Rosa Isabel Rayos, 28, is an Afro-Latina transgender rapper whose goal is to make music that uplifts, supports and encourages Black transgender women — including, at times, herself.
“Everybody who raps only raps about what they know,” said Ms. Rayos, who goes by Ms. Boogie when she performs. Her motive just happens to be very clear: to connect to other trans people who need a reminder that they deserve to feel safety, love and joy.
“It’s imperative for me to center my work around spreading that ‘femme queen joy,’” Ms. Rayos said. “It seems like the right thing to do, to create on an emotional level, to make the things I needed and continue to need to hear. I am gifting myself, too.”
Black transgender women live under such constant threat of violence that the American Medical Association declared the wave of murders of trans people last year an “epidemic.” “We are at the very bottom of the totem pole,” Ms. Rayos said, “right next to the cisgender Black woman.”
Media coverage of trans life is minimal and usually depicts tragedies that stem from harassment and discrimination. This makes the rare positive depictions of trans people all the more important, according to advocates for the trans community.
Steven Canals, a creator, director and executive producer of “Pose” — a television show about the L.G.B.T.Q. ballroom community in 1980s New York City that includes trans cast members — recalled being approached by two young Black trans women, who were extras, one day on set.
“One of them grabbed my hand,” he said. “With tears in their eyes, they were like, ‘As a young girl I had a desire to be an actor but because I’m Black and trans I always felt like that’s never going to happen for me. I let the dream go. Being here on this set has allowed me to dream again.’”
Raquel Willis, a transgender activist and a former national organizer of the Transgender Law Center, also emphasized the importance of positive pop culture and media representation for trans people.
“When you have been so maligned and marginalized, you have no choice but to imagine a better world or imagine a fuller life because you have been forced to find that in some of the most difficult circumstances,” Ms. Willis said. “We have to recreate ourselves, whether for ourselves or to navigate a world that it often feels like other people have tried to create for us.”
Born and raised in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn, Ms. Rayos began performing in the warehouse rave circuit in New York City six years ago and found that she felt empowered onstage. She had previously walked in New York’s ballroom scene, and used that experience to develop a distinct physicality and presence that melded rap with ballroom. As a musician, Ms. Rayos performed under the name Jay Boogie.
As her popularity grew so did her success. She began touring to different cities and countries and was the subject of admiring profiles in Vice and other publications, but the life she was getting to experience did not match how she felt.
“I was in a very divisive place in my life,” Ms. Rayos said. “I was torn.”
Performing provided an outlet for her gender expression. “In many ways, before, it felt like getting ready for a performance and stepping into the glamour was an opportunity for me to feel closer to my womanhood,” she said. “I would really look forward to it.”
In 2018, Ms. Rayos came out publicly in a letter published in Paper Magazine, writing: “In a practical world, I would be a ‘trans woman,’ but in the world that I have built for myself and my loved ones, I am simply myself.”
What followed, onstage, was a transformation to an effervescent performer that Ms. Rayos conjured by mixing a bit of her mother’s tenacity, a punch of Grace Jones’s confidence and several spoonfuls of Foxy Brown’s Brooklyn pretty-girl aura.
The extreme self-assuredness she hopes to embody is not meant to mask the reality of the dangers she and other trans people face disproportionately in the United States and around the world, but to fly in the face of it. “My joy and determination of self does not exempt me from being targeted in any way,” Ms. Rayos said.
She does feel an obligation to learn the stories of other trans women and to fight for them, she said. But she is also working on letting herself enjoy the moment. She has a new single, “Fem Queen,” an upcoming album, and was recently featured in Vogue Mexico.
“I’m excited to just make things and continue to tell my story, to create more and give more gifts to some queens,” Ms. Rayos said.