Music

Meet Ceréna, the Juno-nominated dance-pop singer who's ready to be heard

How coming into her trans identity helped this Toronto singer make the best music of her career.

How coming into her trans identity helped this Toronto singer make the best music of her career

A graphic of Toronto pop singer Ceréna. She wears an all-white outfit with her hair in a loose up-do. She's gazing into the camera with a defiant stare.
After years of being told she had to repress her queer identity, Toronto dance-pop singer Ceréna is in total control. (Taija Grey; graphic by CBC Music)

Ceréna has stage presence for days. Every single fibre of her resonates with radiant energy. From the big moments, hitting every beat in her over-the-top choreography to intimate moments when it's just her, a mic and a spotlight, she knows how to command an audience. Her voice cuts through all the noise: clear, defiant, ready to be heard. She just has that undeniable pop star it-factor. 

Ana Ceréna Sierra grew up in a Colombian household in North York, on the edge of Scarborough, where music was always playing and her family was always dancing: merengue, cumbia, salsa. The music and performances of artists like Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, ABBA, Ciara and Missy Elliot equally shaped her early childhood. She won talent competitions in elementary school and studied musical theatre in high school, she put thousands of hours into extra curriculars, her parents worked multiple jobs so she could pursue her dreams. 

Sierra has been trying to make it in the industry since she signed to a label in 2012, but has recently hit her stride after years of being told she had to deny her queer identity to fit the right molds. As she fully comes into her own as a trans woman, she's making the music she always wanted to all along. 

Fresh off a mainstage performance at Toronto Pride and with an appearance at Osheaga Music and Arts Festival in Montreal coming up, the experimental dance-pop artist is on the way to gracing even bigger stages. 

And while she's basking in it all, she's still weighed down by the gravity of all she had to overcome to get here. Her 2021 debut album, Resurrection, which includes the Juno-nominated track, "See," was written in the pits of depression as she grappled with her identity. 

"So much of my art did come from a dark place, but it's like the music is how I transmute that suffering into something that's beautiful and positive," Sierra said in a phone interview with CBC Music. "There are so many things that people do to cope with the pain, so I'm thankful that I have this outlet, but it's kind of weird to think that all my trauma is now bringing me success, it's such a trip."

The first time Sierra performed publicly as a woman was for a set on Club Quarantine in 2020. She is one of the co-founders of the queer-led livestreaming party series that skyrocketed in popularity during pandemic lockdowns when real-life clubs were shut down. The range of international queer DJs, singers and drag performers that they booked for Club Q inspired Sierra to fully accept herself. 

"Club Q changed my life in so many ways, because I was exposed to queerness all around the world and that gave me the courage to take the next step," she said. "Like that's how I changed my name, that's when I really dove deep because I saw other people just like me being joyful and thriving." 

Pop music is a world of possibility, a playground where any reality can be created but Sierra was only able to tap into this element of the genre once she escaped everything that was stunting her progress: the forced conformity in theatre school, the repression of her queerness while signed to a label and her own internalized transphobia. Now, as an independent artist, she's making the best music of her career. Below Sierra takes us through the journey that led to her Resurrection.


Memories of a high school music theatre star 

Sierra went to a performing arts high school in Toronto and specialized in musical theatre. She likens the experience to a "glorified gay conversion therapy" where gay students were taught to obfuscate their identities so they could play straight men and be believable. It was important to hide any markers that would read as queer, to be able to sell the fantasy and get hired after graduation. 

"Music theatre being an art form that is so archaic, I once had a teacher go through each person in the class and tell them what their archetypes were, and when he came to me he was like, 'you don't have a type.' Which was not seen as a good thing. 

"In my graduating year, I got a lead role in every show I did. One of the show's was Rent, and I played Angel. Casting directors attended our performances and everyone who played the straight characters got signed and I did not because this agency was waiting for me to play a straight character. In the following show I did, I played a straight boy and I was so believable and that's when I finally got signed. That's when they saw my value, not after the incredible performance I did as Angel, a drag queen, a trans person on stage." 

Industry setbacks; stunted growth 

Although she was signed, Sierra ultimately decided she didn't want to pursue musical theatre if these were the confines she'd be constantly placed in. So, she focused on becoming a pop singer. Unfortunately, she came up against similar roadblocks and the expectation that she'd suppress certain aspects of herself to be a viable, marketable artist. From managers who made her feel insignificant to a label that shot down ideas she had for music or video treatments that incorporated her identity, the period before she went independent was a discouraging time. She left her label in 2018 and now runs her own music company, Angel Spirit Entertainment, and as it grows she plans to help platform other queer artists. 

"Back in 2012, I was so young and so impressionable that I was willing to try to play the game but that just brought me even deeper into depression. I had to suppress so much about me, there would be so many fights about what I was wearing and all these things. And I ended up wearing black all the time, because it was like the only thing that would remove any amount of signals that I was a queer person.

"I tried to make things work with my team because I'd invested a lot of time. I always knew that I had a voice and important things to say with it. But it made me sad that no matter what I did, it just wasn't clicking — these labels didn't want anything to do with me. 

"The final moment came when I created a whole video treatment with a director that revolved around me discovering ballroom, and this is even before I was in the ballroom community because I wanted that so badly. But that was shut down because it was centered around queerness. And once that happened I realized I was going to have to start again from scratch, on my own."

Finding the House of Siriano

The video for "See" seems to be the natural progression of that denied video treatment. Sierra walks through the streets, takes over a movie theatre and vogues all while accompanied by other members of the House of Siriano. Part of Sierra getting to where she is now is thanks to the support of her ballroom house (of which Toronto singer James Baley and rapper Myst Milano are members). Now, she's no longer dreaming of what it would be like to be part of ball culture, she's thoroughly embedded in it. 

Sierra knew many of the pioneers of Toronto's ballroom scene back when they were teenagers but she always denied herself the ability to explore it. Without knowing anything about its origins, she'd written it off as "street" and disparate from the institutionalized music and theory she was learning in school. She recognizes this now as white supremacist ideology seeping in and governing her beliefs. Ballroom was founded by Black and Latinx queer people in 70s' New York and the houses were safe havens for young gay and trans people to find chosen family.

"Ballroom is an absolute dream. It saved me. When I saw [Jenny Livingston's 1990 documentary film] Paris is Burning for the first time I was at the beginning of my journey to self-actualization. I'd been depressed for months and I spent all my time in bed, just watching anything. I f––– bawled watching it, to see Black and Latinx trans people at the forefront of this movement, I was like 'Where have I been, what am I doing!' I decided I could not stay wallowing in my sorrows, when they were doing that s–– in the 80s', they were really roughing it out. It was a disrespect for me not to continue that legacy. 

"One weekend I went to a QTBIPOC mental health retreat and Twysted Miyake-Mugler and the House of Siriano did a small performance. Then, they opened it up and saw me in the crowd and encouraged me to try it out. I did a bit of a runway moment on stage and I tried a little voguing without having done it before and that was the beginning of it all. I started going to practice and now I'm a Siriano. 

"It was very important for them to be in the "See" video with me. It was a dream shoot, we worked with a queer and trans-led production company and it was so nice being on that kind of set." 

The struggle towards 'Resurrection' 

After the tribulations of 2012 to 2018, and then coming into herself in 2020, there was a lot weighing on Sierra's mind. She was left with a fair bit of trauma to unpack and internalized transphobia to overcome. She feels she's been in a constant state of resurrection. She found her way back to spirituality and that helped her understand her trans identity better. The songs she wrote for Resurrection are reminders to herself, words of affirmation, promises to keep. The joyous energy of "Gender Euphoria" is a testament to the high she felt when she started living in her truth. The bubbly house track "See" is an uplifting anthem, speaking directly to her past self. As she sings on the album closer, "Resilience and patience is key." 

"[After leaving the label], I had to learn how to sing again, I had to relearn my body. Through my healing process I learned how much emotional trauma manifests itself in the physical. I was having a lot of vocal issues, I hadn't been able to sing properly in months. It felt like I was being choked and that stemmed from my anxiety, my inability to speak my truth. My throat chakra was blocked, it was causing all that tightness. My heart chakra was so blocked, because of the pain.

"I grew up Roman Catholic, and that was a traumatizing experience, and that made me an atheist. When I hit rock bottom, I started getting into meditation and yoga and finding other forms of spirituality, something outside of the structure of Christianity, that had hurt me so much. 

"One day, in yoga class, I was cooling down, taking in the practice and it was at that moment where I felt her for the first time. She was so beautiful and she had long black hair. I had no idea what I was experiencing, I was holding back the tears. I went home that day and I recorded myself to document the moment, to talk through it. 'Why did I feel safe? Why did I feel whole and warm?' And that was the first time that I asked myself if I was trans. I asked it with a lot of fear and disgust as if it was like the worst thing that could ever happen. But throughout my journey, she made her presence known again and again. 

"From the moment I allowed her to come through, everything has come in so beautifully. Even though I'm experiencing such polarizing emotions, I am moving through the world with ease. I feel like I can take on those challenges now because of this wholeness that was never there. I wasn't grounded before." 

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