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Robbie Ahmed on Testosterone and Always Learning - Tunes Tuesday Interview Transcript

Maud Mostly: Hi, I’m Maud Mostly, my pronouns are they/them and welcome to Tunes Tuesday, where today I am joined by singer-songwriter and activist, Robbie. Would you like to introduce yourself?

Robbie Ahmed: Hi everybody, my name is Robbie Ahmed. I go by he/him pronouns, and I am a singer-songwriter, writer and activist. I focus a lot on writing a lot of autobiographical work and writing, especially around immigrant experience and being a trans person and just navigating adventures of living through different countries and trying to be out as a trans person.

Maud Mostly: Absolutely, I love that. So you're working on it, but as of right now, you have yet to release an LP, so how are you feeling being a queer emerging artist?

Robbie Ahmed: I think it's a good question. I started this journey to professionally pursue art just about three years ago, and I think I went really hard, but now I'm taking it slow and realizing to just do things to enjoy the journey and create art for yourself, because I know we know that even in music industry, a lot of folks have high mental health pressures and issues, so I'm just kind of trying to take it slow and figure out what's best for me.

Maud Mostly: Absolutely.

Robbie Ahmed: If that makes sense. Yeah, yeah.

Maud Mostly: It definitely does, especially that idea of creating for yourself, because I feel like especially for emerging artists, the biggest thing you can think about is wanting to make this a sustainable career and really wanting to turn it into something so it's really quick, really easy to stop caring about what you're doing and just kind of wanting to produce, produce, produce, to put stuff out there, put stuff out there, and then that can kind of make you burn out a lot faster and realize that maybe you don't like what you're doing anymore. So no, I think it's really great that you bring up, that you're really putting focus on making sure you're making this music for you.

Robbie Ahmed: Yeah, and it's easy to get impatient in your journey wishing that you put things out right away, you kind of go full blast, you as many shows as you can. But even with the pandemic, it kind of slowed that down for me, but it gave me a reflective moment of what I really want to be doing and putting out.

Maud Mostly: Yeah, absolutely. So I follow you on social media, which is fun, you're great. But something I've noticed is that you attend a lot of music workshops and panels and discussions. So what do you think the importance of ongoing learning is in your position?

Robbie Ahmed: I think, especially in the music industry, everything changes every few years, so you always want to be on top of knowing what this music look like is what it looked like two years ago, is not what it looks like now. And I'm very grateful to be in Toronto, a city that nurtures artists and gives us this opportunity to attend these workshops. Which is something like when I was young and I was back home in Bangladesh, I would have dreamt to meet the people who make the artists that I love. And now, if we have the opportunity to attend these workshops and learn from folks is, like I said, I have been very grateful for that.

But to answer it more specifically, I think for somebody — for marginalized artists, if you're queer, trans or any identity — you don't get the privilege to specialize in one thing. You are not like a song writer that like, “Oh, I just write my lyrics, and I can go to a producer”, or “I can go to a photo-shoot person, I can go to a video”, like somebody who will make my video, and therefore the journey is you have to empower yourself and learning how to become an independent artist. So that's why I always am trying to learn, like if I'm putting this artwork, how can I make it myself? How can I do it without asking for help? I still want to ask for help from my queer community, but sometimes this industry so gate kept, that you have to learn a little bit more of the ins and outs to empower yourself.

Maud Mostly: Absolutely, and I think it's important that you bring a lot of that up because so many queer musicians I speak to and ones I know are very much into the DIY scene more than a lot of others that I see, and it definitely touches on that. They didn't get the same support that lots of other people do, it was much harder for them to make the music that they really wanted to make, showcase like the lyrics that they wanted to write and what they wanted to write about. So they all had to learn how to do it themselves, they all have to learn to take the photos, learn to make the videos, learn to produce the music, which obviously adds like another level of skill to being a musician in these positions, but also just an immense amount of strength and talent to really pursue what you want to pursue.

Robbie Ahmed: Yeah, and I know like somebody who I, because I initially wanted to be a songwriter for myself and also to write for other artists as well, and I kind of had a sometimes good experiences, sometimes really bad experiences writing for other people. Because people try to erase your voice as a queer artist because it might be a little, not what resonates with folks, so you had to learn the hard way to create your own scene and create your own opportunities, yeah.

Maud Mostly: And so something I wanted to bring up is a lot of artists, especially singers, can have a lot of anxiety around hormones. You know, they want to take them, but they're worried that it will ruin their talent and therefore affect the career that they picture for themselves. And so as a musician on T, for those that don't know T refers to testosterone, do you have anything to say to artists that feel that way?

And I also just want to do a quick side note for folks listening, this question was discussed in advance, please do not ask trans people about their bodies, their healthcare, their processes without their permission, especially if other people are present or will be listening. Anyway, so I just wanted to add that for folks. The questions is all yours.

Robbie Ahmed: No, thank you for that Maud and yes, I totally consent to answering because I think it is part of the extra struggle for trans artists, especially around vocal training. I know for me, I've been on testosterone for three years, and it is re-training your voice back from square one when you start T because your entire muscle memory has been lost and you're trying to — your bone structure changes, so the way your voice feels, it's like getting used to a whole new instrument. But with a vocal trainer, I'm lucky to say that it does come back, I know mine is slightly stabilizing now, and if you're committed to the vocal training of doing it, your voice comes back with a better range than you had before. And I think there is hope for trans folks. I was at a show with Lucas Silveira and people at, he transitioned for a while and his voice was on testosterone, and I tell you he sings at a professional level as if he was never like there was any change in his voice, because I think he was committed to transitioning his voice. Yeah, but I think it's also about doing it healthy and getting resources. I know one thing in my journey that was the most useful, which I think is as a musician, if I didn't have this resource, I don't think I would be able to do stuff as I was at this Trans-voice group that was run by Egale, and I was there for four years.

It was like the bones and structure that allowed me to pursue music later, because you have just trans choir teachers that actually understood that you were going through voice changes and re-training and I know it's hard, and I wished there were more spaces and teachers that are trans-friendly that, understand that you are going through puberty. How can you train safely? And also, one thing I find out about the trans voice is that you're not just dealing with voice change, you're also dealing with trauma and the way you speak. I know for me, a lot of the time, for me, it was in learning speaking up or to speak in my full voice because of just not speaking for a while, because I spend a lot of my growing up age just being silent and not using my voice, so it's weird to project because it's a whole different feeling. So I think if that kind of answers, yeah, there is hope, and I think your voice does come back sometimes even better if you're committed to it.

Maud Mostly: Yeah, for sure. And I love you projecting that message of hope because this can bring a lot of anxiety to people, and especially musicians who are terrified of going through that process and having to retrain their voice, but also those same people knowing that they would be so much happier and live a potentially more fulfilling life if they were able to go on something like hormones. So it's really sad when people are struggling with that and potentially giving up something that makes them happy because they're scared of giving up something else that makes them happy. So it's really nice to hear the positive note that took, and also I really liked the fact that you compared retraining your voice and working with your voice to just working with any other new instrument or slightly different instrument, where it is all about that relearning potentially taking a step back, like working on it again. Yeah, I think that was really great. Thank you.

Robbie Ahmed: And to just add a flip side to it, that if your voice did not transition the way you want it to be, if it was a bit higher or lower, and if you didn't even decide to be on hormones and you want to sing, just one thing is, embrace your voice. People want androgynous voices. I think trans folks have history being in music. I’m just thinking of so many names like Jackie Shane and the folks that are singing, with their voices, and I think it's just adds a unique level to it.

Maud Mostly: Yeah, absolutely, I think it's really interesting that you bring it up because just to speak from personal experience, I'm not a singer, I've never been able to sing in a way that other people would enjoy, but as somebody who, I'm not on hormones anymore, but I went through a period of being on hormones before being on hormones, like nobody really pointed out my voice, my voice really annoyed me, but then all of a sudden after my voice changed, it's like a very normal compliment for me to get where people will be like, “Hey, I'm sorry if this is a weird thing to say, but I really like your voice”, and it's kind of funny because then I get to have a bit of the trans humor and be like, “Thanks, I did it myself”.

But yeah, no, I do think it's fine, and I do think there's a lot to talk about there, but we're just goning to move into the last question for now. As I mentioned at the beginning, I identified you as an activist, so you do also do a lot of work in the activist and non-profit world, and I just want to ask if you think that that work crosses over into your music?

Robbie Ahmed: It's a question I'm struggling with trying to figure out my identity sometimes, because I started off, when I moved to Toronto as an activist, who then started pursuing their art career more. But I would say that most of my music is political, so I don't see too much of a difference in the kind of work that's being done, and also I also try to tell myself that all the successes I had an activist work came because of my art training, because arts training requires you to be disciplined, it requires you to like, you can't skip rehearsals, you have to be there. And it's also a project management. As an independent artist, you're continuously juggling thousands of projects at the same time, so a lot of that— activism is just story-telling it. I don't think I do anything different in my workshop and I'm presenting on trans inclusion than I do when I'm telling a story in one of my other gigs. So to me, it's kind of the same art form.

Maud Mostly: Yeah, it's interesting to hear all the crossover that you find and just how much they kind of melt into each other and how developing skills in either field definitely benefits the other one as well.

Robbie Ahmed: Yeah, and however, right now in my life, I am deciding to pursue art more as the activism form, because I realized that there is a lot of lobbying that I could do, but I don't think I am cut out for that as a trans-activist too, and I think for me, it's just reaching people directly in their empathy through art as the way that I want to pursue this kind of activism and be able to tell stories, because they kind of tell you more about access needs for trans people rather than other way. Even though that work is also important, it has to be pushed, but I think that we have to choose what kind of activist roles we wanna take on.

Maud Mostly: Yeah, that's so important. I bring that up all the time. I feel like there's a lot of shaming for the kinds of activist work that people choose to do instead of acknowledging that everyone's different, we all have different skills and different personalities, and that's going to mean that different kinds of activism is more appropriate for each of us, and when we can all explore those options and find what works best for us, we can really find the joy in that activism, which is going to sustain us for longer, and then it's also going to make us be able to build off each other's collective movement so much better.

Yeah, well, thank you so much for joining me today. I will say for anyone who wants to hear more about Robbie, learn more, pay attention to see if any music is coming out soon, links will be found below, so make sure to check them out more and I'll leave it to you if you'd like to say a little send off for anyone.

Robbie Ahmed: No, thank you for having Maud. It's a great opportunity, for sure.

Maud Mostly: Any time. Okay, well, thank you and bye folks!

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