Remembering the life of a transgender soul singer
About two years ago, the music of trans soul singer Jackie Shane burst into my life.
“People talkin', tryin' to break us up,” she sang. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but now talk don't bother me.” Jackie put to music a sentiment expressed by trans heroine Marsha P. Johnson: Pay it no mind.
“I've been abused,” she wailed, her voice soaring up half an octave. “Way down in my heart.” When I heard that line, I knew Jackie Shane's music was my favorite, that in it there was room for me and all the joy and pain I have experienced as a trans person.
A few weeks ago, Jackie Shane passed away just as suddenly as she appeared.
Jackie Shane was the first trans musician I loved. I knew other trans artists: the venerable Wendy Carlos, without whom there would be no electronic music; the weird and wonderful Venus DeMars; my generation's mainstream breakthrough artist, Laura Jane Grace; and innumerable smaller acts, local sensations and YouTube finds. I appreciated all these artists, but only Jackie Shane's music inspired in me the loopy, loyal, life-giving love of a fan.
If you have never heard of Jackie Shane, I don't blame you, but I do blame everyone else.
Jackie wasn't an underground act. She was born in Nashville in 1940, a black trans girl in the Jim Crow South. She started embodying her female gender identity at 13. Jackie came into her own when she moved to Canada in the late 1950s. There she gathered a fan base, including many transgender and queer people, and came to define the “Toronto sound.”
Jackie dominated the local charts and toured with the likes of Etta James. She worked the mic like Little Richard in beautiful gowns and sleek, feminine suits. My favorite is a purple number she wore with a pompadour that made her look, my hand to God, exactly like Janelle Monae.
She was a success, even turning down a collaboration with George Clinton's Funkadelic. Then, in the 1970s, she disappeared.
Trans people continued to remembered Jackie's music, but she retreated from public life. She was the subject of multiple media stories that asked questions about her identity. Did she commit suicide? Was she a gay man? This is another commonality I see between her and Janelle Monae: Jackie Shane came out to her fans again and again, but only the people who shared her identity could see it.
Chicago record label Numero Group brought Jackie back into the mainstream by releasing her music on a new album in 2017. I'm skeptical of labels that do little besides reissue the work of artists, mostly from marginalized communities, and market them to the insufferably hip. But this record allowed Jackie Shane to reintroduce herself to new audiences on something closer to her own terms. Shortly before she died, she received a Grammy nomination for Best Historical Album.
Now, once again, Jackie Shane is gone. If I could say anything to her, it would be the lyrics of her most famous hit: “Tell her that I'm happy. Tell her that I'm gay. Tell her that I wouldn't have it any other way.”