How do you represent your marginalised identity in your work? (Race, disability, gender identity, sexuality, class etc.)

Following on from the code of conduct thread, I wanted to ask something I have struggled with for a long time.

As a poor, disabled trans person, I often get feelings that I should be making work about those experiences. In art school, I (and my tutors) always felt like i should stop doing nature paintings and work my transness into my art.

In my music, I am always wondering how I can work themes of disability and activism into the sounds I make, or how trans themes could be translated into sound.

But identities are so abstract, and instrumental music too is also so abstract, I never feel I know how I can work these identities that I so strongly feel need to be represented, and that feel so integral to my experience of the world, into my art. When I try, it always feels so superficial, or forced.
I think part of the problem might be that I feel like most people won’t get it if I try to put more nuanced experiences in, but if I try to broaden the concept so that most people would get it, the work ends up feeling kinda cliche or cumbersome.

At the same time, whenever I try this, I feel like I come to the conclusion that my identity is so much a part of me that it will come out in my work whether I try or not, but I’m always left with a feeling like I could put more of my community or my culture or my activism into my work.

Does anyone else who makes music from positions of marginalisation or minority have any good strategies for putting a little of your identity, or a little social justice into your music? Do you feel it’s even necessary? Does it drastically change your process vs just making music you like?

Would love to hear folks thoughts on this :relaxed:

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I’m sorry if I’m coarse about this, but maybe it’s just not what you want to make art about? Sounds like you want it more for the idea than yourself.

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I mean, there is no escaping that it is absolutely already what I make art about. There is no part of me that is not trans, for example, it’s always in my work. This is more about finding ways to notice these influences in the things I create, as well as wanting to hear from people who have experience in making their work about this on the ways they do this. I do want to be more intentional about how these parts of me creep into my work, but don’t have a lot of experience or education in doing so, and wanted to create a space for those who do to share their thoughts and experiences on it.

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This is such a good, tricky question. i’m straight/white/cis (FWIW) but have a pretty severe speech disability and often cannot communicate smoothly at all. ordering coffee, talking on the phone, being introduced to people etc. can be a struggle and sometimes its exhausting.

i never make music directly about my disability, but music exists in a space where i can communicate freely. i view this as a political act because by definition i’m saying something above and beyond my limitations in day-to-day communication. I don’t know if my music would be any different if I could communicate more effectively using language, but my disability shapes my experiences and my experiences shape my music and so on.

in sum, i don’t think someone needs to expressly address their identity in their art. our identity shapes our experiences, and art is how we process them so i think you may already be making music about it.

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VERY powerful observation here
thanks for sharing this perspective!

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This is a very interesting discussion as it transcends the specifics of your situation (I think) and it general can be thought about largely on the basis of what people want to say through art. I personally the key word you mentioned here is ‘should’ , as in should I be making art to reflect something defining about me? ‘Should’ to me infers a sense of outside influence telling you to do this, and not necessary something coming from your heart. My feeling is that if you are already making music/art from your heart, ie trying to convey an authentic sense of emotion as you feel it, then you are doing what you ‘should’ be doing. Any emotion you are conveying through music/sound will naturally be a reflection of your current emotional state, and if your emotional state is affected by being trans, then being trans is reflected in your music. Tbh, have a teacher/mentor telling you to inject meaning into your work for the sake of injecting literal meaning I think leans less authentic to me, as it could be forced guesture, and people can usually smell that a mile away.

I think one can inject so much emotion into music from all sorts of aesthetic choices that there’s no reason to have a literal reference unless you want it. For example, adding lyrics that reflect your identity is only gonna be good unless you really have a desire to express it that way.

My two cents…

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The music or art you’re making is likely already very deeply imbued by the emotional and experiential content that you yourself have as the person you are, and with all of the things that make you unique, that generate your own personal struggles and your own personal joys.

Lean into this.

Don’t try to write music showing what being you looks like, write music showing how being you feels.

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Lots of rambling thoughts ahead! And they’re only specific to myself - not trying to persuade anyone of anything, one way or another.

My non-white experiences in America unquestionably inform my perspective and philosophies on life, in a way that is inseparable from who I am. But it’s never been what I would consider the subject of any music or writing I’ve been involved in. In a way, this would probably be a more surefire route to people paying attention - people like hooks and narratives they can easily grasp onto, and something like “this album is about my experiences growing up non-white in an overwhelmingly white midwestern town in the 80s” is a hook that people can latch onto. Even beyond that, it’s the sort of thing that white Americans / the dominant culture wants to consume and share their consumption of with others, because it makes them look good and feel like an ally to pay attention to and share it.

Aside from my artistic concerns and obsessions being focused on other subjects, submitting to that subject matter would feel variously like, take your pick: commodifying a part of who I am, minstrelizing my experience, giving the dominant liberal majority what it wants to feel good about itself and assuage its sense of guilt, doing “the inevitable” as a person of color and being a Visible Person Of Color in the public mind rather than a complex individual (I’m conscious of a trap to doing this where it seems like people of color only ever seem to write about being people of color, or trans people seem to only ever write about being trans, etc., even though we know this is not the case).

I feel like the dominant majority is REALLY interested and invested in putting everyone else in boxes, labeling them, and then safely dismissing them as understood and ignorable. Working out systems for treating people as less than fully complex, three-dimensional persons with concerns and focal points and thoughts beyond their self- or externally-imposed categories and identities is part of how the dominant majority reifies and reconstitutes itself, over and over again, through all kinds of shifting paradigms. So there’s a sense I have that playing into that is un-weirding myself and enabling those systems to perpetuate.

My interests and obsessions for my art/music/writing are hermetic, niche, hard to explain or summarize, and hard to easily digest. I wouldn’t be making music if the message came down to something I could just do a tweet thread about or pitch an essay about to some places that might pick it up, and then really just get my feelings out there succinctly and plainly without unnecessary obfuscation or forcing people to parse ambiguities. But that’s not why I got into this and it’s not what I get out of art. All of this is why I feel like tunneling down into my own obsessions, even if it means I’m ignored completely and cater to a very small number of people, feels more subversive and true to myself than deciding that my art should be about my experiences and thoughts around identity, social justice, etc…

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i could answer the question with no, me being gay does not influence my music or how i make it, but that wouldn’t really be true. my music reflects my identity. not just because my identity influenced my music tastes or whatever, but because the act of making music is an act of social defiance. the fact that we have this incredible gift that nobody can take away from us is something that many of us use simply to survive growing up and living in hostile environments.

and if you look at the history of music and dance music in particular… disco, house, techno all had roots in counterculture. it was never just about dancing, it was about dancing as a way to say “fuck you, you won’t change me, i can dance” to the world that did not want you to exist.

nobody would ever think of abba “dancing queen” as a social activism song. it was played by the LGBTQ2S sound system when we protested a homophobic preacher that came to vancouver. it was quite a surreal scene, a group of homophobes surrounded by the vancouver police, surrounded by us, dancing. “you can dance”, indeed.

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a friend said something really important to me the other day when I brought up a similar issue. as, principally, a writer, i have a whole lot more opportunity to discuss things like this head on than people who work in other mediums, but because many aspects of my (fragmented) identity aren’t immediately visible, i didn’t feel safe to express things (esp. when, times they’ve been more visible, it’s resulted in Real Danger And Violence). i’m not trying to get interrogated about what’s really ‘my story to tell’ (not that it’s not a good thing to care about, just that it’s weird to like… accost someone about this after a performance, which has happened to me more than once, always because of the dissonance between my current presentation and past/private experience).

so i’m anxiety spiralling on this conceptual web and my guy says:

“Identity is not exhaustive.”

there’s this drive i used to / sometimes still do have that’s like… ‘i need a series of identities that, cobbled together, describes me.’ but identities as they’re cataloged and culturally understood are always falsely put forth as though they were exhaustive categories and then used to tokenize individuals who no longer live in the reality in which that identity was initially defined. like my dad (born '39) has a completely different way of understanding the word gay than my friend in his 30s, than me (26), than a 16 year old. this holds true for most identity categories, and none of us can ever, truly, ‘stay current’ (that is, have an exhaustive understanding of a particular identity category).

my approach now is just to accurately convey my lived experience (this is mostly about being honest with myself and not giving a fuck how it’s received).

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I think music for me is a very journalistic/therapeutic process. As such, some of my music is very much about being gay, or dealing with anxiety, or trying to understand love, or whatever I’ve been dealing with at the time.

Probably the best example of this in my work would be my first record, which features a blurred out picture of the photo wall that contained pictures of my boyfriend and I in my living room at the time. Basically, I was being asked by my parents to hide that part of me from the rest of my family, and that was something I really struggled with at the time (much better and more open now on this front). As such, the art expression from making this music was me sort of dealing with and being vulnerable with myself sort of dealing with that stuff.

Aside from a few friends, I hadn’t really shared this outwardly, mostly because I wasn’t ready to at the time (I’m fine to at this point in my life, with some distance and practice being more open)…I did remember feeling a bit of guilt and that I should share this more openly at the time, and I do think there is, for better or worse, a pressure for queer (and marginalized people generally) to share their struggles openly as either a form of empowerment, capitalization, whatever. And for me, personally, I try to approach it authentically as part of the art and process of creating art, but don’t really care to “make a statement” with it. I think it’s great when people do, but that’s never really been my goal. Now that I feel more comfortable being open and vulnerable about these things, that might change some, but I still have lots of complicated feelings around that sort of public expression and authenticity, which seems to be something a lot of us share here.

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In the past I have felt a similar push too, as I identify as being trans, POC and neurodivergent. What I’ve found is that while it’s interesting for others to see work from that angle…frankly? It wasn’t all that interesting to me.

Some of the people who were encouraging me to make works about my life experiences were almost voyeuristic [sometimes unintentionally, sometimes intentionally]. To those people, they wanted to be given a window to see how I experience the world. Even though some of these people were well-meaning, it just made me feel like a zoo animal. To me, these experiences are just my daily life. It brought no value to me to address them explicitly in my work [and it bored me because it was about my everyday, so my work ended up sounding bland], so I stopped that approach.

What I do with my music is I address how I feel. I’ve made a lot of works that channel feelings of anxiety, isolation and anger, for instance. Music, for me, is a form of catharsis and I find approaching my music in that angle offers me more value.

I offer representation through being open in my artist bio - I explicitly put that I am nonbinary and use they/them pronouns. I’ve been part of music-related panel discussions where I talk about my experiences, which I find is a much better platform than my music. I don’t need people to dissect and examine my music, I want people to listen to me when I’m talking about my experiences.

End of the day though, I don’t think it’s a responsbility of anyone who identifies as a marginalised identity to do any sort of representation. You need to do what makes you feel happy and authentic. If part of that is to address aspects of social justice issues in your community, great. If not, that is also okay. The weight of emotional labour at addressing social inequalities doesn’t solely lie on marginalised peoples.

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I’ve tried a few times to make tracks that express feelings around identity/marginalisation/stigma (I’m genderqueer and autistic) because I feel like music is a medium where it’s easier to express feelings, but for me my music is quite an “in the moment” thing. If I try and write music that expresses some certain thing, it’s difficult (especially working in instrumental music, because my singing is cursed). Instead my music tends to only express whatever feeling that is most present at the time I’m making music - usually tiredness.
Also, I feel like (especially) my gender identity is probably closer to white noise than it is to music.

Whatever representation there might be is what I make would have to be because of the effect my disability or perspective has to my music subconsciously, and it’s probably subtle.

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all i know is that artists i love tend to come out as trans/etc roughly 5 years after I get excited about their work, if they haven’t already

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as a straight white male in a “developed” country, i can only comment as a consumer of art.

as you’re pursuing a career in art, i guess there are 2 overlapping dimensions to consider: style (what your art actually is) and marketability (how you want your art to be presented).

as for marketability, there is definitely a lot of momentum right now concerning trans representation in media. i guess that could be a wave worth surfing but it won’t last forever (in such volume).

as for style, your identity will ultimately be reflected in your work but you’d have to choose how much you stuff is:

  • about yourself (own identity and experience)
  • about being political (self-less pride, message passing, global representation)

that’s just me but i’m not particularly drawn to art that is too explicitly political, whatever the subject is.
i guess it’s partly due to the fact that is see it more as a means to an end rather than the ends itself, partly a rejection to anything authoritative.

BUT there is a need for politics in art, and i happen to sometimes enjoy it when it’s subtle and the media speaks to me “by itself”.
even though taste can vary a lot, i believe something can be universally & objectively good.

from a pure selfish perspective, i consume art from a wide variety of representations, but not for the sake of it but just because it sounds/looks good to me.
to me the story behind it just the icing on the cake, even though it can sometimes negatively overshadow my perception of the content (see Should the work stand on its own?).

So many insightful, nuanced and deeply personal perspectives on this, thank you all so much!

This is too real! I do often find for me that making music is mostly an expression of a feeling in the moment, and usually I’m very much not in the mood to make music when I am feeling strong identity feelings.

This rings so true for me, and under personal scrutiny is perhaps a lot of the reason I feel I need to make this more prominent in my work is probably because of the long lasting damage of art school trying to commodify my experience.

This insight really made me realise that the extent to which I put my identity into my work is the extent to which my work is about otherness. My work has always been extremely intentionally othering. About intentionally not doing the things you outline here, about attempting to highlight the ways I cannot be understood, and so cannot be ignored.
You’ve helped me realise that it’s the uncatagoriable, confusing and somewhat distressing (to those who fear otherness) parts of my work that reflect my mraginalisation the best.

Interestingly, I think the surreal can also be seen to come up a lot more in the bodies of work of marginalised folks. I guess there is something inherently surreal about dominant society pretending we don’t exist/our struggles arent real, and there is something powerful in embracing that surreal and intentionally weaving it into the narratives we put out in our music.

I’m thinking about all this in relation to my last performance (flash crash 4) and realising there are so many ways that these things are showing themselves in the work i create that I didn’t necessarily realise before.

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Mostly, I make things that don’t have any explicit meaning, but almost every piece of art or music has a process behind it that is wholly dependent on being autistic.

It shapes how I engage with my tools, how I think about them, map and model their possibilities while away from them, and become utterly absorbed in their use.

Putting together a modular and then designing patches for it checks boxes for several overlapping special interests, and playing it leans heavily into how my brain processes sound and my tendency to get completely and pleasantly lost in certain kinds of qualia.

Doing this is a source of great joy and meaning for me, it has direct benefits to my quality of life, it is something I need to do.

In terms of the things I make it is sort of weirdly positioned, the works are an almost irrelevant or incidental consequence of a process that is of enormous personal significance, but that process is at the same time nearly completely invisible.

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If you believe in the tenet of art as expression, which I would suggest most do, you(collective) are already doing it, consciously or unconsciously, in one form or other. That to me is the beautiful part of art. It generally doesn’t require overthinking, sometimes none.

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When I make music, I feel like I have to be true to myself, whether anyone gets it or not. An aspect of that is just standing up and/for being weird.

I also feel like any act of creation imbues the thing with something of oneself, whether or not it’s intentional.

But I’m not sure if that counts as “representation” in a practical sense…?

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I’ve got little interest in doing so.
I am who and what I am, often in spite of how I used to want to be - My work reflects that insofar as I am the one who makes it; I don’t actually need to try.

Speaking (here, in text, in this thread) as a Black trans woman, as a Muslim, as a lesbian, and and and also also also - I’m of the viewpoint that ‘representation’ w/n our media and economic systems is just a first step in the process of assimilation and subsequent exploitation. For example: The recent fiasco around the ‘Queer Banking App’ and their marketing, and the mocking pageantry that was this week’s Met gala.

Black people, queer people, ‘fem’ people et al are shown in and part of the halls of power, yes, but that does nothing, at all, ever, to change the structure and functions of those halls. The upper strata of U.S. society showing me Black, trans faces doesn’t change the profit motive and abuses necessitated by the economic system foisted onto us, nor the logic and social technologies of the superstructure in which we have all be forged. It is pageantry - dare I say, minstrelsy - and it is cynical and a distraction.

TL;DR: I do not want to be represented or a representative. I want to be free.

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