As a musician and founder of the new label Psychic Eye Records, Akiko Sampson has found power in supporting social justice causes close to their heart. In 2018, the artist (who is gender non-binary and uses "they/them" pronouns) played benefit shows for Red Light Legal, a legal advocacy organization for sex workers, and the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project.
For today's Trans Prisoner Day of Action and Solidarity, Sampson decided to use Psychic Eye Records' debut release to raise money for Transgender, Gender-Variant and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), a San Francisco nonprofit that advocates for currently and formerly incarcerated trans and gender non-conforming people.
Released Jan. 22, Sacred Spells is a 20-song post-punk, darkwave and experimental compilation with a wide variety of bands—local and international—that include trans, non-binary and queer musicians and their allies. With 100% of the album's proceeds going to TGIJP, Sampson hopes to establish Psychic Eye Records' priorities from the start: to serve as an example of the change they wish to see in the world, and to champion some of the freshest bands on the dark side of the musical spectrum—from the noisy, industrial grind of Oakland's Malocculsion to the new-new-wave inflections of Vancouver's Koban.
In a recent interview, Sampson—who plays bass in post-punk trio Ötzi and works as a freelance video editor and director by day—clarified that they’d like Oakland's reinvigorated goth and dark music scene to encompass more inclusive values.
"To me it’s an important time to ask who the scene is going to include," Sampson says. "What are the priorities of us as a community? ... Who we are and what it is we’re here for?"
The Trans Prisoner Day of Action and Solidarity is a good place to start. First conceptualized by anarchist-activist and trans prisoner Marius Mason, it raises awareness of the abuses trans people face in jails, prisons and immigration detention centers, including violence and sexual assault from guards and fellow inmates, solitary confinement and denial of medical treatment.
Trans inmates' struggles are rarely acknowledged in the mainstream media, let alone by the criminal justice system. In 2018, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons rolled back Obama-era protections for trans prisoners, placing them at a higher risk of abuse while in custody.
TGIJP has been serving this population on the front lines for fifteen years, providing vital support networks, connecting current and former inmates to resources and organizing grassroots actions.
"To me they’re a really important and influential organization," Sampson says. "There’s a lot of fundraising that I see for the Trans Lifeline and the Human Rights Campaign, and that sort of thing, but there’s still a group of people not being represented there. I thought that since this is a release coming from the subculture, we don’t have to give our money to organizations already being supported by the mainstream. Incarcerated trans women, to me, sounds like a really isolated, dangerous situation to be in, and I wanted to support them as people who are the most vulnerable."
Like the best compilations, listening to Sacred Spells is an exercise in discovery, and there's something for lovers of alternative and experimental music of all stripes. Some standout tracks include the aforementioned Malocculsion with the song "Wormfood";"Tomorrow Never Comes," an intricately-layered requiem by V.E.X.; the synth-driven moan of "Blood Debts" by Zanna Nera; "Ana Venus," an urgent electronic foray by Grenoble’s Lovataraxx; and the hauntingly operatic "Scarecrow Jim Crow I’m a Demon Coming at You" by performance artist and musician M. Lamar, who happens to be the sibling of trans actress and activist Laverne Cox of Orange is the New Black.
Although Sampson mostly focused on musical output when selecting artists for the project, they wanted to make sure that trans musicians occupied a prominent place on the slate. V.E.X., Aesthetic Barrier and The Bedroom Witch all include trans and non-binary musicians, and Sampson’s own solo side project—Yama Uba—is also featured with "Angel," rounding out the selection with soaring vocals and a ruthless, insistent drum track.
Sepehr Mashiahof—who performs as The Bedroom Witch—embodies the multiple themes within Sacred Spells: she's an Iranian-American trans woman and self-identified witch, and her work courses with social justice and occult themes. Her track from Sacred Spells, "This House is No Longer," is a chilling reckoning, layered with melodic bells, squiggles of synths and poetic lyrics. In an email, she praised Sampson's efforts to use creativity to help trans people facing violence and discrimination.
"For those who are watching this continued targeting of trans and non-binary people (especially against Black trans women) unfold and are looking for ways to help seek justice for the community," she writes, "Supplementing the efforts of TGI Justice Project and other similar organizations directly is an accessible place to start."