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Tom Robinson, Chavela Vargas & Arthur Russell : 25 of music’s most underrated trailblazers across the queer spectrum

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Tom Robinson

British punk rocker Tom Robinson achieved chart success with hit songs “2-4-6-8 Motorway”, “Up Against the Wall” and “Don’t Take No for an Answer,” but he’ll always be immortalized for his singalong protest anthem, “Glad to be Gay.” Originally written for a 1976 London gay pride march, the song was nearly banned by the BBC in 1978 – although DJ John Peel defied the stricture. After his band broke up, Robinson co-wrote several songs for Elton John, including the controversial “Elton’s Song,” about a young boy at a boarding school longing for on an older student. He eventually left music and embarked on a career in broadcasting in the 1980s, championing indie music with his own radio show, but in 2015 he released his first new album since 1996, Only the Now, a folk-pop album that included songs “The Mighty Sword of Justice” and “Holy Smoke,” which features the Bible-mocking voice of Sir Ian McKellen. “If your songs don’t reflect feelings you share with your audience then you’re not writing pop music, and I certainly share that widespread belief there’s a small, cynical elite who are taking the rest of us for a ride,” Robinson explained. “If only one potential leader of the Opposition is prepared to give voice to this perception, no wonder disillusioned people are rallying to his campaign.” J.P.

Chavela Vargas

Born Isabel Vargas Lizano, Chavela Vargas left her hometown in Costa Rica at 17 to become a cigar-smoking, gun-toting ranchera singer in 1930s Mexico City. She would remain there for the rest of her 93 years, pushing the bounds of Mexican social mores around music, gender and sexuality. Whereas ranchera music was typically the domain of heterosexual men and their drunken declarations of heartbreak, Vargas notoriously refused to swap pronouns in her songs, aiming her throaty bellows towards women who scorned her all the same. There continues to be speculation that she once had a dalliance with bisexual Mexican painter Frida Kahlo; an iconic photo, taken in the 1940s, captures the two mid-giggle as they snuggle in the grass.

In the 2002 biopic Frida, Vargas plays a specter who serenades Kahlo – played by actress Salma Hayek – with her original song, “La Llorona” [“The Weeping Woman”]. Vargas would also appear in several of Pedro Almodóvar’s films, including La Flor de Mi Secreto; but she insisted that acting was never her focus. She did not come out as a lesbian until the age of 82, or when her autobiography, Y si Quieres Saber de Mi Pasado [And If You Want to Know About My Past], was published in 2002. In spite of her Costa Rican heritage, dozens of Mexican singers have since cited Vargas as an influence, from Lila Downs to Grammy winner Natalia Lafourcade. In 2007, the Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences granted her a Lifetime Achievement Award – which she accepted dressed in a man’s button-down shirt and straw hat. Chavela, a documentary chronicling her life, was released in the U.S. October 2017. Suzy Exposito

Arthur Russell

Few knew the wildly eclectic cellist-composer Arthur Russell’s music when he died from AIDS in 1992 – but in the 21st Century, he has experienced a renaissance that’s taken in his many sides. Born in Iowa in 1951, Russell moved to San Francisco after high school and began studying Indian classical music at the Ali Akbar College of Music. Later he would meet Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and then he began accompanying him on cello during Ginsberg’s readings. After moving to New York City, he attended the Manhattan School of Music but was discouraged so dropped out to play in rock bands, write folk songs, and compose downtown disco epics. He performed with members of the Talking Heads, Philip Glass Ensemble and, briefly was a drummer for Laurie Anderson. He only released one solo album in his lifetime — 1986’s cult classic World of Echo – but his records were later reissued in the 21st century. And on Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell, a two-disc compilation of covers released in 2014, had everyone from Robyn and Sufjan Stevens to Blood Orange and Devendra Banhart covering his songs. And if that weren’t enough, Kanye West sampled Russell’s song “Answers Me” on his 2016 album The Life of Pablo.

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