Today sees the release of electro pop anthem Fierce, a collaboration between singer-songwriter and DJ Ultra Naté, Pose actress Angelica Ross, and New York pop star and “artivist” Mila Jam. The dance track is a rallying cry, empowering listeners to be Legendary, Necessary and Extraordinary. Aiming to “enlighten, educate, and celebrate the trans community through song”, a portion of the proceeds from the release will be gifted to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, and GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program. With 2020 the deadliest year on record for trans and gender non-conforming people, an epidemic of violence disproportionately affecting women of colour, Fierce also intends to bring further awareness to the hate crime against and murder of Black and Latinx trans women.
Artist and activist Mila Jam, whose recent singles include Eye On You, Number One, and The Last Time, has toured internationally with the Broadway musical Rent and performed alongside James Brown, Mark Ronson, Natasha Bedingfield, and her friend Laverne Cox.
To mark today’s release of Fierce, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Mila Jam about how the track came together, who she thinks of as fierce in her own life, how she reflects on a summer of activism, why her TED talk on Black Trans Female Empowerment is for everybody, and her admiration for John Cameron Mitchell and the groundbreaking trans documentary Disclosure.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Congratulations on Fierce, I’ve been playing it a lot very loud over the last few days, so hopefully my neighbours have been enjoying listening to it too! How did this collaboration came about?
Mila Jam: “This project has actually been a few years in the making. I had been working with producer Anthony Preston who has worked on some amazing hit songs and about two years ago he introduced me to Fierce which Ultra Naté was on. He wanted Fierce to be an anthem and something to help uplift the LGBTQ+ community, so when he played it for me I was like, ‘You have to have a trans woman be involved in this.’ At first I was like, ‘It needs to have someone of trans experience on it’, but then I was like, ‘You need to have me on it!’ And he said, ‘Yes, let’s do that, that’d be amazing, I’d love to!’ So I went to his studio in LA to record one of the verses and I did some ad libs and it started to have this new feeling, this new vibe. Then Anthony wanted to have another woman on it to round it out and make it really special. Angelica Ross is someone that he was close to and he’s been working with as well, so he introduced her to the track and she ended up recording the hook and putting some of her spin on it. Putting this track together was all about purpose, it was all about uniting us women who are doing things with our careers where we’re connecting our communities and talking about the issues that are affecting us.”
How would you describe the sound of it for anyone who hasn’t heard it yet?
“It’s totally a dance track. It’s got a world, underground feel to it. It gives you something reminiscent of En Vogue, that’s kind of the vibe we have with it. It’s got a bitch track essence to it from the ball scene too. It’s about empowerment, it’s about claiming your fierceness. The mantras in the song are literally telling you to be legendary, to be necessary, to be extraordinary; to choose to be the owner of your existence. It’s the recipe for being fierce!”
As well as being a fierce, empowering track, it’s also raising money for some trans charities isn’t it?
“Yes, this is something that has a really good cause behind it. Proceeds go into helping trans folks across the nation. We teamed up with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, the Marsha P. Johnson Institute and GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program to be a part of this. We want to see proceeds help build our community and music is what bridges the gaps between us, music is what brings us together. So what better way to help raise money for the community than putting out a song. Everyone can stream it and share it with their friends and their family and their houses.”
I was outside Stonewall on June 1st last year for the beginning of Pride Month and heard you give an emotional and powerful speech. Of course we associate Stonewall and the LGBTQ+ rights movement with Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, what do their names mean to you?
“They mean a lot of different things to me. Primarily I’d say that they are voices of discovery and purpose of community. As someone that really found my way here in New York in the queer community and as a trans woman, there was actually a long time when I didn’t know the history of Sylvia Rivera or Marsha P. Johnson. It’s super important for us to learn our queer history and to learn about the people who have paved the way for us. Being at that march on June 1st was the first time that I had actually left my house during the pandemic to be a part of something. I was terrified about being in public and being around a lot of people, but what was so much more important to me was that this is our revolution, this is our moment to really step out on not only our faith, but on the things that are important to us. Our trans brothers and sisters are being murdered senselessly and we need to have a conversation about that and that conversation needs to go public. What I said needed to be about unity for everyone there that day. I wasn’t even planning to speak, but I was moved to share how impacted I’d been by hearing these stories, day after day, hearing about the misgendering, the dead-naming, and the crime.”
“Marsha P. Johnson spent her whole life leading the community, trying to make space for everyone around her and just wanting to be herself and doing what she did best. Sylvia Rivera spent her life protesting and trying to get people to listen and at that point people weren’t listening, people did not support her in the way that she deserved to be supported. Sometimes it takes decades following someone’s passing for people to get it. I really hope that this project speaks to people in the here and now. I know that this is something that will live on beyond my experiences here in the world, but I hope that this is a light for people to share about how important it is for us to be there for each other, to have unity, and to have community. That’s alongside all of the shade, let’s be real, right?! The shade is going happen! You’re not going to see eye to eye with everyone and people are going to get mad and want to be one-upping each other, but at the end of the day, we have to find a reason to have a good time together.”
The track is called Fierce, and I wondered who in your own life you would describe as fierce and if you would describe yourself as fierce?
“Everyone knows that I’m a huge Janet Jackson fan, she’s my blueprint for being fierce. Also, I’m a huge J.Lo fan and having met her and been able to be in her presence for a whole night, hanging out with her, that has actually given me more fierceness through osmosis! I’m a Britney Spears stan. I think Britney is fierce. There are people like my aunt, Shelia Turner, she was an amazing world-renowned photographer. She was a documentary photographer, and she really expressed through her lens the experience of the Black person living day-to-day, and she’s an example of what it’s like to not be commercial. She’s no longer with us here in this world, she’s passed, but she’s a huge inspiration of mine and she is the definition of fierce in so many ways. She was the most amazing, unapologetic Black female warrior photographer artist that you could ever imagine. I also draw that from my mom too. My mom is one of my best friends and someone that I admire so much. I admire her fierceness and her being able to love and support me unapologetically. That took work and a journey to get to, but we’ve got there and it’s absolutely amazing. I’m very proud and very happy to say that we have a beautiful relationship.”
Last year an image of you with STOP KILLING US written on your body went viral, and you then wore a blue outfit with those same words written on the fabric at the Queer Liberation March on Pride Day. How do you reflect on that summer of activism focused on Black trans lives, with events like the Brooklyn Liberation rally and how do you think we can use that momentum to move us forwards?
“Activism is something that comes out of necessity. We activate because we’re not being heard, we’re not being seen, we’re not being respected or honoured. We get pushed to the edge and then we have to end up standing up for ourselves. With that Stop Killing Us message, sometimes you have just got to write it on your body for people to see it. It’s like, put it on your forehead for someone to get the hint! We’ve been having conversations in this country for centuries about reading the room. Actually, maybe I need to write a book called Read The Room! There’s such a high level of tone deafness in our culture that we are not able to read the room and not able to see what’s affecting people. I don’t know if that’s due to capitalism or selfishness or all of the above, but we need to pay attention to that. That summer is going to be something that I will carry with me forever. It’ll probably be the most memorable summer for me in my spoken activist experience. All of the work that we put into marching during a pandemic, I want people to take that and apply it to the now, apply that to the future, apply that to the next level of what we can do and where things can go. Let’s not let that work fall by the wayside and make it be for nothing. We need to build on that.”
I thought that the TED talk you did on Black Trans Female Empowerment as part of TEDxPrincetonWomen was inspiring. What was that experience like?
“The opportunity arose when my manager Nico said, ‘Would you ever want to do a TED talk?’ When he asked me that I didn’t realise that he was actually telling me that I was going to be doing one! I had thought that I would love to be a part of something like that when I was ready to do it, but he was like, ‘Great, it’s in two and a half weeks. You need to write a speech.’ So I was like, ‘Oh, okay!’ It was during the pandemic and so there was an option to film the talks from our homes, but I thought to myself, well, if I’m going to be a part of this I don’t want to do a TED talk from my living room! So I got my tests and decided to go to the university where they were filming.”
“There are so many things you can talk about, so many topics, and I thought, what do I want to put out into the world? One thing that really means a lot to me as a Black trans woman is to share with the world the message that we are valuable, that we are a gift, that we have something that is for everyone, beyond looking at us as a disgrace, or as something that is not natural or any of those things. Trans people, we’ve been here forever and we’ve constantly been up against the narrative of what’s acceptable and what’s unacceptable. So I really wanted to shed light on being empowered and being an empowered Black trans woman. What does that look like for other Black trans women? I don’t have all the answers, but there are things that I think about and what’s cool to me about my TED Talk is that there are things that anyone can take away from it. It’s not just for trans women, it’s about being centered in that, and it is for my sisters, but you can be a cis straight white man, you can be a cis gay male, or you can be a Latinx femme presenting non-binary person, and you could take something valuable away from it. You can take away some of the steps that I mention to finding your empowerment, the importantance to own your place in the world and to be confident in that, and that we as Black trans women need to be supported.”
“It’s supposed to be for everyone. The platform and the experience is mine to talk about. I’m a Black trans woman and that’s what I know, but I understand and I’ve seen a lot of different perspectives around me. That’s one thing I can say about us trans folks, we have had experiences in our lives that mean we can relate to pretty much anyone or anything going on, because we’ve lived through some version of that. Our lives have been an array of the human experience through before, during, and after transitioning, so there’s something that we do have to offer when talking about the human experience.”
What’s favourite LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+? Someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“That’s a large question and there are so many things, but I will give two takeaways that are very important to me. The first one is John Cameron Mitchell. He changed my life with Hedwig and the Angry Inch. That is one of the most amazing pieces of cinema history for the queer community. I remember watching that movie for the first time and the feeling that I had at seeing that level of intricate storytelling and the way it was expressed; the music, the vibe, the trauma, all of that. It was so wonderful. I really have a lot of love for John Cameron Mitchell and I actually had the chance to meet him and be in his presence and just vibe with him.”
“Meeting John was thanks to my best girlfriend Laverne Cox, which leads me to another favourite, Disclosure, which is one the most important pieces of queer history for film, television, and media. It was just overlooked for the Academy Awards, but often the most important works are not awarded the things that they should be awarded at the time that they come out. I think Disclosure is something that is going to really outlive all of us. The work that Laverne put into Disclosure is unprecedented. She really wanted to do something for our culture and I think she did that. That film is part of her legacy and that is something that I honour. It is just so beautiful to see all of the people that I personally know be part of something so great; every trans woman and every trans man in that film talking about their experiences. I’ve actually heard some of those experiences firsthand and so that makes me feel so connected to it.”
By James Kleinmann
Fierce by Ultra Naté and Angelica Ross featuring Mila Jam is available to download and stream now. A portion of the proceeds will be gifted to: the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, and GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program.