Let Us Live
“Each day that Im here in this existence is an act of defiance against those who would rather see me, and people like me, dead.”
One of my earliest memories is climbing onto a telephone book atop a chair to reach the keys of an old broken piano in the basement/game room of my parents house. My sisters tell me that I would experiment, eventually learning to play by ear music I heard on the radio. This interest in music was probably helped by the fact that I grew up around it. As the last child in a family which included my mom and dad, who had an extensive record collection of jazz and soul, three older sisters, one of whom was a singer, Patrice, another sister Celeste who played the flute, and my oldest sister Lynnette was in the marching band. I also have an older brother, Bill who became an early hip hop DJ, whose turntables, ’70s disco, ’80s freestyle and electro music I inherited. The first album I remember owning was Prince’s 1999, given to me on my eleventh birthday by Patrice, who is closest to me in age and whose birthday I share because I was born the day she turned 9. We often joke we’re twins separated by 9 years because of that, the resemblance, and that our dad sometimes confuses our voices on the phone.
So music was part of the fabric of our family’s lives. I knew from an early age I would be involved with music in some way. What I did not know was how that passion for learning music would evolve into both an escape from some of the cruelty I experienced, as well as become one of the few things I felt pride in as I became more proficient. I found myself in school orchestra, learning violin and piano among other instruments. While not really encouraged by my parents, my mom did once buy me a Casio VL-1 VL-Tone keyboard in middle school. Later I found an old broken electric guitar someone put in our trash in the alley behind our home. My dad eventually relented to me asking him if he could get it fixed, and that led to getting guitar lessons, listening to punk, metal, and playing in local bands in high school. I did not know any of that would lead to my career in electronic music.
To talk about my music you first have to understand me and where I came from. I’m Black, trans and grew up in Pittsburgh, an industrial steel town, well into its decline by the 1980s. When I was a baby my family became only the second family of color in a predominantly white, middle class neighborhood. My parents consisted of a religious mother—my first bully—who gender-policed me from day one. One of my earliest memories was at age 6, telling her I wished I had never been born because she verbally abused me for making a dress out of a sheet and wearing it into the living room.
My father also didn’t understand me at first, but he has always been open minded, progressive, and politically active. He registered people for the NAACP in the 1940’s when he was 14 years old. He always treated my three sisters the same as my brother and told them they could learn and pursue whatever career they wanted, often verbally at odds with my mom. As for me being trans, he made a 180 degree turn from initially ridiculing and calling me names when I was very young, for example, punishing me for sitting down to pee while potty training and being hit with his belt for being a “sissy,” to later supporting and accepting my truth as an early teenager. As he told my mom, “I’ve tried everything. The branch which doesn’t bend, breaks.” There were several times in my life I almost completely broke.
As you can see, at least in my home, being a Black trans girl in the ’70s and ’80s was extremely challenging in an emotionally and physically abusive environment. However, in the mid ’80s, using my Commodore 64 and telephone modem, I discovered a local trans organization, TransPitt, led by Dr. Sheila Kirk, by reading the LGBTQ section of a computer bulletin board system (BBS), which were sort of like pre-internet social networks. While I was too young to join, I at least knew other people like me existed locally. It wasn’t until the late ’80s that I started to finally find what I thought was a bit of my place in the world. I began going out to a monthly LGBTQ youth night at a local club, The Pegasus Lounge, and dancing to house and early techno music by Inner City (“Good Life” was the JAM!), Crystal Waters, etc. In addition to underground parties, that club later became a popular spot for cisgender, straight ravers.
Unlike many cities in the late 80s/early 90s, Pittsburgh didn’t have a strong presence of house and techno music in clubs. We had one night a week at a predominantly white “Industrial Dancing” club called Metropol/Club M, the mostly LGBTQ but ethnically mixed Pegasus, and at that time, the predominantly Black underground party scene. A Black DJ named Vic Money DJ’ed the youth night at Pegasus and also played at self-promoted parties thrown in locations such as above a wig store downtown, and above a soup kitchen in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the mostly Black neighborhood where my parents grew up. He was one of the few DJs at what is recognized as Pittsburgh’s first rave, which brought together those separate dance scenes for the very first time. Of course the rave scene was not without its predators, but for me it was finally a place where I felt I could be Jordana.
Throughout my school years, I was regularly bullied and physically attacked for “being different.” As I learned more about trans people from what I could find in books from the library as well as the sparse information available from the computer BBS networks, I learned what I needed to do to get to where I wanted to be. I kept an extensive diary both of how I felt and of how I imagined my life could play out, if only I could get the help I needed. I had found a “no questions asked” doctor that prescribed me hormones, and began documenting my development in that diary as well. When my mother found one of my pill bottles hidden away in a drawer, she flushed them down the toilet and reported him. I later learned that he was arrested.
I was outed as trans in high school at the school’s pool because I refused to get dressed for swimming. The gym teacher was the school’s football and basketball coach, who said “Ok LeSesne, if you don’t want to swim, here you go.” He took the empty towel bucket, filled it with pool water, and poured it over my head in front of the whole class. Clothes soaked and clinging to me, I showed early breast development. With everyone laughing at me and pointing, I fled class and walked home in freezing cold February weather.
After the incident at the pool, things became so much worse. Not only was I being teased mercilessly by most kids, but I also felt hopeless and helpless to do anything about it. However, after a meeting with my parents, the school principal gave me the option of joining a different gym class, one run by a woman who said she understood. She said I would be ok in her class and that I should report anyone from her class to her if they gave me any problems. But that was the only support I received at school. One of the scariest incidents happened while I was walking home from school one day. A boy stopped me. He lived in my neighborhood, went to my high school, and his dad flew a confederate flag. He pointed a pistol at me while calling me names and laughing with his friends. He didn’t shoot me, but in that moment I felt as though I was going to die. I didn’t want to walk home from school again, but due to our house’s proximity to it and my parents schedule, I had no other choice. I didn’t really have anyone to walk home with either. Again, my parents and I met with the school principal, and the incident was reported to police at the time it happened. As it turned out, his dad gave him the gun. Little, if anything, was done. He was back at my school before I graduated.
Around that time my home situation took a turn for the worse. My mother threw out clothes and makeup I had paid for by working a summer job. Though before they could be taken away, my dad did get the clothes out of the trash and returned them to me. I often thought about, and later attempted, suicide. My friend Sharron had turned a note into the school principal where I talked about wanting to end my life. If I wasn’t accepted and allowed to be who I was, I didn’t want to live. Depression was not new to me. It did not come from simply going through adolescence, or awkward teen years. It was the very real result of how I had been treated by the world around me, my peers, and even my parents.
When my mother would see me watching the rare times that there was anything about trans people on television, she’d run in and change the channel, usually while using slurs about “those people.” My mother lived in denial that I was one of “those people.” When I was little she once put a dry erase board on the door in my room with a Princess on it, which said, “You have to kiss a lot of toads before you meet your handsome prince.” That was her best attempt at accepting me. Failing that, she went fully in the other direction.
I felt shame and exclusion, unseen, unheard and universally marginalized. After the suicide note and attempt, my mom made me see a psychologist she chose. He was anything but helpful when I answered his questions about why I was depressed and suicidal. He didn’t understand and had no training in dealing with transgender people. I felt worse about myself after sessions with him, so I learned to say whatever it took to satisfy him and convince my mother that I no longer needed to see him.
I found solace by reading. One of the rare things about me that my mom was proud of was that I began reading at an early age and consistently read books several grade levels above other kids my age. I was generally a good student with good grades. I felt that I could learn more about myself and people like me if I could eventually find the right books. I also enjoyed reading for pure enjoyment, as an escape. A peaceful place I would go to read was Allegheny Observatory, which I could see out of my sister’s bedroom window, above the nearby Riverview Park. I would often sit on the steps reading science or science fiction books about space.
I was very interested in astronomy and science in general. After high school I attended a local community college, and the Astronomy 101 teacher told me that I already knew basic astronomy and only had to come to class for tests. He also asked me to help tutor the other students in my course, which I did. I only spent that one year in college due to my music career beginning to take off. Though I never went into astronomy, I’ve subsequently, in the last decade, taken online courses through the edX online learning platform. I’ve learned some astronomers have music as a hobby. I guess I have amateur astronomy as mine. Things like doing basic photometry, looking through lightcurves for exoplanets and eclipsing binaries from NASA’s TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) mission is relaxing. Yes, I’m a geek.
During that year in college I was kicked out of a band I helped start when I was in high school, due to the new lead vocalist being transphobic. I sold my guitar equipment and bought a digital/analog hybrid synthesizer, drum machine, and Atari 1040 STE computer and began experimenting with creating what in the early ’90s was called Breakbeat Hardcore, Jungle Techno, and so forth. Later I was able to afford an Ensoniq 12 bit sampler and my early sound was born.
At this time there was not the web or tutorials on making various genres of electronic dance music like there are today. We were literally just forming the techniques to create the sounds in our heads. We learned as we went along, some of us traded demo tapes or even 3.5” disks of patches and samples for sampling keyboards. On early ’90s internet email listservs and usenet groups, we would share tips about equipment and production techniques. Often we would create a new sound that nobody had ever heard before. Some of us inspired each other. There was a rave culture which formed at events, clubs, and record stores. And while that culture preached “PLUR” (Peace, Love, Unity and Respect) it didn’t necessarily live up to its ideals. Though I was one of the early US-based creators of Drum & Bass, transphobia within the scene led to promoters telling me I couldn’t be myself or I couldn’t play. Even with that restriction, a prominent Drum & Bass DJ from my city still actively told promoters not to book me because I was trans. Despite this, over the years of 1992–1995 I managed to rise above the prejudice to play many raves and eventually tour the world.
I had my first official release in 1995, which was a Drum & Bass remix of Blondie’s “Atomic” on EMI/Chrysalis Records. A year later, I was signed to the US Drum & Bass Label Liquid Sky Music/Jungle Sky Records. From there I released three albums, When Worlds Collide (1997), Quality Rolls (1998) and The Cities Collection (1999). As Drum & Bass began to peak in the US in the mid to late 90s, I was a top-selling Drum & Bass artist and had videos on MTV.
Behind the scenes, as I would learn just last year from the man who designed my logo and at the time was then a teenage intern at Liquid Sky’s offices, I was treated as a joke. Even having the banner with my Jordana website URL was met with criticism. “Who does she think she is that she needs her own logo?” As far as I know, in 1998, I was one of the first electronic artists in the US to have my own brand logo, but that didn’t make me a pioneer, more like a pariah among the Drum & Bass tastemakers and influencers who always held me at arms length at best, ignoring or outright criticizing me at worst. Ten years later it seemed like every EDM artist had their own logo, but I got grief because I chose to have my own brand, independent of a label I no longer trusted.
In the year 2000, during the Cities Collection tour stop in Kent, Ohio, I was brutally attacked and beaten in a transphobic hate crime in the parking lot of the venue while walking with the promoter to his car for a ride back to my hotel after performing. While being beaten and hearing slurs shouted at me and being told not to get up, I blacked out, and when I regained consciousness I heard the sounds of people shouting and running. During the attack a couple intervened right before the death blow. Had these two fans not stepped in to save me, or if I had somehow escaped, there reportedly was a lynch mob of multiple people waiting in a truck for me back at my hotel. Instead, I survived and a warrant was issued for Matthew Gostlin, the ringleader of the group. It was never served nor did my attacker see a day in court or any time in jail. Not long after the attack someone who claimed to have been his girlfriend said on a rave email list that he told her if given the chance he’d “finish the job.”
Ohio had no hate crimes legislation, and the police recorded the incident as “simple assault” and dragged their feet in doing anything about apprehending him. We were told they didn’t know where he was, so my family went so far as to hire a private investigator who provided police with the addresses he was living at, and still nothing was done. As of last summer he still jokes and brags about what he did to me on Facebook. I have yet to see justice.
As a result of the violence that night, I suffered permanent nerve damage to my head and face. I also suffer from major PTSD and trauma. Every day I am reminded of it because if I eat alone in public I have to check myself in a compact mirror to make sure something isn’t stuck to my lips or lower face. I do not feel anything from my lips down to the top of my neck, which among other things means I will never feel kisses on my lips again. As bad as that is, things could have ended much worse.
From that night in 2000, the trajectory of my life changed. After the swelling in my face had gone down, I tried to return to work, but my record label was still upset that I cancelled the tour and wasn't helpful. Apparently because of my need to have extra security to tour (not an unusual ask for artists and other public figures, especially ones who had previously been threatened or attacked), I was deemed a “liability” and with a lack of bookings or record label, it was now much easier for the music industry to totally ignore me.
But beyond healing from the attack and worrying about my career I was most concerned with being able to afford the SRS (sex reassignment surgery) as it was called then, which I had scheduled years prior for what was then only 5 months after the attack. I was able to fly out to have the procedure, but what should have been one of the happiest times in my life was scarred by a racist nurse who wouldn’t change the drains from my surgical site. To his credit, the surgeon fired her after hearing about this from myself and another nurse, but I did suffer complications from it. So I spent late summer/early fall recovering from that as well.
I was looked at as “difficult” just because I insisted on not being misgendered or deadnamed in interviews. Despite having changed my professional name in 1998 from the numerical name I had previously used to my legal name Jordana, the record label released my third album with the numerical name prominently featured and Jordana in a tiny font. This was the opposite of the compromise we had agreed to when they balked at me not using the numerical name at all. In addition to the numerical name feeling like a deadname, it was also one I had no rights to, as my contract with Liquid Sky stated that they owned my “name and likeness.” My label then sold the rights to my old music to the Orchard and I never saw any income from that due to an exploitative contract. Most of the Drum & Bass scene was fairly toxic and wouldn’t let me move on or actually heal in any way. On Drum & Bass forums such as Dogs on Acid, some people went out of their way to antagonize me. One person made a “joke” about genitals when referring to an incident in which he sexually assaulted me.
Seeing no justice and fearing for my safety and with my attacker still free and making threats, I wanted to start over somewhere I felt safer. I took what little money I had and moved to London, living under a different name. While there I began playing Garage/2 Step and had a regular show on a London pirate radio station as my garage music alias, “Lady J.” I even did a set with a young MC named Lady Sovereign when she asked to be on my show. My best friend in London was helping her make connections, so we gave her the opportunity to showcase her skills. (You can hear a low-fi copy of that set on my Lady J SoundCloud). Through that show I also gained a residency at a popular club in Vauxhall.
I was deported from England while returning from visiting my family for Thanksgiving. They said they thought I was at risk of overstaying my visa and that my government was doing the same to UK citizens in the wake of travel restrictions imposed after 9/11. Being forced to return to the US, now totally broke and having to move back into my parents house in Pittsburgh (which is not far from the scene of my assault in Ohio) was devastating.
Prior to leaving the US I had a single release on a small Florida based Drum & Bass label called Technorganic who provided me with an Emu sampler after a fan/stalker pawned $30,000 of my studio/equipment which was in storage near Tampa. (The Tampa Tantrum single was inspired by that incident). Like my assailant, he too never spent a day in jail despite the police finding the pawn receipts in the looted storage unit. His parents lived in Sarasota and had money. I used that sampler to make the albums Full Colour and a demo of what would have been my 5th album, Numerology. These albums were created in poverty while I was doing survival work to pay rent.
In 2006 I moved to Seattle after visiting a friend. It was about as far as I could get away from where my attacker was living. I got to watch the rise of electronic music in the US as a depressed spectator who had been abused and abandoned by the scene I had, in a small way, helped to build. I dropped off mix CDs at local clubs and record stores but got no response. It was as if I never existed. Starting out as an American playing UK Garage in London was easier than getting booked in Seattle. I still continued to produce music on whatever I had access to and sometimes posted tracks to Soundcloud.
In 2008 I was able to begin DJing again as everything had gone digital. Since I had nowhere to DJ in real life I began doing sets in the virtual world Second Life. A fan also created my Facebook artist page during that year. In 2011 I first learned from a fan posting on my page that someone named Bassnectar had stolen a huge chunk of the track “5 A.M. Rinse,” the last track on my first album When Worlds Collide. Basically he took the entire intro build and time stretched it to slow the tempo down for his single “Here We Go” which gets its title from the phrase shouted by my MC (it was a live recording) on my track. So while I was living in poverty in 2010, he was making money off of my work and in subsequent years of me trying to contact him about it only responded when an attorney got involved in 2014. As of today, I still have not been properly compensated for what he did.
One of the most important things for a musical artist to be successful/relevant is the volume of music released. Just as I was trying to somehow ramp up the amount of my work, me learning about his theft of my early work took away a lot of my motivation. I still somehow managed to write the four tracks you hear on the Resistencia E.P. 2014–2020. Compared to the cadence of my work in the ’90s, that’s miniscule, and the result of exploitation.
Over the last decade a new generation has learned about my music and life through features on sites such as AfroPunk and For Harriet which in 2014 included me in an article titled “12 Women in Black Music History You Should Know.” In 2014 I scored the documentary Free Cece! produced by Laverne Cox and Jacqueline Gares, which tells the story of Cece McDonald, a black transgender woman who had been wrongly imprisoned for defending herself during a transphobic hate crime.
Mixmag named me as one of “20 Women Who Shaped the History of Dance Music” in 2015, and there was a lot of buzz about me potentially returning. It was wonderful to be wanted again, but I was totally unprepared for the new interest. Without a manager or proper assistant to handle requests and now living in isolation and poverty in a small town south of Seattle, there was little chance of me making my way back without a lot of help. Due to the pressure of wanting to help me return and having made promises to help me do so if I “just got back in the studio” once people started contacting me again, my boyfriend had a psychological breakdown when he realized he was completely incapable of following through on what he promised, and he left me. I couldn’t deal with anything, I had a barely working, aging computer to produce on and my life was falling apart. I developed hypertension and I was about to get evicted because only my ex-boyfriend’s name was on the lease as a tenant, and I had no reliable means of income. I fell deeper into depression and I withdrew further, leaving all social media for mental health reasons.
It is great that in 2020 things shifted a little and people started to care about my work again as part of broader support for Black trans lives, but let’s be honest, my mental and physical health isn’t what it should be anymore, because my life took a toll. The mental healthcare system in the US, particularly in my state of Washington, has told me they are too busy (understandable due to the pandemic), or told me to rely on a friend for support, and that’s it. Despite contacting dozens of “woke,” “progressive,” “trans,” and “bipoc” therapists in my state, I’ve received nothing but denials. Rejection when you need help most is one of the worst feelings in the world.
Though I have been active again both in producing and DJing, and though I returned to social media last year in the wake of the death of George Floyd, people often confuse working productively with being alright, physically and mentally. Trust me, I would love to return to touring again someday after the pandemic. And somehow I feel as though many of you can finally understand some of what I’ve been through, having just gone through the last year, socially isolating, working virtually and wondering when things might return to “normal.” Imagine a decade of that, rather than a year. That’s what I’ve been through.
For those who have offered to help lately, I see you. I am especially thankful to people who have supported me over the past year. Many people in the past have had “good intentions,” and left things off worse or ghosted me. As of the writing of this article in 2021, a fan I trusted, the man who had created and helped run my Facebook fan page since 2008 had a mental health episode himself and on the Trans Day of Visibility made me a lot less visible when he deleted my page causing me to lose over 14k in followers, years of work, images, scans of old flyers from events I performed at and content right before a big DJ mix was due.
Just yesterday my Trump-supporting neighbor decided to cut down a tree against the power company’s advice and it came down and took out the electricity to my home while I was trying to record a mix for the Dekmantel Podcast series. Luckily, my late submission was still accepted and was Resident Advisor’s “Mix of the Day” for Wednesday April 7, 2021.
Other than rare victories such as the one mentioned above, each day is a battle for me. I know I am not the only person who struggles. But I’ve felt as though my entire life has been an endless struggle for multiple reasons and it is hard not to turn the anger over that inward. It is hard not to look at yourself as the problem when that is how you’ve been treated by family or presented by ’90s music media. I’ll never forget the title of my cover story for Mixmag in 1998 after I gave an interview explaining that I was trans: “Can the Rave Scene Handle It?” My sister Celeste used to have to remind my mom that “Jordana’s a person, not a problem.”
I could have used more of that sentiment in the Drum & Bass and broader ’90s electronic music scene. I wish I could say a lot has changed, but today I have to constantly remind myself that, yes, I’m a person, not a problem, just to keep going. I haven’t thought of self harm this much since my teen years. I know how bad that sounds, but I’m just being real with you. One of my regrets of the last decade was that it took me 10 years to finally let myself know I wasn’t ok. Though I strive to heal, that is in no way assured.
So if you are wondering why I may not make the best work, or why the Resistencia EP isn’t mastered, or the full album isn’t out yet, I’ve had a lot to deal with and very little support until very recently. I constantly try to improve but I have never been the best engineer or producer, nor have I felt those were my strongest abilities. I didn’t come from a DJ background, as many of my peers did. I know that’s a strange thing to say in a genre which seemed for much of its history to be mostly about DJ culture, cutting edge engineering, and production. The musical ideas will always be there, I have never lacked inspiration and ideas. I’ve only lacked resources, outside help and support from many of my peers.
Despite that, I am still here. For now. I am still fighting erasure. Despite the journalistic accolades I've received, I never was able to get my social accounts verified by Facebook or Twitter. It seems as though I am still at the risk of being erased, just as I was left out of documentaries about Drum & Bass in the US. I made the Resistencia EP for my fans, almost as a final show of strength against all of the things I’ve had to deal with, and I do intend to complete the album. While I am my own worst critic, while it won’t be perfect, it will be my best album ever, especially if I get help mixing/mastering it. The first four tracks on it were actually just created as tech demos to get interest from potential labels. We’ll see what happens.
I can imagine to many reading this it may sound like I’m only complaining, but this is my story, and as much as I wish it were not, my music and my trauma are completely intertwined. The fabric of my life is stitched together through amazingly positive and tragically negative threads. Music itself turned from being a refuge from trauma to being the source of it. For those of you out there who still have my back, I thank you.
I’d love to heal, but it’s going to take a lot, and each day brings a new challenge working against my own progress. It’s good that people want me to DJ for them again, and I am happy to make mixes, but it’s work. And few want to pay. So sure, maybe the music industry is starting to show tiny bits of change now, and I’ll get to see other people who are like me not taking the level of disrespect that I did and do take to this day, simply for wanting to change my deadname or approve my press pack. My entire life, I’ve asked for nothing but parity, and because of that I get called “difficult” or “too much” by people who were supposed to be looking out for me.
I’ve said this before, but one does not exist at the intersection of being a Black Trans Woman in Drum & Bass without taking knocks, but after a while a person gets tired of creating and getting nothing but broken promises and bad mouthed in return. I do the work, and do my best, and I don’t think it’s “being difficult” to expect the same treatment as my peers in the industry. I’ll be the first to criticize my skills, but I’ve done everything on my own. No one ghost writes my tracks. I don’t have a star engineer production partner. I’m not part of a duo. But I do strive to continue improving. I’ve played all my guitars, done all my own drums, tracked my own vocals, shown my programming ability, I’m on social media, you can always reach me.
I never wanted to fight this fight. I was born into it. I just wanted to make music, have joy, learn about science, do my thing, and not fight daily just for survival against an entire system; but that is my reality or at least how I perceive it. The fact of the matter is, all I ever wanted was a husband, a family, and peace of mind, the same things that many women expect and want.
Each day that I’m here in this existence is an act of defiance against those who would rather see me, and people like me, dead. At the beginning of my career I was always excited when people offered me interviews. The world felt like it had some promise. Now my story is so intertwined with tragedy it can feel intense to talk about it on top of the already uncomfortable state I find myself living in today.
Let us live. I can’t speak for all trans women but I’m often asked to speak, regardless of how many interviews I’ve given, it’s assumed that I have to continuously educate people by revisiting my trauma. At some point, I’d love to just be able to do an interview about music. I know I’m likely too much for many people, which is why I tend to be rather quiet. However, I won’t be silenced regarding my truth. Some may dismiss my childhood dreams of being loved, growing up and marrying a husband, having a music career, and perhaps raising an adopted child as cis-het–normative and etc., but to me, reading through that old diary today, they were simple dreams not unlike others written by girls my age at the time, regardless of whether they were cisgender or trans.
I don’t know if I have any dreams anymore. It feels too hard to form new ones when your old ones were torn to shreds through hate and theft of work, and I am still dealing with processing that. If I can heal I can dream again, but I also recognize that the existence I imagined as a child may never be possible for me. I can only hope that other Black trans women, and all LGBTQ+ people, are allowed the opportunity to find joy. My Black girl magic may get me through, but I’m going to need a lot of support and love along the way.