3 min

Going deeper

Nomi Ruiz brings the nighttime to Hotnuts WorldPride party

Nomi Ruiz exposes her NYC house roots at Hotnuts. Credit: Jonathan Grassy

A lot has happened since Nomi Ruiz released Jessica 6’s debut album, See the Light, in 2011. 

The New York-born singer/songwriter, who rose to prominence as a singer for Hercules and Love Affair, has relocated to Greece, where she is working on a new album with producers that include Eli Escobar, Kasper Bjørke and Michael Moreno. 

“All the songs are there, the concept and the artwork,” she writes in an email to Xtra. “I took my time with this one.”

Like its predecessor, the album is heavy on nocturnal club beats and R&B balladry but with more electronic elements. 

Ruiz, who grew up in Brooklyn, came of age listening to the boom-bap of 1990s New York rap but moved into dance music after singer Antony Hegarty recommended her to Hercules and Love Affair’s Andy Butler. Her smouldering voice wound up on two songs — “Hercules Theme” and the house-pop single “You Belong” — from the group’s 2008 debut album.

Ruiz’s high-energy presence was a highlight of Hercules and Love Affair’s stage show, and after the tour she formed Jessica 6 with Andrew Raposo and Morgan Wiley, who were also part of the Hercules live band.

The group became a fixture in New York nightlife and fashion circles, but Raposo and Wiley have since left. Ruiz has started performing with dancers Georgia Sanford and Viva Soudan, and last year she returned to her grimy Brooklyn hip-hop roots on the mixtape Borough Gypsy.

Ruiz likes dance music because, she says, its open structure is suited to fantasy, compared with hip-hop production, which lends itself more to narrative specificity. The new album nods to both and, like See the Light, has a distinctly nighttime vibe.

“I can’t wake up at 9am to be in the studio and feel some immediate magic,” she explains. “This time around, I wanted to create when I really felt it, without any schedule, no immediate deadlines. Most of the writing was done alone at night.”

Lyrically, the new album’s themes spring from Ruiz’s experiences as a trans woman. In the three years since See the Light was released, trans activism and issues have gained greater visibility in North American media, and Ruiz is keen to add to the ongoing discussions through her music.

“I wanted to address a deeper, more private and emotional side of gender politics,” she says. “We all tend to focus on how society oppresses us, but what we don’t talk about is how we are oppressed and ostracized by our lovers. They, too, are struggling to conform, and it affects our relationships as well as our sexual encounters.

“I wanted to make an album that contained lyrical content that trans women could closely identify with,” she says. “There are albums that have healed me through lyrics, such as The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black. I wanted to be that voice for a specific group of people, but then again, maybe we can all identify with being ostracized by love.”

After Laura Jane Grace’s recent criticism of Arcade Fire for casting The Amazing Spider-Man star Andrew Garfield as a trans woman in the video for “We Exist,” Ruiz took to Twitter and asked, “When will the music industry allow trans artists to speak for themselves?”

Representations of trans experiences are still uncommon in mainstream music, and Ruiz is over trans experiences being treated as “an aesthetic.”

“I’ve become tired of hearing everyone else speak on our struggle,” she says. “They lump us into this LGBT label, and when a gay man or woman makes it in the music industry, they say it’s a big step forward for the LGBT community. But it really isn’t for us. How many trans artists are out there with immense talent that can’t even find an agent to represent them? Or a label willing to release their record or support their tour?  

“Why is everyone obsessed with our struggle as an aesthetic, but they don’t really want to hear it from our mouths?” she asks. “I guess it’s like Arcade Fire says: ‘They don’t want us to exist.’”

For dance music fans, Ruiz exists in a big way, and she says it will ultimately be on them, rather than label bigwigs, to take her career to the next level.

“I’ve never strived to become a star. I’ve only wanted to find my fan base, be able to perform for them, pay my rent and not worry about having to make a living,” she says. “I think my fans really want to see me succeed and become a ‘star.’ If that were to happen, it would be up to them and for them.”