The Rise and Rise of ‘Queer Rap’

Damien Ryan

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Mykki Blanco on stage
Mykki Blanco on stage, by Mads Danquah

Rapper Mykki Blanco – born Michael Quattlebaum – leaps to the stage at his debut Irish show. He’s an impressive 6’3 and is dressed in a metallic orange crop-top and skirt, high heels and bob wig. The packed crowd go wild and he launches into his first track: “Oh this fag can rap? Yeah they saying it / They listening!”

Blanco is part of the most exciting movement in hip-hop in recent memory; the rise of ‘queer rap’. Rap music has kept gay voices quiet for decades, but new generations of rappers are shattering the glass ceiling for gay people in hip-hop and change the public perception of rap music.

Hip-hop legends have been less enthusiastic about the idea of openly gay rappers. Snoop Dogg recently mused, “rap is so masculine… you can’t be in a locker room full of motherfucking tough-ass dudes, then all of a sudden say, ‘Hey man, I like you.” Snoop was also quick to say he himself was not homophobic, trotting out the old “I even have gay homies” line.

Rising New York rapper Angel Haze is less than impressed with Snoop’s assertion. She told The Guardian, “I think it’s a cop-out. It’s like a dad who has spent his whole life telling his son not to be gay, only for the son to turn out to be gay. Also, people can be gay without being excessively flamboyant or constantly throwing themselves at other men. That’s crazy. I think there’s room in hip-hop for tons of gay rappers. I’m sure there’s already loads of them who are too scared to come out.”

Angel Haze performs at Øyafestivalen
Angel Haze performs at Øyafestivalen, by NRK P3

Haze describes herself as pansexual and is frank about her views on sexuality: “Love is boundary-less. If you can make me feel, if you can make me laugh – and that’s hard – then I can be with you. I don’t care if you have a vagina or if you’re a hermaphrodite or whatever.”

It’s this idea of sexual freedom and gender bending that makes the so-called ‘queer rap’ movement stand out so much from the norms of hip-hop.

Mykki Blanco enjoys playing with the masculinity of rap music.

In the video for his breakout track ‘Wavvy’, Blanco is as vicious as any rap counterpart. He originally appears hyper-masculine; standing bare-chested as her barks out aggressive rhymes and taunts to his rap rivals. Halfway through the video Blanco reappears, he’s still naked to the waist but now dons a flowing blonde wig, bejeweled underwear and a pair of heels. He shows that he can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any ‘straight’ rapper – and tower over them when in stilettos.

“I think that that’s the one thing that I pride myself on, that I don’t give myself any limits,” Blanco told The Quietus. “And that took a long time; that wasn’t an easy thing. If I can congratulate myself on anything, it’s that I was able to break down my fears of myself, or what people didn’t like, or what maybe at one time my parents or even those close to me didn’t like, and really just did what I wanted to.

A close friend of Blanco’s is fellow New York rapper Le1f, who just last week became the first openly gay hip-hop star to appear on national television in the US. Le1f’s sexuality was not addressed when he appeared on Letterman; a move that Le1f himself greatly welcomed, tweeting “thank you so much to @Letterman for inviting me on his stage as a musician and not as a spectacle. That’s major. [sic]”

Le1f performed in ski boots and a skort with two male backing dancers. Any doubts about his identity were put to rest by the lyrics of his underground hit ‘Wut’, where he says he’s “the kinda John closet dudes wanna go steady on.” His backing band consisted of famous New York producers Devonté Hynes and Boody, showing a strong musical solidarity with the rapper.

Le1f in his 'Wut' music video
Le1f in his ‘Wut’ music video, courtesy of Elevate

The rise of gay people in rap music is not restricted to just New York’s underground scene, as Californian rapper Brooke Candy shows. Candy’s music is highly sexualized and aggressive, similar to that of Lil’ Kim, but often with strong feminist ideas. Speaking to Vice, she clarified her aims for the rap industry: “Well, being a woman that likes women, I guess you could say I’ve derived inspiration and wanted to promote strong women my whole life. I’m all about women helping women. There aren’t enough collaborations like there were back in the day. Remember that track ‘Ladies Night’ with Missy, Angie Martinez, Da Brat and Left Eye?”

The next step for this generation of queer people in rap music is to carve out their own space within hip-hop culture, and not be seen as some sort of sideshow to mainstream rap music. Artists like Le1f and Mykki Blanco want to be known first as a rapper, rather than a “gay rapper”.

Brooke Candy agrees with them: “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. I understand people being sick of being labeled as ‘gay rappers’, but stand strong.”

On the other hand, Venus X, a musician and club promoter, is wary of so called ‘queer rap’ being appropriated by straight people. She defiantly told The Guardian, “I would never work with Diplo because he’s a heteronormative piece of shit. I would never put gay music on that label. He will just capitalise on whatever is hot at the moment. And being gay is not a question of ‘hot’, it’s just being gay.”

The future is bright for these unabashedly open performers. Angel Haze has already made a major label debut, while Le1f, Mykki Blanco and Brooke Candy have now all signed record contracts. Even if mainstream success and acceptance amongst the more traditional hip hop community doesn’t come soon, these performers promise to continue doing what they do; no matter who is or isn’t watching. “Who was doing it in 2005 before it was trendy and who’s gonna do it in 2020 when people are over it?” says Venus X. “It’s still gonna be the same people. Because this is the culture that they’ve created for themselves to survive.”

Watch Le1f perform ‘Wut’ below…

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Damien Ryan