Francine 13 Blurs the Lines of Femininity and Sex With Her Musical-Theater Hybrid

Francine 13 is a really shy person, but you'd never know it from seeing her perform. Inspired by theater, she wears elaborate costumes and performs as four different characters, or as she calls them, "sonic shadows." She's heterosexual, but people have thought she's singing about the courage it takes to come out of the closet. The result can be so provocative that one fan, encouraged by her music to think about who she was and to be independent, even credited Francine 13 with inspiring her to get a divorce.

The reactions aren't always so extreme, but there's no doubt that Francine 13's performances can feel transformative. Lily Taylor, a singer-songwriter with a foot in both the music and art scenes, sees her as a kindred spirit, which makes sense because of her background with a focus on theater at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and the Soul Rep Theatre Company. Music is her calling, but it's her passion for theater that drives the ambition of a project like her upcoming 4 Marys and the King EP, which explores her four "sonic shadows. “It informs so much of my life,” Francine 13 says of acting. “I ultimately see myself as an actress.”

Very much like an actor playing a role, she can hide behind the music and imagery of these characters. The 4 Marys represent female archetypes, but also the four elements. There is Mother Mary, who is also the earth. There is Lady Mary, representing fire, as well as raw female sexuality and passion. Queen Mary is water and follows traditional modes of femininity with perfect posture and a stately demeanor. Sister Mary, the air, is known for her ideas and awareness of modern social constructs that disrupt female sexuality, which Francine 13 describes as a relationship with nature. The King represents these norms as much as he represents a man.

Francine 13 has mainly performed as Mother Mary so far. She cites nature as a primary influence on her work, and as a mother the character can best represent all the others. But she has plans for future shows that will feature each specific character with her own mannerisms, costumes and props. This unique approach turns one performer into four, which is somewhat of a revelation for an artist performing locally. Typically acts try to spread out shows, but Francine 13 billed as Lady Mary one day and Sister Mary a few days later would give very different performances.

Even with these specific characters, she somehow manages to leave room for interpretation. Francine 13 has a spiritual quality that all sorts of people react to. She grew up very religious, going to church a few times a week. Like many people, she was swept away by the singing, music and emotion. But she ultimately saw church as a gateway to these activities and does not classify herself spiritually. She is also conscious of African spiritual systems that inform her work as an artist. “Black people signify all the time,” she says, hinting at verbal strategies that cloak language.

A believer in cellular memory, she sees spirituality as something that is rooted in her DNA and combined with religiosity and personal experiences. “I consider each song to be a magical spell,” she says. That may sound unusual, but any song that gets stuck in your head and changes how you think or feel could be characterized the same way. Francine 13 describes her songs as cathartic, a method of sonic healing. She's even ambitious enough to coin a new genre she calls "ritual pop." The sound is a mix of dark wave and trip hop with a heavy emphasis on being literary and metaphysical.

There is also a sophisticated ideology in this music. These characters are based on female archetypes. “We are all trained to see our own mothers in a certain way,” she says, for example. “But I like to interrupt this notion.” Francine 13 wants to complicate dominant views of femininity by more or less chanting down Babylon. She wants to break women free of dominant paradigms from cultural imperialism. But she isn’t necessarily trying to move away from the gender binary.

“I actually refer to my work as being hyper feminine,” says Francine 13. After all, she is exploring the system through the eyes of four different females. Hover over growling, minimalist rhythms, her soprano voice is the female aspect that keeps everything moving. “Being black and female is such a unique way to see the world,” she continues. “You have a different set of experiences and eyes. It’s such a privileged position to understand the way that systems operate.”

Francine 13 firmly believes that every generation should be freer than the last. She even takes issue with the notion that being quick to forgive is best for everyone involved. “I buck against those platitudes,” she says. As she sees it, people who are trained to quickly forgive may be choosing to deny trauma and bottle it up inside. “I think that has a lot to do with religious programming, television programming and all of these different programs that don’t have to do with the wild, organic true you,”  she suggests.

One doesn’t have to look too far to see examples of tension being created when something is not properly acknowledged or someone is not held accountable. If forgiving is allowing, it’s easy to see how that mindset could lead to people being haunted by something that happened to them. Or how it could perpetuate the disturbing behavior. “We can dismantle so much with just our thinking,” says Francine 13.

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