photo: Drew Gurian

Queering Hip Hop Beat by Beat

Hip hop is always changing, and recently LGTB and Queer Hip-Hop – for long time out of sight – has seized the stage. Not as a subgenre, but a part of hip hop culture that has a long history. It’s a history about activism, too, in the USA and worldwide. A short historical round up. An article from the Norient book Seismographic Sounds (see and order here).

In 2012 rapper Frank Ocean declared on Tumblr that his first love had been a man. Surprisingly, this small statement triggered a tremendous reaction from mainstream hip hop, which caused it to start stumbling across its own institutional taboos. By now, Ocean’s admittance should be considered banal; however, queer rappers such as Mykki Blanco and Zebra Katz came into the center of media attention. The two New York-based rapper marked a turning point in hip hop: they are intellectuals, rooted in poetry and performance art, with gender-bending performances that resonate with voguing and the Ballroom culture. Their music is fast rap over minimalistic electronics; their videos heavily edited and visually stunning and sample the pleasure of multiple identities. During the same year, Brooke Candy and Angel Haze joined the playground of queer hip hop and gained mainstream success. Since 2012 it seems, hip hop is officially no longer a heteronormative bubble.

No, I am not gay
No, I am not straight
And I’m sure as hell not bisexual, damn it
I am whoever I am when I am it
Loving whoever you are when the stars shine
And being whoever you be when the sun rises

Angel Haze, «Same Love,» quoting genderqueer poet Andrea Gibson (USA, 2013)

Self-Empowerment

It never was. 1981, a gay center in Los Angeles: John Callahan and David Hughes met and founded «Age of Consent». In their song «Fight Back», the white duo was rapping «I’m a faggot through and through». In an era in which hip hop was still perceived as primarily belonging to black culture, the duo decided that hip hop was a more suitable mouthpiece for gay rights than disco culture. More than 15 years had to pass until LGTBQ rapper such as Me'Shell Ndegeocello, Queen Pen, and Rainbow Flava gained recognition in music business.

LGTBQ hip hop arose not just in the US, but also in Cuba. Queer and vegan activists Las Krudas Cubensi teamed up for rapping in 1996 in Havana and became part of the local hip hop scene. As the popularity of the three women grew, they wanted to link up with other queer scenes in Latin America. However, because of the harsh immigration policies they initially couldn’t answer invitations to give concerts outside of Cuba’s borders; so, they moved to Texas.

Well pardon me for not being a mermaid that
bewitches and seduces and then poisons.
I am ball, whale, turtle, how cool, yellow, brown,
natural.

Las Krudas, «Sy Ke Ser» (What could this be) (Cuba/USA 2006)

An Activist Agenda

There was a good ground to continue, prepared by God-des and She, queer activists, that gained cult status with their song «Lick it». Important for the visibility of these artists in the US and UK was the PeaceOut-Festival (2001-2007) and the documentary «Pick Up the Mic» (2005). Both helped to link and mobilize American LGTBQ rappers in a physical space. What these rappers continue to have in common is a clear activist agenda, the aim to empower and to turn hip hop vocabulary and imaginary into their own. As in many countercultures, subversion is an effective strategy for this. In «Lealef et ha soreret» (2007), for example, the lesbian rapper Shorty from Israel raps over arabesque samples, stating that she has nothing to apologize for and will never hide herself. In the video she sits on a car and depicts herself as a pimp. She turns the tables and slips into the poses of a character that in hip hop is a code for male dominance. In their song «Pro Homo» (2011), Sookee and Tapete (Germany) emphasize that hip hop can be just as homophobic as is their society. They chose a clever way to subvert: with the slogan «pro homo» they reframe the hip hop, typically homophobic slang phrase «no homo».

Cause they wanna know details
And label us
They want our private life
To be a public fuss

Scream Club feat Nicky Click, «You Make Me Smile» (Germany 2011)

However, subversion can only work if one is being heard. In many countries, LGTBQ rappers risk their lives when they defy convention. The lesbian rapper Saye Sky is from Iran, where it’s forbidden for women to sing in public. YouTube and Facebook are also banned, so in 2009 she gave a CD to a Canadian friend and asked her to upload her song about LGTB rights. Right afterwards the government started following her and she had to emigrate. This example show that hip hop stays the voice for the oppressed and is often twinned with activism, but the frames and resources are extremely different — there is still much in the dark.

Now, I know I’m talkin’ blasphemy
Knocking gay culture with a capital «C»
But it never was my sort of scene, you see
I don’t want to be a faggot professionally

Age of Consent, «Fight Back» (USA 1981)

Looking back to the US-American queer hip hop in 2015, the clear political agenda from before seems to have vanished and is being replaced with fun: with the attitude of post-digital pop, Big Dipper, for example, raps «show me your penis» and is playing around with his sexual orientation. Maybe in this context there is no need anymore to use terms such as queer hip hop or homohop. They have helped to promote a space and a community within the hip hop culture. However, they have led to othering as well. Let’s hope they will become superfluous soon.

This text was published first in a very short version in the second Norient book Seismographic Sounds.

Published on December 08, 2017

Last updated on January 18, 2020

Biography

Theresa Beyer gehört seit 2011 als Editorin, Kuratorin und Mitherausgeberin des Buches «Seismographic Sounds – Visions of a New World» zum Kernteam von Norient und beschäftigt sich mit Themen wie Queeren Musikkulturen, experimenteller Musik in Städten wie Belgrad oder Neu Delhi, und reflektiert in Vorträgen über die Chancen des multilokalen Kuratierens. Neben ihrer Norient-Identität ist sie Musikredaktorin bei Radio SRF 2 Kultur.
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