Little Richard. Shane’s cool and confident vocal control is oft-praised alongside her singular confidence in other areas of life. She was active at a time when transgender people were universally shunned and remained true to her identity, often performing in full makeup and refusing to appear otherwise, even when asked onto the Ed Sullivan show. “His scout came and said: ‘You’re going to have to do this without makeup,’” Shane told the Guardian. “I said: ‘Please stuff it.’ Ed Sullivan looks like something Dr Frankenstein had a hand in. He’s going to tell me what to do?”
Most of Shane’s available tracks are live recordings, and she never did get to perform in front of a modern audience that could truly cherish her power. Shane died in 2019 at the age of 78.
Venus de Mars
For more than 20 years, Venus DeMars has been an absolute powerhouse of the Twin Cities music scene. After making a name for herself with glam rock band All the Pretty Horses, DeMars’ career entered a new level after touring with Against Me! in 2014. An early advocate for transgender rights, DeMars reflected on touring with Laura Jane Grace in an interview with The Current: “For all the struggles and the frustrations that I had coming out back in the ’80s, to see the changes and to live the changes as a trans person is a privilege,” she told Andrea Swensson. Her latest full-length, “Flesh & Wire,” was released in 2015 and recorded entirely at Sacred Heart Music Center in Duluth.
With 26 Bats! sophomore release Onyx, Bailey Cogan proved themself as one of the most vanguard voices of the Twin Cities music community. Cogan has been vocal about their right to make music that doesn’t ascribe to any singular genre. “I like to say that we’re genre-fluid because it’s a nice cop-out,” they told The Current last year. “But also, I’m gender-fluid, so it’s like me — it’s true to who I am. It’s the kind of music I make because art is an expression of self.” Named for the protective stone that absorbs negative energy, the album functions as a kind of repository for Cogan’s self-doubt, fear, and loss explored through grungy brass, fickle time signatures, and vivid vocal inflections. A place to shake it all off and begin anew.