Linda LaBeija carries grace on her shoulders and wears her heart on her sleeve.
In a video of her performance at Queer Abstract, an arts showcase held in New York, LaBeija performs her poem “Urgency.” The piece is set to production by Byrell the Great that morphs from a twinkling beat into pulsing house music; LaBeija vogues as she repeats, “My sisters are dying.”
Today, she is premiering “Skins,” a collaboration with producer Skyshaker — both are signed to Mister Wallace and aCeb00mbaP's FUTUREHOOD label. The track sees LaBeija once again mixing spoken word with music. Her words float atop a heartbeat, growing louder and more distorted with each second. “We sin in dim confines, where the traces of your eyelash can be found on my neckline,” she laments. “I’m grim, I’m torn.”
“Although I had never heard 'Skins' until the night she performed it at a fundraiser, it wasn't until she came in to record the piece that my own experiences became painfully tangible,” Skyshaker explained to The FADER. “As a closeted athlete in school, most of my formative queer sexual experiences came from closeted teammates whose own toxicity sent me to the same dark places Linda brings to life in this piece. My most dangerous experience was with a quarterback during my junior year in high school. Confiding in Linda how 'Skins' nearly recounts that experience verbatim was a powerful conversation I'll remember for a very long time."
Listen to "Skins" below, and scroll on for a conversation with LaBeija about the experiences that led to the creation of the powerful song.
What inspired you to write "Skins"?
"Skins" was inspired by the harsh realities I faced in my dating life when first beginning my transition. The more feminine I presented, the more I was solicited for sex randomly in the street. I also seemed to attract men that led very complex lives. Either they were "closeted" and did not want anyone to know that they enjoyed engaging in sex with trans women or they were heavy drug users, mentally ill, homeless, disabled, or just interested in the fetish women like me are perceived to be. Regardless, mutual attraction became a rarity after transitioning.
However, I met this man in a sex shop in Greenwich Village one night. I thought because he was openly bisexual and so comfortable being with me in public that things would be different. Aside from his bisexuality, his conflicting emotions with his devotion to all of the different mothers of his children, he was also still living with one of them. I had met the other mother of one of his children but never the one he lived with. And I never met the child. Feeling like the relationship I shared with him was somehow compartmentalized, I grew suspicious. This piece was birthed out of that inner conflict and rising suspicion, very unsure what to believe and handling my own feelings of being manipulated by him. It was this experience where I learned that anyone could tell you anything you wanted to hear, and without the ability to obtain sound proof, you would have no choice but to believe them.
Let’s talk about the shift from poetry and spoken word to layering it with music. You released a treated track earlier on this year titled "Urgency." Has this always been a territory you’ve wanted to explore?
I have always been a poet by nature but not by choice. I have often wondered about Maya Angelou’s journey and whether she intended to be a dancer or a poet. Music has always been a dream of mine. And in becoming the woman I have always dreamt of being, I don't think I would feel complete without at least pursuing my dream of a career in music.
Growing up in the Morris Heights section of the Bronx, I wasn't privileged to music classed or learning music theory, instruments or composition, but I always had a strong skill for writing. By high school, I learned I had a stronger skill for performing and acting and dancing. I joined a theater arts for social change program now called The Possibility Project. That program really shaped me as an artist. But I shied away from music, intimidated easily by others because of my own inexperience left me full of self doubt.
Writing for me was always a safer venting tool, one that didn't require collaboration but instead isolation. Sharing that writing through performance was always a gift. I still carry a journal with me everywhere. But the words have slowly lost meaning and depth and excitement over the last year. Eventually my desire to create music became so overwhelming with the other stressors of life that I stopped creating new work as of recently. I have always prided myself in creating work that speaks for the unspoken or raises a different view or perspective and is driven by real meaning, emotion and purpose.
So last year when Byrell the Great reached out to me about working together, it really was an answer to many prayers. He really brought "Urgency" to life in a way that I had never imagined, adding the musicality necessary to slowly ease any fan or follower into this new platform of mine, into this dream of mine. I didn't want to confuse my audiences, but rather allow them to watch the sound flourish naturally. Still providing the work folks seem to know me for. I didn't want to deny anyone that quite yet. I've noticed it does something for people. And I'm sure spoken word will always have a place in my music.
Do you view these new works as poems set to music or as songs?
These pieces are most certainly poems set to music. "Skins" more so than "Urgency." There is a moment in "Urgency" where a distinct tempo can be felt and heard. More of Byrell's genius.
“I have always prided myself in creating work that speaks for the unspoken or raises a different view or perspective and is driven by real meaning, emotion and purpose.”
What was the recording process and your involvement with the sounds like? Do you prefer to leave the sound in the hands of the producer you are collaborating with or do you have input?
Believe it or not, I've been wanting to record "Skins" for years. After transitioning, I stopped writing for a long time and it was my good friend Nefertiti Asanti who got me back into it. And “Skins” was one of the first pieces I began to perform regularly. It's actually older than “Urgency” and is really a signature piece of mine.
Skyshaker had invited me to come and perform for a fundraiser back in early October. I know we had agreed I would perform “Urgency” but the other piece, I was still unsure of. I decided to do “Skins” and Sky freestyled some amazing sounds and effects while I performed it live, which allowed me to really experience the piece in a brand new way. Sky shook new life into "Skins." After that night we arranged a time to meet and I simply went into record, we shared some ideas, but the rest was all Sky. I have provided some input, but in creating music, I like whoever I'm working with to have an experience as well while creating and have an equal contribution. That, to me, is real collaboration: when the inspired can inspire others to inspire.
Could you tell me about your activist work?
I do not consider myself an activist in the traditional sense with the picket sign or writing letters to my representatives. Those are old roots for me. I thought I could get back to them when folks at AFROPUNK asked me to help organize their first March for Trans Justice back in 2015. That experience brought me to write "Urgency." And the success of that piece has reminded me that my place in activism will always be artistic.
My goal is to tell the stories of girls like me. To advocate for us. To call others to action. I have never considered myself an entertainer considering artistic activism is all I've ever known. But between gigs and performances I have been working in the non profit, social service world with at risk populations. I feel blessed to currently be working at the Ali Forney Center, servicing LGBT homeless youth in need. Working directly with my community, although challenging at times, has been so fulfilling.