An Interview with Tona Brown

An Interview with Tona Brown

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Tona Brown

Vocalist, violinist, entrepreneur, and teacher, Tona Brown has an international performance career as a violinist and Mezzo-Soprano, and has performed throughout the US, Canada, and Europe. Ms. Brown is also an advocate for transgender issues and the arts often speaking and performing at colleges and universities. She is the first transgender woman of color to perform the National Anthem for a sitting President at the LGBT Leadership Gala Dinner for former President Barack Obama at the Sheraton in New York City.  Ms. Brown was also the first transgender woman to headline at Carnegie Hall performing a program of African American composers with an all-inclusive LGBT cast of performers. 

Ms. Brown was formally educated at Shenandoah University and Conservatory of Music studying violin performance with minors in viola, piano, and voice. She graduated from the Governor’s School for the Arts, a prestigious high school for gifted and talented students. 

 Ms. Brown recorded an opera movie for Shenandoah University’s 2021 production of Suor Angelica playing the role of La Zia Principessa. Ms. Brown was seen performing in a lead transgender role as Hannah After in the opera As One by Laura Kaminsky with the Lowell Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Orlando Cela in the fall of 2021. In addition, she was asked to do a masterclass on transgender voices by the Virginia National Association of Teachers of singing and teaches private lessons to students with her company Aida Studios in Northern Virginia.

TGForum: What challenges did you have with your gender identity growing up?

Ms. Brown: From a very young child, I always knew that things were different for me. My mother did as well but I couldn’t understand why everyone around me thought I was different and weird. I was just being myself and always gravitated towards being around and having good relationships with the women in the family and girls in the neighborhood. I always felt more comfortable being around girls than boys or men unless they were my siblings.  

TGForum: You started playing the violin at the age of 10. Did learning how to play an instrument aid in how you felt about yourself?

Ms. Brown: No. Playing the violin didn’t have anything to do with my gender identity. Singing helped me to accept myself for who I truly was. You can’t deny your voice. The voice is just what it is. You can’t make it into something it’s not. Once I learned I was a mezzo-soprano then I realized I had to live in my truth. 

TGForum: What emotions did you feel as the first transgender woman to perform in 2014 at Carnegie Hall?

Ms. Brown: A ton of emotions. The biggest emotion was gratitude. I was very honored to be the first transgender woman of color to headline at Carnegie Hall and that will forever be a part of LGBTQ history. The repertoire I chose was by African American composers because I understood the significance of that historical moment and to have a Black and Latino LGBTQ group of performers and speakers was incredible as well. The show was all about the community and showcasing us all working together.

TGForum: Chosen by the White House to sing the National Anthem for former President Barack Obama at the 2011 LGBTQ Pride Gala was quite an honor. It was another accolade being the first African American transgender woman to perform for an American President.  

Ms. Brown: I was chosen by the LGBT Leadership Council because they were sponsoring the event. I was deeply honored to be asked to sing the National Anthem at the Sheraton in New York City. We raised six or seven million dollars that night if I’m not mistaken. The love in the room was incredible from everyone. No president had ever attended any LGBTQ function before. I had to be a part of it and so I of course volunteered my services and wanted to bring an ensemble. Unfortunately, the ensemble part didn’t work out, but I was asked to sing the National Anthem. 

TGForum: Were you able to speak with President Obama and Michelle?

Ms. Brown: Yes. We spoke briefly about the event, and he thanked me very graciously for participating. It was a dream come true. After we spoke, we took the iconic photo together.

TGForum: As an advocate for transgender issues and the arts. Are you able to address today’s political issues with a wide range of audiences?

Ms. Brown: As an advocate I am always speaking about transgender issues particularly all the misinformation that the right-wing media is saying about our community. I am also trying to raise more awareness of the murders of transgender women of color. We must keep letting people know that my sisters are dying in the streets and most of the time nothing is done about it. It is because of this advocacy that I decided it was time to share my story with my memoir Tonacity The Tona Brown Story.

TGForum: What are black Americans’ views on transgender and nonbinary issues? Is there an abundance of discrimination?

Ms. Brown: Black Americans are still American. Just like any other community, there are pockets of hate and judgment, but you go right across the street or around the corner and people are very accepting. I feel that any religious community will have issues reconciling transgender people. My immediate family was very accepting of me as you can read in my memoir, but of course, there were extended family members that were not as open and accepting. However, my family knew that I was going to be me no matter what they said. I am who I am. It was up to them to figure out if they were going to be around me or not. 

TGForum: What is the status of your online television series, Conversations with Tona Brown (where can our community see it?)?

Ms. Brown: Conversations with Tona Brown can be found on my Patreon page. I stream it live on my Facebook page and I have had some of the most amazing guests.  

TGForum: Talk about your new book Tonacity which is your memoir.

Ms. Brown: Tonacity The Tona Brown Story was originally a request of my friend Chris King who at the time was the editor of the St. Louis American newspaper. We would have conversations about it, but I felt I was too young to write a book. I wanted to experience life a little more and started to develop some life lessons along the way. I would use the #lifelessonswithtonabrown tag and when Chris brought it back up, I knew it was time to start working on it. Tonacity is quite unique because its contents derive from five years of interviews that were recorded with Chris. We would have these interviews at various locations, deep discussions about my life, and career. As time progressed, we both realized we had plenty for a book and then had the arduous task of trying to figure out who would transcribe hours of tapes and put them together. That is when I came across a friend from my art high school who is a professor and asked her if she would be willing to help me. Meghan Sheehy did an incredible job and helped to organize the tapes into chapters and themes and added statistical information etc. I would have never imagined Tonacity the Tona Brown Story to be what it became. I am beyond pleased with the work and all the help from the community to get it done. It’s a surreal feeling to have so many people learn about your life. I am taking each day one day at a time to process it all. But it has been one of the most cathartic and rewarding experiences of my career.  

TGForum: In your spare time, you also offer violin lessons for all age groups. What a learning opportunity for all musician-minded people.

Ms. Brown: Yes. I own a small business called Aida Studios, where we teach private vocal lessons and give masterclasses, recitals, and seminars to students of all ages around the world. I love to go to different school districts and help inspire students to pursue their musical goals. Teaching brings me so much joy. Recently I was asked to go to Durham, MA to work with students in their superb orchestra program. We had a blast. I did an experiment and performed with the students in concert both solo and group repertoire. It was an amazing concert and the parents loved it. I want people to know that our students can play the standard classical repertoire in public schools, so we played Vivaldi, Bach, Massenet, and Mozart. I don’t do abridged versions with my students and so the students had to practice, and they worked very hard. We were all in tears after the concert.

TGForum: What words of encouragement do you have for the transgender community and those of any color seeking to transition?

Ms. Brown: My advice for other transgender people is to never give up. Things are very tough right now with Republicans using the transgender community as scapegoats due to their lack of real policies and answers to questions of how to govern. However, no matter what they do we must never give up. We must always speak up and out and we must continue to live in our truth. If you have goals to be in any profession don’t just give up on those goals because you are transgender and you have never seen anyone else like yourself in those careers. We need all of you. Lastly, understand that things take time. I would have never thought that we would have made this amount of progress in the last 15 years when I was a kid. Everyone may not get or understand you, but that is their problem not ours. Keep shining and dream bigger. We deserve love, respect, and happiness just like everyone else.

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