SuperKnova Sings Queer Transgender Jubilee On New Album “American Queers”
Written by Vocalo Radio on September 4, 2019
SuperKnova is Chicago-based transgender musician Ellie Kim.
She creates Queer Pop, a unique sound that incorporates hip-hop inspired drums, driving synths and virtuosic guitar solos. She writes about identity, queerness and the struggle of being your authentic self.
Her latest album is called American Queers, and she spoke with Jill Hopkins about the meaning behind the album, the struggle of identity and how her art inspires others.
Jill Hopkins: I am in love with this project and really excited to talk to you about it. What does it mean to be your authentic self?
Ellie Kim: It can mean a lot of different things to different people. I talk about this a lot as a queer transgender woman. For me, a lot of things I write about revolve around identity, gender identity, and being who you want to be. But that’s a universal theme that applies to everyone, not just trans or queer people. No matter how you identify, I think a lot of us struggle with who we are and who we want to be, whether that’s in your job, whether it’s how you express yourself, express your identity, versus who people around us expect us to be. So it’s kind of like struggling through those two competing ideas.
JH: You have said with American Queers that you wanted to pay some respect to other artists who were their authentic selves, were proud of their stigmatized identities, and got to break free from those oppressive stereotypes, whatever they may be. Who are those folks for you?
EK: I am definitely inspired by a lot of artists who use their music not just to entertain but also to inform, inspire, and create some real social change. Some obvious big name ones are Mavis Staples, also Joan Jett rocking out on the guitar before it was cool for women to dominate the stage; and more recent ones like Laura Jane Grace.
JH: Laura Jane Grace kicks ass on guitar, and you kick ass on guitar, too but you also play everything here on this album. This is DIY to the core but is guitar your first love?
EK: Yes, it is. I’ve been playing guitar since I was eight years old, so that’s a very natural instrument for me to play and to write with. Yes it’s 100% DIY. Everything you hear on the album was played, written, produced, recorded, mixed, and mastered by me. Every instrument, every voice, every lyric was all done by myself.
JH: Why is it important for you to be in the driver’s seat through the whole process?
EK: It’s really important for me because, even though it’s a lot better in the recent age, the music business has always been plagued by racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic gatekeepers who’ve censored a lot of artists’ work or artists in general. And so for me, it’s really empowering to be able to say, I get to control everything that goes into this music. I get to say exactly what I want to say. Of course, collaboration is incredible, and a powerful tool, but for this particular album, I wanted to make a statement that this entire work was made by a queer trans woman. Everything touched on it was made by me.
JH: Let’s talk about the album because it’s a fantastic mission statement. It’s says, “Here’s what I’m about and here’s what you’re going to get.” You come right out of the gate with all of that, but on the song “Power!” you talk about the power that comes with going through hell and back and emerging stronger than you were when you started. How did your life experience teach you that truth?
EK: For me, it’s about my experience as a transgender person and coming out and transitioning. Unlike some other major life transitions coming out as trans, there’s so many different components to it. There’s the emotional identity part of it, but there’s also a physical component to it. There’s the financial component to it. And also for me personally, it’s just speaking from my personal experience – a lot of navigating relationships and family acceptance or non-acceptance that comes with being who you are and who you want to be. That struggle was dealing with the non-acceptance, money, and the medical aspect of transitioning. It was a very difficult road and still is, in some ways, so that’s what it was about for me.
JH: I’ve heard a lot of folks say that there’s no singular experience of coming out, but instead it’s a series of small things. I can’t imagine what that’s like for someone with a long journey of transition. How do you tell that story through songs that also make me want to put on heels and strut around?
EK: Yeah, I’m so glad to hear that! It’s not just about trans rights, even though the album is called American Queers, these are common struggles we all face. We’re all fighting oppression in various forms, and we’re all in it together.
JH: I love the phrase “American Queers.” First of all, the song itself is a jam. But I am especially attracted to that juxtaposition of those two words because America can sometimes feel extremely anti-queer but fighting for your identity and freedom and autonomy is also a very American thing, too. Talk to me about the message in that phrase and in the song itself.
EK: That song touches on a lot of things and was inspired by, as you say, history in this country, both extremely negative, but also extremely positive. As you alluded to with “American Queers,” there’s that duality of America being founded on this concept of liberty. Especially the times that we live in now and what it means to be American, or who is even considered American. The question “what does it mean to be American?” invokes all of those feelings and those ideas.
JH: Let’s talk about the song “Off My Body.” That’s the final track on the project and it sounds like a great political protest song. Why did you want that to be the closing statement to the album?
EK: It’s one of those songs that, when I wrote it, was from my experience with body autonomy and being a transgender person, but it also has a generalized message about reproductive rights and lots of other things. It was important to me to have a song that was almost like a fight song to keep the energy moving forward. We’re still fighting the fight and will for a long time now.
JH: Do you find that, as time goes on, you are more comfortable being visible and being a voice for your community?
EK: Yeah, absolutely. I almost like to take a page out of Laverne Cox’s book when she says, “I would never call myself a role model but a life possibility.” People don’t need to model their life after me but to have one possibility. This musical project, SuperKnova, helped me as much as I hope it helps other people. It helped me to come out and be more confident in who I am, and to also have that license that artists are given that everyday people often aren’t unfortunately. So it kind of works both ways – it helps me as a trans person and as an artist as well.
All photographs by Lili Fang
Audio produced by Fyodor Sakhnovski
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