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Pop Hit-Maker Justin Tranter Fights For Change On And Off The Airwaves

Ariana Grande and the Jonas Brothers' trusted collaborator marked Spirit Day with their third benefit concert for GLAAD.

Justin Tranter is easily one of the most prolific songwriters in the music industry. This year alone, they added collaborations with Ariana Grande and the Jonas Brothers on their respective chart-topping albums to their ever-diversifying résumé.

Tranter, who was previously the lead singer of the Semi-Precious Weapons, is certainly on a professional roll. Musical accolades and achievements aside, the Illinois native has a deep concern for the U.S. political climate and, specifically, the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back LGBTQ rights

“I’m feeling very, very hopeful [ahead of the 2020 presidential race], but also prepared for a fight like we’ve never seen,” Tranter, who is gender nonconforming and uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” told HuffPost. “These people want us erased ― and it might be worse than verbally erased. They might want us physically erased.”

“The hope comes in many ways,” they said. “The hope comes in Lil Nas X. The hope comes in LGBTQ songwriters behind the scenes who are able to kick ass openly. The hope comes in the whistleblowers.”

Tranter’s optimism is also what fuels their advocacy work. On Wednesday, they teamed up with GLAAD to stage their third BEYOND Spirit Day concert in support of LGBTQ youth at the Sunset Room in Los Angeles. The concert, which took place on the eve of Spirit Day (Oct. 17), featured appearances by Bebe Rexha and Idina Menzel, plus guests including Shea Diamond, Troye Sivan and Emily Hampshire of “Schitt’s Creek.”

Days before the show, Tranter spoke to HuffPost about their latest milestones, what they see as the biggest challenges facing LGBTQ pop artists and why they’re inspired by Lil Nas X and Sam Smith. 

What’s your mindset going into this year’s Spirit Day concert specifically?

This is the first year I’m not in a total panic. I don’t perform anymore except at a couple of charity events each year, and this is the big one. It’s been an amazing year for LGBTQ songwriters. We have Jesse Saint John, who co-wrote “Truth Hurts” by Lizzo. We have Jozzy, who co-wrote “Old Town Road.”

Michael Pollack co-wrote the new Maroon 5 song, “Memories,” as well as a bunch of other really important songs this year. Teddy Geiger — she’s the queen of the Shawn Mendes world. There’s a lot of us out here in LA just kicking ass, and it’s beyond inspiring. It’s going to be a celebratory night.

From left: Justin Tranter, Idina Menzel, Bebe Rexha, Jesse Saint John and Jozzy take the stage at BEYOND Spirit Day concert 2
From left: Justin Tranter, Idina Menzel, Bebe Rexha, Jesse Saint John and Jozzy take the stage at BEYOND Spirit Day concert 2019.

You mention Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” which has been such a milestone for queer representation in music. What did it mean to you personally?

I’m blown away by it. I can’t believe that the biggest song of all time is co-written and performed by a queer person of color, and another one of its co-writers is a queer woman of color. That will mean so much for kids who are born right now. It means so much for kids who are 15, and it means so much for me — and I’m almost 40! (laughs) The joy that it brings me and the hope that it brings me is something I can’t even really put into words.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing queer artists in the music industry at this point?

The stakes are higher for any marginalized artist. You have executives who are trying to keep their job, and they’re afraid. They just want to sign the easiest things possible. They’re like, “Well, how does a straight, white, cisgender family in the middle of the country relate to this person?”

But we have so many examples of marginalized people who have valid, mainstream, moneymaking stories to tell, whether it’s Lil Nas X, Sam Smith — the list goes on and on. You need to make sure the executives realize that not only is diversity the right thing to do for culture, it’s the right thing to do for business. 

"The stakes are higher for any marginalized artist," Tranter said. 
"The stakes are higher for any marginalized artist," Tranter said. 

You and your business partner, Katie Vinten, recently launched a new label, Facet Records. Given the ways that music consumption has shifted in recent years, did that ever feel like a gamble?

I don’t ever want to make an album for myself again. I don’t want to go on tour again, but I do miss having conversations about the process. So it felt like a natural step to take, to help other people have a platform they deserve. We want to tell stories that other labels are too scared to tell. Every single person we’ve signed is racially diverse. There’s lots of LGBTQ people.

What facets of the queer experience would you like to see reflected in pop music that you haven’t already?

More racial diversity is always needed in every single aspect of entertainment. Lil Nas X is unbelievable, but let’s have 10 more queer people of color who take over the pop charts.

We’re also still scared of femme people being [seen as] three-dimensional human beings. I think that’s a big part of the queer experience we’re missing. The steps Sam Smith is taking right now in living their truth internally and externally is inspiring to me. Every time they make a new statement, whether it’s on Instagram or in an interview, I text them: “Sam, you are literally changing the world.” That’s the beauty of giving people a platform who deserve one.

Last year, Tranter teamed up with business partner Katie Vinten to launch a new record label, Facet Records. "We want to tell
Last year, Tranter teamed up with business partner Katie Vinten to launch a new record label, Facet Records. "We want to tell stories that other labels are too scared to tell," they said.

What are some projects you’re working on now that you’re excited about?

I recently worked with Isabela Merced, and her talent is shocking. It’s pop and alternative pop woven into traditional Peruvian music. Diana Gordon, who co-wrote some of my favorite songs on Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” has an EP of her own out. And Shawn Wasabi, who was already signed to my company as a producer — we’re moving forward on his artist project. His vision is absolutely amazing.

What are the songs from 2019 that you wish you’d written? 

Dance Money” by Tones and I, for sure. That song is life-changing. Taylor Swift’s “Lover” is fucking amazing. And I wish I was part of “Old Town Road” because it’s such an iconic moment — not only for the LGBTQ community, but for the whole planet.

Justin Tranter (left) performs with Idina Menzel at the 2019 Spirit Day concert in Los Angeles. 
Justin Tranter (left) performs with Idina Menzel at the 2019 Spirit Day concert in Los Angeles. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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