This gifted singer has led an incredibly storied life from Connecticut to Puerto Rico and back again, and is now flourishing as both a role model within New York’s leather community and the host of a well-received monthly cabaret. Keep your eyes and ears on this emerging talent, Jae W. Brown!
Thotyssey: Hey, Jae! How is autumn treating you so far?
Jae W. Brown: Hey Jim! It’s literally wild. I just landed from Vegas Saturday afternoon, and am back in the studio doing pre-production and final rehearsals for my show. Booked, blessed, and busy, as they say.
Amazing! Was Vegas scandalous?
Let me tell you what I learned in Vegas, Jim: what happens there, stays there, forreal forreal, lol! It was a great time. First time in a women’s swimsuit, too, which was terrifying and liberating. Learned how to play blackjack; made lots of eye contact with hungry wolves dressed as businessmen. I have to say, Vegas is a sexy-ass city, and I cannot wait to go back.
Gurl, they can’t handle you there!
They can’t! They can’t take it, Honey!
So where are you from, exactly?
I was born in Hartford, Connecticut but I spent the better part of my childhood growing up in a rural town in Puerto Rico–Sabana Grande in Luquillo, to be exact. Shout out to la isla del encanto!
That’s interesting! How did that move happen?
Because of a lot of things, but mainly because my grandmother was ill and my mom was the only one of her six kids without deep enough roots to pick up and go take care of her. My Abuela never got better, so we ended making—what would be for my mother—a permanent move to Puerto Rico. I also think she made the move in an attempt to get some distance between her and my father; they had a particularly abusive relationship. My hypothesis, though, has everything to do with the fact that she had fled to Philly at one point to get away from him… so why not Puerto Rico?
What was it like living in rural Puerto Rico?
Growing up there was not as luxurious as it is to visit there. I was given two pairs of shoes a year: one dress shoe, one sneaker, both to wear to school. I went to private school because the public school system there is so wrecked.
I have a really fragmented memory when it comes to Puerto Rico. But I know, as beautiful as that island is, she really needs help. Healthcare there is an absolute disgrace. But my grandparents were patriots. They wanted to die where they were born… their words, not mine.
I will say though, that growing up particularly poor with a single mother, paycheck-to–paycheck for the better part of my childhood… my mom never really let in on the fact that we were that poor! I didn’t have a lot of the things kids had growing up here in the States, even down to the kinds of movies or music that people relate to. Growing up there was just a very different experience. I mean, Jim, I grew up somewhere so far into the rain forest that, to this day, there’s no cell service that deep.
Were you singing from an early age?
I always had a love of music, and I owe that to my mother. She had everything from gospel, to jazz, salsa, r&b, you name it. We were so excited when she bought a gold Montero truck that had a 12 disc changer in it! My mom said that before I could speak, I was humming the Barney theme song.
I didn’t realize I had a “gift” for song until I went to a summer camp in Vermont and was singing “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera, and the campers and RA’s were surrounding me and clapping. And the first song I ever sang that made me go “Oh? Maybe I can sing!” was “Unfaithful” by Rihanna (I swear). It was the first song I sang to my mom, and she was like, “oh girl, maybe you can sing!” It was a funny revelation on both our parts.
How did your understanding of your gender identity develop to what it is today?
I’ve gone through a lot to figure it out. I never wanted to grow up to be a man, or to be like XYZ Male Figure. I even go as far as to say that when plotting out the trajectory of my own career, I always found it difficult to gravitate towards male figures. The one thing that has remained entirely unchanged about myself is that I’ve always felt wholly myself. People always say that they weren’t necessarily caught off-guard by my hyper femme transition because I’ve always had a soft, feminine energy to myself. I can play straight… hello, I have a degree in theater and way too much training not to be able to. But it’s kinda gross to me, like an old sweaty 6 Flags mascot costume you gotta step into.
The biggest turning point in my identity and presentation of my gender was becoming a leather identified person. When I bought my first fetish heel and steel-boned leather corset, it was a wrap. I had never felt so powerful, beautiful, and proud in my life. From there, my image kept molding and molding, and it still is to this day. I can honestly say, while the leather community has its pitfalls and issues, it’s the ability to come as the extreme hyperbole of how you see yourself that catapulted me towards a transition. Prior to it, I was rocking facial hair and glasses and living in fear of camera lenses!
I always say to the kids (that’s what I call anyone, at any age, at a new crossroads with their identity) that the biggest weapon you have to fight your “identity demons” is knowledge and history. I can only articulate who I am at this point in time because of the shoulders of the icons I stand on. I have the language because of the books I’ve read, the poetry I’ve consumed, the films and documentaries I dove into; the reality is, however you’re feeling, there is probably a resource somewhere for you to enlighten yourself with.
What ultimately brought you back to the continental U.S.?
I actually moved back to Connecticut with my dad at 15. My mother passed away when I was 14 in a freak accident at her job. I left behind my little brother, who was 6 going on 7 at the time. [And I left] my grandparents, stepdad, school friends, a whole life… and was just thrown into an entirely new environment. Me and my father up until that point were relatively estranged–by choice, though. When I was a kid I spent summers with him, but we had a falling out when I was about 8 or 9.
I ended up in New York because I went to Marymount Manhattan College for Musical Theater after attending an amazing institution in Connecticut called the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts. I still call my high school home when I think about Connecticut.
And I am guessing that it is through the leather community that you ultimately discovered Rockbar.
In a way. I was introduced to Rockbar through friends in the leather and bear scene. I actually began my big relationship to the bear community from attending the Beers & Bears parties at the Ritz (which are now held at Rockbar). Same group of friends, though!
You entered the first ever “Gayz Got Singing” competition hosted by Clarice DuBois last year… and won! What was that whole experience like?
It reminded me I’m a great singer; it taught me to love listening to and watching myself. I had a vocal health scare about two or three years ago, and prior to the competition I wasn’t singing as often because I was scared of the changes my voice was having, or a lack of stability that used to be there (super young vocal cords, lol). But it really was amazing. Working on a different song every week, with no rehearsal prior? Terrifying. But you maneuver it and you figure it out.
[The competition] is also special because it’s teaching these people how to perform in an unconventional space like Rockbar, and really build a network of engaged audience members. It’s a hard thing to do at a bar! Especially in a competition setting, where it’s not a drag competition. There’s a lot of spectacle you can do with drag; it’s a lot harder as a live singer delivering a four minute song, y’know?
Also let me say, [accompanist] Danny and Clarice were both such assets! Always giving with material and ideas. I sang a song Clarice recommended for me during the competition for my first show, Fuck Being Friends, back in May!
There is another competition you won at Rockbar this year! Now I may be understanding this wrong, but the monthly party Soaked (not to be confused with the Therapy weekly) had a “Mr. Soaked” competition in January, and you somehow won the title “Ms. Soaked” that night! What went down there?
It was a complete surprise to me! I was emceeing the competition (because she hosts too!) and they awarded the tittle to me because of my presence and voice in the community. It was a complete surprise, and I was floored. The Ms. Soaked title is a title that is given as an appreciation for the work and presence of a femme / queen in the community.
The queer leather community in NYC is traditionally a very masculine culture. How is it for you, being a femme person in that world?
It’s the most rewarding experience from other womxn in the community; sisterhood in leather is really a special thing. However, I have to assert myself in spaces like the Eagle because I often can feel invisible among a sea of men. I know that my presence and my perseverance to carve a space for myself has resulted in others exploring their gender fluidity and expression in leather, and that’s an awesome feeling.
The New York leather scene is very masculine; meanwhile the Jersey scene has far more womxn present. It really depends what area you’re in. The only reason I felt welcomed right away is because I did everything “right.” I turned a look, I was opinionated, I was present at the important events, and I made sure that at those events, or even just bar nights, I bore the responsibility to diversify the room. I made sure—and I still make sure to do this—that there was a hyper-femme and POC energy in the room (I quickly realized that leather can be a white boy’s club). Once I was introduced to other femmes and womxn in leather, I felt the power of sorority and solidarity for showing up to these events and reminding people of our necessary place in the family tree.
Leather has a strong history in the hyper-masculine, and it’s important to recognize its importance to this day. Not every gay man wants to be a “sissy” or wants to be “femme” in their aesthetic. It’s okay for feminine men to want to dress masculinely in leather, the same way that womxn may want to dress masculinely in leather. The bigger picture, past the inception point, is hyperbole and the freedom to express your gender how you see fit, regardless of how the world around you expects you to express your gender. I really believe the kids are turning it out, and really exploring what that means in a contemporary market.
Since winning “Gays Got Singing,” you hosted the one-off Fuck Being Friends cabaret at Rockbar that successfully evolved into a monthly affair called Group Therapy! And these aren’t merely “live singing” showcases… they are very structured, rehearsed and themed nights of live music. Tell us a little bit more about what goes into each of these performances.
So, I call it a Cabaret Series. I come up with a different theme every month, and figure out a set list. After I have the songs I wanna do, usually anywhere between 8 to 15 songs, I sit down and string them all together through monologues and anecdotes of my own life. Then I rehearse with Yaz, my incredible accompanist and saving grace, at least two times. It can be wild, mounting a brand new show every month.
I honestly don’t know anyone else putting themselves through it like I am, ha! But it’s so worth it. I even try to make sure my media, advertising, etc. is all different every month. I do it myself, too: edit the photos, make the flyer and the event pages. Push push push. It’s a lot of work, but we’re on Month Three now and honestly it’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. We’re even starting to consider pitching the concept to some other venues, if they’d be willing to have us!
Have you had a favorite moment from the show yet?
I told the story of how my mom died and what moving in with my father was like, and sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” into “Home,” and there wasn’t a dry eye at the bar. I love that sense of connectedness and communion of live performance like that. I also like getting people to sing along, because it’s unusual behavior at a cabaret!
Lovely! Your next one is this Wednesday, subtitled “Villains & Vixens,” which I am guessing is somewhat Halloween-themed! What can we expect from that night?
Sex. Expect sex, lol! I actually juggle so many themes every show, though. However, what I’m looking to enjoy in this show is being sexy. As a femme, especially someone on a trans spectrum and non-binary, I feel like we get robbed of our ability to be and feel sexy. I’m doing an ode to Jessica Rabbit, an Eartha Kitt song, some Kiss of the Spiderwoman, a bunch of stuff.
However, the set list itself is centered around these powerful, sometimes scary, women whose images or sound have inspired my most vixen energy. But in between the sexy strong songs will be some funny stories and some wild anecdotes… like what I wanted to be when I grew up at the age of, like, 5 in Puerto Rico!
We cannot miss that! Okay, is there anything else the children should be made aware of coming up for you?
Group Therapy is (typically) on the fourth Wednesday of every month. This month it’s at 7pm, and y’all hoes need to be on time! Lol! In addition to Group Therapy, I’m working on a song with RAD, an independent LGBT+ focused label!
There’s always a lot to discuss Jim, but that’s what you gotta come to the bars and mingle! Come out, hear the crazy shit I have to say, and then let’s talk about it.
Sounds like a plan! Okay, in closing: what is one song you wouldn’t sing even if someone tipped you $500 to do it?
There’s nothing I wouldn’t sing for the right price. Don’t bring no racist shit. though. I’d sing the national anthem for $500!
Fair enough! Thank you, Jae!
Check Thotyssey’s calendar for Jae W. Brown’s upcoming appearances, and follow them on Instagram.