Meet Octo Octa, the Transgender Producer Making “Overtly Queer” Records for All

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Femme Fridays is Teen Vogue‘s new franchise dedicated to highlighting the badass female artists, musicians, and filmmakers you need to know.

Octo Octa is the moniker of acclaimed house DJ Maya Bouldry-Morrison, a self-taught musician who’s been in the game since she was 15-years-old. Born in Chicago and now based in Brooklyn, Maya made a splash last year after coming out via an extensive feature article in Resident Advisor. However, she’s been making entrancing tracks that made her a prominent fixture the underground music scene since long before that piece was published, and her latest effort, Where Are We Going, is no exception. As such, we wanted to start off our Femme Fridays column with a story about how music helped her get to the point she’s at today, the overtly queer politicization of her recent work, and how those questioning their identities can always find a home in the underground music community.

Teen Vogue: I guess the easiest place to start off is, tell me a little bit about you and your foray into electronic music?

Octo Octa: When I was 13 years old and I got the internet for the first time, I was like, “What’s this drum and bass station? Let’s see what this sounds like.” That blew my mind. All my friends were in punk and hardcore bands, which was great and I liked going and seeing them play, but that was not what I was listening at home. So eventually, electronic music became my punk rock. House music was really boring because, I was like “There’s not a lot happening here.” Then as I got older and was playing a lot of shows and was playing in a dance band with my friends… I was like, “Oh, a lot of people are dancing to this” versus the weird complex drum patterns stuff I’m doing on my own.

TV: I know you started transitioning in the public eye, why did you decide to do that? That must have been tough.

OO: Once I came into being as a sexual person, I’ve always identified as queer. I was rather late versus other friends of mine, but once I figured out who I was, I always identified as queer. But then I still felt off for a long time. It was just like, “I don’t fit into masculine culture at all” and, “I feel really uncomfortable being called a man.” It just never felt okay. And then four or five years ago, things clicked and I was like, “Oh. It’s because I’m not a man. That’s why I don’t feel comfortable with it.” But I didn’t come out for another three years. I slowly started coming out to friends, I think, three years ago. And then maybe last November, I came out to my family, first. Then I had the Resident Advisor article that was a public coming out.

I mean, it was really nice because I wrote online on Facebook, just to friends, where I was like, “Hey, by the way, this is what’s up with my life.” And then Shawn [Reynaldo], who wrote the article, wrote me being like, “Hey, would you mind me doing a wider article on it?” And I was like, “That’s actually great because I am not a good writer and I don’t really know how to craft a message about this.” And at the same time, I’d already been playing shows for a while and figured it would actually be easier on my life if I do this as a wider coming out story. Versus getting booked at shows and venues and essentially having to come out to people every single time I would show up at a new venue.

But people were particularly nice and good about it. Which has been funny, because I originally wanted to come out in 2013, but the conversation around transgender people was not happening that much, [even then]. It’s not the coverage that we see now. So, I always wonder, if I came out forty years ago, what would’ve the response been then versus the response that I received a year and a half ago, two years ago?

TV: Right. I feel like the underground music community has always been pretty accepting, though.

OO: Oh yeah, it’s [almost like being in] a private space … Even though being in a venue is still a public space — in that it’s out in the open and not at someone’s house — it’s still a private space since people are setting it up [that way] and have to have the intention to go to that place.

In venues, I have rarely had a problem ever and people are really great. Also, being an underground artist in general, there’s already a lot of knowledge of where club culture, in particular, comes from. It comes from Black, Latino, and queer communities. So, people are just accepting in general… But, you know, public, everyday life is not particularly fun, still. There’s a lot more choices about personal safety when being out in public, but that’s not really been the worry in private spaces like clubs or with friends or at peoples’ houses.

TV: Yeah, definitely. I am kind of interested to delve a little more into the idea that the underground is really helpful in facilitating the realization of an identity and having it blossom. Can you maybe talk a little bit more about that, and in particular how New York or wherever helped you come to full realization?

OO: Yeah. I think a lot of cities like to call themselves liberal cities that are safe spaces in general. And New York, in particular, has always liked to laud its liberalness, and the idea that everyone’s good and everyone’s accepted in New York. But walking around in every day life its like, “Mmm, kind of.” It is there, but I don’t think cities in general are always really powerful spaces to realize oneself in them. Because, no matter where you are, if you’re a marginalized individual in any way, it will come up. It just might not be as aggressive as in other spaces, but that aggression is still there.

But going out in clubs, it helped me feel comfort in continuing on the path that I knew I had to take. Going out to a club and being out in a dress for the first time, and being able to be in that space and not get harassed or have any aggression towards me was like, “Oh, so, things can be okay.”

The general acceptance [of the underground music community] while transitioning also really helped in making me feel more comfortable in general. It’s like, I’m transitioning, no matter what, but that was the space where I was like, “I’m not gonna get beat up every goddamn day of my life.”

TV: If you could tell yourself when you first started transitioning one thing, what would you tell yourself?

OO: Part of me wants to always be saying like, “It’s gonna be all right.” But at the same time, at least for me in general, there was no physical way to stop going through transition. It was just continuing to hide was really tough. I guess the thing that I would tell myself is like, “Your parents are more accepting than you think.” At least for me. I have other friends that their parents are not okay with them. I have had a friend get kicked out of their house and stuff like that. But for me in general, it was like, give people in your life the benefit of the doubt. A lot of people will surprise you, in the end.

TV: Mm-hmm. That is honestly a good thing to always remember, right? Like most people are actually okay.

OO: Exactly, for the most part. Most of my family was good. And the ones that weren’t good a year ago are good now. It was very surprising and very super nice. But at the same time, that’s not everyone’s story. And also, that’s why I always talk about like if I came out in 2013, I’d be a radically different scenario. Just because there’s more visibility in the media in general and people aren’t as scared.

TV: Right. Did anyone in particular help you out or inspire you? I think I read somewhere about [legendary trans activist/producer] Sprinkles.

OO: Oh my God, yeah. Here’s the thing, I’ve been doing so many interviews, I talk about Terre [Thaemlitz, aka DJ Sprinkles ] all the time. After doing press for this album, I was like, “I need to chill out on talking about Sprinkles.”

But Terre was a super important person to me in general, just because it was the first music I heard that had a very overtly queer, and specifically trans, message to it…Hearing that narrative in music was really inspiring. It was really nice to see trans narratives in music. Especially when we’re talking about mostly instrumental music, since it can be a lot harder to convey messages. But I really like how she’s always gone about producing music and then pairing writing with it to explain further what the intentions were behind it. Or using her talking over a track to give more context to the thing that just played or is about to be playing. I thought it was really great ’cause, as much as I love club music, there’s a point in time where you’re like, “I’ve heard this piano loop a million times, so what emotional content is behind the thing I’m listening to right now beyond ‘We’re out and were try to just have fun?'” [I try to do that] as much as possible — trying to build more emotional content in something versus just, “Here’s another banger, dude.”

TV: This overt politicization of music and it’s themes, did you want to do the same thing with your LP, Where Are We Going?

OO: I’m not trying to be as political with it, but I am trying to have a more overtly queer record. When I had my last record Between Two Selves, it was a coded queer message ’cause I wasn’t ready to talk about queerness on a public stage. I’d talk about it in private with people, but I wasn’t out to my family or anyone, so I wouldn’t speak about it publicly.

And so I made attempts with the record to have messages of queerness and being out within it. Especially with the final track, “Where Are We Going Part 2,” has this mantra on it like, “Do you feel better? Are you feeling better?” Which is a question I got over and over again after coming out. On the track it’s my voice normally and then I have it pitched really low, not with sinister intentions in it but … It’s this questions that I got all the time and it almost feels like it should be an unnecessary question. Its like, yeah of course I feel better. I feel better, I don’t feel better all the time, but that doesn’t have to do with being out and being trans. It should just already be inherently known that me being out would be a better state of being than before. Asking “Do you feel better?” [is strange]. What am I supposed to be like, “No, it was a terrible mistake. I take it all back”?

TV: So what do you want questioning teens – the kids who are like, “I don’t know about who I am or this identity that I’m grappling with” — what do you want them to know?

OO: It’s somewhat tough talking about gender identity in general because everyone has a different idea, of course, what it should be. There’s people that are just gender non-conforming in general that are like, “This is the position we should all be in.” Being a trans woman in general, then its like, “Oh, so you’re just gonna reinforce the binary with approaching femme stereotypes…” But, that’s a big argument for trans women is you’re reinforcing stereotypes to then synthesize this idea of what a woman should be. And they’re like, “But you’re not an actual woman, so you don’t really know what it is. And who are you to be reinforcing these stereotypes.”

There’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of people discussing stuff all the time. So gender stuff in general is, to me, just do what you wanna do. Just be who you wanna be. If you get later in life … There’s also people who de-transition. There’s people who are like, “I feel like I’m this other gender.” And go towards that for years. And then years down the line they’re like, “I actually don’t feel that way anymore, I’m going to go back to whoever I was before. Or move towards a different identity.” That’s stuffs cool. That’s fine. That’s not a problem. One thing about gender identity, I myself don’t feel that way about it, I could never see myself de-transitioning. But there is zero shame to people who are like, “I’m not this way anymore, I’m this way now.” Its cool. Do what you wanna do that’s gonna make you feel better and feel like yourself in general. ‘Cause this world’s f*cking hard enough already.

Related: People Read Kind Instagram Comments for International Transgender Day of Visibility

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