On a dark Sunday night, I arrive at The Record Co., an inconspicuous studio that sits just down the street from Boston’s infamous Methadone Mile. Eziah Blake, known by his stage name as the Black Bear Extraordinaire, is practicing the C Major scale to warm up his vocal chords. Once done, he slides into the booth and stands behind the microphone, awaiting instruction from his engineer. When he’s cued, Blake begins to sing.
Blake, 28, is recording original music for his upcoming mixtape, a culmination of his residency with The Theater Offensive, a Boston based LGBTQ youth theater troupe. An emotive melange of songwriting and spoken word, Blake’s project traces the lines of his black and trans identity and explores the points where those lines intersect. “This mixtape is about the things that impact my life,” Blake said. “It’s about love, race, gender and sex.”
The act of sharing his voice with others has been fraught with fear and insecurity. Blake, who is trans and uses the pronouns he and them interchangeably, has a long and complicated relationship with his voice. “The first time I ever sang on stage was in 2013,” he said. “I would always look at the ground, I would never look out into the audience.” Blake described this as a symptom of his desire “to not be seen.”
Blake began singing at the tender age of 6. But despite his affinity for music, this is the first time that he’s ever recorded his music and his voice. “I had to do a lot of work to be comfortable being seen and also to be comfortable sharing my voice,” he told WBUR.
For most artists, finding their artistic voice can be a puzzling journey. But for trans artists like Blake, that path is layered with the nuances of gender identity and how those are perceived in a culture that normalizes and perpetuates transphobia through policy. Blake’s tenuous relationship with his music didn’t necessarily stem from his own discomfort but with the discomfort he felt in how he’d be perceived by others.
“I think a lot of that [discomfort] has to do with my identity as a trans person and sort of thinking about what I sound like when I sing,” Blake explained. “And whether my voice sounds feminine or masculine… and what people think about when they hear that.”
While Massachusetts enjoys a progressive reputation in a liberal state, homophobia and transphobia seemingly remain stubborn tenants in New England culture. A study conducted by The Boston Foundation and The Fenway Institute shows that in Massachusetts more young people self-identify as LGBTQ now than in previous generations. However, 80 percent of queer and trans people of color in Massachusetts report experiencing discrimination.
Much of Blake’s previous and current activism work is centered around protecting and nourishing the LGBTQ community in Massachusetts. Recently, Blake worked with Planned Parenthood on their Gender Affirming Hormone Therapy Campaign, an initiative to increase access and lower barriers for trans and gender non-conforming people seeking hormones. He attributes his ability to make music to his work in the activism community. “It really prepared me for public speaking and telling my coming out story,” said Blake. “I think that was the first time that I was comfortable talking to people about who I was.”
This mixtape sits at the praxis of Blake’s activism and his personal artistry but it isn’t necessarily an exploration of his identity — it's a cementing of that identity. He points out that his music is a way for him to share his voice as a trans person in hopes that others who listen are able to connect with his messages of self love and body-positivity.
One of the spoken word pieces included in the project is “Ode To My Body,” a poem that reflects on the popular narrative that trans people feel as though they were born in the wrong body. “That’s not necessarily the case for all trans people,” Blake emphasized. “For myself, I don’t feel like I was born in the wrong body. The body that I’m in is the body that’s been with me my entire life... It’s like your body is on this journey with you.”
Although our culture tries its best to convince him otherwise, Blake doesn’t wish for another body, just as he doesn’t wish for another voice. By laying claim to his artistry and to his music, Blake hopes that his mixtape conveys the need for self acceptance for those burdened by the weight of societal expectations.
Eziah Blake will perform his mixtape at the Black Indian Inn, 38 Bicknell St. in Dorchester on Friday, Nov. 9 at 7 p.m.
This segment aired on November 9, 2018.