JD Samson: Even today some people are like, “What are you?”
The groundbreaking musician talks genderqueer identity, the evolution of gay bars and the possibility of a Le Tigre reunion.
JD Samson is a ground-breaking musician, a passionate activist and a living, breathing queer icon. We couldn’t wait to catch up with her ahead of her performance at M.I.A.'s Meltdown festival at London’s Southbank.
DIVA: How do UK events like M.I.A.'s Meltdown compare to the scene in New York?
JD Samson: I really think it’s to do with the promoter and not so much the geographical location. You can go to a party in Munich and it can be totally corny and terrible, or you can go to Munich and play an awesome tech house party that’s full of gay guys having a great time, and you feel like you’re at home. The things that really matter are how much it is to get into the party, if the energy is good, if it feels safe. That’s what matters.
I really enjoyed your documentary for Broadly - The Last Lesbian Bars. How do you see the future of LGBT nightlife?
In New York City, where I live, it’s really booming. There’s a huge focus on queer nightlife right now. We’ve been brought together by this umbrella term, which is a great step forward. There’s so many more mixed nights and opportunities to be around different kinds of people that you wouldn’t normally be around. Also there’s a really incredible focus on different kinds of music, giving the opportunity to experience new music instead of just hearing the same old standards. It gets rid of a lot of the stigma around lesbian bars.
Do you think there’s still a place for the scene in the same way that there used to be?
It’s so complicated. It goes so deep within the culture that we exist in right now. It’s technology, it’s socio-economics, it’s misogyny. All of these things play into it and it’s hard to say whether you could even create the same kind of culture that we used to have. I miss it and I don’t know how much of that is nostalgia or just looking back instead of looking forwards. I try to appreciate what I did have and the spaces where I did go every night that really saved me and gave me what I needed. But those nights were pre-cellphone! We have to move forwards.
Do you remember the first time you ever went to a gay bar?
Gosh, I went to this place in Cleveland and it was so corny. It was called The Five Cent Decision, but everyone called it the Nickel. I think I was underage. There weren’t a lot of people there. Maybe two people at the bar. I remember feeling like it was a relic from the past.
It was amazing to see Le Tigre reunite for the I’m With Her song during Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
We felt like we had a role to play in our community. A lot of people critiqued it for being propaganda, but I’m really glad that we did it because it was a campaign where our community fell into such deep misogyny. When I look back I feel happy that we stood up for what we believed in. It was in the total spirit of Le Tigre.
Are you planning to do any more as a band?
It was really fun and we had a great time in the studio. We kind of discussed, “Oh, we should do this again!” But Kathleen is taking a year off for working on music stuff so I guess we are just not focused on that really.
You've always been such a political artist. Did you go any of to the women’s marches?
I was supposed to DJ at the women’s march but because of health reasons I couldn’t go and I ended up being in Cleveland with my family. I’m usually someone who feels really stressed out by protests. I have to go to everything! But there was a moment, basically since the inauguration, where I felt like my role is to do something deeper. As soon as he won, I went to the street. I was basically leading the march in New York the day after the election. I lost my voice completely. It was very emotional for me.
You’ve been in the public eye for a long time and your genderqueer identity has been really important to the LGBT+ community. How much have you seen other people’s reactions change in that time?
I see a difference with urban areas. I don’t see that much of a difference in small towns. It’s also complicated for me because I pass as a young boy and I do feel safe in that passing. That’s something that I recognise is a privilege, for sure. In New York, Brooklyn, San Francisco and LA, I feel pretty acknowledged as a genderqueer person but as soon as I go to even Munich, people are like, “What are you?” I have facial hair but when I open my mouth I sound like a woman, and that’s still a huge stigma.
Lastly, I saw on Twitter that you’ve been trying to grow a goatee. How’s it going?
It’s a little uneven. One side is longer than the other. It looks pretty sparse. It’s kind of gross but I’m trying it out anyway.
M.I.A.'s Meltdown festival is on at London's Southbank Centre 9 - 18 June. JD is DJing at the Meltdown party on 17 June. You can get tickets at southbankcentre.co.uk/whats-on/festivals-series/meltdown
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