Category Archives: Gender and sexuality

Laura Jane Grace sings the gender dysphoria blues

Photo: Mat Stokes

It has been noted that the durability of punk has been driven by a communal ethos that embodies inclusivity, resistance, challenge, and transformation. First wave punk represented this ethos, and it remains evident in punk’s ongoing engagement with queer politics and gender fluidity. In recent decades, articulations of transgender punk have centered on Laura Jane Grace, lead singer of the U.S. anarcho-punk band Against Me!, who came out as transgender five albums deep into her public life as an established musician. Against Me! began as Grace’s adolescent DIY solo project, through which she crafted a series of lo-fi and limited releases on local labels, including Misanthrope Records, Crasshole Records, and Plan-It-X Records, resulting in the eventual release of the band’s well-received debut LP, Reinventing Axl Rose in 2002.

From 2002 to 2009, Grace and Against Me! released five albums that saw the band emerge from DIY basement shows and self-reliance to playing stadiums and being labeled as “industry sellouts”, drawing sharp criticism from the anarcho-punk community. It was after this period that Grace chose to openly discuss her struggles with gender dysphoria and growing up closeted in her first interview with Rolling Stone in 2012. As Grace explained,

“You know, one of the very appealing things to me about the punk rock world when I was 15, 16, especially stumbling onto anarchist punk rock and activist punk rock. And a scene that was really strongly feminist and anti-racist and anti-homophobia, anti-transphobia, all about body liberation, all about . . . just being yourself.”

Laura Jane Grace (center) performing with Miley Cyrus (left) and Joan Jett.

A literary analysis of Grace’s early song lyrics, composed before she came out publicly in 2012, stands out for its emotional complexity and unique insight into the mind of someone, who for many years, had wrestled with their gender identity. The purity and conviction of punk initially offered Grace a platform to counteract the turmoil of growing up experiencing gender dysphoria. However, she describes becoming frustrated and disappointed with punk’s rigidity and found herself impeded by its codes of masculinity that, in many ways, reinforced gender norms and her own gender insecurity. Facing criticism from the scene she once called home, Grace turned inward, often within the spatial confines of her own songs. On the final track from the album Searching for a former clarity, Grace writes,

No the doctors didn’t tell you that you were dying.
They just collected their money,
And send you on your way.
But you knew all along.
Went on pretending nothing was wrong.
You said I will keep my focus,
Till the end.
And in the journal you kept,
By the side of your bed.
You wrote nightly an aspiration,
Of developing as an author.
Confessing childhood secrets,
Of dressing up in women’s clothes.
Compulsions you never knew the reasons to.
Will everyone,
You ever meet or love,
Be just a relationship based,
On a false presumption.

Read more in “Tonight we’re gonna give it 35%: Expressions of transgender identity in the early work of Laura Jane Grace” by Kristen Carella and Kathryn Wymer (Journal of gender studies 29/3 [2020] 257–268), and ““Delicate, petite, & other things I’ll never be”: Trans-punk anthems and love songs” by Gareth Schott (European journal of English studies 24/1 [2020] 37–51). Find both articles in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature.

Listen to the track Searching for a former clarity below.

Comments Off on Laura Jane Grace sings the gender dysphoria blues

Filed under Gender and sexuality, Performers, Popular music

Makmende, the Kenyan global pop icon superhero

The video for the song Ha-he by the Kenyan experimental pop music group Just a Band features a character named Makmende Amerudi as its protagonist. Within a week of its release on YouTube, Ha-he received nearly 25,000 views and fans began creating their own original Makmende tales, videos, and artwork, leading global media outlets to label Makmende “Kenya’s first viral internet sensation”. Using a contemporary style of hand-held camerawork and shallow depth of field, the video’s graphics, characters, and storylines are reminiscent of 1970s blaxploitation films. As the mysterious tough-guy protagonist, Makmende appears more comfortable sneering than smiling, and like other blaxploitation characters, he sports an Afro hairstyle, open dress shirt exposing his chest, disco-style pants, and dark aviator sunglasses. Other male characters in the video are similarly dressed, while the only female (the damsel in distress) wears a natural short hairstyle, large hoop earrings, a headscarf, and tight pants, reminiscent of blaxploitation icon Pam Grier. Multiple camera angles in the video are reminiscent of the “bullet time” visual effect in The Matrix, and near the end of the video, Makmende ties a red necktie around his head, drawing parallels to Japanese samurai and cult vigilante Rambo.

As technological innovators, young, urban Kenyans seized the moment to reappropriate outdated stereotypes of weakness into aspirations of strength as they projected Kenya into a global online conversation. Through this meme, Makmende became more than a fictional superhero; he represented Kenya’s present and future. While some have considered Makmende as an example of a transnational cultural flow originating in the Global South, this meme, in its cultural and social context, can also be attributed to how and why Kenyans used Makmende to represent themselves. While many video memes are rooted in imitation and parody, the participatory playfulness surrounding Makmende created a “meme of aspiration” through which certain Kenyans collectively reimagined a hypermasculine hero who could lead the nation toward political and economic stability at home and cultural and technological prominence abroad.

Read more in “Makmende Amerudi: Kenya’s collective reimagining as a meme of aspiration” by Brian Ekdale and Melissa Tully (Critical studies in media communication 31/4 [2014], 283–298).

Watch Makmende in action in the video for Just a Band’s Ha-he below.

Comments Off on Makmende, the Kenyan global pop icon superhero

Filed under Africa, Gender and sexuality, Mass media, Politics, Popular music