Singer, songwriter, actress, author Nomi Ruiz was born in Sunset Park, Brooklyn and raised on a heavy dose of hip hop, freestyle, and house music. Her debut album, Lost In Lust, a gritty blend of hip-hop, R&B, and soul, put her in line with a movement of artists who changed the landscape of contemporary music and she rose to prominence in the electronic dance scene after appearing on Hercules & Love Affair’s self titled debut album.
She continued to venture into electronic music under the name Jessica 6 and combined dance with her natural R&B/soul stylings on the debut J6 album See The Light. The sophomore J6 release The Capricorn, was called “Seductive, dark, smart, and as catchy as Miss Jackson’s greatest hits” by i-D Magazine, and her latest single “The Storm Inside” was called “The most poignantly powerful track we’ve heard so far in 2018” by BlackBook.
As an author, Ruiz has been outspoken about discrimination in the music industry and has published intimate essays on feminism, sex, romance and gender identity in Jezebel, The Fader, and more.
She made her acting debut as a guest star on Kurt Sutter’s Sons Of Anarchy spinoff Mayans on FX and is set to star in the upcoming Muay Thai drama Haymaker.
Gig Economy is a Talkhouse series in which artists tell us about their work histories, from part-time pasts to the present tense, in order to demystify the many different paths that can lead to a career as a working musician. Here, Nomi Ruiz (Jessica 6, Hercules & Love Affair) discusses her experience as a trans woman navigating the music industry.
—Annie Fell, associate editor, Talkhouse
I was born and raised by a single mother in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a neighborhood that was just as inspiring as it was dangerous. We were poor to say the least—if the lights were on, we were having a good month. I sang my first words and haven’t stopped singing since. My mother and brother encouraged me to pursue it as a career, and my mother did what she could to help me without any knowledge of the music industry whatsoever.
I was 10 when I really began pushing her to assist me in finding my way into the industry and she began cold calling studios listed in the yellow pages, which somehow led to me finding my first manager, an engineer at the famed Apollo Theatre. I still remember walking into that empty theater. It was the first time I set foot on a stage. I stared out into the empty seats of the auditorium wondering what it would feel like if they were full. I rubbed the famous Apollo tree stump and made a wish that someday they would be.
As my manager and I began discussing our goals, I informed him I did not want to record covers and was hoping he could find songwriters who would provide me with original content. He responded with three simple words that would leave me forever changed: “Write your own.” That night, I stole my brother’s Casio keyboard and began writing what would become my first original song, titled “How Could I Forget Your Brown Eyes.” It was loosely based on a crush I had on a boy on my block, but it was mostly based on the pain I was witnessing my mother go through after the second man she married went to work one day and never returned.
We recorded it at a studio my manager’s friend built in the Bronx, in the projects of Co-op City. They were shocked at how someone so young knew so much about romance. I told them I was merely fantasizing about having a broken heart but, in reality, the feeling was all too real. I was surrounded by it. The sound of my mother’s tears echoing through the small one bedroom apartment we lived in was unavoidable. Songwriting has since become the one thing that’s helped me get through difficult situations. It’s pulled me out of numerous depressions and given my life meaning, purpose, and a voice in a world that constantly silences and ostracizes me for my differences.
As much as I loved expressing myself through songwriting, it forced me to face my inner thoughts. I began struggling more with my gender identity, which I had grappled with since I was two, but had suppressed and hoped was a passing phase. I became reclusive and pulled away from the world, as well as my manager and my music. It was difficult to fight past all the doubt swirling around inside me. I knew music was my life and I worried about how transitioning would affect my career. I had no examples nor understanding of what I was going through, and I definitely never saw an R&B artist who embodied what I was to become.
I eventually began spending time at the Hetrick Martin Institute where I connected with other queer youth and began doing outreach. It was there where I met other women of trans experience who, for the first time, showed me the possibility of what my life could be. They encouraged me both as a woman and an artist and it was then when I realized how seeing ourselves in others is imperative to self discovery. It reminds us that we are not alone and in fact part of a collective consciousness that is worthy of acceptance and being loved in the light, not hidden in the shadows.
I eventually got to a place where my body and soul were aligned and I was ready to take on whatever obstacles the world and the industry had in store for me. I quit college and dove deep into music-making mode. I knew working odd retail jobs wouldn’t allow me to afford recording and promo costs, let alone pay rent and provide for any gender-affirming surgeries I wanted, and I refused the constant pressures often placed on trans women to find a rich boyfriend or become an escort. But, I wasn’t totally against sex work, so I compromised and found a job that fulfilled my cyber fantasies and provided me with the income needed to support my career: being a webcam girl. I worked as many shifts as possible—sometimes 24 hour shifts, sometimes 48 hour shifts. I’d take any open slots and used my income to write, record, executive produce, manufacture, self release and market my first record, Lost In Lust, a gritty take on R&B that touched on poverty, drug addiction, love, sex, and gender-based rejection (now available on iTunes!). I started my own label, Park Side Records, and became my own agent, publicist, manager, assistant—you name it, I did it.
I began gaining recognition from the New York indie backpacker hip-hop/R&B scene and was mentored by emcees, producers, and promoters. After features in Vice and Mass Appeal, my record began buzzing around blogs and other online music publications. One day, I woke up to a review of my album titled “R&B DIVA NOMI IS TRANSSEXUAL.” I knew this day would come, but there was no way to prepare for it. Again, there was no prototype—I knew it would be trial and error, and I would have to let the chips fall where they may. All I could do is focus on my artistry and hope the world continued to connect with my work.
My mentors began ghosting me, and I was even told by a promoter that I put their career at risk by allowing them to represent something that was ingenuine, misleading, and made them look deceitful to their peers. Hearing that from someone who at one time believed in my work felt as if I had been stabbed in the gut. I couldn’t wrap my head around how someone’s gender identity affected what was being heard on a record. For me, music is something so detached from the human body, a universal language that connects us all. Have you ever heard a piece of music in a language you didn’t understand yet still felt the pain or joy behind it? Does that change when the body attached to it is something foreign to you? Aren’t we all foreign to one another either way?
I felt lost and defeated. I remember sitting over a pile of press kits I was packaging to mail out and, as I looked past my tears down at my work, I contemplated what the impact would feel like from the concrete if I were to jump out of my window. Nothing made sense to me. What was I living for? I felt my passion was being stripped away from me. There are days when it’s all too much; when it all piles up on you. Being ostracized by lovers, the daily anxiety we as trans women live with due to trauma caused by constant verbal and physical attacks in public, then the rejection from peers in your chosen industry—sometimes it all hits you at once, and it’s in these moments when some of us choose to give up.
I took a moment to reconsider what I was about to do. I focused my attention back to the press kits on the ground and remembered the songs inside them, crafted out of thin air, created out of pure passion and often times pain. I never learned that from any school, or pursued it to be famous or cool. Music and creativity has been the one thing in my life that connects me to something beyond. To a source that can’t quite be explained. I suddenly felt responsible for my gifts and they gave me something worth living for. I think in these moments of self doubt, if we somehow find a way back to our purpose and passion, it will save us. I wiped away my tears, continued packing those press kits and made a promise to myself that no matter what, if I was going to go on living I would do it with a vengeance.
Since then I’ve pushed through an industry that has constantly fought against me. Time and time again I’ve been invited to sit across from gatekeeping agents and execs who avoid eye contact while tossing mini basketballs into hoops hanging at the corner of their offices as they tell me how, “The world isn’t ready for someone like you, especially not in the urban market,” or that my voice is “too low,” that I’m too “exotic” and “sexually threatening,” which is code for Latina and Trans. My favorite is: “This is a tough industry to get into,” as if I was going to give up, turn around and get a day job. Doors may have seemed closed to me, but as my dear friend Daniela Vega once said, “When the door was closed, I went through the window.”
I began to cultivate a community of like-minded creatives and musicians and continued performing in New York City, eventually becoming aligned with artists who were changing the landscape of independent music. After guesting on the debut self-titled Hercules & Love Affair album, I was offered the opportunity to tour with the band full time. I quit my job (I had since moved on from webcam-ing to managing a makeup company), moved out of my apartment and back in with my mother, left my boyfriend, and took off without ever looking back. I knew I was letting go of a life of stability, but I was being given the opportunity of sharing my voice with the world and would gain access to a fan base I always felt connected to.
My time with H&LA quickly became problematic, to say the least, and is definitely worthy of its own essay. For starters, I wasn’t able to live off the income I was making on tour even while being supported by my mother. Thankfully, the women in my life were there to pick me up when I found myself once again in a downward spiral, but this time, my face was in every music and fashion magazine, I was performing at every major festival, and it seemed as if I was on top of the world. I pushed through as much as I could, touring endlessly till I’d lose my voice, often without a day off and all while being exploited and ostracized by bandmates. I eventually hit bottom. This couldn’t be what I had worked so hard for—what I had sacrificed my financial and emotional stability for. Once again, I had to remind myself that my talent was my most valuable currency and that I should lead with passion and not make choices based on fear.
After being asked to perform at Coachella, I attempted to negotiate my fee with the band—something I had done a few times over the course of a year as the band quickly grew—and was once again denied. It was then when I decided to quit H&LA and align myself with producers who respected me as an artist, honored my ideas, and allowed me to shine as a songwriter and a front woman. But upon my departure, I took with me another life lesson, something you may call a life hack of sorts: I realized I was finally being allowed into the industry that once told me I didn’t belong, but only when under the guise of a cis male’s project. So instead of pursuing a career as a solo artist at that time, I decided to take my producers up on their offer to produce a record as a band under a new name. That was the beginning of Jessica 6, a project that has taken on many forms since its inception and is also worthy of its own essay.
Jessica 6 faced its own set of obstacles and discrimination, from a show for a major clothing company being canceled only weeks before performing because they were “Unaware the front woman was transsexual,” to agents discouraging their artists from having us open for them on tour because my transess was a risk to their image. The list goes on and on but again, as doors closed, I kept going through the window, and the only thing I kept my sights on was how I was finally travelling the world, touring on my own terms with my own music, and connecting with fans and friends who, over time, have become my chosen family. I was finally in control of my own narrative.
Creating and succeeding with Jessica 6 taught me a huge lesson in believing in myself and having faith in my talents. It taught me how valuable it is to take risks and lead fearlessly with passion. I’ve since been able to not only support myself as an artist but also achieve a goal which I never thought would be attainable: affording my gender reassignment surgery. It’s something I never thought would be possible, a huge milestone for a girl who grew up in the hood and was told she would never make it out. A girl who was told the only way she would ever afford a life on her own terms was to sell her body when she didn’t want to. It’s been one of the most rewarding achievements in my life.
So although I never had the advantage of coming from money or using male privilege to further my career before transitioning, I’m proud to have always honored this dire need in me to live life authentically both as an artist and a woman and I’d do it all over again if I had to. And now, as I step back into the solo career that initially gave me the will to survive, I think back over all the obstacles I’ve overcome and still face, count all my blessings and successes, and realize that nothing will ever amount to my biggest win yet: living my truth.
(Photo Credit: Gabriel Magdaleno)