On the night of New York City Pride, four queer, transgender Black and POC artists performed a sold-out show at Mercury Lounge. DJ Maya Monés, Ah Mer Ah Su, ELSZ, and Alok Vaid-Menon held a roundtable discussion post-show and shared it with PAPER. Each artist in their own respective eclectic ways focus on liberating and uplifting black and brown trans femmes, while challenging binary thinking, racism, and gender violence. All of this is achieved through the lens of self-love and community support, the very essence of what it means to have Pride year-round. Read on as they talk about centering the experiences of queer people, gender nonconforming people, and trans women of color, leaving legacy through their art, and more.
What does Pride mean to you?
Ah Mer Ah Su: This Pride specifically has made me feel like I am proud of myself for how far I've come. In the face of insurmountable odds I am still here. This is how Pride is supposed to be: we are still here. It was Marsha and Sylvia saying we are still here and we are going to keep on fighting, that's the spirit of it. This is what I'm here to do: to change the world.
Maya: To me it just means love. Pride is love. And Pride is spreading that love. I couldn't survive without my sisters and the love that we hold for each other. The love is really what keeps me strong and makes me proud to be me. I don't know that pride and strength would be as attainable to me otherwise, I'd be in my head, I'd be elsewhere. .
Elsz: Pride is about connecting and expressing your rage. There have been so many years of persecution and I feel like we forget that because Pride has become commodified. I feel like as much as it's nice to see representation, this month has very much become an industry event for big business to cash in on queer and LGBT folks. Pride is about protest
Alok: Pride is about reclaiming and celebrating all of the parts of ourselves that we have been taught to be ashamed of. For me it's not just an event, a day, or a month — it's a lifestyle baby!
DJ Maya Mones
What does centering queer and trans women and gender non-conforming people of color actually look like?
Ah Mer Ah Su: It's not just about going to a march, it's about showing up on the daily basis for Black and brown trans people that you know in your life. There are a lot of times where people have politics on the internet, but when it comes down to real life situations where when a Black or brown trans person is having problems with them, their politics go out the window. That's what we need to work on: what are you going to do when the person that you fight for doesn't like you? Are you still going to fight for them?
Maya: I think it's very simple but people make it harder than they need to be: putting trans women up front and center and providing what we need — going above and beyond for a people who don't get anything in general. I feel like it should start with a question; what do you need? What do you want? What can I do? I think it takes folks stepping outside of themselves to consider the steps it takes to really show up for us..and it is very possible.
Elsz: I don't want to keep seeing just images of us. Our image is often used but our voices are not heard. I want to see us in positions of leadership when it comes to these movements. It was always us at the front but there has been so much erasure.
Alok: It's not just about including us or representing us, it's about shifting resources and paradigms. I can't tell you how many times I've been invited to the room for my "visibility" and then subsequently misgendered. What that shows is that you want the aesthetics of diversity, but don't want to do the work of actually shifting the way you think and act.
How do you use art for social justice?
Ah Mer Ah Su: The art I create makes other people realize that they should be better people. Art is supposed to be revolutionary. That's what Nina Simone said: it's the artist's job to reflect the times. My art is changing and growing because I am. As artists we have a responsibility to mirror everything. When I'm thinking about the girls — Black and brown trans women — the people who were in the homeless shelter with me when I was there, the girls in the streets fighting for their lives... they're listening to the radio. When we're on the radio and they listen and then look up the song and find out that we're trans, that kind of representation is so important.
Maya: Art and social justice go hand in hand, I can't picture them without the other. I use art to express my political stance and express my experience, and that's really all I can do. It's such a vessel. For me they couldn't go without each other, because to me we are living art and our existence in this world is light..especially for black and brown trans femmes, but really for everyone wether they know it or not.
Elsz: Art is a heartbeat for social movements. Without art I feel like there's a whole bunch of emotions that are left hanging that people don't have a place to put. When artists stop being authentic in terms of their expression, I feel like we can lose a lot. Art is a place where we can put a lot of the emotions that are left hanging in social movements.
Alok: Art is where we go to imagine what is possible, to dream beyond the now and envision different ways of being and loving. I feel like we are so saturated in critique and we need to create more. Art is about that creation — we are creating the template for a different world.
Ah Mer Ah Su
What does it mean to leave evidence or legacy?
Ah Mer Ah Su: The reason why I was putting out music the first time was because I was like If I die this thing will still live on. That's the beauty of music — it's a medium that lasts past the persons life. People can listen hundreds of years later and still have access to this person and what they said. If people don't get it now they are going to revere it in a hundred years! My ghost will be like "Yeah bitch!" and she'll come and knock something out the window.
Maya: I think when people think legacy or leaving a stamp, they think about a really big picture, a really big group of people knowing who you are, or being written down in history. But to me honestly it could be a smaller group of people, it could be just your homegirls, to me that's leaving a legacy behind. I think a lot about people who we'll never know that paved the way in possible small ways or possibly monumental ways and being grateful for their mark, even if I can't see it, I feel it—Legacy to me lives on in the heart and soul and the connections we make while we're here.
Elsz: My art has always been a very personal expression. I'm not making art to speak for people, but with people. I want to create bodies of work that resonate not just on a political and social level, but on an emotional level for people. I feel like often we can brush aside our emotional terrain and that's where revolutions happen within ourselves, our communities, and each other. Care is a big aspect of that. I want to create work that leaves imprints on people's emotional terrains.
Alok: So much of the experience of being gender non-conforming is watching your struggle and your aesthetics stripped from your actual body and repurposed for the mainstream (as you are disappeared). So much of my work is about re-inscribing my gender non-conforming body: saying I am here, I exist, and I am reclaiming what is rightfully mine.
Photography: Jasper Soloff