The Media's Problem With Gay Rappers
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As the larger tide turns, smaller ones ripple too. In the past few years, a number of underground rappers who proudly identify as gay or transgendered have garnered increasing visibility in the mainstream. A few years ago, New Orleans bounce rapper Big Freedia began rising to become the most famous out gay/trans rapper ever, touring the country to packed venues psyched to shake it to her homegrown booty music. Last summer, Loco Ninja, a spunky rapper from Spanish Harlem, gained popularity through "Imma Homo," a track and a viral video with Rainbow Noise (and appearances on Tyra's talk show). During A/W 2012 fashion week, the infectious single "Ima Read," by art school mavens Zebra Katz and Njena Redd Foxxx, soundtracked a grip of runways with a threat pulled straight from vogue culture. The phenomenally talented Mykki Blanco released an incredible EP, a PSA for teens, and was photographed by star-shooter Terry Richardson. Odd Future's Syd the Kyd is nonchalantly out as a lesbian, and made out with a pretty girl in the first video from her group the Internet. And Le1f's "Wut" video is ever popular, showcasing his unique deep-voiced style and accomplished dance moves.
All of this is wonderful. These artists are talented and deserve to be heard, and not just for how they express their sexual orientation or gender identity. But that's the problem: as their stars rise, they're increasingly being boxed in rather than celebrated as out, and not by choice. They're being further marginalized by being tenuously lumped together.
The visibility of figures like Le1f and Mykki Blanco is a great boon to hip-hop and for rap fans who are also progressives, it's like a weight being lifted to see an increasing multiplicity of figures in a culture we grew up with. But the way the topic is being approached, revered, otherized, and sometimes even stereotyped in the media has become more and more troubling, a reminder of how long even allies and advocates have left to go. These rappers grew up on Foxy Brown and Ma$e and Juelz and OutKast, just like the rest of us, yet some outlets seem perplexed by the existence of rappers who are out and gay, and can actually rap. The music media clearly has very little idea how to deal with expressive homosexuality in hip-hop, even when it's not all that in-your-face.
Additionally, the history of hip-hop homophobia certainly comes into play, and while there have been plenty of out gay rappers for decades—including Katey Redd, Big Freedia's best friend, who's been releasing music since the 1990s; Katastrophe, a transgendered Bay Area rapper who's had a steady fanbase for 15 years; and '90s icon Queen Pen, who has rapped openly about lesbian relationships but is ambiguous about her orientation—this is the first time any rappers who are out and living by hip-hop tenets have been given mainstream coverage.
Reasons that some of these artists are being treated like unicorns are not outlandish. These are all excellent artists who are shining in a subculture that has historically said it does not want them. Still, as Le1f and Mykki Bianco are referred to in the media as "gay rappers," you'd be hard-pressed to find many examples of journalists writing about "gay guitarist Bob Mould" or "gay singer Michael Stipe."
I don't advocate whitewashing their identities, because they should be able to incorporate their identities to varying degrees, in whatever they please. But it would be nice if writers would write about rappers' sexual identities as nonchalantly as they do rappers who are, say, weed smokers. It’s one aspect of complex identities being played out in a far more complicated structure than monolithic qualifiers. As Mykki Blanco tweeted Friday, "I wish music writers would look at [what] I've accomplished before they continue to decide my future on their own terms."