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When Will There Be a LGBTQ Renaissance in Rap?

Musicians Big Freedia, Young M.A and Lil Nas X are some of the key queer figures in hip-hop and rap.
Musicians Big Freedia, Young M.A and Lil Nas X are some of the key queer figures in hip-hop and rap.
Photo: Tommaso Boddi (Getty Images), Arturo Holmes (Getty Images), Amy Sussman (Getty Images)

In the last few years, there have been progressive strides towards the visibility of female rap artists. In 2017, Cardi B became the first female rapper in nearly 20 years to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart (after Lauryn Hill). Since then, Lizzo, Doja Cat, Nicki Minaj and Megan Thee Stallion have also had No. 1 hits. Streaming has helped to amplify the voices of female rappers who aren’t always pushed to the forefront by the mainstream, such as Rapsody, Tierra Whack and Noname, giving them a platform and hordes of new fans eager to hear what they have to say.

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While it’s incredible to see the support from labels and fans for these talented women, will the same respect be given to rappers who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community? In the nearly 50 years that hip-hop and rap have been known and celebrated, we’ve witnessed emcees from all walks of life become cultural figures in their own rights. In the same vein, we also tend to see and hear a certain type of emcee over others—one who checks every box that aligns with the genre’s firm power structures both sonically and aesthetically, leaving many talented artists out of the equation simply because of who they are.

Hip-hop itself is an extension of black culture and the community that birthed it, one that carries a longstanding, well-documented history of homophobia and transphobia. This mindset often translates to the lyrics made famous by some of the game’s top artists, such as Eminem’s rampant homophobia in 2000’s “Criminal,” Lil Wayne’s use of “faggot” in 2008’s “A Milli,” and Kanye West’s “no homo” bar in Jay-Z’s 2009 hit “Run This Town,” instances hardly scratching the surface. Even more recently, Offset’s verse in YFN Lucci’s 2018 track “Boss Life” finds him saying “I cannot vibe with queers.” He later apologized for using the term, which he said was not used in jest towards the LGBTQ community.

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Richy Rosario, a music journalist and producer whose work has been seen in VIBE, Teen Vogue and XXL, points out that hip-hop often pushes for more traditional imagery in order to align with the beliefs found in the black community—that means more macho men and over-sexualized women are thrust to the forefront.

“It’s instilled in our culture and in many others that [men] can’t express femininity. We always have to be strong,” Rosario, who identifies as gay and Afro-Latino, explains to The Root. “It’s the same type of thing [in hip-hop], and a lot of those ideas go back to the black church: Oh, God don’t like that.

If rap and hip-hop are extensions of a community that, historically, doesn’t take too kindly to queer people, why do they still enjoy listening to it? Why do they want to be a part of it? Brooklyn-based rapper Cakes Da Killa, who has been rapping professionally since 2011 and was featured as a contestant on the Netflix reality show Rhythm and Flow, explains that the genre speaks to his experiences growing up regardless of his sexual orientation. (He identifies as gay.) He says once someone finds their way to hip-hop, it’s hard to get it out of them.

“It’s something that’s just in you, whether you’re going into the bodega or it’s the music your parents listened to,” he says. “And it’s also one of the ways in which we communicate with each other; it’s a creative outlet.” He dropped his latest song “DON DADA” on June 5 via Bandcamp, and his EP MUVALAND will be released soon.

Felisha George, a New Jersey-bred rapper and community organizer who competed against Cakes on Rhythm and Flow, echoes these sentiments to The Root but also understands the are hangups of listeners who realize that the musician they’re listening to loves in a different way. George, who was praised on the show for her Lauryn Hill-esque vibe, identifies as a lesbian.

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“[A song or beat] can be fire, but it’s not accepted [by listeners] because ‘Oh they’re gay, they’re trans, we don’t know what that is, we don’t know what that looks like, I don’t want to hear that gay shit,’” she explains. “Men don’t like to feel threatened about what they feel is theirs. ‘We’re the only ones who could really do this, and you can only get in if we let you.’”

From a business standpoint, money is thrust into acts that are going to generate buzz and popularity because of their aesthetic, brand, and a “star” quality—ability isn’t always as important. While there are talented queer artists who align closely with rap and hip-hop, such as Frank Ocean, ILoveMakonnen, Syd of The Internet and Odd Future fame, and Lil Nas X, we haven’t truly seen a full-fledged, out-and-proud queer emcee among the genre’s upper echelons or in “Best Of” conversations. George says that the industry has a propensity to prop up “men who don’t appear to be gay” as hip-hop’s LGBTQ figures. (“A lot of us didn’t know Frank Ocean was [bisexual],” she notes, and as we know, Lil Nas X did not come out as gay until after the success of “Old Town Road.”)

This isn’t to say that there aren’t queer rappers in the industry who get noticed. Young M.A, Chika, and Big Freedia have thousands of supporters of their work. There’s also Le1f and Brockhampton’s Kevin Abstract (who are both gay), Angel Haze (who is openly pansexual) and Mykki Blanco (a trans woman), who represent their communities while letting their talents take center stage. But despite their abilities, they’re not catapulted into as many mainstream conversations, because as we know, certain artists receive precedent and popularity over others.

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“A big part of the entertainment industry, unfortunately, is sex appeal,” Cakes says. “[Many labels] are controlled by men, and a lot of times these men are not going to want to get behind you because you don’t get their dick hard. That goes for straight men or gay men.” Young M.A and Chika are lesbians who present as “butch” (masculine), while Big Freedia, who identifies as gay, wears colorful outfits and long wigs, and uses both “he/him” and “she/her” pronouns. Their aesthetics, while authentic to them, could play a factor in the way they’re acknowledged by labels and to consumers. Strikingly similar caveats are established within the female rap circle, as a more oversexualized musician is pushed further.

“I’ve even had times in my career where I’m like, ‘Maybe I should wear something different, maybe I should show my shoulders,’” George laughs. “That’s just not me.” She tells The Root that during Netflix’s Rhythm and Flow, she was asked to wear a “low V-cut” top and “push-up bra” under her signature cape during an episode, which she rejected.

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“‘Oh, you don’t know what you’re talking about, you should wear this, it’s going to look good, people are going to like it,’” she recalls. “I don’t care about how people feel. I care about how I feel and if I’m being genuine...I felt like I was so excited [for the show], to then get there and see that there’s all these barricades and all these things that stop you from feeling like you can be yourself.” While she didn’t win, George says Rhythm and Flow opened her eyes to what she wants in her own career, which is authenticity and individuality rather than mainstream success.

She also detailed the show’s onboarding process, where she notes that producers asked her questions pertaining to her sexual orientation and gender identity. (“With these shows, they choose whatever part they think about you is most interesting and use it to market you,” she sighs. “I was just like, ‘I’m not going to tell them I’m queer,’ because I also don’t want that to be the front line of what they choose to use to talk about me.”)

During Cakes’ audition round performance on the show, judge Cardi B asks him point-blank: “In the industry, do you think that you’re gonna be that first gay artist?” a comment he says is designed to “pigeonhole” rappers into being labeled, instead of just being talented.

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“The media makes it seem like [queerness] is a new hot thing or it’s now ‘trending,’ because that’s what helps drive sales,” Cakes says of the comment. “That whole idea of being ‘the first’—we can’t think like that, because that’s on some token shit. You should be able to thrive in any industry that you want to partake in and anything that you’re good at, regardless of your race or your sexual orientation. It should just be a no-brainer.”

“Labels and music companies need to do a better job at marketing [queer artists],” Rosario believes. “LGBT artists have to have the agency and the autonomy to express themselves how they want to. Don’t use [the community] as a prop to make the music something cute or cheeky to sell.”

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This also means applying pressure on queer consumers to support the music-making members of their community, not just the LGBTQ-aligned divas they “stan” for.

“The majority of these fan bases are made up of gay men,” Cakes notes. “My issue is that people who are in my community don’t give themselves the chance to become fans [of queer acts]. But that has to deal with a lot of internalized homophobia and a lot of other things. There’s so many up-and-coming gay acts that are open [about their sexuality] and touring, and we need to put that money into ourselves.”

Are there ways that straight hip-hop figures can work to make sure there’s LBGTQ representation in the industry? All three experts believe that people need to listen and educate themselves, because growth is possible. For instance, Tyler, The Creator’s earliest work both solo and with the music collective Odd Future was riddled with homophobia. Yet his music today appears to highlight his own experiences with his sexuality growing up. Rosario believes that Tyler’s lyrics reflect growth and acceptance of himself if he is indeed queer (he has never formally announced it), while Cakes says that—given Odd Future’s “trolling” beginnings—he’s unsure what to make of the 180-degree change.

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“Sexuality can evolve or change,” he explains. “Even looking at myself, there have been things on my journey [with my sexuality] that have developed or things that I’m not really into anymore. But when it ends up looking like queer-baiting and pandering because those are marketing tools, that’s when it’s kind of annoying. But that comes from people not having an idea of history.”

“That whole idea of being ‘the first’—we can’t think like that, because that’s on some token shit. You should be able to thrive in any industry that you want to partake in and anything that you’re good at, regardless of your race or your sexual orientation. It should just be a no-brainer.”

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Hip-hop allies also need to understand that their words and actions can be alienating. During the beginning of her career, Nicki Minaj toyed with bisexuality during performances and in songs, such as in Usher’s “Lil Freak.” In 2010, she told Rolling Stone that she acted like she liked women to get attention, and in her 2020 verse in Doja Cat’s “Say So” remix, she says, “used to be bi, now I’m just hetero.” Given her largely gay male fanbase, this bar could be damaging to their own views about their sexuality and the person they admire.

“[Minaj] says it’s not cool anymore? Then let me sit my ass down,” George says. “It’s so important for us to be mindful of what we’re saying because it really does stop people from being themselves and from taking up space. It takes so much away from a whole community of people that live this life and died because of how they are, that work so hard to get somewhere, just to not be let in because of who they choose to love or how they choose to appear.”

All three experts believe straight-queer collaborations and using platforms to effect change is what will really change the anti-LGBTQ issues within the industry—and throughout the genre’s history, there has been progress in that respect.

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Ice-T’s 1991 album O.G. Original Gangster highlighted one of the first times a straight rapper condemned anti-gay sentiments on wax, specifically on the song “Straight Up Nigga.” Drake features the recognizably energetic voice of Big Freedia on “Nice for What” from the 2018 album Scorpion. In his 2017 song “Smile,” Jay-Z revealed his mother is a lesbian, and a poem she wrote about her experiences is heard at the song’s outro. His work towards LGBTQ amplification earned him a GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Vanguard Award in 2019 alongside his wife Beyoncé.

“You have these tough conversations, so I think allies need to have conversations because that’s how you educate people,” Cakes says. “You have to do the work now, and sometimes when you do the work, it makes things uncomfortable.”

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Despite advancement, we still have a long way to go until LGBTQ+ fans of hip-hop’s sounds and stories are highlighted more frequently—without interference from labels; without suppression of their individuality or their sexuality. Queer people and women will always go to bat for their community despite not always having their actions reciprocated. Now, it’s hip-hop’s turn to support them.

“With George Floyd and the recent incident that occurred in Minnesota, [black queer people] show up for [straight black people]—we’re right there for you,” he says. “But when it’s a gay or transgender issue, it’s very silent, we don’t get that type of support...there’s this double standard there that I don’t like because at the end of the day, guess what? I’m still a black man and I go through the same things you do, but double because I’m also queer. The same principles apply in hip-hop.”

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“Straight people have been taking up space forever, and it’s time to show a different narrative,” George explains. “It’s not bad or weird or disgusting to be queer. To be clear: it’s normal, it’s a beautiful thing. But, if everyone who’s mainstream is saying words like ‘faggot’ and ‘no homo’ and ‘pause’ and all that other shit, we’re losing the color and the queerness and the joy of life. We need to create in the way we want to, and not pick a side, or pick a gender, or pick how you want to appear just to get where you want to go. That’s just not fair to art itself. Art itself is queer. No one artist is the same, and we should be making space for everyone.”

Pronounced "Jay-nuh."

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DISCUSSION

insubordinateandchurlish
InsubordinateAndChurlish

Great article, J’na, and thanks for including the videos- I’m gonna check these out.