“Where words fail, music speaks.” The memorable quote from Hans Christian Andersen only begins to skim the surface of the importance of music in life, and specifically in the queer community.
Music is a platform for the expression of so many aspects of human nature: love, anger, resilience, and revolution, just to name a few. Although I bet almost anyone can point to a time where music was pivotal in their development. I’d argue that music has impacted marginalized communities in a significantly deeper manner.
Historically, music has played a major role in the LGBTQ community. From Bowie and Queen to the Indigo Girls and Tegan and Sara, music has given rise to social and political movements that continue to challenge cultural norms we experience today.
Not only is music an avenue through which queer people connect, speak, and organize, but it also can be life-changing or even life-saving to individuals fighting their own battles. This is what makes music so crucial to the LGBTQ community. It means so many different things to so many people, yet there seems to be a trend among experiences: we would not be the same without music.
The Musiq Scene series is dedicated to shedding light on LGBTQ individuals in music – not only to highlight their contributions to the queer and music scenes, but also to better understand how music has contributed to their process, development, and success.
Our first feature is Michelle Raymond, Folk/Americana/Singer-Songwriter from Chester, Virginia. Initially starting her career in the D.C. metropolitan area, Michelle has since traveled the world, her passion for music and LGBTQ advocacy in tow. She now lives in Madrid, Spain, and recently aired a TedX Talk on her music and finding herself.
When/how did you first become involved in music?
For my second birthday, I asked for a guitar. Lucky for me, my uncle Robert got a kick out of this, and later that day, he drove to a local music store and picked me up my first instrument – a miniature acoustic guitar. I used to run around the house, jumping off couches and stairs with my guitar, pretending to be a rock star like the ones I saw on television.
Who/what is your inspiration and why?
I credit acoustic guitar folk star Melissa Etheridge for my inspiration at an early age. My mom is a huge Melissa fan, and back when cassette players were a thing (90s kids, GTS), I was belting out some Melissa Etheridge tunes from the back of the car like you wouldn’t believe. I idolized her music so much, I taught myself how to sing by mimicking her voice. Sometimes my music draws comparisons to her, and it is honestly the biggest compliment I could ever receive.
What do you hope to achieve as an artist?
Honestly, I think almost every artist dreams of “making it big.” I cannot tell you the rush of adrenaline I get from being on stage. It is the most incredible feeling in the world. Imagine if Beyoncé personally handed you a gift basket of pizzas, season tickets to Ellen, your favorite bottle of wine, and a personalized autographed family photo of the Obamas. This is what it feels like every time I get on stage.
Why is music important to the queer community?
Music speaks to people in many ways. The one thing I truly believe in when it comes to creating a song is being authentic, whether that means being true about a particular event that has happened in your life, sharing your darkest moments, or even just being honest about the gender of your love. In the end, music is a two-way street: How the artist connects with the song and the experience the listener has while hearing it. Most likely, what an artist has gone through in order to produce a song was something very real. If a queer artist is able to express themselves in a way that relates to the listener, then they have done a remarkable thing. For me, the best songs have come out of the truths I have told.
Did music play an integral role in your coming out? If yes, how so?
I really love telling this story. When I was in college, I was invited by one of my only gay friends to join them at a lesbian bar in my hometown. At that moment, I wasn’t out to my family or the majority of my friends. To our surprise, the bar was hosting a battle of the bands that night. The emcee made an announcement that one of the bands had dropped out, so I decided to ask to fill the spot with a few acoustic songs. Before I know it, a 6’2 drag queen pulls me on stage, shoves a bouquet of sunflowers in my arms and the cameras start flashing. I have no idea what is happening and she grabs the microphone and says, “So Michelle! Tell us, are you a bagel?!” Let me remind you: I’m a baby gay at this point and have no idea what on earth she is talking about, so in an effort to save myself I retort, “Umm..yeah, let’s get toasted!” The place goes crazy and the judges offer their congratulations on my victory.
Three days later, I got a call from my best friend Kristina asking me why my photo was in the newspaper next to the headline, “Michelle Raymond Wins Gay Pride Virginia’s Battle of the Bands Contest.” Shortly thereafter came the radio announcements, posters around Richmond, and more newspaper ads. By the end of the week I had received more phone calls than you can imagine – word travels fast in small town America. I thought about how I should respond to everyone. Do I lie? Say I’m an ally? Make up some story? But in the end I decided it was time to face the music. So there you have it, music didn’t play an integral role in my coming out, it literally outed me.
Given challenges facing our country and community, in your opinion, what is most needed for the queer community now? How can the music scene further that goal?
To echo words said before, LGBTQ rights are human rights, period. The queer community has done an outstanding job over the past couple of decades championing equality by changing laws, perceptions, and combating discrimination. Even with new challenges underway, I don’t see the queer community backing down anytime soon. The momentum is growing and with each new day, it feels like we are getting one step closer to our goal. I’ve had the utmost privilege performing on the Capital Pride Main Stage for the last seven years in a row. I have never once accepted money for this performance spot. I donate my performance fees because I truly believe that money can be better served helping the queer community and everything we stand for. Music can help inspire us, drive us, and uplift spirits when times seem dark. One of the simplest yet important roles an artist can play is to motivate people to get up on their feet and keep moving.