When Tona Brown, violinist and mezzo-soprano, became the first transgender individual to perform for a sitting president, she decided that she needed to set her goals higher. Three years later, she’s met one of those goals; on June 25, she will become the first Black transgender woman to perform at Carnegie Hall.
Needless to say, I was a bit intimidated when I realized I was interviewing her. Less than a minute into our phone call, I realized I had nothing to be nervous about. Ms. Brown was very gracious, and the passion she has for all of the work she does—performing, teaching and activism—was apparent through her excitement when she spoke. If anything, I only admire her more now.
Trans* artists are certainly on the rise, and it is not uncommon to see them mix art and advocacy. . Laverne Cox, an actress and speaker best known for her role on Orange is the New Black, uses her platform to further trans* activism, traveling around the country raising awareness for trans* rights and producing a documentary about trans women of color in prison.
For Ms. Brown, visibility is “simply living authentically,” and she believes that showing one’s authentic self to the world is a powerful agent of change.
“I feel that, as an artist, because of the way society can be very closed-minded about people who are different—particularly transgender people—people have had to hide their identities,” Brown told me. “What we’re seeing right now with the transgender community, particularly transgender people of color, is that people are demanding respect and saying ‘here is where I am and here is where I came from. I’m proud of that.’”
Also joining the performance, which Brown has titled “From Stonewall to Caregie Hall,” will be piano accompanist Charlie Gilmer, comedian Tammy Peay and emcee Nathan James. “Stonewall” is a nod to the Stonewall Riots, a series of spontaneous and violent demonstrations that took place on June, 28, 1969.
Members of the LGBT community protested against a police raid at the Stonewall Inn, known as a “gay” tavern and recreational bar
in New York City (“gay” was a blanket term used for the LGBT community at the time). The demonstration was symbolic of the LGBT community refusing to accept discrimination and is widely considered the beginning of the modern fight for LGBT rights in the U.S.
Brown will perform during NYC Pride, a week filled with events celebrating LGBT individuals. The week takes place around the time of the Stonewall Riots, and this year marks the riots’ forty-fifth anniversary. Brown hopes the closeness of events will bring more members of the LGBT community to her performance.
In an effort to make the concert as accessible as possible, most of the repertoire will be in English—uncommon for a classical music performance. Language will not be the only way that Brown is stepping outside of classical music standards. She plans to incorporate the works and styles of her favorite black artists into the show as well.
On her performance, “It’s going to be a mixture of European and [Black] composers, with a focus on [Black] composers,” Brown said, excitement in her voice. “I’m going to read the poetry of Langston Hughes put to music by Margaret Bonds. I’m reading a dedication to Maya Angelou. There’s a blogger, Monica Roberts, who runs the TransGiote blog. She wrote a poem called ‘Phenomenal Trans Woman,’ so I’m going to do that. I’m also doing Negro spirituals, which I love.”
Including Black composers is uncommon for a classical music performance, Brown told me, because Black composers are pushed out of the classical mainstream by racism and prejudice. The music is not usually considered a part of the classical music body, and many people have never heard Black composers—or even know that such music exists. Brown, however, is passionate about the music and plans on continuing her ongoing research into Black composers.
“The problem with classical music right now is that people hear the same thing over and over again…I spent a lot of money to go to music school,” she laughed, “but I didn’t learn about this [Black] music.”
Brown’s performance is certainly a social victory, as her performance breaks barriers for Black trans* women in the classical music arena, and it’s also a personal one for her—it’s a dream that she’s had since she was 14. Ask any classical musician — Carnegie Hall is a big deal, and getting there takes a lot of hard work and money.
“We had a very gracious contributor who is an author, and he has been a big fan of mine. He thought it was really, really imperative to see this go through. He gave us the money to get it started,” Brown said.
The author, Lee Geiger, helped secure the date, while Brown, with LGBT advocacy group GLAAD, began an IndieGoGo campaign to raise the money for the hall deposit, raising $3,811 and exceeding the fund’s goal of $3,766. Brown also has a GoFundMe campaign, which aims to raise $25,000 for security, advertising and other expenses.
“We’re not backed by a bank or anything—we have a very grassroots-sort of fundraising campaign,” Brown said.
To make her performance even more accessible, Brown reached out to local high schools, asking for “artistically inclined students” to attend her performance. The day we spoke, she told me that she’d just heard about the Hetrick-Martin Institute, an organization for LGBT youth ages 13-24.
The institute also has a community partnership with The Harvey Milk High School, a four-year high school that offers youth on the LGBT spectrum the opportunity to learn without the threat of physical and emotional violence in a traditional school setting. She reached out to them and is now giving tickets to students.
“I’m all about education,” said Brown, who has taught vocal and instrumental lessons and started her own instrumental studio. “I want to make sure that LGBT people and students have access to that.”
True to her word, Brown is a music educator as well as a performer. In 2012, she started Aida Studios, a music education center in Virginia. Aida Studios offers students of all ages opportunities for instrumental and vocal lessons, group lessons, performer juries, master classes and recitals.
Besides serving all music genres, Aida Studios is unique in that it is a “mobile company.” The studio is accessible to students in the DMV even if they can’t be present in person. The studio offers Skype lessons that can be paid for over the Internet. The lessons start at $50.
Although she will soon have a history-making Carnegie Hall performance under her belt, Brown, 34, still has huge aspirations. Citing a desire to diversify her fanbase and learn about different cultures, Brown plans to play larger events after Carnegie, beginning with concerts at colleges and universities, and eventually tour the world.
On her YouTube channel, Brown celebrates a positive attitude toward life. She hopes her success helps to destroy the media-propagated story of the trans* person with a hard life. I asked her how she believes she is changing that narrative.
“You change the narrative by living by example and being as open about who you are as possible,” Brown said. “No individual is perfect. You just live your life, and if someone has a question or someone wants to talk to you, you do those things. That’s very important. How are we going to change some of the problems we have if people don’t at least have the discussion?”
Brown’s authenticity is nothing short of brilliant. She continues to break barriers and is definitely a person to watch. With history as an indication, we can only expect greater things in the future from such an inspired artist and advocate.
For more information about Aida Studios, visit their Facebook page.