Music

Nomi Ruiz Calls Out Queer Appropriation on New Single

by Jhoni Jackson

Mainstream artists profiting off culling inspiration from the underground is "a tale as old as time," Nomi Ruiz says. But that doesn't make it acceptable, and when the artists being squeezed like creative sponges — often without their consent — are of marginalized communities, those mainstream artists are complicit or even contributing to that systemic oppression. Today, the New York songwriter calls out one of the most famous of these perpetrators — Madonna — with the premiere of her new single, "Ridiculous."

The track is part of a forthcoming EP, The ELIOT Sessions, where she expands on the electronic dance-pop of her last two Jessica 6 full-lengths by circling back to her roots in R&B, hip-hop, and soul. That's where she'd started — solo, back in 2005 — before appearing on multiple tracks on Hercules and Love Affair's first album, before Jessica 6.

Ruiz is also an actress — she made her debut this week on Mayans M.C., a Sons of Anarchy spinoff — and a writer and activist. PAPER chatted with Ruiz to get the tea on "Ridiculous," and to find out more about the new EP, stepping into acting, and more. Read on, and listen to the track, below.

Let's get into the single and the message behind it. On name alone, I thought you were calling people who appropriate queer culture ridiculous, but after listening, it seems you're referring to queer culture as ridiculous — in a positive way.

It's like a term of endearment, like saying someone's fly or someone's dope. It's like, Oh, she's ridiculous. Oh, shit, that's ridiculous — kind of changing it or rebranding.

I noticed the line about Madonna, "while you're out Xerox copying me." Can you get into that a bit?

I remember when we were in the studio writing that, there were some articles coming out saying that Madonna was mentioning her influence for one of her records was one of the Jessica 6 records, See The Light. It's cool, it's always flattering, and that's dope. But I was just like, it's interesting — if you want to have that sound, as a songwriter you could reach out to the actual source? That would have been a great opportunity to be like, I got this chick from Brooklyn to co-write a song with me, instead of coopting it, you know? It's kind of like a backhanded compliment.

I'm an independent, underground artist, so that just comes with the territory. That's kind of where people from the mainstream go for influence. It's a tale as old as time. But times are changing, and I think people should be giving more opportunities, especially to those who don't have access to the mainstream.

Teyana Taylor recently worked with Mykki Blanco and I thought that was dope, because that track was sort of referencing queer culture a bit with the ballroom beat vibe. I appreciated that, and I wish we would see more of that.

Me too. So you recently got back from Santiago, Chile, right? You were spending time with Daniela Vega of Una Mujer Fantastica.

I did, yeah. I actually went to visit some friends for two weeks and I wound up staying for six months. I loved Chile so much, and I really connected with Daniela. We did so much unexpected work together there.

Their tipping moment for trans culture is sort of happening there. It's funny, because in America it kind of happened already. As someone who's constantly traveling the world, I see how it bleeds over to different cultures at different times.

Daniela really became, not only the most famous person in Chile, but the only trans representation in media or in general in Chile, so she's really ‚ even without wanting to take on the role of being an advocate and the responsibilities that go behind it — it's like you're forced into it no matter what. We live in a time when our rights are being taken from us, and you can't not address it, even if you just want to live as an artist and promote your work. It's always embedded in our lives.

"I want to tell my story when I want to tell my story, and how I want to tell it."

I feel like that obligation is unfair, but I completely understand how it's necessary, too. Do you feel that responsibility?

I do, and it's been an interesting road, because when I was first coming up, I really worked hard to be taken seriously as an artist and as a vocalist and as a songwriter. So many times, I felt like I was being pressured to use my trans narrative as a selling point — even for other people's projects. That's something that I've always wanted to have control over. I want to tell my story when I want to tell my story, and how I want to tell it. I don't necessarily want it to be wrapped up in promoting a record or something. I think over time I have been telling my story and standing up for my community in my own way, like through my writing and publishing essays. Instead of letting media sort of force me or control how and when that narrative is told.

I'm sure now that you're promoting your role on the Sons of Anarchy spinoff, Mayans M.C., that you're being asked about what it was like to be a trans woman among that cast. It is a show, I think, that could carry a lot of machismo in its characters; it's about a biker gang.

Yes, totally. I think that's what's so interesting about actually having my presence on that show, which I think is so cool because a lot of my work — I like taking up spaces where I'm not supposed to be. Which I've basically done my whole life, even in the music industry; I was sort of the first to be in Glastonbury and these festivals. And even growing up in New York, I grew up in the hood, in a really macho environment, and I was the only one like myself in my neighborhood. My brother was more of a street guy and I would hang out with him and his boys, and it was me, again, taking up space where I'm not supposed to be, technically. But then it's in those spaces where we have important conversations that take on their own life within those masculine environments. Its in those environments that [things] need to be changed.

Were there any conversations like that during your time filming?

We didn't specifically speak about that, but I felt very included, and I felt very accepted. They really went out of their way to make me feel like part of the gang, which was really awesome. It was a little intimidating; I didn't even get to meet the crew before shooting, because I was still in Chile, and I couldn't do the table reading and stuff. I flew in and went straight onto the set, and the scene you see is literally when I'm meeting the guys in real life, and I have to pretend I've known them forever. So it was a little intimidating, but it was really sweet that they really went out of their way to make me feel comfortable and included. I had conversations with one of the actors who, we have this intense scene, and we were just talking about consent and what our boundaries were, and what we wanted to do and how far we wanted to go. It was really awesome to have that from all these tough guys.

That's awesome. How did that come about? This is your acting debut, right?

Yes. I had been talking to this casting manager in L.A. for a while. I had done a feature film that he had heard about; it's not out yet. But the producers of that film were telling him about me, that I was great at acting, and he was looking for someone to represent, so he approached me with Mayans. I've been offered a lot of roles for trans characters that I've declined because I just don't want to play — as a trans actress, you're forced to always play yourself, written by a cis person, which is kind of strange because you're kind of dumbing down your narrative, in a way. This is the first opportunity that came along where there was a character that was so much more complex, and the complexities didn't really necessarily have to do with her transness. And I really love the world of the Mayans; I was a fan of Sons of Anarchy. So I just sent a tape in and I got the gig based on a tape, which was awesome.

Getting back into music, but also getting into your writing: I was reading your essay, The Storm Inside: Loving Trans Women in a Toxic World, on Into, which corresponds with the track "The Storm Inside." Does your writing often relate to your music as Jessica 6?

I really have gotten into writing essays lately. It happened after I was writing this letter to myself about this abusive relationship I was in, just as a therapeutic experience. Then I thought, I should publish this, I think it would help other people a lot. Jezebel published it and I got such an overwhelming response.

I also saw it as another way to get a little more deeper into the meaning behind the songs, because songs can be really reinterpreted by listeners, which is just part of music, but I also want to tell a specific story. So with "The Storm Inside," I really tried to speak out a lot about toxic ideals of masculinity that exist in the world. I feel like a lot of my listeners are actually male, and I feel like [toxic masculinity] is the root of a lot of problems we have in the world. Not that it's our responsibility as women to fix men, but I think raising boys better and giving messages to men that they're understood — I've met so many men in my life that are stigmatized by society, and they struggle with their attraction and their transamory in general, and I've become really good friends with my lovers, I'm just that kind of girl, so I've heard of these stories of these men [where] they really have been oppressed in their lives because they're forced to live up to this false idea of what it means to be a man or of masculinity. They're not allowed to be feminine or emotional, it's seen as a sign of weakness. They're supposed to just be successful and provide and protect, and it's not realistic, and that oppression manifests itself in really dark ways. And that's when we all have to suffer at the hands of these men who are lashing out.

It's intense. I've seen men who are in love who struggle with their emotions, and then also with that essay, it came back to me, because I was starting to get in tune with my own trauma from a society that frightens me into wanting to live in obscurity, or be really passable and hide my transness, and not be proud of it. Especially if I'm out with a man on a date, there's these moments where you're afraid to enjoy the moment or you're hyper-aware of if people are alert, if they know who you are, what you are. And it's this intense back and forth between two people, and sometimes it's not even the man who's experiencing that level of discomfort; I realize it's myself. So that's what I was exploring with that essay and that song.

Can we talk about the message behind "Get Loaded"? Although it's a fun, pro-party kind of song, I feel like it does have an important message within that: Everyone has the right to live the good life.

That song started off as a fantasy, and I was like, why is it that there's this level of classism to dating where they're like, I have to date someone that's going to elevate my class status. How many people would say they'd date someone who's poor or broke? I know a lot of people that specifically set up their lives to sort of date up, so to speak. I've never been that kind of person; I've dated guys from all different walks of life. I just wanted to sort of explore that in the songwriting, like, fuck it, I'm tired of dating all these dudes that are just treating me like shit — why don't I focus on what all these other girls do and level up? [Laughs] So that was me being the Jessica 6 character, who's a little more bitchy, and she wants her coins.

But then when other girls hear it, they really latch on to that saying, We have the right to get loaded. It's really empowering, I see even when I'm performing it how people are shouting yes, we have the right! I should have access to all these things that everyone else does! I shouldn't be not included!

Your last album Jessica 6 album — besides the See the Light remix — was released only a few years ago. When were these new singles recorded for your new EP, The ELIOT Sessions?

I had a lot of them recorded for a while. A lot of them were recorded actually while I was living in Greece. I linked up with Eliot, who's a producer, and we recorded them in this moment in time, and then over time, we've written and recorded more in the interim of those sessions.

Where does this EP fit in with previous albums in terms of what you want to bring, and where you're at as a songwriter?

I really love these songs. I think it's cool to work with one producer through the whole recording. My last record I worked with a bunch of different electronic producers from all over the globe. I think it's cool to have this one specific sound; I love Eliot, he does this sort of retro-futuristic, electronic '80s kind of music that has a bit of freestyle in it, and pop and electronic dance, so it was really cool to create this landscape with him. And also to tell these stories; they tell the story of what I was going through at that time.

And then it's over the course of a while, right? So you're telling a lengthy story?

Yeah. Which is also interesting, when you hear the record, it's like, That's song's about this guy. There's like three different romantic relationships in one album. It's like, Wow, it's really been a trippy few years.

As someone who's been releasing music for more than a decade, do you have any thoughts on the increasing prominence of queer music? It feels like there's more artists, and they're getting more attention, finally. I feel like you've been there for all that progress.

Totally, I definitely have. It's great to feel like part of a movement and community of artists who are now also being given more and more opportunities, which is what I've always wanted to see. It's exciting. I'm also trying to release other artists too and start up on my own label so I can sort of contribute, because there's so many artists out there I still feel should be heard, so it's something I'm looking forward to getting into to also.

That's awesome.

Yeah, I have a label called Park Side Records. I'm releasing my first artist, her name is Martine, and we have a single called "Origin," which is out now, and we have a video that we're going to be premiering soon. She's a dope artist. She's sort of like trappy, tropical Sade.

Photography: Gabriel Magdaleno

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