Disclaimer: I do acknowledge that I am perpetuating this label of “queer rap” by disclosing in which ways these rappers identify themselves in the queer community. These labels should not be a part of any conversation concerning the music of these artists just as the sexuality of heterosexual artists are not considered in their general work, but I also find it essential to point out their identities in order to make a point about the monumental nature of their success in an industry that is overtly homophobic.
Growing up in an area dominated by the Hip Hop culture, I often heard the word faggot dropped in rhymes from booming stereos. The neighborhood boys, in bright sneakers, would congregate around neon orange cars with spinners and booming bass and they would nod their heads to homophobic lyrics, unaware to the influences of the rap they are listening to.
Hip Hop is a contradictory subculture. It is a culture of hyper masculinity yet it derives its core from fringe elements that eschew heteronormativity–House, Bounce, and Disco are all genres that were seen as radical and underground during their early stages because they blur the line between gender roles. The nascent Gay Movement mirrored the rise of Hip Hop within the USA and both included defiance to authority and relentless questioning of entrenched, mainstream values as defining characteristics. However, the paradox of Hip Hop consists of its excess homophobia despite the obvious influences of queer culture on its development. For years, gay slamming and derogatory usage of “faggot” has been and still is an accepted practice within Hip Hop. Even as the LGBTQIA movement has become more mainstream, Hip Hop has been slow to change as evidenced by the rise of “No Homo” and “Pause”, terms used to dispel homosexual connotations when something “gay” is said. Rappers acknowledging the influence of queer culture on their work is very new to a plurality of the public. Until recently, there really hasn’t been any overt endorsement of the LGBTQIA community and there certainly hasn’t been any catering towards them.
However, over the past three years, Hip Hop has seen a gradual easing of homophobic sentiment. A$AP Rocky and Kanye West have loudly disavowed homophobia, and Jay Z voiced support for marriage equality. This is generally a result of a generational shift as well as a broadening of the genre’s fan base. Less than a decade ago, there were witch hunts to destroy the careers of rappers who might be gay, but Hip Hop’s new prominent role in pop music has made overt homophobia untenable. Because of this, a new breed of rappers, predominately originating from New York City, have emerged as cultural pillars to a new generation of queer youth. Not only are these rappers appealing to LGBTQIA kids everywhere, they are slowly breaking into the mainstream consciousness.
Take Azealia Banks for example. Her upcoming album, Broke With Expensive Tastes, is one of the most anticipated albums of the year and no matter how many times her album is pushed back, anticipation keeps building among big name music publications such as Rolling Stones, Complex, and Pitchfork. This is significant because her soundscape is filled with raucous House music (long considered the territory of drag queens, transvestites, and openly homosexual performers like Big Freedia, Katey Red, and Sissy Nobby) all in perfect harmony with the traditional heavy bass of Hip Hop. She makes no secret that a large chunk of her fan base are young gay males and she has been hailed as a high fashion goddess, an industry that is constantly at odds with heteronormative values. Her track, “Fierce,” is strongly influenced by drag culture as she features a “fierce” drag queen to drop sassy lines and to perform the hook and bridge of the song. Another of Azealia’s track, “Ima Read,” is a remix of Zebra Katz’s “Ima Read,” a song that pays homage to voguing and the 1990 documentary on ball culture, Paris is Burning. Katz’s video for “Ima Read” itself embodies characteristics of the emerging culture in that it demands stylistic expression independent of mainstream culture while still being very enjoyable for the average person to listen to.
To add to our list, Le1f, has produced House infused beats for Hip Hop act Das Racist’s most famous song, “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.” Le1f himself has ventured into rapping, releasing his own viral hit, “Wut,” a song that leaves no listener guessing what his sexual orientation is and features him dancing on the lap of another man. While not the epitome of mainstream culture, Afropunk Fest, which has had acts such as Erykah Badu, Janelle Monae, Danny Brown, and Questlove, has featured gay rapper Le1f in its 2013 summer lineup. Le1f has released three mixtapes within the span of one year and all three have been released to much fanfare from publications like the FADER and Pitchfork. He, just like many of the queer rappers here, produces a sound in his mixtape that is very much ahead of the stylistic curve. In that, Le1f demands artistic recognition.
Another rising queer star, transgendered rapper Mykki Blanco, also featured in the 2013 Afropunk Fest lineup, was an artist on Adult Swim’s Summer Singles Program alongside talents like Miguel, Killer Mike, Autre ne Veut, and Madlib. I don’t even know whether to refer to Mykki as he, she, or ze—she (I will refer to her with the feminine pronoun for the sake of coherence) seems like an amalgamation of genders in her music, channeling her feminine sexuality while still exuding the masculinity demanded by rap culture. At times it can seem like two different people are rapping on the same track but their similarities are close enough that a cohesive personality is formed. Armed with a fierce tongue and a high fashion entourage, Mykki has taken the NYC cypher circuit by storm and is being noticed while simultaneously enthralling music heads across the country with her mixtape, Cosmic Angel: The Illuminati Prince/ss.
However, even with the monumental success of these artists despite the odds, a very troubling aspect that has accompanied this rise of queer rappers is that the music community and the Hip Hop genre are quick to label the artistic works of these rappers as “Gay rap.” This is problematic because it focuses the conversation on the sexuality of the rappers instead of their music and the label acts as a barrier that separates “true rap” from “queer rap.”
When artists like Le1f are rapping, their sexual identities and gender politics are in the fore, but they are usually not brought up by the artists themselves. These artists don’t talk about the validity of their identities, they assume it outright. Mykki Blanco, for example, raps “Oh this fag can rap’/Yeah they saying that they listening” and this is as close as most of these rappers get to addressing public perceptions. This allows the rappers to talk about their sexual experiences in a nuanced way rather than treat their sexualities as something to be simplified for their listeners. By attaching the gay label to their work, we are in essence removing focus from the complexity of their music and instead refocusing on their sexual identities. This focus on the gender politics and sexual identities of these rappers alienates potential listeners whereas just referring to “queer rap” as regular rap allows queer artists to operate within a larger scope and gives them an authentic layering that allows these rappers to appeal to a larger range of Hip Hop heads.
Gay rappers are becoming a part of the mainstream conscious and it is time that they are given the same privileges as their straight counterparts. Ending usage of the “queer/gay rap” label is one way of combating heterosexual privilege in the Hip Hop world; it is through the disuse of that term that rap can evolve and diversify its roster of sounds while pushing attitudes about gender and sexuality politics in a progressive direction. There has always been the question of whether Hip Hop will ever have queer rappers. Well here they are and at this point, it’s not a matter of whether Hip Hop is ready for them, but a matter of whether Hip Hop can adapt to them. Times are changing; the new generation of neighborhood boys are rocking skinny jeans as well as progressive outlooks, and the old homophobic sentiment is beginning to fade. These rappers are making waves and the power of the internet has amplified their power to create and influence.
--Djibril Sail '16