To continue our 30 Days of Pride celebration, we caught up with Martina Sorbara and Dan Kurtz of synthpop band Dragonette and Toronto-based visual artist Sammy Rawal, the director of their gender-bending new video for “Body 2 Body,” which Billboard is premiering exclusively today (June 7).
An energetically charged track from their latest album, Royal Blues, the verse’s lyrics allude to the internal battle that transpires as one’s different pieces push and pull in opposing directions. By the time the song’s chorus kicks in, those pieces have somehow led back to the same place. “We’re body to body, we’re back where we started.”
Rawal, a queer artist who also directed Dragonette’s “Lonely Heart” video interpreted these different pieces as the many parts of the human figure. Using her naked body as a canvas, Rawal superimposes the different shapes, sizes and colors of a human figure onto Sorbara as she rotates like a piece of clay on a pottery wheel. This manipulation results in a visually stimulating clip that skews the archaic notion of binary gender.
Make no mistake — this strong pro-trans message wasn’t a happy accident. Speaking to both band members and Rawal it is abundantly clear that all three are intensely passionate about LGBTQ rights and the community’s fight for equality. In the interview below, Sorbara, Kurtz and Rawal talk about the inspiration behind “Body 2 Body,” the need for LGBTQ safe spaces, and why being loud and proud of who you are is more important now than ever.
The lyrics to “Body 2 Body” read as though they could be about two lovers reconnecting, but the video appears to have strong trans images. How do the messages of the lyrics and the video intersect?
Rawal: As a queer visual artist, I interpreted the lyrics and wanted to blur the lines between gender of what it means to be male/female trans. And playing with the idea of drag. There’s a RuPaul quote, “We’re born naked, and the rest is drag.” There’s this idea of the video starting with Martina naked, in what a lot of people would consider the most vulnerable state. And as the song progresses, we play with idea of different looks, hair and make-up, different clothing, etcetera.
The video is a lot like a drag performance, and how drag affects how one is viewed in the public eye. It’s meant to blur the lines between binary gender.
The hook is “We’re body to body, we’re back where we started.” What does that mean?
Sorbara: The song is about having an opposing feeling within yourself. You keep coming to the same place. That’s why I liked Sammy’s treatment. I liked how it was like all different pieces inside of somebody that act individually. The song is really about trying to get out of a relationship, and then always coming back to it because there’s always something drawing you in and then you pull yourself away, but then you still come back. I think a lot of people have had that experience.
Totally. To what extent was the band involved in making the video?
Sorbara: It was really Sammy’s vision, but we always get creative with the people we work with, including our make-up artists and stylists. It really came from ideas that Sammy has been playing with. We saw stuff on his Instagram feed that we really liked and that drew us to work with him. It’s really graphic, and we felt like the aesthetic with what he was doing tied in with what we were doing with our art work, so it was a good match.
Rawal: We did the video a few months ago to another track, “Lonely Heart,” and we were playing with the ideas of circular motion. In that video, the camera was circling around a room, and in this video we’re circling Martina. We’re still playing with circular motion. What I really love about working with Dragonette is the collaboration. I had the idea for a technique that they saw on my Instagram, but like Martina said, we all sat down and really hashed things out with the hair and make-up person and the stylist. The process was very balanced.
Sammy, you are the founder of the Yes Yes Y’all, a “queer hip hop/dance/RnB jam” that takes place monthly at a club in Toronto. Can you tell me a little bit about how that got started?
Rawal: It spawned from a need for a safe space for queer people of color in Toronto, and we’ve been doing it for a little over eight years now, since 2009. Prior to that, in Toronto at least, places catered to white, gay men with little overlap for queer spaces. We take music that’s considered homophobic like rap and hip-hop and reclaim it. It’s grown to this huge thing — about 800 people come out each month. It’s like a sweaty bashment party with people dancing on speakers. It’s pretty crazy.
Our biggest mandate was to create a safe space for people, but also bridge the straight hip-hop scene in Toronto with the queer scene. It’s a mixed crowd now, and we have straight acts come to perform as well as queer acts. It’s a nice cross-section of Toronto.
How quickly did it grow after it started it?
Rawal: We started at a small backpacker’s hostel downtown, and I think the first party had around 150 people. Then it slowly grew to 800 people, and it’s still growing. It’s kind of crazy, because people are now bringing to their kids! This one woman said, “I came to your first party and loved it. And my daughter just turned 19, and I brought her here with her girlfriend.” It’s cool that it came full circle.
Why do you think LGBTQ safe spaces like this are necessary?
Rawal: For me, as a queer person of color and given the political climate right now, it’s easy to live in fear at times. Creating these spaces is important. At Yes Yes Y’all, we say, “Come as you are and be yourself.” And I think things have progressed exponentially. Of course, there’s still tons of homophobia, tons of racism that people probably experience on the daily. This notion of being able to come out once a month to a safe place and really be yourself is freeing.
Sorbara: I can say that we have made huge steps with regard to LGBT acceptance. But at times it can also feel regressive, especially with the government in the United States. I think now it’s more important than ever to live loudly and strongly and be yourself.
Rawal: To add to that, it’s easy to be in a comfortable bubble, especially in Canada. But if you look at places like Chechnya or Uganda where people are actually dying for being LGBTQ, I think it’s important coming from a place of privilege to celebrate the freedoms that we have in places like Canada and the States.
Absolutely, that’s a great attitude. What personal experiences have either of you had that have strengthened your support of the LGBTQ community?
Sorbara: It’s hard to describe for me, because since the beginning of my career as an artist and musician, I was immediately supported by the LGBT community. That was really my home, even when I was a solo artist. I don’t really know the “chicken or the egg” so to speak, because we’ve always supported each other.
Kurtz: In terms of where Dragonette directly intersects with the LGBT community, if you can identify a community, it has collectively been a steadfast supporter of Dragonette since the beginning. I can’t underscore that enough. Whether it’s a journalist or blogger from outlets like Popjustice or Electroqueer (EQ), there’s always been such a natural connection. I can think of reasons why Dragonette might be considered important in that world, but everything has been genuine and very supportive.
On the other hand, we put out the “Darth Vader” video a few months ago. And we got some grief from fans who were like, “Keep your politics to yourselves, assholes.” It was offensive to us, because basically they were saying, “As pop musicians, your job is to make f–king music and not have an opinion.”
Sorbara: Yeah, the concept that musicians shouldn’t have political opinions makes me so upset. That’s the role of artists in the world, you assholes!
Kurtz: We were just shocked that anyone would think that. After so long, the Dragonette fan base feels like family to us. But on a personal level, a huge percentage of our friends and family are LGBT. There’s nothing more agonizing than seeing having a person who is treated as less equal under the law or by society in any way and feeling totally powerless in being able to defend them. Especially as a white, blue-eyed, English-speaking male, I have every privilege in the f–king world, but it should be everybody’s privilege.
It’s f–king nauseating. It makes me ill to think about it. When I was a kid, my best friend growing up was gay, and he suffered immensely. We went to an all-boys school, and it was homophobic, and it ruined ten years of his life. I just can’t imagine anyone having to go through it. I get enraged this thinking about it, but it all points to the same thing: why is it even a f–king question? Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to have pride. That’s the goal here.
Agreed. It shouldn’t even be an issue, and it’s something we should have figured out a long time ago.
Kurtz: To that point, in 1981 or 1982, there was a police raid on a bath house here in Toronto, where the goal was to expose and shame gay men who were there. It was in the papers, and people were criminally charged. I was telling this story to someone much younger than I am, and they looked at me incredulously and said, “That really happened?”
The positive aspect there is that the majority of the population has moved beyond just being ambivalent or tolerant and to the point where they are actually in disbelief that people could treat others like that, and that’s only in the space of thirty years. That trend, despite current efforts in some countries to stop it, is unstoppably moving in the right direction
You have a loaded schedule for Pride in NYC. Has Dragonette ever celebrated Pride Month before?
Sorbara: A bunch of times, but not in New York.
Kurtz: We’ve done Toronto, San Francisco, and about a decade ago in London, we played in Trafalgar square.
Sorbara: Yeah, at that time, they forbid the British military from wearing their uniforms at Pride. They didn’t want to associate their officers with gay men, and it was a big deal and completely ludicrous. So we wore British military uniforms on stage.
Badass! Did the decision to celebrate Pride in New York have anything to do with the United States’ current political climate?
Sorbara: Well, we were originally invited to play a party, and that eventually blossomed into a whole week of stuff. We have a lot of time for LGBT support in New York. There’s no cap on how much time we have for that. Make it Pride month, and we’ll have time for it.
What other projects from each of you should we watch out for?
Rawal: I’m currently working on this project that shows the evolution of the “Body 2 Body” video, where I’m capturing different types of bodies, genders, races and people in Toronto and playing around with them on the turn table, much like the video. It’s a cultural video projection, and it’s a celebration of the human body in all its shapes, sizes colors and forms.
It will be projected at the Gartiner museum, Canada’s national ceramics museum, on June 19. My idea was that much like a potter at a pottery wheel manipulating the pieces of clay on a rotating platform, my approach is to do the same with a model on a rotating table.
Sorbara: We have a couple of concerts coming up in June, including one with Sonny Alven.
Kurtz: We are working on some new Dragonette material that should be done in the next month or so. I’m really excited about making some new Dragonette music.