Is the Music Industry Ready for a Trans Star?

Transgender musician Pabllo Vittar performing at the 2019 LadyLand Festival in Brooklyn, New York.

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Why you should care

Trans musicians are beginning to break through, but industry gatekeepers need to change.

If you think the entertainment industry’s attitudes toward trans people aren’t changing, think again.

In September, Everlast, boxing’s industry leader, selected Patricio Manuel, the first transgender boxer to compete professionally, to sponsor its “Be First” ad campaign. In August, Victoria’s Secret hired Valentina Sampaio as its first transgender model. And in June, Pose star Indya Moore became Elle magazine’s first transgender cover star.

While trans women and men have been breaking through in industries from movies and television to fashion and sports, music remains an exception. Laura Jane of punk rock group Against Me! landed on the Billboard 200 in 2011, but that was before her transition. Lucas Silveira, lead singer of Canadian band the Cliks, became the first transgender lead singer to be signed to a major label, but he hasn’t made much noise since his signing, in 2007. Now, there are signs that the music landscape might be about to catch up.

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Singer-songwriter Kim Petras performs on stage when she visits Build Studio in New York City.

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English-born singer and producer Anohni was nominated for an Academy Award in 2016. Scottish record producer, singer and songwriter Sophie became the first trans artist nominated for a Grammy in the Best Dance/Electronic Album category for her debut LP, Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Inside, in 2018. After making music for Madonna, Charli XCX and Vince Staples for years, she is finally beginning to gain recognition in her own right. German pop singer Kim Petras, 27, is dominating streaming charts with 2.7 million monthly listeners on Spotify. Brazilian musician and drag queen Pabllo Vittar, who was nominated for a Latin Grammy in 2018, is leading a band of gender-fluid singers making waves in the conservative South American country. And this year, 25-year-old Ryan Cassata won an American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers award.

Yet the success of these musicians is stymied by broader challenges. Petras, for instance, signed to an indie label with hardly any commercial recognition. No openly transgender musician has topped the Billboard charts or won a Grammy Award as a popular music artist, or has even had a “moment,” for that matter.

I don’t see anyone else that’s a trans man touring and getting the amount of publicity that I have gotten. It’s super weird.

Ryan Cassata

Is the music industry ready for a transgender star? That question is one that Cassata, who is also the first openly trans performer to play the Vans Warped Tour, is asking.

Cassata says the industry has several trans musicians building successful careers who deserve to be signed on by major labels. Yet that’s not the case. “I identify as a trans man and I want to see other trans masc folks touring and getting the amount of publicity that I have gotten and more,” he says. “The trans community definitely deserves more attention. The fact that no out trans men are currently signed to record labels is super weird.” 

There are plenty of talented trans musicians with fan bases. Shea Diamond, for example, whose latest offering, “Don’t Shoot,” racked up 42,000 views on YouTube in four months, has everything you’ll want in visuals, strong sonic command and lyrics — yet she isn’t talked about nearly enough. Ah Mer Ah Su with her unique Nina Simone-meets-folk sound has all the makings to be a star. The same goes for the many trans rappers making waves, including KC Ortiz from Chicago and Quay Dash from New York City.  

Andrew Marcogliese, head of dance and electronic music programming at Pandora, agrees that the talent is there.

“There’s no shortage of really great music and really engaging music coming from this community,” Marcogliese says. “I think this moment is going to come when music comes first, not when the subconscious is to mention that they’re trans artists.” 

The question remains, however: When will that time arrive?

The stigma and discrimination trans women and men face remains deep-seated. A total of 1.4 million American adults identify as trans, and 16 percent of Americans say they personally know someone who is transgender. But trans Americans are twice as likely to be living in poverty compared with the general U.S. population, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. They’re also twice as likely to be unemployed, according to a 2013 study. Then there’s the violence they face. This year alone, at least 22 transgender or gender-nonconforming people were killed in the United States.

And when you factor in that hip-hop sits atop the music consumption food chain, it’s no wonder so many trans individuals are being left out. The genre is male-dominated, and research shows that more men than women have negative attitudes toward transgender individuals, demonstrate more anti-transgender prejudice and are more troubled by transgender women using women’s bathrooms.

“There’s no way to know how many trans artists are out there as not all trans music artists are out,” says Alex Schmider, associate director of transgender representation at GLAAD, the LGBTQ media monitoring organization. “I think you’ll find in speaking with any artists that it is more difficult to be LGB let alone T in any professional industry because of the discrimination people face when simply being themselves.”

This doesn’t mean, though, a trans star won’t have the chance to break the mold. With prominent stars becoming more transparent about their personal lives — Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Sam Smith, for example, recently came out as nonbinary; Lil Nas X, whose “Old Town Road” became the longest-running No. 1 single in July, came out as gay — audiences are beginning to accept performers who don’t conform to the mainstream gender binary.  

Perhaps the question, then, is not whether music is ready for a trans star but whether its gatekeepers are.

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