Catamount Arts Column: Arts Inspire - Quieres Bailar?

What constitutes a good day? Getting your morning coffee exactly right? Finding the first fruit on your Early Variety cherry tomato? Spotting a mama bear with cubs on your way home from work? Maybe a good day is your daughter’s soccer team making the finals, your son loading the dishwasher without being asked, and your spouse picking up dinner.

In 1992, South Central Los Angeles rapper Ice Cube made his own list in the hit single, “Today was a Good Day.” It included a home-cooked breakfast, a game of pick-up basketball, and a Lakers win. His list also included not getting carjacked, not losing any friends to murder, and not having to pull any weapons. Twenty-plus years later, the song remains so popular that blogger Donovan Strain analyzed the lyrics to determine exactly which day inspired Ice Cube’s lyrics (January 20, 1992).

Here’s the thing about lasting song lyrics. They validate our experiences, describing them with uncanny specifics, assuring us that we’re not alone. We all love it when our favorite sports team beats the rivals, when someone else cooks breakfast, when our friends want to hang out. But good lyrics also draw our attention to the experiences of others, reminding us, for example, that not everyone is safe driving through their own neighborhood.

And what if none of the songs on the radio sings to you? What if the biggest experiences in your life—even your experience of simply being—are not articulated at all, by anyone, ever? For many of us, that hardly seems possible, until we hear lyrics unlike any we’ve heard before.

Alaskan singer/songwriter Quinn Christopherson beat 6,000 competitors to win NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest last month with his staggering entry, “Erase Me.” The video (on YouTube) features him pale and bespectacled in a powder-blue suit, swaying stoop-shouldered before a painting of Denali.

“I used to have long hair,” he sings, eyes squeezed shut. “I used to smile when I walked. I used to be someone I hated.” Christopherson’s plaintive voice is backed only by some delicate guitar. “I used to think I was a woman,” he continues. “I got used to pulling the short stick.”

Christopherson is transgender, a perspective largely unheard on Top 40 radio. His song “astounded our judge panel from start to finish,” reports NPR’s Bob Boilen. Since transitioning from female to male, “nobody interrupts me,” Christopherson sings, “and nobody second guesses my opinions, and nobody tells me I can’t do it.” Speaking to Audie Cornish for NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Christopherson added, “I (get) so many opportunities at work just handed to me. Like, people (are) just asking me questions I (don’t) know anything about.”

Since his transition, Christopherson moves—is allowed to move—through the world differently, but he knows this new freedom is unearned. “I don’t know what to do,” he sings, “with all this privilege. I’ve got a voice now. I’ve got power. And I can’t stand it.”

His new power comes with a price. He can enjoy the privilege of being male, but not an explicitly transgender male, and certainly not as a male who presented for 25 years as a woman. “I’m tired,” Christopherson sings, “of people trying to erase me.” He sings this line over and over like a mantra. For transgender men, it seems, male privilege is a bitter prize, and the price is steep.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) warns that violence against transgender people is a national epidemic. 1 in 3 transgender people lives in poverty, unemployment is three times the national average, and the suicide rate is disproportionately high. The average life expectancy of a transgender woman of color is thirtysomething.

“We must increase the cultural visibility of transgender people and ensure their full inclusion within all communities,” says the HRC’s recent report on anti-transgender violence. Full inclusion means we must welcome and make space for all aspects of the transgender experience, not just the bits we can squeeze into binary norms.

Art saves lives. That’s not hyperbole. Whether it’s finally building monuments to transgender heroes like Stonewall’s Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, or curating transgender artist exhibits like Oakland Museum’s “Queer California: Untold Stories,” studies have shown that mere exposure to transgender people reduces transphobia. The erasure of transgender people costs lives, period. But if we elevate transgender voices, if we listen to and sing those songs, that too is a power. We can all take pride in a power like that.

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