“I know all these girls wear wigs, but let me tell you about bundles,” asserts Chicago-based artist Cae Monae in a low, booming tenor, as she slowly emerges onto stage at Boystown’s Berlin nightclub. Her face is completely shielded by gothic black lace, her body draped in layers of dark billowing fabric; she’d look almost like a soul-sucking Dementor if it weren’t for her technicolor braided locks that practically scrape the dance floor when she walks.
As the riotous sound of Cakes Da Killa’s Saint-produced “Saki Bomb” begins shaking speakers, Monae gets on her hands and knees, violently thrashing those bundles in a circular motion as if her neck isn’t limited by bone. I grab her purse to open up space on the cramped stage, as wide-eyed spectators douse her in fluttering dollar bills. “You’re lucky you grabbed that bag because I was about to dig out my paint,” she later admits, threatening the potential of splattering her audience with corner store children’s acrylic as a grand finale.
Fearless, genuine and beautifully unaffected, Monae is a rare gem in the midwestern queer community, lending a Black trans perspective to an otherwise homogenous white-laced scene. Whether she’s wreaking havoc on the 2 am streets of Pilsen in a blue glitter face—bottle of Svedka in hand—or delivering a powerful, racially charged rendition of Will Bell’s “So I Run” in an intimate Bucktown apartment, Monae’s life is fueled by performance—an active rejection of reality in hopes to spread love and art throughout a world that desperately needs both.
Today, I’m thrilled to premiere Monae’s debut music project: a self-proclaimed “sound collection” called, ПИЗДА, which is (of course) Russian for “Cunt.” Beneath the moniker Puutwa, she crafted the five-track effort in a matter of weeks, splicing together found audio files and reworked instrumentals entirely from an iPad. This curated selection gives insight into Monae’s psyche, the track “PUSSY” laced with a doctor describing a transwoman’s vagina after Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS) and “WOMAN” armed with Monae’s original distorted vocals desperately screaming, “I am a woman.”
Beyond provoking authentic, much-needed conversation centered on gender and race, ПИЗДА raises questions about medium in a post-Internet landscape. What constitutes originality in 2016? Is an artist who produces using Ableton more laudable than one who works off a portable iPad? How could recycling sourced material reflect the creator’s ethos? Monae dishes on all this and more in an exclusive interview, below:
You’ve privately explored multiple iterations of a “music project” and landed here. How did you decide on this approach?
“My initial desire came from the general passion to work with an audio medium. I had minimal production resources (an iPad), absolutely no education or practice in music production and a broad idea of what I wanted to create. I set genre aside and focused on the things that entice my emotions and senses—things that drain and empower me. Something that made me feel emotionally and erotically titillated—a sound collage that spoke a truth about myself and the reality of our culture.”
Describe what I’m hearing on these tracks.
“I wanted to use literature, concepts and ideas that penetrate and resonate. The base tracks themselves are comprised of simple sounds and beats slowed down/reversed, sampled from artists, [like] BLVC SVND and olop. There are audio selections from Nina Arsenault and Eartha Kitt, as well as doctoral observations on the vagina of a transsexual woman. I’ve also included recorded vocal clips and soundboard instrumentals. The goal, in a way, was to create an experimental sound sculpture of concepts—the clay being sound clips, artists, culture, poetry and subtextual criticism.”
Where did you find these samples?
“The majority was work gifted or shown to me by my sisters. I used a poem given to me by [my friend] Pussy Cooper, called ‘Body Pressure’ by Bruce Nauman. Another poem by an unknown author was called, ‘Numb.’ The rest were audio clips either found or created—things that feed my mind, body and soul during times of growth.”
How do you feel this project advances the larger trans conversation?
“With my selections of word and literature, I only intend to share a piece of reality and the voices of people like me. With that, I hope to subconsciously teach or, at least, harass my oppressors with the sounds and visions of a transgender woman of color.”
Despite featuring mostly recycled material, how is your perspective infused into this project?
“When a person makes a collage, it speaks a truth about its creator—important and vulnerable information like addictions, desires, dreams or fears. This project is a collage of sound that speaks my truth in a way my voice may not be able to verbalize. Through these powerful words, images and ideas, I’m able to transcend my personal addictions, desires, dreams and fears into one piece of work.”
What do you feel is missing from the contemporary trans conversation?
“We need to create and speak on platforms that are seen and heard. We need to penetrate the minds of those who experience our voices. Although there is a conversation going on about trans individuals, we rarely get to have real and open conversations about ourselves. We are filtered, censored and silenced, not because our reality is unimportant, but because our reality is unfathomable. But we are very real and very surreal. Authenticity and vulnerability are aspects of character that are discouraged in American culture. However, presenting both authenticity and vulnerability in a social interaction is the key to experiencing conversational ecstasy.”
How are you disrupting or adding to the conversation?
“Currently, mainstream cultural conversation is predominately staged and managed by white and/or cisgender individuals, which, as we all know, is a misrepresentation of trans individuals and people of color. If my work can complicate or disrupt that, I consider it a success. Media can disarm trans individuals by censoring details of our reality and creating a standardization of accepted means of existence. In order to be heard and express ourselves, we must use media as our greatest weapon. Although the trans existence is complicated, it is also filled with a beauty that the majority of humanity will never understand. We all deserve to create a truthful narrative, but first, we must be able to speak for ourselves.”
Tell me about the track, “WOMAN.”
“This piece is the only one that uses my own voice as the only vocal sample. I chose two pieces of poetry: ‘Numb’ by an unknown artist and ‘Why Am I Brown?’ which I wrote at 18 after indulging in a hand-crafted marijuana cigarette. Both pieces explore a narrative that discusses police discrimination due to the melanin in our skin. The first line in ‘Numb’ is, ‘I am a man of brown complexion.’ Of course, when I decided to use the piece for this project I changed the words to, ‘I am a woman of brown complexion.’ When reciting it, a sense of power came over my body—an explosive release of unrealized pain and silence. For the first time, I could scream with truth and passion that, ‘I am a woman of crown complexion,’ and, as a woman of brown complexion, there is nothing more euphorically powerful than that.”
I’m curious about the sample in “MAGIC.” Would you say your art complicates the world?
“The sample comes from a speech given by Nina Arsenault in 2010. It’s one of my favorite informative speeches given by a transwoman. I saw it for the first time when I was 19 and remember feeling unexplainably confused and aroused with questions. Since experiencing artists and thinkers like Nina Arsenault, I’ve challenged myself to become the most authentic and radical version of myself. I enjoy challenge. I like to challenge money, white skin, sexuality and gender. I like to antagonize antagonists and oppress oppressors. I complicate the world because I am much more authentic and truthful than those that exploit and question my identity. I complicate the world because I fight out of responsibility, rather than anger.”
Describe Chicago nightlife as you see it.
“I see Chicago nightlife as a hungry infant craving to feed on the swollen breasts of her mother. It’s a young, fresh and hungry blue-scaled beast with an abundance of resources and talent. The artists and performers are some of the most legendary and exciting of our generation. If the right mother(s) feed her and allow her to grow, Chicago nightlife could be a new dawn of the artistic renaissance.”
How has Chicago altered your perspective?
“Chicago was, in many ways, my first lover. She was the Devil I sold my heart to. My connection with the city was something of romance. Growing and learning in Chicago is something that was necessary for my journey. There is a magic in this city, specifically, that marvels all others. It opened my soul, challenged my existence and polished me into the woman I am today. A special thanks goes to my legendary sisters, educators and artists, such as Aerin Cooper. They are all people that should be fiercely revered.”
Your Instagram is an entirely separate project, featuring a number of self-portraits. How did this develop?
“My portraits grew from my love of performance. Initially I created short conceptual videos that explored race, sexuality and politics. Over time that idea evolved into the portraits I do today. I shoot all images I use for portraits on my iPhone. Some portraits are digitally enhanced using a painting app and some are digital paintings in which I use the image of my face as a canvas. The portrait work allows me to continuously train my creative mind and stretch into the dimensions of fantasy. I create them to capsulize my thoughts, aspirations and ideas. Most of my portraits are visual narratives—some are love stories and some are stories of evolution.”
You don’t own a computer and create exclusively from an iPhone or iPad. How does this affect your art?
“I manage life and create all my work directly from my iPhone and iPad. From necessity, I am a resourceful woman that values the obstacles of life. I take pride in shooting and editing all of my portrait work from iPhone, no matter how ridiculous of an idea it my seem. I’m fortunate to have gotten to a point in my career where I can have an iPhone and iPad to create my work. As with any medium, it has its advantages and challenges. The majority of my peers and collaborators use professional production equipment, however, I’m still young, naive and working my way there. Until that day, I’ll be basking in the ambience of my front-facing camera, doodling apps and iPad-crafted sound collages.”