Tona Brown is a violinist, mezzo-soprano and a woman of unique firsts. She is the first transgender woman to perform at Carnegie Hall and the first African American, transgender person to perform for an American president.
I spoke with Tona from her home in Virginia. We covered a wide range of topics. She is an artist and an activist, who doesn’t take her position lightly. She has developed a strong sense of noblesse oblige, a French term that can be defined as, the obligation of anyone who is in a better position than others—due, for example, to high office or celebrity—to act responsibly.
WW: What is most important to you now, today? What’s on the top of your mind?
TB: I’m really focused on drawing attention to the transgender community. There is the murder of transgender people and law enforcement agencies have widely failed to classify these murders as hate crimes. Discrimination against trans people even exists within the LGBTQIA+ community. Some of us are doing well and it’s our responsibility to raise awareness and help those who are struggling. I would like to work with the Arcus Foundation. I’m also a vocal supporter of companies like Paypal that have pulled their business interests from North Carolina.
WW: A look at violence against trans people is disturbing? The facts are that ninety-one percent of the trans murders investigated were people of color. They were primarily poor; many engaged in sex work. How can this be changed?
TB: Awareness and education are the keys. Transgender people are in danger of violence, every time they walk out the door. The unique issues, that transgender people face, come from the demands of our society. We are forced to deny who we are because of societal standards and the potential for violence against us. Awareness and resilience are essential. Transgender isn’t a choice. Transgender is simply about being yourself, your authentic self. I became an activist because it was inevitable. My opinions are political because I’m a public figure, a person of color and a trans woman.
WW: You are African American, an artist, and a trans woman. Any one of these could be considered an insurmountable obstacle to success. How did you do it?
TB: It was stressful at times, but my family was very supportive of me. As a child, I didn’t know that I was different. Everyone else thought I was different. I liked to play Double Dutch, and that was supposed to be only for girls. My mother was completely supportive of me. She loved me unconditionally and taught me; people didn’t have to like me. She taught me that I could do anything that I put my mind to. She did shelter me. I didn’t go to my first club until I was in college. I never thought that there was anything wrong or different about me. She encouraged me to be in the front and the best of the best.
WW: Do you have advice for those kids who don’t have that kind of support?
TB: The most important thing is to find a passion. Find something that you love to do. It could be music, piano, dance, science, the arts or whatever. I was a nerd. I won the science fair. Work hard to find the things that you love to do and then be around others who support you on your journey. You see, my mother couldn’t teach me how to be a trans woman. I had to find others who could help me with that.
WW: How do you feel about being labeled? For example, the first trans person to perform at Carnegie Hall. Does it bother you that the trans label is attached to your name?
TB: Honestly, it’s okay with me. It’ll be history. It will be recorded that we have achieved the highest level of the arts. It will help to dispel the stereotypes, perpetuated by the Right Wing and fundamentalists. I’m part of a more visible generation. We don’t have the public history, of the achievements of the phenomenal trans people from the past because they had to remain in the shadows, in fear of their lives. I embrace being known, as the first trans woman to perform for an American President. It was an amazing opportunity and it has opened the door for others to follow.
WW: Tell me about your web series.
TB: It’s called, Conversations with Tona Brown.
WW: How did you come up with the idea?
TB: The mainstream media just didn’t “get it.” I was frustrated about the way transgender people were being represented, so I decided to do something about it. I speak with dynamic people, politicians, and celebrities. I showcase everyone equally. It goes back to my mission, to raise awareness. Awareness saves lives. Music saves lives. The arts save lives. There are so many young transgender people who are put out on the street by their families. They turn to drugs and prostitution. Awareness can change that. Maybe a young person will say, “Tona did it. So can I.” At least, that’s my hope. I want it to provide a concerned and considered response to the prejudice facing trans people.
The trans movement is trying to get people to focus above the waist. Focus on the entire person. Cynde Kimbrough is a wonderful counselor and sex educator. I had her as a guest on my web series. I spoke with Cydne about sexuality, attraction, and gender. It helps to answer a lot of questions and clear up misunderstandings about sexuality and attraction.
WW: You say on your website, “I have been very fortunate in my life to have some amazing opportunities and not some not so great things happen. I am ready to share that with the world.”
TB: Yes, I have been fortunate. My web series is a way to share my experiences. It’s a platform for conversation about the LGBTQIA+ community. It’s a lot like Oprah. I am also focusing on things to help my community. I’ve always done it. My aunt, Sylvia Wiggins, created an organization called, The Helping Hands Mission. I got involved with that when I was a young person. Inspiring and helping others is part of my journey.
WW: What’s next for you?
TB: I’m at home in Virginia. I’m going to be teaching. This summer, I’m working on starting a local orchestra. I’m also involved with Aida Studios, where I work with students to help them achieve their dreams, of becoming professional musicians. I really want to spend some time with my family, relaxing, and enjoying life.
Tona Brown is a violinist and vocalist who has had a career to span North America and Europe. Starting the violin at the age of 10 years old and winning scholarships and competitions since the age of 14 her destiny as a performance artist was etched in stone at an early age. Ms. Brown attended the prestigious Governor’s School for the arts from 1994 to 1998 studying with Darrell Huskey, Dr. John MacCormack, Lisa Bishop, Jorge Aguirre, and Leslie Stewart. While in attendance at the Governors School for the Arts, Tona received many awards for her leadership in various ensembles from symphony to chamber music and winning concerto competitions her junior and senior years.
Click the link below to check out to Tona’s web series on YOUTUBE. Conversations With Tona Brown
To find out more about Tona visit her website.