Enter Joy Yamusangie’s fictional jazz club to resurrect a transgender trumpeter
In 1998, Scottish writer Jackie Kay wrote her first novel, Trumpet. The book reflects the life of fictional jazz artist Joss Moody through the memories of his friends and family. Most notably in the book, after Joss’ death, it is publicly revealed that he was assigned female at birth, a truth that only Millie, the widow he left behind, knew. Feel good, a collection of colorful works by Joy Yamusangie on display at the Now Gallery in south-east London is inspired by this incredible story.
Feel good, a title based on the song of the same name by Nina Simone, takes place in an imaginary club, the one where Joy envisions Joss, and Billy Tipton, the real person on whom the book was based, would have liked to perform. Joy’s vibrant paintings hang in the hallways and above the pianos, tables and stools of the “place”. “The great thing about art is that you can create new worlds,” Joy says over the phone of the scene they created, adding that they visualize everyone in their club as being transmasculine like them, Joss and Billy. “They would be accepted and embraced, and it would be a space where they could just play jazz and just be.”
“TToday, Joy operates in a much more controlled environment, stenciling characters and constructing scenes where black and queer characters dance, perform, and simply exist.
Joy’s interest in art stems from her childhood experience creating comics and video animations to entertain her younger sister while growing up in London. “When I think about when I discovered different artists, I was told about the old masters who were white. So I didn’t think I could be an artist for a long time until I went to college and that my teachers are mostly black,” they say. “It made me realize that I could do this as a career. Before, I used to think, ‘I have to find something else to do because [creating art] probably isn’t for me. They went on to study illustration at the University of Portsmouth, although they have mentioned in numerous interviews that they did not enjoy their experience there. In one, Joy says their discontent during this time is reflected in their art, as they worked almost exclusively in black and white, and in another, that the “blatant” racism they experienced fueled stories of their parts.
Today they have nearly 40,000 Instagram followers, have been commissioned by Tate Collectives and their work has been selected for the Royal Academy Summer Show in 2021. Over the years their oeuvre has grown. At first, their signature style comprised mostly kinetic Basquiat-like mixed-media landscapes with words, phrases, figures, and faces colliding with vivid color palettes. Today, Joy operates in a much more controlled environment, drawing characters and constructing scenes where black and queer characters dance, perform, and simply exist.
What first attracted Joy to Kay’s novel was the name. “I read Trumpet because I was thinking about music and instruments. I saw the title, and it didn’t say much about it, but I thought, “Just let me read it,” Joy said. But it was their own personal understanding of the protagonist’s life that motivated them to create a body of work around her. “I had just decided to start learning the saxophone, and I’m a trans artist myself. I wouldn’t say I’m a trans musician because I don’t have the musical level, but I’m an artist and I’m interested in jazz.
Jackie Kay revealed in an interview that she found inspiration for the life story of Billy Tipton, an American jazz musician with a similar story, a fact that also intrigued Joy. “There are some differences in the fact that Billy Tipton is white [while Joss Moody is black] and is a saxophonist and pianist, but their stories are the same in the sense that his relatives only found out he was trans after his death,” they add. Joy felt inclined to learn more about fictional and real characters. “What particularly interested me about their two stories was that they were both trans jazz musicians.”
“They are also all dressed in a way reminiscent of the gender neutrality of the Congolese dandy style, known as Sapeurism”
The power found in looking back in history and finding people with whom you share similarities is prevalent in Feel good design. “I think history can inspire the present,” says Joy. Beyond, Trumpet, the colors used by Joy come from photos of their family. “Looking back has a huge influence on what I do next. Sometimes when I’m out of ideas it helps to go through old family photos. Not only do the people in the rooms interact with each other as you’d expect in a club – people kiss, cry, fight, console each other and, of course, play instruments – but they’re also all dressed in a way reminiscent of the style’s gender neutrality Congolese dandy, says sapperismwhich Joy says family members of old photographers dressed the same way.
Congolese dandies are known for their exceptionally fashionable suits, silk ties, top and bowler hats, and chic glasses, among other adornments added to complement their fashion sense. “What I love about their style is that it may seem contradictory in terms of colors and prints, but in fact it is carefully thought out based on the colors they wear and the meaning of these colors,” says Joy. They explain that there can also be rules such as sticking to just three colors – “the main colors in this show are red, yellow and black” – but most importantly, Joy appreciates that the attire associated with sapperism is not limited to men. “You have a lot of Congolese dandies who are women,” says Joy. “They’re dressed in full suits, the pipes, the sticks. It’s just the style[…] I tried to recreate some of them. These are quite jazzy outfits.
The club Joy imagined may be fictional, but the experiences that inform it not only give us a better understanding of trans culture and history, but also of Joy’s life itself.