I've seen and heard the word thrown around a lot by people without a clue. Allow me to clarify: "queer" is about complication. Queer is fluid. Queer can mean gay, but it encompasses much more than that. And it's not to be pinned down or wrapped up neatly. Queer takes the normal — all kinds, not just the sexual, but the racial, gendered, conventional normal — and irritates it, twists it, melts it down, sews it back together nasty, with the parts mixed up and painted black. And it's meant to make you uncomfortable. Queerness is meant to make you feel unsure about the ground beneath your feet.
The same can be said of any of the number of artists at the helm of what some have termed a second wave of 'LGBT' hip hop, following the homo hop movement of the nineties. Big names Le1f
and Mykki Blanco
. Rashard Bradshaw, aka Cakes da Killa
. The queer collective House of Ladosha, who opened for Azealia Banks' Mermaid Ball back in 2012. Angel Haze, with her confessional revision of Eminem's "Cleanin Out My Closet"
that deals with sexual abuse and identity. New Orleans' godmother of bounce, Big Freedia
. Every one of them is transgressive, transcendent, in sound and aesthetic. (See: Blanco, sporting a silken Selma Blair wig and a Sagara Sanosuke jacket, rapping in Harlem to the delight of a group of teens who moments before were harassing her.) The fact of their queerness — overt sexuality and use of drag and everything in between — is what makes the recent migration of these artists into the mainstream so exciting.
A disclaimer: I'm a gay with a laptop. I don't have any first-hand, on-the-ground perspective on any of this. I've just spent a lot of time trawling for interviews and mix-tapes and videos of performances on the internet because that's the nature of the music these artists make. Though I think there's something to be said about the timing of this mainstreaming of queer music, and the relatively recent growth of the internet as an artists' space, where money isn't necessarily the imperative.
At this point, it's banal to say that I'm tired of Lady Gaga. But I am so, so tired of Lady Gaga. And Macklemore. And Katy Perry. And any other pop magnate capitalizing off of the HRC's utopian, reductive progressivism, sweeping up Grammys in the process. Not just because "Same Love" sounds like a burning hospital, but because these are normative artists effectively trying to represent queerness when they have a very minimal understanding of what it means. Even Frank Ocean's open letter detailing his same-sex relationship failed to really challenge any standards (and it's worth mentioning that Odd Future's only female member, Syd tha Kyd, is an out lesbian, but that's mysteriously failed to draw any attention.)
The fact is that queerness doesn't need a straight ambassador or proxy to music. It is not enough, and it isn't even necessary, because queer musicians are present. They've been present. And the image that people like Macklemore make out of that queerness is much more sanitized, much more digestible, much less progressive than the reality of the work of Mykki, or Angel Haze, or Cakes. A lot of what they're doing is confrontational. It's crass, aggressive, sexual, and undeniably gay. ("Thinking About You" could be about a relationship straight or gay, but things aren't so ambiguous on Cakes "Fuck Ya Boyfriend.") It's not that these artists carry any kind of gay agenda — many are quick to assert that it's just the opposite. So says Cakes, "I'm not thinking about it as me trying to be the poster boy for this Frank Ocean progressive riff in music ... this is just me doing what I like to do. So I don't really have a fucking agenda or a prerogative." The progressiveness to these artists and their work is implicit, by virtue of their just making music, and being visible.
So it's a mistake to write off queer rappers as queers who rap. The two identities aren't distinct. And it's inaccurate to say that they're receiving attention solely because they're queer, because the music they're making is good. In addition to being socially other, they're also technically, stylistically alternative, drawing not only from things like ball culture, but also from punk and riot grrrl. They sound better — or at least more interesting — than a great deal of mainstream hip hop. It suggests that there's a correlation between non-normativity and ingenuity in style.
It's equally as important that the biggest artists working within the realm of queer hip hop are people of color, also. We don't need to filter queerness and queer culture through straight, white voices (think Madonna with "Vogue", lifted criminally from the drag ball culture in the documentary Paris is Burning
. Think "twerking" getting an entry in dictionaries only after it's been appropriated and popularized by Miley Cyrus). With Le1f performing on Letterman (in snow boots), there's reason to hope that the times approaching when queer voices in music will be able to speak over those that would presume to speak for them.
Of course, part of the appeal of these artists is that they're still available. They're still human. The Wikipedia pages are spare. The content's still on Bandcamp. You have mutual friends with these artists. They haven't yet exploded into Beyonce-level pseudo-deity celebrity. But they're on their way.