People who are unfamiliar with rap and hip-hop, or who hold biased views about what messages the industry supports, consider the genre to be one filled with horror and hatred. While there are some songs with oppressive language, and diss tracks that most literally start wars, these are by no means the extent of rap culture. Since its development, rappers and hip-hop musicians have released songs celebrating racial identity, gender, peace, and non-normative sexualities. Though the latter may be the most difficult to believe for those underexposed to this music (remember Tegan/Sara vs Tyler the Creator, Perez Hilton vs Azealia Banks?), positive portrayals of sexuality within rap music could have an incredible impact on sexual minority youth, and the culture at large. While gay (et al.) hip-hop is known to exist in very specific spaces or niche communities, I want to draw attention to how conscious rap supporting marginalized sexualities can be found in the mainstream music that is most accessible to youth, and how messages of support can be heard over the radio and throughout record stores.
I remember squealing in excitement when shown what was supposedly a video of Nicki Minaj, pre-fame, talking about her sexual relationship with Remy Ma. I don’t think I was alone in thinking of Vixskin products when listening to Jessie J’s “Do It Like a Dude” (with a video featuring some lovely butch women). While these signs of sexual fluidity and possible sexual minority identities are sometimes contested by both fans and artists, there have been dozens of other hip-hop and rap musicians that do outwardly identify somewhere on the queer spectrum. Even more have taken an actively pro-gay stance in opposition to the false stereotypes of rap music’s heavy homophobia and misogyny. I am going to start with my number-one, be-still-my-heart celebrity crush, Raee’n Wahya, who performs as Angel Haze. This powerful and talented musician identifies as pansexual, and discusses sexuality in her radical and brutally honest lyrics, i.e. “I was extremely scared of men/so I started liking girls” from “Cleaning Out My Closet.” In “There Goes My Baby,” “How to Love”, and numerous other songs, Angel Haze focuses on her relationships, and breakups, with women. In this way, she goes beyond the “I Kissed a Girl” pop bisexuality that seems to terrify people. Still, Angel Haze does have other, more light-hearted odes to her sexuality including “Make it Raee’n”, a song entirely about her sexual partnerships with women, containing lyrics like “This is for them girls that like them other girls back…You say we can fuck but you ain’t gay/well okay, what you call that?”. Besides owning her queer sexuality, Angel Haze is also active in feminist and race politics. Many of her autobiographical songs tackle issues of colonization, oppression, and sexual violence, and are rallying cries for strength and acceptance.
Current competitor Azealia Banks also claims a queer sexuality, identifying as bisexual. Her incredibly popular “212,” possibly one of the most censored songs on the radio, includes multiple references to cunnilingus between two women (with the catchy refrain, “I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten”). Though Nicki Minaj frequently changes how she labels her sexuality, her lyrics contain plenty of lady-loving queer subtext. Most important, Minaj is active in reducing stigma towards sexual minority identities. In particular, she has realized the negative impact frequent calls of “no homo” in music and popular culture can have on individuals. In working to repair this, she has replaced the term with “pause.” “Pause,” Minaj explained, “means no sexual connotation intended” (Ganz, 2010). Through both the change of terms and the definition, Minaj has started a trend away from [possibly unconscious] homophobia in music.
Other rap and hip-hop artists use their art as a way of promoting social justice. Jayne Dooe, an L.A.-based hip-hop artist, was almost entirely unknown outside the area before “Hell Yeah” was picked up by LGTBQ+ media and played ad nauseum. The song asserts Dooe’s lesbian identity, and argues for unapologetic acceptance (“Hell yeah I’m gay/and I don’t care what people say…and I will never change my ways.”) The Deep Dickollective (D/DC), a hip-hop group formed in the Bay Area, has spread throughout the country, engaging artists in what they call “Homo-hop.” By celebrating Black history and culture, D/DC hopes to engage in a progressive, global embrace of queer identities. In “Mariposa Prelube,” D/DC attempts to reclaim “mariposa,” or butterfly in English. The term is used in Latino communities as a derogatory descriptor of gay males.
In this rap song, D/DC reconstitutes masculine and heteronormative identities in hip-hop by calling on “queer boys” and “queer girls” to emerge like “caterpillars,” to come out of their cocooned state of “fear” and to move into a “most powerful” and “counter-hegemonic” stage in their political development (Wilson, 128).
Le1f, with his knee-tremblingly deep voice and amazing style, is very open about being gay in this music and the media. He also writes many political songs relating to his identity. However, he chose to leave them off his albums, claiming: “I am gay, and I’m proud to be called a gay rapper, but it’s not gay rap. That’s not a genre. My goal is always to make songs that a gay dude or a straight dude can listen to and just think, This dude has swag” (Frank, 2012). In this way, Le1f helps increase visibility of gay men without alienating the people who would most benefit from a change in consciousness.