Feature Artist: Mila Jam
Singer-songwriter Mila Jam is the pop princess who is probably missing from your summer playlist. In an interview with The Tartan, she talks about her experience as a black transgender woman in the music industry.
Even if this is your first time hearing about Jam, you might have already seen her perform as Britney Houston in the late 2000s through the early 2010s. Jam created this drag persona while on tour for the musical Rent. She described making parodies as a “play on the things that I loved,” like pop culture and music videos. She was confident in her identity as a woman during this time, but “my womanhood [was seen] as a joke” in the eyes of the millions of viewers of her videos. Britney Houston was a character that existed only on the internet; Mila Jam was who she truly was.
Jam describes her experience coming out as queer as “multilayered.” She first came out as gay in high school, but she could not vocalize her gender identity then. “The second time I came out… was after I had moved away from home to New York to become a professional actor.” On a road trip with her mother, Jam told her mother about the early stages of her gender transition. Jam’s mother was apprehensive, questioning why Jam’s femininity could not just stay within her act as Britney Houston. However, Jam remained steadfast in her identity as a woman, and later got support from her mother.
One thing that was clear during the twenty-minute phone interview with Jam was how much she valued hope and self-motivation. She held her gender and her identity in her grasp with no uncertainty of what would come next. “It’s my experience to create it [my life] how I want,” she reflects. This unapologetic confidence radiates through the lyrics of her feel-good bops and her energetic music videos.
Jam’s core beliefs, combined with her life experiences, greatly drive her art and her activism. This inspiration clearly shows in her music, and can be heard in one of her most popular songs, “Masquerade”. She vigorously defends herself and demands to be respected through her powerful lyrics. In the corresponding music video, she stands firmly with “STOP KILLING US” painted all over her body, the “STOP” spelled out boldly in the colors of the transgender pride flag.
Jam also reveals the harsher realities disproportionately facing black transgender women. She confronts this uncomfortable truth directly in her song “Bruised”. She begins the music video with “This is dedicated to every woman, specifically Trans Women who have lost their lives at the hands of their abusers.” In the video, the critically-aclaimed actress and black transgender activist Laverne Cox embraces a bruised and vulnerable Jam in her angelic arms.
To Jam, this intersectional issue is not only about equality for black transgender women, but also for the black community at large. Her activism “push[es] the conversation forward with our black brothers and sisters who are cis” that often fall by the wayside. In this conversation, she recognizes her “passing privilege,” or her ability to present herself as female without having people dismiss her gender identity based on appearances. She recognizes the nuances and the possible discomfort that discussing these inequities brings, but that makes it all the more important.
Jam also aspires to help change the narrative in the music industry. “Queer artists are putting in the work” with their talent and drive, but the people running the industry are doing listeners a “disservice if they’re not paying attention to LGBTQ artists.” Queer representation has increased over the years; most people would probably be able to name at least five mainstream celebrities who identify as LGBTQ+. But how many artists are in the mainstream who are LGBTQ+ and POC, especially LGBTQ+ and black? The question gets harder to answer, and Jam recognizes that.
At the end of the day, she wants to encourage her listeners to be bold and aware of social injustices. Jam is a testament to the power of self-empowerment, and her voice is one that will resonate with listeners of various backgrounds. “The most beautiful thing in the world is a black trans woman thriving,” she states. And even through a phone call, it's readily apparent that she is living that image.