ANOHNI: Hello, Nomi, my dear. How are you?
NOMI: Hi, love. I’m good. How are you?
A: I’m ok… It’s a sad day because of Sinéad O’Connor’s passing.
N: I know… my God. She’s been through so much.
A: She’s a warrior.
N: She really is. I was watching that Saturday Night Live clip again.
A: We don’t know how to care for the ones that take the biggest risks. Structurally, we’re not capable of holding them. It’s weird. People prefer this narrative that a person dies, and then everyone heralds their name. People prefer that to creating support systems for their artists in the living time. We have to wonder why that is? Is this some fantasy of martyrdom? It’s perverse over and over and over again.
N: I feel people are terrified of it when they can look it in the eyes; it’s too much when it’s in real time. They feel responsible, then they feel the pressure to do the same in a way, and they don’t want to face that truth.
A: So, they neglect her when she’s in the act, and after she passes, then they can sing of her as a prophet? But all they could do was defile her in her lifetime?
N: People like to mythologize. They prefer it as a mythology as opposed to a reality. The reality of it is too much for people to absorb sometimes; then, they feel responsible. I feel like that’s the same with trans people. When they see us existing freely, they want to erase us because we’re signs that we all are responsible for our living experience and we have actual control over it. It’s the same thing happening there.
A: Explain that a little bit more…
N: When you see a trans person existing, there’s this intensity to it where people start to see that we’re responsible for our lives. We’re responsible for the truth that’s within all of us, whether we’re trans or we’re not. We all possess this truth within us that we’re supposed to be striving toward, and so much of society’s been taught to not go that route.
They’re taught to stay in line and follow the toxic structures set up for us. So when you see a trans person, you have no choice but to acknowledge that they’re rejecting that system. People don’t even want to realize that that’s an option. I think it’s easier to go along with what we’re told, and it’s the easy way out to live by that structure. People don’t want to acknowledge that they have the responsibility or power to live differently.
Oh, I went to see Kokomo City last night.
A: Oh my goodness, how was it?
N: It was stunning. It was wild; there was this girl talking about being a Black trans woman and how people want to oppress her because she’s showing you can exist outside of the same thing I was talking about, the structure of maleness and what white society has built for Black people.
She said every time you see a successful Black person, it’s because you were given an opportunity by a white man. She says Black trans people within the Black community are a sign of breaking that structure and that people are afraid to take that on. It was interesting.
A: People within the Black community or the whole society?
N: She spoke specifically within Black communities, but I feel that exists in so many aspects of the world as well when it comes to living outside societal norms. Trans people experience it at a high rate because when you’re visible, it’s easy to be the scapegoat.
A: It’s such a treacherous balance existing outside the system and yet somehow navigating daily to create some safety for yourself within a system that doesn’t wish the best for you when expressing that freedom.
N: It’s strange because it’s the freedom that will free everyone. It’s so weird how some people don’t even want to accept their ability to free themselves. They’d rather go against that. They’d rather shut that down.
There’s a lot of pressure for some people who’ve been taught a certain way of living and have that way of living attached to many privileges. That’s the reward they’re given in order to stay in line. You have these privileges, and if you step out of line, we will take them away from you, so they’re afraid to free themselves from having that access, and it’s shocking to see someone that doesn’t even care about that access. Of course, people wish they could have that, but when you see someone existing so outside of the lines of society. It’s so punk because, in a way, they’re like “I’m giving up all that stuff. I’m giving up my privileges to be free,” which terrifies them. That’s the same thing with Sinéad O’Connor. She’s one of those who gave up a lot of privilege in order to take a stand.
A: Yeah like intensely so. In the Irish press, she’s being completely deified right now, and I’m sure she is around the world. And it’s just so ironic the way all of her recent life, and general life has been consumed as gossip and fodder, then to see someone exit and then to see this flood of people just trying to twist and turn inside the plot to get on the right side of the story.
It’s the same thing they did to Nina Simone. You look at the Nina Simone documentary, and they focus so much on her pathology. But in this case, it’s interesting, you look at The Guardian, and there’s different editorials, one talks about how [O’Connor’s] creativity was married to her ‘madness’. They use the word madness as if we were in the Victorian era.
Then another one is exalting her, but they can’t help but exalt and kick her at the same time. Some media is now recontextualizing her work as courageous; they’re finally catching a glimpse of it. No one dares to say she declared she was a lesbian. She started wearing a burka and converted to Islam in an act of radical empathy for Islamic women at a time when Islamic women, pre-Covid, were being hideously persecuted in the West.
Even earlier this year on Irish TV, she said that all immigrants are welcome in Ireland and that she loves them. She said it on national television. She was derided for converting to Islam. I felt it was such a radical thing she could do. It was the most profound feminist gesture of solidarity she could make, and it was riveting, insisting on female coalition… empathy. It was Yoko Ono level riveting.
N: With Amy Whitehouse, I would go to her show and see people applauding when she was drinking. She would take a drink on stage, and the audience would cheer; then after her passing, all this sympathy and empathy. I’m like, wait, you were cheering her on when she got more drunk.
A: People are just pulling these Lady Diana crocodile tears, and wanting to be a part of the good part of the story. They developed this amnesia of their unwillingness to embrace her during the gold years she was alive.
It’s so Marsha P. Johnson. The whole world, the entire gay community claiming ownership of Marsha P. Johnson now. Even in the white gay community, I’ve been confronted by men who believed that people don’t have the right to describe her as transgender because she’s the cultural property of gay men. And it’s like where were you? She was homeless. If it weren’t for the kindness of one friend, she would’ve been homeless until the day she died. So yeah she was your Rosa Parks, but you didn’t show up.
N: Exactly, but now they’re singing her praises. I see a lot of that in music too. I think about my music catalog more about when I die. I think what am I gonna do when I die and finally, I start actually making money after I die, who will deal with that?
A: You could smell the businessmen’s wheels churning on this Sinéad story. You could smell the money being made.
N: They’re already packaging the compilation album and the box set.
A: And who’s making money off of this… Twitter and Instagram. They are just cashing in on all the billions of outpouring condolences. All that income from the music industry has been upstreamed to Instagram and Twitter.
None of the people pouring condolences have bought one of Sinéad’s records in 20 years because they mine computers and cell phones. All of us have been using those, and we’re doing all this condolence-making through platforms interjected by Musk and Zuckerberg. They’re the ones making money right now on all these tears. It’s so sewn up in a weird way; it makes me feel so little hope for the future. If we’re still doing this, how could it ever be different?
N: It’s weird because it’s like there are two different societies, one that’s digital and one that’s offline. And if you choose to be offline, you give up this whole other connection that we’ve been forced into.
A: Do you know people who are living offline?
N: I’ve met people here and there. I meet guys all the time that are not really online, which I like. There are so many times where I just want to get offline, then after a while, I’m giving up access to my fans and my friends in Europe. It’s this whole life that we’ve been, maybe not forced into, but tricked into.
A: Your only direct access to your fan base is now through these anonymous platforms, but they’re one-way platforms where you can’t collect your fans’ information. You can’t reach them directly. You have to go through the interface. Whereas when the internet started, you had a mailing list, and people would sign up on your website.
Then Instagram, Twitter, and all those places have made it so that there’s a firewall between the artist and their fans, and the firewall is a paid firewall owned by the interface. It’s a one-way street, and they’ve up-streamed all the other incomes so that you can’t make any money except to try and do a tap dance on these interfaces if you earn them enough advertising money.
N: Exactly. I was watching a video recently about the hair business that I’ve been looking into. And they were saying how you need to build your email list because what happens when they shut the internet off? What happens when Facebook and all these places suddenly stop? At least if you still have your email list, they can’t take that away from you. And I never thought about that.
A: It’s so true. Like 20 years ago, you would sell more records from an email campaign than you would sell on a global press campaign as an independent artist.
N: I think that still exists. That’s still the most powerful tool, but we’re just not being told that. They’re incentivizing the other things more, but I do believe the direct connection is the most powerful.
It’s funny because even when I’m texting my friends, I can’t tell the difference between my text messaging and my Instagram messaging. They set it up so it all looks the same in a way. It’s so confusing and weird.
A: What does mothering mean to you?
N: There are so many aspects to it. At its core, it’s a nurturing essence that some people possess. I don’t know if it’s like a gift given, but some people possess it, and some people don’t. I’ve been thinking about how it’s also something very hard. It’s not an easy task, and when I listened to your record, I don’t know if this is true or not, but it sounds like it’s from the perspective of a mother who’s feeling the weight of the world on her shoulders and is finally like, I’ve had enough. Which I think is a part of mothering in a way.
A: Maybe not the part about having had enough, though, you know?
N: I feel a mother’s job is never done. Whether she likes it or not, she has no choice because she’s attached to the thing.
A: Like when we saw that movie, The Stroll, she was like, if you live past 40, you have a responsibility to keep living as a kind of a mother. You have a responsibility to carry on no matter how depressed you feel. When we watched that, we both were so stunned.
N: It’s so true. There’s so many levels to it. It goes down the line, and that’s a mother’s instinct, that she’s aware of how her mothering is a part of this lineage. She sees this through line from the past to the future and has to somehow carry that over in a way that continues to carry itself through.
A: This whole thing about child mortality has been such a big part of motherhood for so many millennia. With so many animals, it’s built into their knowledge of their motherhood that they’re going to lose some of their children, and yet they have to love all of their children. That is such a tough, bitter aspect of motherhood. This proximity to loss, the knowledge before you even start that it’s going to involve this terrible loss.
What does feminine mean to you?
N: I feel in a way it’s attached to mothering, or it’s that nurturing part of your soul that lets you be soft and gentle with the world and with yourself and lean into it and let that be your essence. Allowing yourself to be airy and light and live in the world in a way that’s gentle. And somehow, that’s been turned into weakness and vulnerability. And again, it’s that thing where people want to attack the thing that will save them. I feel a lot of femmes are constantly under attack, and it’s not a coincidence. Because we all have access to the feminine in us and so many people are taught to oppress that because it’s a sign of weakness and, a sign of madness — again, back to the mad woman.
A: The hysteria.
N: Yeah. It’s so wild how that’s such a thing.
A: Like a menstrual hysteria, and also related to nature, too closely allied with nature.
N: Yeah. I love how you always say the oppression of females is one and the same with the planet. It’s one of the 13 tenets, right?
A: Yeah, in Future Feminism. It’s the first tenet: ‘The subjugation of women and Earth is the same.’ Do you differentiate between female power and feminine power?
N: I do. I think feminine power is something that is an essence within all of us. I think femaleness, if we’re thinking about biology, is a different experience and a different strength that doesn’t necessarily have to do with being feminine. I think they’re not one in the same.
A: Can you talk a little bit about your knowledge of female power? As a trans-femme woman, more than anyone I know, you’ve more vigorously explored your embodiment and your sexuality and the whole kaleidoscope of this experience. You’ve collated it in a way, even in your teachings and in the way that you’ve rolled it out, for instance, on your podcast. Do you have any knowledge you’d share with us or what sort of conclusions you’ve come to so far?
N: I think that my female power has come from a reaction to the world and the place they’ve put me in society as a female, as someone who identifies as female. My female power is more the strength I need to fight and survive. It’s almost like my feminine strength is specifically for me. The femininity in me is something that’s me nurturing myself and being empowered within myself, in my body, and in the world. Where my female power is the part of me that has to fight for my position in the world, is constantly reacting to the position I’m placed as female and my feminine power is something that’s spiritual and has nothing to do with where the world puts me. It’s something that when I’m home, it’s here with me and my friends, it’s the mothering side of me. My femininity is the part I share with my friends and my children, the kids that come after me. The femininity in me is the part that connects with those people.
A: Like many trans-femme women, you’ve articulated in the past a very profound bond with your mom, and you have a very deep relationship with your mom. What do you see as the relationship between your femaleness and your female power and your mom’s femaleness and her female power?
N: I think my relationship with my mom has been so complex. I’ve learned so much from her, watching her survive as a single mother and battle alcoholism. As I grew, I watched her fight against the world putting her in a certain place as a female, especially in her time.
I realized that a lot of her ways, the way she was towards me or in a way towards herself, has to do with a lot with the way she’s been oppressed, too. I don’t think she realizes that; I’m just starting to realize that, so I think I’ve taken a lot of that on and used that strength to live differently, live more empowered.
A: Yesterday, we were talking about your story. At a very young age, you had a big dream about your life as an artist, and you initially thought you would be a dancer. Then, at a certain moment, you settled on singing and your voice became a treasure in your household. Tell me a little about your household growing up and your role within it.
N: I was always singing when I was a kid. I don’t know why. I think my mom used to sing to me when I was a baby. She would sing me to bed, and my mom always wanted to be a singer, she tells me. She would sing me to sleep, and I think I just started to emulate or copy her; it was a way to soothe me.
I was a very nervous kid, I grew up in a very crazy, loud, violent environment, so I was always very to myself and singing and humming. My imagination was my way of protecting myself. Then growing up, I felt my voice gave me access to a world I didn’t have access to. I’ve always felt so othered in a way, out of place; I didn’t know where I fit in. I just felt invisible in a way, then I realized that whenever I’d sing, people would pay attention. Everyone would stop and look at me, ask me to sing more and bring their friends over to listen to me sing. I felt my singing voice became my superpower.
A: You said your brother would ask you to sing for him?
N: Which I love. My brother’s 10 years older than me, so I was always the kid that wanted to hang out with my brother and his friends. I thought they were so cool and I couldn’t. But when I started singing, I suddenly fit in; he was suddenly excited to have me around and show me off. My voice is connected to the idea that I’m a part of the bigger world. The same with my mother. She was so proud of me and my voice, and she would always show me off and be like, “Listen to her sing!”
A: And at a certain point you demanded that she be your manager?
N: (laughing) I did, yes.
A: What did you tell your mom at that point?
N: I told her she needed to figure this out. I told her I wanted to sing. I want this to be my job, and I need you to do it because I’m a kid, and I have no power in this world, and she was like, “Okay!” I was such a brat. I was like, “You got to figure this out!” and she grabbed the Yellow Pages, and started cold-calling studios, She would say, “My kid’s a singer, and I don’t know what to do. Do you have any advice? What should I do?” Many of them were like, “You can book some time in our studio.” Then one guy was like, “Visit me. I want to meet your kid.” We wound up going to the Apollo Theater, and we met this guy, Olli was his name, and he brought me into the theater. There was a studio in the back of the theater that he was working at, he let me sit in the session, and I sang for him, and he was like, “I want to help you. I’m going to help you. Let’s work on some music.”
I told him I didn’t want to record covers. I was very adamant about this when I was a kid. I was like, “I’m not going to sing covers. I want original songs. Where do we get original songs? How do we get original songs? Do we buy them? How do we do it?”
I was such a brat; he asked, “Why don’t you try writing your song?” I was like, “I don’t write songs. How do I do that?” He said, “Just try.” I never even thought of that; it never occurred to me. So I stole my brother’s Casio keyboard and immediately started writing. It was interesting. It was so wild. It just came right out of me.
A: What was the first song you wrote?
N: The first song I wrote was “How Can I Forget Your Brown Eyes?”.
A: How’d it go?
N: [Singing] How can I forget your brown eyes? How can I forget the way I felt. Let alone the way that you touched me? How can forget all your promises. …. I think I still have the recording somewhere.
A: It’s so sweet. You were 10 or 11 years old; what was this experience you were writing from?
N: I was trying to imagine what my mom was going through because she was always super sad. My dad wasn’t around, and I felt like she was going through depression all the time. She was drinking at the time. I didn’t realize. I was trying to imagine her pain and what I would feel like experiencing love because I never thought I would ever experience love; I already knew as a kid. I was like, “That’s not for you. That’s not going to be your experience. Because you’re just different, you’re not like other people, you’ll never be loved, you’ll never be married. All those things are not for you, so just try to imagine what it would be like.” I was trying to imagine the feeling of loving someone and then being hurt by it and thinking of my mother. I remember that.
A: So touching. I find it incredibly moving. This idea that you were so empathically connected to your mom, and you were singing from her voice in your first songwriting. It’s so touching to me also as a statement of solidarity as a trans kid in the house with your mom.
It’s a story that so many people of that experience will recognize; it’s part of a mystical, magical condition, I think. There was one other thing that you said to me in our last talk about how your voice was a source of hope for the family, which I found extremely touching. Do you remember what that was?
N: There was so much chaos growing up. We lived in a small apartment with a bunch of us, me, my mom, and my brother; we barely fit in the apartment, and we were in a pretty violent neighborhood.
There was a lot of gang violence, my brother was getting lost in the street culture, my mom was dealing with being a single mom, and there was a lot of fighting chaos, and we were all just trying to figure out what we were doing.
I always remember music and whenever I’d sing, there would be this calm and peace. Then also I felt there was this sense of hope of, wow, there’s something here that’s beyond this experience and could maybe save us from all of this.
I’ve always felt that would be my way out of the chaos. I felt I had so much more to offer than the environment I was told my experience was limited to. Music is something I never trained or learned. It was just naturally in me; I always felt it was a gift, my connection to a source that was bigger than me and what we were all going through. I felt responsible for it. I felt I had to be a mother to the music in me; then, I felt it would be something that would save us, get us out of the environment we were in.
And it did, actually, I think it made us think broader. I think my family seeing me over the years succeed, I think it did give us a sense that there is something more than what we’re told is for us, because when you grew up a Latin family in a poor part of Brooklyn, you’re set up so that’s all that’s for you. There’s so many people I grew up with that never even left the block. For someone like me who was so othered as a trans person, to see me succeed coming from that environment, I think, not just for my family, I think for a lot of the people that I lived with in that neighborhood, it gave them a bit of hope that there’s more to all this.
A: That’s the other side of the coin of the story we were talking about at the beginning, where people can’t take the challenge that the trans identity, the othered identity, represents in the family or their community because it undermines their belief system about what their life should be. In this instance, you’re talking about how your identity, your gender variance, was a path toward shining a light on other possibilities and other potential life trajectories, not just for you but everyone in your family, by embodying living a life thinking out of the box.
N: Exactly, I think that’s what all trans people have the ability to do, the effect we can all have and the effect we do have. It’s about how people receive that information. People either embrace us and are super inspired and it does give them a sense of freedom and hope, or they want to shut it down.
A: Tell me about the emergence of your voice and your conscious grasp of your gender variance and how those interplayed. Was there a point where you realized that your voice was a woman’s voice? Did that happen before or after you consciously decided to transition? How did that work?
N: That was complicated because I didn’t see myself reflected in music. I didn’t think about my transness in relation to that. I was just singing and writing, and I wasn’t even thinking about any of that to a certain extent.
Then I remember I was talking to who I consider my mother, this trans girl that showed me the way. I would always play her my music, I had made a song with this rapper in my neighborhood, and my friend was like, “What a great duet or a love song between you and this guy.” I’m like, “Oh my God, it’s not that; what are you talking about?” She’s like, “No, this is totally a girl singing and the rapper is responding.” I never thought about my voice as a female in any gendered way until that moment. She was the first one that taught me about Dana International. She was like, “Look, there’s another trans singer. She’s in the world, look, this exists.”
She was such a mother in so many ways because she showed me how I could be who I wanted and still sing, and she always encouraged the femaleness in my voice.
A: Your trans mom shed light on the fact that you could be a singer and transition, and was that a liberating notion for you?
N: It was, and then I remember I took a moment, I stopped music, and I transitioned, and I had already been going to the studios, and I had this one studio I always went to record at. I remember the moment; I haven’t even tapped into this memory in so long. I remember the moment I felt settled into my new self and I had to go to the studio again. I loved this one studio and the engineer there, and I wanted to go back to the same studio. I remember this fear of going back looking different and wondering what that would be like, and the guy was so cool. It wasn’t a thing at all. I remember that fear of going to the studio.
A: I can’t imagine that the change in the way you actually looked was very big [laughing].
N: In my mind, it was a whole other thing, but I think in everyone else’s mind, I just put a turban on and wore lipstick or something. But in my adolescent brain it was such a big deal, but many people got it before me. Even my grandmother was like, “Finally, this is what it’s supposed to be; stop being awkward about it.”
A: That’s beautiful that you had generations of women that had your back. Was there an approach to femaleness that you felt was culturally specific to your identity as a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent?
N: I remember holidays, or whenever we would gather for anything, it would always just be women from all the different generations, all the different parts of our family, our cousins from this side of the family, that side of the family… but I realized growing up there were never men around. They were either in another room, or they had left the family, or had died, but it was never a thing. We would always just gather, and laugh, tell stories, cook, and eat. I always remember that, and in my mind, that was just how families are.
A: That’s a beautiful thing.