A monthly series profiling cutting-edge creators of all stripes with ties to Montreal.
Performing the self – free of compromise or inhibitions – has always come naturally to Ellise Barbara. Weaned on the earworm-ready pop of Mariah Carey, Boy George and their ilk, Côte-des-Neiges’s exuberant diva of the DIY was already wearing dresses and brazenly rejecting cisgender, heteronormative structures at a young age. A self-trained singer-songwriter who first hit the stage as part of Jef and the Holograms before flying solo as Jef Barbara, her first releases oscillated between glamorous disco-funk and slow-burning new wave. Long before black trans identity was something mainstream media so much as mentioned, this genre-warping balladeer was blazing a sensuous, synth-laden musical trail for others to follow.
Since moving back to Montréal from Paris a few years ago, Ellise has been on a self-imposed musical hiatus, giving herself the space to transition, recover from surgery, take on community work and rethink her artistic practice and aesthetics altogether. She’s formed a band entirely made up of musicians of Sub-Saharan descent, The Black Space, while organizing vogue balls (the first of which was held at last year’s Suoni Per Il Popolo) and hosting a series of Shemale Reprezent parties alongside other transfeminine DJs of colour. On the recording front, she also has a forthcoming project with "a famous French singer". In a nutshell, our jane of all trades has been one busy gal.
When we meet up at a popular haunt of Montreal’s indie music scene, Ellise immediately explains why she didn’t want this interview to take place at her apartment (where most of Phi Centre’s artist profiles occur): "I tend to be hoarder," she sums up with a smile. Since we wouldn’t be introduced to her home environment, I ask Ellise to bring along an object or memento that holds particular meaning to her. Little did we know, the spellbound (literally) piece of jewelry she chose would set in motion a string of misfortunes, the most dramatic of which being a bandmate dropping out of The Black Space the very next day. "I’ve had two major misfortunes in one day following the ring manipulation," she explains when we meet up again days later. "I’m convinced that’s the work of the ring," she adds, reaching into her coat pocket only to realize, "oh wow, it’s still on me." Witchy hunches notwithstanding, Ellise and I spoke about weaving together Black culture with futuristic themes, how the art and music economies are markedly different and why her musical output has long been a form of queer transgression.
Let’s start with the memento you brought along for the interview. What’s the significance of this ring?
This ring was given to me by a former suitor, whom I discovered was into voodoo. It has a spell of his on it. I know it’s a thing they do in a lot of voodoo traditions – they’ll cast a spell on an object, usually jewelry, and get you to wear it, without informing you of course. It’s like the ring in Lord of the Rings. I feel a certain pull towards it. I’m not going to wear it obviously, because there’s a spell on it, but I also can’t part with it. It’s attracted to me, but I also find it pretty. I want to wear it.
Do you know what kind of spell this suitor might have cast on you?
I can’t believe I’m getting into this, but the thing with voodoo is that transgender folks and a lot of people who don’t conform to gender norms are thought of as being possessed by the spirit of a goddess who brings a lot of wealth and good fortune. So I’m aware I can be perceived as a purveyor of that. What he really wanted was to put that ring on my finger so he could be in Goddess Ursule’s [Ed’s Note: goddess of love in Voodoo tradition] good fortunes. You shouldn’t mess with the spirits. Having gone through the ordeal of wearing this ring for 1+ year, let me tell you: the universe is powerful and you don’t want to mess with it.
Since the release of your last album, 2013’s Soft To The Touch, you’ve not only transitioned but have also gotten involved in important activism work. Can you tell me about Taking What We Need?
Our prime objective as a grassroots organization is to empower trans feminine people through discretionary funding. We throw fun fundraisers in order to funnel the money back into self-identified, low-income trans femmes who apply through our Facebook page. We’ve given away thousands of dollars since our inception in 2015. The idea was rooted in knowing that the government doesn’t cover most surgeries normally associated with transitioning other than bottom surgery. If you need to feminize your face, for instance, and facial hair removal or renewing your wardrobe. There are so many aspects of transitioning that we considered important. For a while, as I was transitioning, I did a lot of activism-type work. It helped me ground myself as a trans woman. I initially had a lot of hesitations about calling myself that, which may have been about feeling like I wouldn’t pass, or that people would try to take away my trans woman-ness. But doing that work grounded me. So I’ve been getting involved more on a community level, although my egotistical artistic practice is still very dear to me.
Do you feel we’ve made important strides in the media discourse around gender identity and sexuality since you started putting out music?
I’m glad for identity politics that have emerged from university campuses. A lot of people whose work is steeped in gender and ethnic studies have disseminated on a more mainstream level a lot of information seeking to empower people who are normally at a disadvantage. I find that information so far has only reached privileged spheres, but still, I’m glad we’re talking and thinking about all these things now. I remember, when I was just starting out in music, being constantly surrounded by cis[gender] het[erosexual] white men, and having certain observations about how we were all conditioned to think about music in ways that were prescribed by publications written by cis het white men. So one could easily posit that one’s experience in relation to class, wealth, sexual orientation and identity could inform one’s view on a cultural product.
Your work has always been steeped in rebellion and transgression of such norms. Starting with the fact you’re a black artist who expresses herself in a way that doesn’t neatly fit into the token R&B or hip-hop boxes.
My work has always been informed by both the underground and the mainstream. Early on, I felt that perhaps my performance style and the fact I was gender-variant weren’t deemed acceptable, and it also wasn’t projecting the self-erased queerness that an artist like Frank Ocean presents. In a way, that’s very acceptable. It’s not too flamboyant and is also steeped in black tradition. Frank Ocean is a black singer who sings romantic R&B songs, but I wasn’t so much doing that. My whole thing wasn’t easy to box into any one of those classifiers. I was doing these synth-y tracks, then a song with a power-pop band. I did a little R. Stevie Moore. I was sort of standing all over the place.
The fact you’ve always sung in both French and English was probably an additional provocation for those same audiences.
Totally. The French, the unattractive queerness, the defiance. Try to think of another queer or trans black singer who doesn’t sing ballroom or vogue-y R&B stuff and who has this DIY aesthetic. Not to toot my own horn, there might be another one like me out there, but we weren’t many. Now I’m thinking people may be coming around. I’ve had an increasing number of people reach out recently, even though I haven’t put much effort into developing my profile as a singer. The last few years have mainly been focused on my transition, being involved on a community level, and organizing a few things here and there. But people make offers and ask me if I want to play, perhaps because they want to check three minority boxes. While people weren’t attuned to that before, now they’re into it. Or maybe it’s just a sign of the times, being more inclined towards the visibility of minorities.
You’re about to present Elle’s Black Space Mission, your biggest, most ambitious and holistic musical project yet. How did you develop the concept of an Afrodiasporic odyssey?
The initial idea arose from the realization that my band Black Space, which is made up of musicians of sub-Saharan descent, was a kind of a safe artistic space where we get to share blackness as a common trait – where it’s not diluted by the presence of non-blacks, which you see a lot of in non-hip-hop bands. So the fact that we’re called The Black Space and that we’re going to be in that theatre box at the MAI, which is literally a black space, evokes thoughts of being in outer space, which looks black. So I thought of writing something along the lines of me leading my crew on intergalactic travels. I co-wrote the script with a musician and curator friend of mine, James Goddard. The end result will be a rock concert with elements of performance. There will be prerecorded dialogue as well and multimedia carried out by Navid Navab by way of high-powered projections. We’re also having a spaceship built, which will be the only actual prop on stage. This show is the combination of months of thought processes and the sum of diverse interests of mine.
It’s also giving you the opportunity to make a full-throttle entrance into the art world, after dipping your toes in it for some time. What has that experience been like?
Honestly, so amazing. I’ve been looking to slowly move away from the music world, which I find has been contaminated. You go to music rooms and people are straight-up there to talk. The advent and popularity of DIY and indie aesthetics at the turn of the millennium has made music venues spaces that people flock to, but mostly to socialize. As one would in a bar or a nightclub, where people express themselves through dance or beauty, getting dolled up or showing off your big muscles, I find music venues have become environments where the more cerebral, less "alpha" people can’t see themselves. I say this as someone who still curates shows and has ties with music festivals I very much appreciate. But in many ways, the music room has become a garbage of socialization, talk and pretensions.
And by distancing yourself from music venue culture, you’re also hoping to fend off those careless audiences?
Well, it’s sad, but the current DIY-slash-indie rock-slash-whathaveyou music venue space, which I hoped would carry a certain element of respect and reverence, has been violated. You see all these people going to shows and not giving two fucks about the artists. I can’t say that I’m interested in being a part of that. In addition to that, the art world has a totally different type of economy. This upcoming show has a budget that far surpasses any money I’ve received to play shows, so it’s a pretty big deal for me. Not only is it a different economy where the artist is more esteemed and respected, but perhaps it’s perceived as being more rare, as opposed to bands who pop up on the circuit every week. And there’s an element of reverence in the art world when you think of museums and galleries (outside of vernissage contexts), where people are more respectful of what is shown. So they tend to be more invested in admiring, listening and having moments of silence.
Elle’s Black Space Mission: An Afrodiasporic Odyssey premieres April 20 and 21 at the MAI.
Interview and photos by Michael-Oliver Harding