LGBTQ representations in hip hop music
|LGBTQ hip hop|
|Stylistic origins||West Coast hip hop, queer theory, third wave feminism, pop-rap, bounce music|
|Cultural origins||1990s in the United States|
LGBTQ representations in hip hop music have been historically low. Hip hop has long been portrayed as one of the least LGBTQ-friendly genres of music (along with heavy metal and country music) with a significant body of hip hop music containing homophobic views and anti-gay lyrics. However, since the early 2000s there has been a flourishing community of LGBTQ hip hop artists, activists and performers breaking barriers in the mainstream music industry.
Labels such as homo hop or queer hip hop group all artists identifying as members of the LGBTQ community into a subgenre of hip hop based solely on their sexuality. These subgenre labels are not marked by any specific production style, as artists within it may simultaneously be associated with virtually any other subgenre of hip hop, or may also make music that falls outside the subgenre entirely. Rather, the terms are defined by a direct engagement with LGBTQ culture in elements such as the lyrical themes or the artist's visual identity and presentation.
Artists who have been labelled as part of the genre have, however, varied in their acceptance of the terminology. Some have supported the identification of a distinct phenomenon of "LGBTQ hip hop" as an important tool for promoting LGBTQ visibility in popular music, while others have criticized it for essentially ghettoizing their music as a "niche" interest that circumscribed their appeal to mainstream music fans.
Many artists have contributed to the increased visibility and social acceptance of the LGBTQ community's presence in hip hop music, most notably Frank Ocean, who penned an open letter addressing his sexuality in 2012. Artists such as Mykki Blanco, Big Freedia, Le1f and cakes da killa are also at the forefront of creating a more inclusive representation of bodies in the hip hop genre. There has also been an increased presence of LGBTQ allies in the mainstream hip hop community, such as Jay-Z, Murs, Macklemore, and Ryan Lewis.
The homo hop movement first emerged in the 1990s as an underground movement, particularly in California, in part as a reaction to the widespread acceptance of homophobia in the lyrics of mainstream hip hop performers such as Eminem. Lyrics in songs such as "Criminal" on The Marshal Mathers LP demonstrate this homophobia. Initially coined by Tim'm T. West of Deep Dickollective, the term "homo hop" was not meant to signify a distinct genre of music, but simply to serve as a community building tool and promotional hook for LGBT artists. According to West:
It reflected an effort to give credence to a subgenre of hip hop that the mainstream was ignoring. It's not a different kind of hip hop, but places identity at the center of production, which is a blessing and curse. I'm a hip hop artist, ultimately, who happens to be queer. Homo Hop, as a mobilizing medium for queer artists, did, in fact, serve a purpose, initially.
West's bandmate Juba Kalamka offered a similar assessment:
Should there be a separate term for female emcees like femcee? Or ones like gangsta? Crunk? Trap music? Snap? Africentrist? Conscious? Whatever. In many cases the terms get created or reappropriated by people because they need something to make them stand out, or to validate their cultural or social space. 'Homohop,' like any other subcultural subgenre designation, gave and still gives a listener or fan something to grab onto. The first person I heard say 'homohop' was my former bandmate Tim'm West in the context of an interview in 2001...and even then it was a big joke, totally tongue-in-cheek. If you called it 'Fruit Rollup,' people would be saying that now.
In a 2001 interview with SFGate.com, West elaborated on the movement's goals:
Ideally, queer hip-hop can create changes. It can be the critical check for all the negative aspects that have come out of the culture in the last few years. You won't be able to assume there isn't a faggot in the room; you won't be able to assume there isn't a feminist in the room. Hip-hop will be different because we decided to participate in it openly and with honor.
The genre received a mainstream publicity boost in 2002 and 2003 when Caushun was widely reported as the first openly LGBT rapper to be signed to a major label, although Caushun was later revealed to have been a publicity stunt engineered by heterosexual musician Ivan Matias.
Notable events in the 2000s included the PeaceOUT World Homo Hop Festival, which was founded in 2001 and mounted annually until 2008, and the 2006 documentary film Pick Up the Mic. However, some music critics in this era dismissed the genre as too often sacrificing musical quality in favour of a "didactic" political agenda.
The most commercially successful LGBT rapper in the 2000s was Cazwell, who emerged as a popular artist in gay dance clubs, and has to date scored six top 40 hits on Billboard's Hot Dance Club Songs chart, with a hybrid pop-rap style which he has described as "if Biggie Smalls ate Donna Summer for breakfast". Cazwell described his philosophy of music as "create your own space, your own music and have people come to you," and has noted in interviews that he achieved much greater success by "breaking" the rules of the hip hop industry than he ever did in his earlier attempts to pursue mainstream success with the 1990s hip hop duo Morplay.
One of the first mainstream artists to speak out publicly against anti-gay discrimination in hip hop was Kanye West in a 2004 interview with Sway Calloway on MTV News. In the interview Kanye says, "Hip-hop does discriminate against gay people. I want to just come on TV and tell my rappers, my friends, just stop it, fam. Seriously, that's really discrimination". Kanye criticized the hip-hop community, saying, "Hip-hop seemed like it was about fighting for your rights in the beginning, about speaking your mind, and breaking down barriers or whatever, but everybody in hip-hop discriminates against gay people. To me, that's one of the standards in hip-hop is to be like, 'You fag, you gay'".
By the early 2010s, a new wave of openly LGBT hip hop musicians began to emerge, spurred in part by the increased visibility and social acceptance of LGBT people, the coming out of mainstream hip hop stars such as Azealia Banks and Frank Ocean, and the release of LGBT-positive songs by heterosexual artists such as Murs, Macklemore, and Ryan Lewis.
Although inspired and empowered by the homo hop movement, this newer generation of artists garnered more mainstream media coverage and were able to make greater use of social media tools to build their audience, and thus did not need to rely on the old homo hop model of community building. Many of these artists were also strongly influenced by the LGBT African American ball culture, an influence not widely seen in the first wave of homo hop, and many began as performance art projects and incorporated the use of drag. Accordingly, many of the newer artists were identified in media coverage with the newer "queer hip hop" label instead of "homo hop".
In 2008, Jipsta released the single "Middle of the Dancefloor" which spent a total of 14 weeks (peaking at #6 for two consecutive weeks) on the Billboard Dance Club Play chart. This achievement was noteworthy for LGBT hip-hop as it marked the first time an openly gay white rapper earned a Top 10 single on the Billboard Club Play chart. The following year, Jipsta released a cover of the George Michael song "I Want Your Sex", which rose to the #4 position on the Billboard Dance Club Play chart in only 4 weeks time, resulting in the first Top 5 Billboard charting record by an LGBT hip-hop artist.
In March 2012, Carrie Battan of Pitchfork profiled Mykki Blanco, Le1f, Zebra Katz and House of Ladosha in an article titled "We Invented Swag: NYC Queer Rap" about "a group of NYC artists [who] are breaking down ideas of hip-hop identity".
In March 2014 the online magazine Norient.com published a first overview of queer hip hop videos worldwide. The article talks about topics, aesthetics and challenges of LGBT hip hop in Angola, Argentina, Cuba, Germany, Israel, Serbia, South Africa and the USA."
In December 2016, Los Angeles-based rapper Thed Jewel, who raps "My skin is black, sexuality is Fuchsia" said: "There are a lot of rappers that are homosexuals and their day to be open with it will come one way or another".
Some artists, however, have criticized the genre as an arbitrary label that can potentially limit the artist's audience and may not actually correspond to their artistic goals or career aspirations. In 2013, Brooke Candy told The Guardian:
|“||What is so bothersome to me, with these emerging gay rappers, is that they've created a new genre called 'queer hip-hop'. Why the fuck is there a new genre for the same-sounding music? Half of the people rapping up there are gay and people don't even know it.||”|
One unspecified artist declined to be interviewed for the Guardian feature at all, stating that he preferred to be known as a rapper rather than as a "gay rapper". Eric Shorey, author of “Queer Rap is Not Queer Rap,” contests “queer rap” labeling, arguing that “comparisons between gay and straight rap (as if they were two distinct genres) simply doesn’t make sense without implied bigotry”. As Shorey writes, this subversive genre is steeped in racism and homophobia in and of itself, and merely serves to further marginalize the identities and narratives it allegedly gives a voice to. Though Western society has a predisposition to impose socially construed labels and binaries, Shorey dismisses the notion of heteronormative categorical identification, insisting that listeners ignore these sexuality-based hip hop classifications and listen more closely to the quality of music being produced. He also suggests that queer artists should be booked alongside straight artists, showing that they are equally talented, and deserve the same amount of recognition.
Despite criticism, others have been more circumspect about the dichotomy. British rapper RoxXxan told the Guardian that "I want to be perceived as 'RoxXxan,' but if people label me as 'gay rapper RoxXxan' I'm not offended." Nicky Da B told Austinist that "Basically, I perform for a LGBT crowd but also for everyone. A lot of the bounce rappers that are rapping and touring at the moment are all gay. The LGBT community just capitalizes on that I guess, from us being gay, and they support us on it, so that's how it goes I guess."
Another criticism arises from the perceived commercialization of LGBTQ representation by hip hop artists. A good example of this is with Nicki Minaj and her approach to presenting sexuality and sexual orientation. She often times presents queerness in her music videos and lyrics. A notable moment was during her Vladtv interview where Nicki was asked how a man should approach her. She deflects and diverts to her love for women, saying "I like girls to approach me". At the same time Nicki has never explicitly confirmed queerness and has only publicly been associated with male significant others, lending her sexual orientation further ambiguity. This approach has been analyzed by critics of Nicki as strategic queerness and is often times rejected by queer advocates as a performance, and is controversial because it may appear to be appropriative for commercial gain.
- Abdu Ali
- Angel Haze
- Anye Elite
- Azealia Banks
- Bali Baby
- Big Dipper
- Big Freedia
- Big Momma
- Brooke Candy
- Cakes da Killa
- D. Smith
- Deep Dickollective
- Fly Young Red
- Frank Ocean
- God-Des and She
- House of Ladosha
- Jay Dillinger (aka Marlon Williams)
- Jonny Makeup
- Juba Kalamka
- Katey Red
- Kevin Abstract
- Lil Nas X
- Lil Peep
- LIL PHAG
- Drew Mason
- Jonny McGovern
- Kate Tempest
- Melange Lavonne
- Mykki Blanco
- Nicky da B
- Princess Nokia
- Queen Pen
- Rainbow Flava
- Rainbow Noise
- Samantha Ronson
- Lucas Charlie Rose
- Saul Williams
- Sasha Sathya
- Sissy Nobby
- Will Sheridan
- Shorty Roc
- Soce, the elemental wizard
- Steve Lacy
- Syd tha Kid
- Taylor Bennett
- Tim'm T. West
- Tori Fixx
- TT the Artist
- Young M.A.
- Yo Majesty
- Zebra Katz
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