50 Winners Who Are Helping Others Win: #16 Tona Brown

National Youth Pride Services is proud to announce it’s Third Annual list of 50 Winners Who Are Helping Others Win on our national magazine RizeUp! We used our national membership of youth and young adults across the U.S. to come up with the list and we are excited to see who they are not only watching, but learning from.

Interview by Demark Manigo

Tona Brown is the first transgender woman of color to perform for a sitting President and to perform at Carnegie Hall. Ms. Brown is a Huffington Post Live contributor as well. In addition, she is the owner of Aida Studios, a music business, in Alexandria, Virginia.

Can you describe what your childhood was like?

My childhood was for the most part good. I had a mother who protected me and encouraged me to be who I am. I was made to be comfortable with who I am from an early age. My family also supported me as well.

How were you prepared to handle life obstacles as a child?

Well, my mother was very pivotal in that. Whatever I did I made sure I was the best I could be and let that stand for itself. My mother told me a story of how she felt safe concerning me. I was a youngster and I was playing jump rope with the neighborhood girls. She was watching through the window as a group of boys came up and started teasing me. She grabbed her bat and was about to come down but her intuition told her to just watch. She said I dared them to try jump roping if they thought it was so wimpy and girly and the rest of the girls chimed in as I teased them for being chickens. By the end, the whole image4 (1)neighborhood was jumping rope.

That’s great! When did your mother know you were transgender?

When I was a baby I had long hair. It was a family tradition not to cut the hair of the kids until for least the first two years. As I was waiting to be seen by a doctor, my mom was throwing me in the air like every parent does a little boy. An old lady said to stop doing that to that little girl. My mother explained that I was a boy but the lady continued to say it. That’s what opened my mothers eyes.

So let’s fast forward. You were trained at The Governor’s School for the Arts. Later you attended Shenandoah Conservatory. What was the university experience like for you?

Well, during Shenandoah I hadn’t transitioned yet for one. And I was in a relationship with my high school sweetheart. As far as the education goes, it was really good but the String department was still developing their program. So it felt a little remedial to me and I began to study voice. Due to my training at The Governor’s School of the Arts, I was helping my fellow undergrads and even graduate students throughout my training at Shenandoah. I used to get some tense reactions from people because I would help them and they couldn’t take my criticism. I wasn’t malicious, I was simply straightforward.

What was the catalyst for your transition?

I would say it was my experience at Shenandoah. Everyone there were basically free to better themselves and there were plenty of people who were LGBTQ. I began to change my hair and clothes and wear makeup. As I continued, it just became more natural for me, especially since I didn’t fit in with the “normalcy” of being male. Even my voice was different and I went through challenges with my vocal training as well. It wasn’t until I was having dinner with my current boyfriend at the time that I fully realized it. I had changed so much that he was upset. Not because of my growth but that he was still in love with the old me that he met years ago. It was a little bittersweet, but we both knew that we both were going in different directions.

Describe your first performance as a transwoman.

It was at the Gateways Music Festival in Rochester, NY at Eastman School of Music.  We were all dressed in traditional African attire. I showed up as who I am and played. Everyone that knew me before were happy that I changed and were excited that I finally did it. I did receive some remarks from outside people but the person in charge didn’t care and spoke out about it and kept it moving. So did I.

How do you handle those remarks and comments, even when you are rejected from performance opportunities?

It’s their loss, not mine. At the end of the day, I’m very good at what I do and you are hiring someone who’s here to do that: my job. It’s that simple. If you don’t want me, fine. I’ll move on to the next opportunity because my skill set will prevail over your views. Looking back I now notice that there were some opportunities I didn’t have with certain colleagues because they were fearful of tainting their brand. It doesn’t bother me at all. I’ve grown past that and realized I can make opportunities for myself.

Speaking of creating opportunities, let’s talk about your business Aida Studios. It’s a music education business where you are training young musicians. What are your goals for Aida Studios?

I truly want to make Aida Studios grow and train artists from a performance aspect. In other words, giving them the actual tools they need to perform well, rather than focusing on the academics of music training. The way you play or sing Beethoven, Rossini, or Mozart is different. A performer has to learn about these differences as a performance practice. They should be proficient in these things  as well as  their auditioning skills.

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