Get unsettled listening to ‘Gland’, from Rough Year, the transgender artist who sinks their teeth in the social disruption surrounding them.
You might not hear Rough Year’s tracks in a typical club any time soon, but that’s apt considering Rough Year is certainly not your typical electronic musician. This would usually be the part where names, ages and influences are outlined, but right now, we’re just as in the dark as you. Anonymity is key for Rough Year (a name derived accidentally) as a private artist. What we do know? Rough Year’s from North Philadelphia, is transgender and has a way of capturing a musical social commentary in a way we’ve never seen before.
It’s fair to say that the U S of A isn’t the most harmonious place to live at the moment, the daily headlines are evidence enough of that, but one positive thing we can take from all the disruption is the reaction, a movement Rough Year is part of. On Mongrel, the artist’s debut EP, you’ll hear Malcolm X’s voice while glass shatters and sirens wail and the Baltimore riots are left to roar. We premiere “Gland”, a 14 minute epic to get your teeth into, a glitchy track with beats pacing like the muted thuds of helicopter blade and talk to the artist about their decision to join the civil rights conversation.
Where does the name Rough Year originate from?
I was in a pretty bad place last year and was making really spooky music. I was playing it really loudly one day and my roommate at the time knocked on my door and said, “I get that you’re having a rough year and everything, but you’re scaring the cats!” After that I started exporting everything as “rough year” followed by the date. It just became a marker for where I was at then. Now, I see it as a kind of signpost for what’s behind me. I swear though that at least one of those cats was totally into those spooky vibes.
What did you decide first, that you wanted to make music or that you wanted to publicly join the civil rights discussion?
Last year I worked as a tutor and mentor at a middle school in Olney and this year I’ve been working with a lot of students who are from central African countries. I’ve been making music for a few years now but I stopped for some time because I felt that it lacked purpose—that it was just useless noise filling up space. Spending time with students makes it impossible to ignore the inequities that plague our educational system and the ways in which certain communities are deprived of opportunity. I felt a lot of guilt and anger and needed a medium through which I could discover the source of those feelings and act upon them. Music helped me do this and continues to serve as a way for me to organize my thoughts and feelings into something sensible. Although I’m skeptical that music can instigate actual social or political change, it can at least serve as a sign of where you stand. Maybe it sounds trite, but making music has helped me find some morsel of peace and stability.
Why did you choose electronic music as your medium?
I don’t come from a musical family or anything and I never learned how to “properly” make music or play any instruments. I tried to teach myself guitar growing up but I never made it very far. I used to upload covers of songs to Myspace in middle school but the only comment I ever got was, “this is okay but the singer kind of sucks.” I quickly deleted the page and moved on to other things. Still, I had a strong desire to make music. What really turned me on to electronic music was listening to Balam Acab and reading interviews with him. He’s just a few years older than me and was making music on his computer primarily with creative commons samples. His music was a huge discovery for me. I pirated some software and starting fooling around. Of course, Burial has been another source of inspiration as well. His ability to use narrative is unbelievable. I enjoy a lot of electronic music, but I often feel it lacks commitment or self-awareness.
How do you bring together the two far removed components: the genre, typically an uplifting and energising one, and the serious themes you focus on?
I tend to be drawn to the moodier and more conceptual sides of electronic music: Burial, Grouper, Lotic, The Haxan Cloak, Tim Hecker, Holly Herndon, Oneohtrix Point Never, Shlohmo, Raime, Arca, Ben Frost… The list goes on. To me, that stuff is uplifting and exciting. I think electronic music can play any role it wants to. Although electronic music may be generally understood to be a genre that gets bodies moving, I also think it can be a very cerebral and confrontational form.
Do you find it easier to create music influenced by your own experiences or to project about others?
This is a difficult question. I’m not necessarily interested in conveying or exploring my own experiences or the experiences of others through my music. What I’m trying to capture is something more general that we’re all a part of, if that makes sense. I’m trying to capture what I think are moods, feelings or conditions that are shared among us, rather than strictly belonging to myself or someone else.
What do you hope to achieve with your music?
I just want to touch and to meet good people—to show and to receive support.
Why are you choosing to maintain anonymity?
I don’t think that music is about self-expression. I’m also just a low-key and private person.
As a young trans person, how do you feel about the likes of Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox very publicly bringing our attention to the issues many trans people unfortunately may face as well as sharing their own stories?
Visibility is important, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a sign of acceptance or “progress.” In fact, I worry it may just be the opposite. It demonstrates that people are interested in transgenderism primarily as an aesthetic phenomenon—as something just to look at. When you turn a body into an aesthetic object, you risk dehumanizing it. For example, the suffering of many people around the world and in America is quite visible, yet what has this “visibility” done to improve their well-being?
To me, transgenderism is not about “visibility” or “passing.” First, gender non-conforming people deserve the right to be invisible social bodies just like everyone else if that’s what they want. Not everyone wants to be gazed upon. Second, not everyone has the money to pass and third, transgenderism is primarily an ethical, rather than aesthetic, position. As a rule, a man will not ask himself, “What am I feeling and thinking?,” but rather, “What should a man feel and think?” He will ask himself, “How should a man act?,” rather than the more important question of what the ethical way to act is. To me, transgenderism is about our ethical responsibilities and moral obligations. Identity should not be grounded in gender. It’s like the lowest common denominator: “I was born with a penis, therefore I should act in such a way that people with penises are supposed act.” It’s cowardly and irresponsible. Gender is often mobilized as a concept to absolve men and women of their essential responsibility toward other human beings. A man or a woman can make an appeal to their gender to strip themselves of their ethical agency. Think of the language used in rape ethics or those who defend the actions of rapists. A rapist or his defenders will say, “Oh, it wasn’t me, it was the man in me who did it,” or “He’s not to blame! He couldn’t control his masculine impulses.” I think that’s disgusting and that we all have a stake in eradicating gender as a basis for identity or community. The only reason people are resistant to this is because they have a very real economic stake in maintaining the structures of dominance and submission that gender difference is predicated upon. But we’re better than this.