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Zora on Finding Hope and Joy in a Hostile World: ‘It’s Honestly What Saved My Life’

When Zora Grey was 16, she wanted to be a jazz singer. So she tried out at a vocal audition at her performing-arts high school in Los Angeles —  only to be slotted instead into a music technology class where kids learned how to make beats using Ableton and Logic. “I was so annoyed,” says the Minneapolis-based musician, 23. “I was really not for it at all.”

But she got hooked on the feeling of freedom she got from constructing her own world from scratch, and soon she was on her way to becoming a rare triple-threat phenomenon. Today, Zora is an exceptionally talented singer, rapper, and producer, with the ability to stand out instantly in a sea of new music from better-known artists. Her debut album, Z1 (out June 17 on Get Better Records), is one of 2022’s most thrilling first listens and most rewarding re-listens, packed with pummeling techno beats, irrepressible pop hooks, trippy club bangers, sharply pointed bars, and melancholy future-soul melodies. It’s the kind of album that makes you stop and say, “Who made this?”

Growing up in L.A., Zora was a shy kid surrounded by a family full of musical gifts: a grandmother who taught her to play piano, a dad who moved crowds as a hip-hop DJ, a cousin who plays in a progressive metal band. Zora herself was drawn to iconic pop and R&B voices like Britney Spears, Lauryn Hill, Ariana Grande, and Janet Jackson — artists whose music sparked something within her. “I was like, ‘I want to do that. I literally want to be like them,’” she says. “But I also didn’t know how to make my own music yet.”

After high school, she moved across the country to study the music business at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Far from home, she struggled with insecurity about the path she was on. “All of my music was cookie-cutter love-song, straight-up R&B – very much, like, ‘Baby come back to me, I love you,’” she says. “I could not connect with it at all, but I could sing it so well. Everyone was like, ‘She’s amazing!’ But I was like, ‘I don’t even know what I wrote about.”

Searching for something realer, she listened closely to Sophie’s boundary-pushing electronic production and Kendrick Lamar’s defiantly individualistic rap. “To Pimp a Butterfly specifically inspired me to make anything that felt close to my heart,” she says. “It was like, you don’t have to do what’s trendy or what’s cool.”

Around the same time, she was coming to understand herself as a trans woman looking for her place in the world. “When I initially came out and started transitioning, I just wanted to find friends and a chosen family,” she says. “It got lonely sometimes.”

By the spring of 2020, Zora had dropped out of Berklee. She looks back on that period now as a key turning point in her quest for artistic truth. At the time, though, it felt more like a plunge into despair. “The death toll with the pandemic was rising,” she recalls, speaking softly. “There weren’t any vaccines. There was no hope in that time. There was a Black trans girl that had died almost every week or every two weeks. I just felt like I wanted to go into hiding, honestly. That was the biggest feeling: ‘I just want to stay inside for my own health and safety.’”

She ended up fighting through that fear and confusion to make “All Around the World!,” the joyful, catchy, uplifting pop anthem that is the first full song on Z1. “I was going through a bad depression, and I wanted a song that was just happy,” she continues. “Something that gave girls — Black girls, specifically; Black trans girls, even more specifically — a sense of hope… It was honestly what saved my life, to be real.”

That ability to turn painful, heavy feelings into complex yet rewarding music is one of Zora’s greatest strengths. You can hear it, too, in “Happiest I’ve Ever Been,” a rock-inflected slow-burner that she began writing after a difficult breakup sent her spiraling. “I had heard the song ‘1979’ by the Smashing Pumpkins, and I wanted something that felt like home,” she says. “It was supposed to be a party song — like, ‘I drink till I can’t no more, I smoke till I can’t no more, turn up,’ whatever. But then I ended up going into the mental hospital and the psych ward.”

The song, which Zora wrote while staying with her mom in Washington, D.C., after getting out of the hospital, dramatizes her mental-health scare with vivid lyrics about crashed cars and broken windows, and a snappy rap verse from Myia Thornton, a close friend she’d made in college. “I wrote it in a way that’s more how I was feeling than what actually happened,” Zora clarifies. “Like, ‘Crash my car into the subway station’ — that didn’t happen, but that’s what I felt I could potentially do. It was a bad time.”

Produced entirely by Zora herself, with just a few key contributions from Thornton and other friends on guest vocals and session parts, Z1 is a fearless expression of the person Zora truly is. “It’s all the different parts of my identity,” she says. “The sadness, the happiness, the craziness, the funniness — all of those different parts of myself, combined into one cohesive body of work.”

Zora posted Z1 online as a limited self-release in 2021, but she knew she had something that deserved a wider audience. She sent the music to a few major labels before coming across Get Better, the radical queer and trans artist-led label behind releases by Control Top, Empath, Evan Greer, and more. “I was like, ‘They seem so inclusive and their releases are dope,’” she says. “So I found their email. ‘My name’s Zora, I’m 22, and here’s my album. Have a great day,’ with a smiley face on the end. They ended up getting back to me: ‘Hey, we’re obsessed with your album. We’ve been showing it to everybody who will listen.’ I was not expecting it at all. They’re amazing.”

Zora says she’s found a sense of balance in Minneapolis, where she’s lived for the last two years, working as a case manager at an agency that helps find housing for people experiencing homelessness. She’s also found a treasured community in the city’s ballroom scene, where she walks regularly as part of the House of Escada (a storied mainstream ballroom house) as well as the House of Old Navy (in the more casual kiki scene).

“I love the competitive aspect of it, because in its true essence, that is a huge part of it,” she says. “But even bigger than that, it’s about feeling safe. Ballroom, for me, is being able to call my sister when I’m walking home just in case, or having someone go with me to get my nails done just in case anything happens. This is the safety net that we’ve created for ourselves, and regardless of any BS that’s going on in the world, we know that it will not get broken.”

The journey that began for her all those years ago has taken her somewhere she only dreamed about. She’s mindful of her platform as an artist, and she’s thought about the lessons she’d like to share with anyone reading this story who’s like her.

“It’s cheesy, but the biggest thing I would say is never give up,” Zora says. “That’s what I was always told, and what I always resented — but it’s true. Your community is out there, and they’re looking for you as hard as you’re looking for them.”

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