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New York Artist Torraine Futurum Tackles Systematic Oppression on Transgressive Debut Album

New York Artist Torraine Futurum Tackles Systematic Oppression on Transgressive Debut Album

Torraine Futurum
Lia Clay

"Trust that any black person working in any professional setting is working four times as hard as the white person standing next to them, just to be seen as equally competent."

"No one can save you," warns New York-based artist/model Torraine Futurum, who's spent the past three years creating a multimedia series, Transgression: A Self Centered Art Project, that orbits around her personal quest for finding "earth-shattering love"--something she admits is addictive, but ultimately unrealistic.

Futurum's project dissects her experience as a trans femme, intimately documenting the changes she's undergone--both physically and mentally--by addressing everything from depression to systematic oppression, abuse to betrayal. The series first touched on these topics visually, through transformative self-portraits, video installations and wall art, but more recently with a full-length concept album, Colonial.

The debut LP was written and performed by Futurum, featuring original instrumentals she created on various iPhone apps before collaborator Alex Freedom came on board to oversee vocal production. With lyrics pulled from saved voice memos and old journal entries, Colonial is a raw, vulnerable effort, wrestling with Futurum's innermost battles, as well as those fought every day against the outside world.

Transgression sees the self-declared "Black Panther Barbie" revealing herself in a way her modeling career never has, in the past embodying the different visions of various NYC designers for Fashion Week runways. Here, Futurum is in full control as the designer of her own voice and public message, because in a society when no one can truly save you, as Futurum suggests, it's safest to be in control of your own narrative.

Listen to Colonial in full and learn more about Transgression: A Self Centered Art Project, below

You began working on Transgression in 2014 and finally released material little by little in 2015. What made you start this venture?

[Transgression] started as a pretty vain project to document my physical transition. It's not the most groundbreaking thing, but it quickly evolved into a project that documented my changing, and often tumultuous, mental state. There was a lot going on around me during the time I was doing this series. I was dealing with the death of someone I had a symbiotic relationship with for 7 years, [and] it was the catalyst for a lot of displacement and shifting relationships in my life. I changed, the people around me changed (or at least my view of them did) and things got really messy.

How did Transgression help you cope with this experience?

Transgression became my quest to be truly understood and loved, but ultimately fill this hole. I spent a long time looking for the next earth-shattering love to save me, but as I say on the song "Superman," and reference on "Lovely," #NoOneCanSaveYou. The digital 2-D art from Transgression was me trying to be coy and subtle about my feelings, [but] this album, Colonial, is about me being overtly obvious about it. A main theme I touch on a lot in my work is love: the most elusive and addictive drug out there. The other key themes are mental health, depression and systematic oppression.

Have you always been interested in creating music?

I started thinking about music years ago--probably since 2013. Whenever I've worked on other art projects, I always made Spotify playlists to inspire me during conception [and] power me through production. They were carefully curated 10 to 15-track sets that had a story and uniform vocal sounds. I took them very seriously [and] thought of these playlists as blueprints for if I ever made an album. Making an album was always in the back of my head, but I had lots of limitations that I imagined. I had no experience in music creation and thought I had to have the vocal range of Whitney Houston or my story was invalid. It put me off for a while, but I kept writing melodic musings in my journal [and] having emotional breakthroughs talking to the voice memos in my phone. A lot of lyrics on this album have existed for years in my phone or journal.

How does Colonial fit into Transgression as its final installment?

In fall 2016, I started to plan the final installment of Transgression, [and] wanted to present new wall art and interactive video content. In the process of planning the show, I decided I wanted to create an original soundtrack for the night of the show that could be downloaded and would be part of Transgression. It was just spatial art rock soundscapes mixed with recited passages from my journals and a sprinkling of singing, but the concept of finally working on music was so exciting to me that I decided to dive all in and make it the focal point. It's the last thing I have to say before closing the book.


Lia Clay

What was the production process like for creating Colonial?

It was a very self-contained project [that] started with a story board for the album. I wanted it to be very cohesive [and for] every song to be integral to the story, so I started mapping out every point I needed to hit on to tell a comprehensive story arc about the last 3 years of my life. After I had the story board done, I spent two weeks working on instrumentals [and] I'm proud to say that all the instrumental work was done on different iPhone applications. I never touched a computer until I started recording vocals. This is where my talented friend Alex Freedom came into the picture. He helped elevate Colonial to the next level. I was planning to run through vocals in one shot, like a live performance and leave them raw, but Alex helped me slow way down [to] find my own voice when I was trying to sing like other people. He dedicated so much of his time to making sure this worked.

How does your music career differ from your modeling career?

Modeling is different because I'm not in creative control, usually. A model is supposed to help the creative team's vision come to life. You're there to embody a mood [and] vision that's been laid out for you, and I think that's great because I love being interpreted by different artists and seeing different possibilities for myself. However, I'm in complete control of my art projects, including this album. I know exactly what I want to convey, and I was not in model mode when working on the album. Models don't talk publicly the way I do on "Bloodbath" or "Self Centered" or "Black Girl." That's why it's so important for me to have value outside of modeling. I want to be acknowledged as more than a malleable, pretty image.

Why did you open Colonial with "Savage?"

I start the album with the song "Savage," which includes the famous JFK inauguration speech about where he says we should "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Hearing those words in 2017 as a black trans woman in America sets the tone for the dissonance between self and society that looms over the whole album--the idea that I'm a woman looking out into the world saying, "These societal structures are broken" and those structures looking back at me are saying, "No, you're the one who's broken." Colonial speaks to the colonized and colonizers. Both have radically different perspectives of what's actually happening.

Why did you close Colonial with "Black Girl?"

["Black Girl"] comes from all the frustrations of my intersecting identities--of all the things that require black women and black femmes to be deemed "respectable." It talks about the frustrations of working in the same spaces as our white contemporaries [and] outperforming them just to go unrecognized or valued less. Trust that any black person working in any professional setting is working four times as hard as the white person standing next to them, just to be seen as equally competent. If a black person is being acknowledged as excellent or the best in their field, it's because they've worked themselves to death--damn near pushed themselves to the breaking point. That's true whether you're working at Starbucks or the United States Senate. I ended on it because it'll always be universally true [and] I think my "Black Girl" ending is a response to the "Savage" opening.

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