The rock world lit up a couple of months ago when Tom Gabel, frontman of the politico-punk band Against Me!, bravely revealed to Rolling Stone that he has secretly been living a transgender lifestyle and plans on living publicly as a woman.
Heidi Barton Stink, for one, seemed blasé about the news.
"It's hard to be transgender, period, but try being a transgender activist and rapper," said the artist legally known as Heidi Foster, 29, who fits all of the aforementioned roles.
A musical genre renowned for its sexist and sometimes homophobic overtones, hip-hop has become Heidi's unlikely platform of choice for spreading the word on the trials of being a transgender woman. Even in the liberal Twin Cities indie-rap scene, though, "it's still often hard for me to get taken seriously," she said.
It's getting a little easier since the release of her second album, "A Charming Gut," a politically fiery yet deeply funky and playful collection that could be filed between Eyedea & Abilities and Doomtree in the local record bins. Her work also brings to mind Brother Ali, whose rhymes about being albino have taken hip-hop's strong sense of self-identity to new heights.
Being a transgender woman not only puts a unique skew on Heidi's music, but it made her a strong voice for gay rights, a role she'll back up with appearances at numerous Twin Cities Pride events this week, including the nightly Queertopia showcases continuing through Saturday at Intermedia Arts Center (she goes on around 8:30 p.m.).
Consider the bleak reality Heidi raps about in the anti-violence track "Direct Action (Do-Over)": "Something like five times a week, a trans person is murdered, you see / We've been viewed as less than human / Stop that, let's lower the stats."
However, most of her tracks are more light-hearted and universal. With a nasal, slightly bratty voice and fast delivery style, she could be mistaken for Eyedea as she snarkily raps about women's body-image issues in "Celebrity Skin" ("As an outsider inside these bodies today / I can't tell you what to think, but these standards are fake").
Maybe her most definitive lyric about being a transgender rapper comes in "Direct Action": "Testicles have nothing to do with bravery, and even less to do with skill."
Rapper and spoken-word artist Guante guests on one of the album's best tracks, "Intersecting Lines." He applauded her efforts to raise "a voice for a struggle that's too often ignored," but also said, "I really think Heidi's contributions to the scene will involve more than her identity. It's in her music, her sense of humor, her approach to songwriting, her sincerity. It's all so refreshing."
Heidi started performing even before she began her transition to a transgender woman four years ago. Once she came out, she said, "There were definitely some people I used to hang out with who wouldn't be comfortable around me now." She mostly fell in with GLBT circles and has drummed up a steady base of fans and supporters there. She's thrilled about that, she said, "because I feel like I'm rapping about a lot of the issues that those people want to hear about, but they're not. Especially from rappers."
Her ultimate goal, though, is the kind of crossover success that Guante believes she deserves.
Alluding to the case of Tom Gabel, she said, "It helps anytime a transgender person is out there talking or singing about it. The more it happens, the less we need to explain ourselves to everyone else every day of our lives."
- With: Heidi Barton Stink, Dustin Maxwell, Harry Waters Jr., Kelley Meister, more
- Where: Intermedia Arts Center
- When: 7 p.m. Fri.-Sat. 6/22-23
- Tickets: $2-$15