A Paradox of Visibility: Interview with Noraa Kaplan

Noraa and I spoke back on October 20th about what it means to be visible as an independent trans musician, childhood idols, and how to find solidarity in your community. Since then, Noraa has performed at the annual “Bach to the Future,” “Purim! An antifascist farce,” and is currently planning her first tour.

bluestockings: Tell us about yourself!

I’m trash tbh. My name’s Noraa Neither Kaplan, and I’m 21 years old. I go to Rhode Island College where I’m pursuing a protracted and questionable Gender Studies major. I do literally odd jobs like sit in swinger club parking lots and help hoarders move around books. I’m a Sag, let that speak for itself.

If you prefer the Elmwood Apsara (or at least know what and where that is), if you’re a gender nihilist, if you think Twigs’ M3L155A is the best EP of the 21st century, if you’re sensitive and sweet with a self-destructive side, we’ll probably get along. I’ve lived in Providence my whole life, and I can frequently be spotted playing the piano in the Providence Public Library, eating eggs alone at Olneyville New York System, or loitering at White Electric. Sometimes I come to Brown to use your toilets!

bluestockings: Did you have any queer artistic influences growing up? Were there any musicians, writers, movies, etc. that were particularly important to you?

I think the most important thing I did as a kid was sing in a Jewish choir as a soprano. I was fascinated by my ambiguous voice as a child and would delight in being able to sing low and high. My dad said boys don’t sing high. But in the 8th grade I was able to sing with the rest of the girls and grew terrified as armpit hairs and cracks in my voice started to appear. So, I took what I consider to be the first authentic step of my transition: stretching my voice out, scales and scales, like an anus.

If I’m grateful for two things in middle school it’s that I didn’t manage to kill myself in the seventh grade, and I preserved my counter-tenor. The Jewish choir was a good way of managing that for me, but it’s hard remembering the Zionism I was subjected to and uncomfortable with at that time. I’ve never had a voice lesson, so that was the extent of my training.

As a kiddo, I was a total nerd. I was into My Chemical Romance but would also listen to classical music like Erik Satie with my grandpa. Once, to impress a girl, I got into musical theatre and became religious about Glee. That basically sums up the pratfalls of translesbianism to me. I still want to play genderbent Moritz Stiefel.

bluestockings: When you started performing, did you notice the lack of transgender (especially transfeminine) artists in the local Providence music scene?

Absolutely! I think people project diversity onto Providence’s art, music, and especially noise scene.  I’d say that people are conflating a huge population of gender variant afabs and transmasculine folks with trans women in the scene and in survival.

bluestockings: When did you start working on your project, Visibilities?

The timeline’s a little shoddy, because I’ve been following the ritual of going to the library piano, letting maddening original songs flow out of me and recording them on my phone, then staying up late trying to figure out what I did, for almost 6 years now. I started publishing music under my dead name in 2014, and it went nowhere. The name Visibilities is explicitly political, which was not an aspect or lens I let my “pre-transition” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) music take on.

I picked the name Visibilities the day before I played my first show, in my friend’s living room in North Providence, and it felt awkward and temporary then. But I’m coming to realize visibility is itself awkward, and temporary, and in flux. I always thought it’d be a good name for an emo band.

bluestockings: Have you ever felt conflicted trying to address the less palpable, violent intersections of (trans)visibility and mental illness through music? Have you ever felt obligated to give one narrative over another in your work?

It’s hard. Visibility is still so hotly discussed. These amazing women like Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Monica Roberts, and even people like the members of DarkMatter and the human pit stain, Caitlin Jenner, are all in different ways celebrated for raising awareness or consciousness or bringing visibility […] to trans people, and to nonbinary people, and to trans women of color, etc.

Looking past the gross “disease” implications of awareness, ignoring even for a moment the burden it places onto trans women to educate their oppressors, the true mechanism of [violence] in positively reinforcing visibility among trans women, is the danger of holding young trans ladies to a standard of being open and loud when the world kills open and loud trans women. Visibility ultimately serves the interest of the state in its project of subsuming trans people into a neoliberal late-capitalist gendered order. I think it’s my task as a nihilist and suicidal trans woman to harness the logic of visibility and the suicidality the system of gender has left me with to resist.

bluestockings: You incorporated spoken word, classical piano, and electronics in your first EP. From conversations we had, you also mentioned that hair is a motif along with some influences from Passion of Joan of Arc. What were your initial aspirations for Cut Short? How did it change over time?

The name “cut short” is a total byproduct because I was trying to record a long harsh noise piece called “Immense Space”, but as I recorded […] someone called my phone and the track was cut off. I decided to keep it like that on the tape, and plopped the album title in there. I decided I liked the idea of relating the ideas of hair length, track length, and lifespan and thought about how they’re all really physical manifestations of time on a body, and how cropping hair for a transgender girl can feel like a type of suicide.

That’s what “First Song for Falconetti” is about. I’ve never even watched all of the Passion of Joan of Arc. It’s always so sacred and impassable for me, and I know that Renee Falconetti’s performance was moving because of the very French petite mort that was shaving her head.

bluestockings: You recorded the first live Visibilities album at a self-organized Kol Nidre service – how do you feel the event went? What kind of community spaces would you like to make in the future for your shows?

Kol Nidre is the Jewish ceremony during Yom Kippur that releases us from our vows, oaths and promises to God. It developed in the Diaspora to protect Jews who could not legally practice their faith and has been the justification for many people’s anti-Semitism. I tried to explain in my D’var Torah that night that this means that we should treat each moment, each act, as a new contract and contraction with God and the Shechina (God’s feminine body that is inscribed in all things).

That was my second time leading a Kol Nidre service, and this year I led it [again], with another Jewish trans lady, my good friend Xava. It was really magical; we wore matching tichels, Jewish headwraps. It was important to make a space for anti-Zionist Jews to worship on a holiday that is so often politicized towards Zionism. It was different from the usual shows I put together in my basement or warehouses that feature freak folk, hardcore, pop punk, noise sets. I guess the similarity is that Jewish ceremony and mainstream punk shows are both really inaccessible and unsafe to trans women, so I took it upon myself to make that space.

I run a radical space in Olneyville called Al Dios No Conocido with my roommate Myra who’s also a transfem and we produce 2-4 shows a month that center trans people and artists of color.

bluestockings: What do you have planned for future projects? Where do you want to take the Visibilities project next?

I had a dysphoric night where I took down most of the records on my bandcamp that heavily feature me singing. My most recent record, Visible Music, is mostly an electronic record that feels really spare and apocalyptic to me. That project was an attempt to merge a political text – part manifesto [and] part memoir, about visibility being an act of self-harm – with a record.

I think future Visibilities performances will continue to examine religious and political themes and be paired with further performance aspects. I’m planning several tours for the spring and summer months that will hopefully fulfill my dream of not always being in Rhode Island. A paradox of visibility is that you can’t find community and coalition without some form of it. Here in Rhode Island, I’m trying to make the spaces I need to survive right now. And I’m trying to make that space as accessible as possible for my friends. You gotta start somewhere.

You can find Noraa’s project, Visibilities, on Bandcamp, Soundcloud, and Facebook.

Interview condensed and edited by Salina Tesfay and Jessica Jiang.

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