Singer, violinist, teacher and transgender activist Tona (from her nickname “Tenacious”) Brown will be speaking at UNC School of the Arts this week as part of her college-campus tour. Brown attended the Virginia Governor’s School for the Arts and subsequently attended the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music.
Brown became the first transgender woman of color to perform the national anthem for a sitting president in 2011 when she sang for then-President Barack Obama at the LGBT Leadership Gala Dinner. Brown is also the first trans woman to headline at Carnegie Hall.
On Monday, TCB had the pleasure of speaking with Brown over Microsoft Teams where she showed up in a comfy outfit consisting of a magenta shawl, bright purple nails and long flowing hair a la Jameela Jamil.
Follow Brown on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter to learn more about her future projects including her memoir which should be out by the end of the year. She also has a podcast called “Conversations with Tona Brown.” Her website is tonabrown.com.
Tell me about your background in the arts. I understand that you first started out playing violin?
That’s right. My background was primarily in violin, but I started off doing dancing, ballet and tap and jazz. But I realized that I was too fleshy to do ballet as a boy. At the time I was identifying as a boy and finding out my truth came a little later. And I was trying to figure out why it was not working for me. It got to a point where I was not starving myself, but I was trying not to gain weight, and as a teenager it was a difficult time.
I later found music through a teacher in Manassas, Va. They were trying to find kids to do orchestra or band in the fifth grade and around that time I went to the Kennedy Center and they did a production of Peter and the Wolf. It was one of those shows where they will show musicians from each section and as soon as heard the violin, I knew I wanted to be just like him.
I rented my first violin from Music & Arts and started taking orchestra the next year. I was around 9 or 10 years old.
You’re also known as an opera singer. Tell me about how you got into singing.
Growing up I would sing in choir at church, but it wasn’t something I was passionate about; but violin was. With violin, I could escape poverty of my childhood. With violin, I could play in the bathroom for hours and even if we were homeless.
It wasn’t until college when I was around some friends who were opera singers that I started singing. That’s why art programs are so important to me because without them I don’t think I would be here. I probably would have harmed myself if I didn’t have music as a focus instead of worrying about who I was or what about transitioning.
I’m so sorry to hear that. When did you realize that you were transgender?
Well my mother knew since I was 3. She just wanted me to experience life and didn’t want me to put labels on myself. I had a brilliant mom and two aunts who knew what was going on. They tried their best to give me really good self-esteem.
Around the time I was 16 or 17, I came out to my mom as bisexual and she said, “You know sweetie, I don’t think that’s what it is; I think you’re going to go through some changes.”
It wasn’t until college where I started to naturally transition. I started experimenting with different looks. Just being around visual artists, fashion designers and so many different types of people, I started to question myself more like, Why am I not happy in the body that I was born in?
I had a family of quirky friends who were accepting of who I was. There was no judgment, so I was able to slowly figure it out.
How did music help you during those darker moments?
For a trans person, you can’t visually see that this is going on within them. You don’t think that there is anyone else like you out there. There were no transgender models that were out there when I was growing up. But when you go to these art programs, you’re around people who are different. We would constantly meet people who would tell us never to give up. You’re exposed to all these things and you develop a certain amount of discipline because you always have something to do. I was so busy constantly doing the next thing.
That’s why I’m going to start a nonprofit organization, hopefully this year called Music Saving Lives or Music Saves Lives because as a young person, when you’re trying to figure so many things about yourself but it seems like the world is against you or you’re alone, that’s not always the reality, but for a transgender person, it is a reality.
What would you like young trans musicians to know that you didn’t when you were their age?
That it’s gonna get better. I have so much faith in the youth. Working with the youth has been the biggest blessing for me. As an advocate or activist you hear so many horrible things but working with young people, I know, everything is going to be okay.
We have to get out of the way of what these young people are building in our society. They are more educated on issues than I was at their age. It just makes me feel really, really confident that we’re gonna be okay. We’re in a troubling time right now, but were gonna be okay.
How would you like to see classical music change?
I want to see the classical music sphere showcase its LGBTQ people in a positive light. One thing I think would be revolutionary is if in the month of Pride, they would showcase LGBTQ artists in their symphonies or bring in people like myself. Not just that month, but you know how society is.
It seems to the world that we just got here while we’ve been here since the beginning of time. The more we integrate and uplift people who are different then we’re going to have a better world. The opera world is struggling to get people into seats so it’s smart business to have diversity and inclusion in your programming. These symphonies are struggling to stay open. Well if you only see type of person on the stage and one type of genre, that is the problem. You have to change with the times.
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