Pride and Joy
By Michael Stewart with ASCAP’s Luis Castro, Sarah Finegold, Roberto Rivera and Etan Rosenbloom • June 23, 2021
To honor Pride Month, we had conversations with ASCAP creators Madeline The Person, Villano Antillano and Ty Defoe about how their LGBTQ+ identities impact their music, and vice-versa.
Bright and colorful on the outside, Houston, Texas native Madeline The Person uses her music to express the more painful aspects of her world. Having built a following of nearly 500,000 followers on TikTok performing covers of Frank Ocean, Phoebe Bridgers, Harry Styles, Lizzo, Joni Mitchell, Queen and more, the 19-year-old recently made her first foray into original music with the release of her EP, CHAPTER 1: The Longing on Warner Records. The EP includes the somber and evocative first single “As a Child” as well as “I Talk to the Sky,” both deep reflections on grief and the loss of her father, and both catapulting her into the industry spotlight.
As timing would have it, Madeline’s professional career took off during lockdown. “It’s just been crazy, like I would never ever expect this to be my life right now…I graduated high school like a year ago and I was expecting to go to music school, but that’s not happening. Instead, I’m making my own music, which is super freaking cool. It’s a lot of traveling and a lot of Zooms and a lot of really exciting things and it’s fast and overwhelming, but I’m learning so much and adapting and it’s becoming like normal, which is good for me,” she says.
There’s been unending support for Madeline as a music creator and as a gay woman. “I feel like everyone I come across on TikTok comes for my music, but I feel like they accept me for exactly who I am. They want to know all of the nitty gritty and they want to hear about the hard stuff which is so special. I want to hear about their stuff too. And they accept each other, which is super cool, and it’s cool to see them interact. It’s like a community, it’s a great thing and really awesome to watch.”
“I’m not a role model, I’m a role villain,” says Villano Antillano, a rising trapero from Bayamón, Puerto Rico. Openly bisexual and non-binary, Villano has become a leading advocate for queer rappers in urbano, a genre that has historically shunned LGBTQ+ creators. Her music is irreverent and defiant, aimed at reclaiming the space that belongs to the queer community.
Villano gained notoriety with the single “Pato Hasta La Muerte,” a fiery response to a series of diss tracks by famous Latin Trap stars. The song became an anthem for many who have suffered abuse and discrimination on the basis of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Much of her music since – including her most recent single “Muñeca,” a collaboration with non-binary pop singer Ana Macho – confronts the homophobia and transphobia she has experienced firsthand.
At the center of Villano’s art is a search for authenticity. “I think that authenticity is something that everyone can relate to,” she says. "No matter what community you are part of, living as your true self is something that is applicable to all of humanity . When I started my journey as an artist, or when I came out and started doing rap, I was not female presenting so when I began exploring my gender identity, it leveled me up in a lot of different ways – musically and aesthetically, and I feel like people pick up on that because it feels a lot more authentic, and it feels a lot better.”
NYC-based Ty Defoe is a GRAMMY award-winning composer, playwright, librettist, actor and dancer from the Oneida and Ojibwe Nations. He describes himself as “two-spirit,” an expression of queerness within the Native American community that pre-dates European constructs of gender. “The term is ancient, as it is contemporary,” Ty explains. “It is a way of being and life for Native/Indigenous People that express themselves outside of dominant society’s binary of being identified or expressed as only ‘male’ or ‘female.’ It has a multitude of layers and also is my relationship to the earth.”
Ty’s interdisciplinary art is woven with themes of social justice, indigeneity, trans rights, Indigi-Queering, and environmentalism. He’s also a TransLab Fellow, 2021 Cultural Capital Fellow and Robert Rauschenberg Artist in Residence; he’s won the Global Indigenous Heritage Festival Award and the Jonathan Larson Award, been a Cordillera International Film Festival Finalist and Eugene O’Neill Theater Center finalist, and was chosen to participate in the ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshop.
Ty says that his identity as an Indigi-Queer person is inextricable from his music. “The lens through which I hear music, the narratives I write, [are] embedded into my creative work, and I think audiences can benefit from understanding what it means to be trans or non-binary. It amplifies the people, artists and stories not commonly heard.”
Methods and Philosophies
These creators’ methods and artistic philosophies are as varied as their backgrounds. Ty views musical theatre as a tool “to express, to heal, to celebrate and to tell our stories on stages…It is by nature an interdisciplinary form. Everything that exists deserves to be known. By witnessing the work of trans or non-binary artists, audiences gain deeper access into our shared human experience.”
Villano’s creative process is part and parcel with her message. “I consider myself a rapper first and foremost, she says. “I feel like rap is a weapon, but it’s also something that’s very characteristically like talking, and it’s not hard to see dumb things and comment…For example, what happens in Puerto Rico specifically and in the Caribbean is that LGBT people are constantly harassed and it’s not hard to find something to say about that…Coming from a trans woman who is fearless, who’s talking about her sexuality and she’s talking about how she used to be a guy? It’s shocking to people, and maybe in a negative way to some, but it also shines a light on a lot of things that were not visible up until this day…When I started inserting myself in circles of activism and human rights, those concepts started coming out in my music.”
Villano also includes historical perspectives when discussing how her identity has impacted her music. “In Puerto Rico, colonization plays a super big part in who we are as individuals in terms of what is accepted what is not,” she explains. “And we see this, for instance, in Hawaii and other places that were colonized. In those places the acceptance of other genders already existed. That was true in all pre-Columbian societies. It was already in place. But, when colonization happens, the Europeans come and they bring Catholicism, a lot of men and a lot of homophobia with them.”
The music that Madeline The Person has released so far hasn’t made her sexual orientation a particular focus. “I don’t really write many love songs,” she admits. “I write for everyone; however a person identifies. They don’t have to switch the pronouns.” And yet there is a candidness to her songs that underscores the importance of what makes us unique, and the power of self-expression. Her songwriting is direct, with an honesty that has become a hallmark. “I started writing songs when I was like 11 and it was the only way that I could articulate my feelings that felt true and real to me,” she says. “That’s just continued, and no matter what I go through, I feel like [writing] is always my safe place where I can go and reflect and process emotions and stuff.
“I write [songs] as my journal and not as if the whole world is gonna hear them,” she continues. “I don’t really sit down and wonder what’s relatable. I just write for myself. My music is a direct look into my brain and feelings.” That introspection and honesty has clearly connected with a broad spectrum of fans. “I hope that they can think it’s about them too. It’s really about everyone, you know. I don’t think people listen to [songs] just so that they can hear a story about another person.”
Music can’t help but be informed by the histories and identities of those who create it. But our interviewees also acknowledge that the influence goes both ways, and that music also helps to shape their identities. As Ty puts it: “Being an artist has helped me to know that I can unapologetically express myself by any means possible.” Madeline admits “I’ve discovered so many things about myself through ‘automatic writing’ just like letting it happen…I definitely realize that I’m not over things I thought I was; that I like certain things I didn’t think I liked. Sometimes it really does surprise me.”
Thank You, Next
Each of the artists shared their future plans for the near-term. Madeline is excited to finally meet her legions of fans in real life. “It’s such a crazy concept to me, that they’re actually real people. It’s hard to wrap my head around, so I can’t wait for that to be actually real and tangible. I’d also to like do a little touring.”
Villano talks about her goals for the new single “Muñeca” and a new music video. “World domination, you know. We’re not going to stop, and I know that. We came and we stepped up to do something that had to be done. For society as a whole, I feel like the global narrative has to change, and we’re doing that, so I’m dabbling in everything. I’m doing a short film. But music obviously is my main baby and I’m very excited about that right now.”
Ty is working on The Lesson, with Avi Amon and Nolan Doran. “It is a queer fantasia; that in order to know anything you must re-learn everything. Taking place in an alternate universe, we hear the stories of Beethoven and Mozart in Vienna in 1787, [told] from their great, great, great-grandchildren’s perspective.”
Madeline The Person, Villano Antillano and Ty Defoe are three artists from three different geographic and artistic spaces, each confronting the challenges of their LGBTQ+ identities in unique ways. The true common denominator that emerges is the authenticity of their music. It seems that their openness – in terms of their art and their relationship to the world - has been an amplifier. Each in their own way, these three creators are championing change, telling stories that need to be told, and making extraordinary art.
Watch Madeline The Person appear on the ASCAP Experience panel Labelless: Songwriting Without Borders