Ryan Downey

musician | arts thinker


That Beat is Queered: The LGBT Community’s New Hip-Hop Home

Since their relatively recent birth in 1970s Bronx, rap music and general hip-hop culture have received a deluge of criticism and censorship. Oftentimes rap has been deemed misogynistic, masculine, racially charged, and intolerant of a changing world. However, with a new wave of younger and increasingly intellectual hip-hop musicians, rap is now becoming a proving ground for new ideas, including the acceptance and support of the LGBT (i.e., Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community. 

Recently, with the “coming out” of OFWGKTA member and solo artist Frank Ocean and the latest Grammy win of Macklemore’s “Same Love,” rap and the hip-hop community are becoming a soapbox for another minority. By exploring the roots of rap music, its dissemination into popular culture, its intellectualism, and one of queer hip-hop’s biggest stars Mykki Blanco and her persona, I hope to underscore the natural trajectory that rap and hip-hop have paved toward the voice and expression of a new minority, the LGBT community.

Brief History of Rap and its Support of the Marginalized

From its inception, rap has been considered the musical voice and outlet of many minorities. More specifically, rap began in underprivileged Black and Latino communities and was,

Politically defined as post-civil rights and culturally understood as post-soul, rap music’s originators were a generation of predominantly Black and Latino youth who came of age in an era where, while civil rights had been formally granted, new and more subtle – though no less devastating – racial barriers had been erected. 

Musically, rap is a natural succession from Negro spirituals and work songs, blues, soul, and disco. It began as a combination of sampling musical beats with spoken word and rhymes that grew up in the late 1970s Bronx, New York. But in 1979, when Sugarhill Gang’s song “Rapper’s Delight” shot its way up the popular music charts, it carried the entire genre along its trail. 

While rap is an integral component of hip-hip, it is only one track on the hip-hop record. Hip-hop as culture, thus, comprises more than one component, one example of which has assumed a structural existence as dance culture. Breakdancing was once the quintessential bodily form of expression in the hip-hop community, which has now transformed dance forms such as “dropping and popping” to mass cultural movements surrounding twerking and the Harlem Shake.

As hip-hop grew, it was only a matter of time before it would become the commercialized and money-making industry it is today. After “Rapper’s Delight,” rap gained incredible cultural capital and its artists began to sign deals with major record labels. Today, hip-hop generates $10 billion annually, including not only rap music, but clothing lines, designers, media conglomerates, video games, and sports teams.  Some may think that the commercial popularity and exploitation of rap and hip-hop is counterintuitive:

Whereas it first emerged as an expressive musical form once denounced by many—including the popular media—as socially inappropriate, it now earns billions of dollars for the same record companies that overlooked and condemned rap in its early years. However, it was this extreme commercialization that, over time, led to a number of new dissenting subcultures and genres within the hip-hop community. 

These subcultures and genres have sprung up from an intellectual pool of young talent. Although these artists may not rap about the same struggles of their elders, these artists nonetheless rap about a world that, to them, needs just as much educating about politics and popular belief as the previous generation. The younger generation has grown up in a post-civil rights era where the struggles of equality address both sexual and racial equality.

Ten years ago, the rap landscape was dominated by African-American men; now listeners can see and hear a new group of young women rappers of all races entering the scene, including Iggy Azalea, Azealia Banks, and Angel Haze. Additionally, this newly evolving rap subculture has become increasingly intellectual. With artists like Chance the Rapper, Das Racist, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, and others, rap has returned to its roots as an intellectual commentary on life experiences, treatment of minorities, and political affairs rather than the stereotypical denunciation of mass media and discussion of gender-discriminatory casual relationships. In the current era of record industry domination, and the subsequent rejection of that dominance, another subculture that has sprung up is queer rap. Queer rap is of particular interest to this discussion. 

Queer Rap in Society

Queer rap, although arguably originating soon after the invention of rap, has become increasingly relevant as a form of expression today. One may think that hip-hop culture is a harsh environment in which to be gay; however, as is the case in general society, rap is becoming more accepting. With the budding popularity of the genre, rap and hip-hop is one of the most popular, inclusive, and powerful music communities. 

Recently, there has been an increase of support of the LGBT community from straight rappers. Busta Rhymes, one of rap’s most notable artists, stated in an MTV News interview just after Frank Ocean’s “coming out” that, “We’re at a place in life where we have to respect and accept what people choose as their path in life…I am an extremely huge fan of Frank Ocean. His music is impeccable and as far as I’m concerned I respect him completely.”  On top of the verbal support of artists such as Busta Rhymes, Murs—a rapper from the infamously gang- and drug-prevalent south central Los Angeles—recently released a song called “Animal Style.” This piece delineates the story of two gay men living within society’s gendered and repressive constraints. In the accompanying music video, Murs notably plays one of the gay men and is featured kissing and showing affection for his on-screen boyfriend. In the face of the media barrage that followed this video release, Murs explained that although he isn’t gay, he was providing a voice to a community that our society has long repressed.

An additional and more popular story of a heterosexual rapper supporting the LGBT community is the recent success of Macklemore. Macklemore and his DJ Ryan Lewis broke onto the scene with their commercially successful album The Heist. Together, they created an album unlike any before it, particularly given that it was independently produced, recorded, and released. Instead, the group relied on buying radio airtime to generate buzz and captivate listeners. In addition to their guerrilla recording and release tactics, they included a song that many believed controversial. “Same Love” has since become an anthem of a generation. The song’s message of equal rights for the LGBT community may have first seemed to many to be a commercial hindrance. Now, with the nomination of “Same Love” for the Song of the Year award and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s 2014 Grammy win for Best Rap Album, vocal support of the LGBT community is no longer taboo. While the heterosexual artists supporting the LGBT community comprise little more than a few men who rap and speak about equal rights, they represent a voice that is gaining volume in the heterosexual male-dominated hip-hop world. 

Lesbian and bisexual women are also becoming a mainstay in popular rap music—most notably with artists such as Syd the Kyd, Azealia Banks, and Angel Haze. Although lesbians in hip-hop will not be explored in depth in this paper, lesbian rap is a subculture within the current rap movement that deserves at least a mention, as it relates to the importance of the voice rap provides to serve the minority. Leslee Grey states that:

As reported in mainstream media outlets over the last few years, young queer women have adopted the markers of hip-hop style, for example, baggy clothes, baseball caps, and Air Force One sneakers. Many of these so-called studs are themselves bourgeoning hip-hop performers, looking hard and spitting rhymes as well as any male playa can. 

In addition to lesbians who wear hip-hop styles everyday, recently there have been several drag kings who don the overtly masculine, baggy clothing of current popular rappers to create their persona. The drag kings who have begun to “put on” the stereotypical masculine hip-hop characteristics claim to feel empowered by the sense of freedom and power that may have been unobtainable in street clothing.  

The forgoing anecdotes have provided a backdrop to the discussion of performers that will be discussed next. Many of these artists are pioneers in their music, stepping beyond boundaries that have been in place for decades. Hopefully, the efforts of others in the LGBT community and their allies who are participating in queer hip-hop and rap are creating an accepting world in which the following gay artists can continue to live and thrive.

Mykki Blanco

When walking around his neighborhood street of New York City, Michael Quattlebaum Jr., doesn’t draw much attention. Usually donning a beanie and some denim and black, he looks like most other New Yorkers his age. However, in 2012 he “decided to step out for the first time in head-to-toe drag, including a black bathing suit with padded breasts and fake Chanel purse.”  This may not seem to be the story of an emerging hip-hop star, but Mykki Blanco—this bathing suit-clad woman—is taking the rap world by storm. 

To find where Michael Quattlebaum/Mykki Blanco and gay rappers in general fit into the often times ultra-masculine, stereotypically noninclusive hip-hop culture, it is worth analyzing Mykki Blanco like any other rap artist. As seen in previous portions of this paper, hip-hop began and continues to act as a voice of the voiceless and marginalized. In an interview for the album Cosmic Angel, Mykki says that “teenagers harass gay people to an insane amount.”  This statement, prefaced with Mykki’s opinion that this harassment isn’t even discussed in the gay media—let alone the mainstream—implies that Mykki’s voice (the voice of the voiceless, a defining and founding principal of rap music) isn’t being heard. During this same interview, however, Mykki stands in front of a group of teenagers in Harlem and proceeds to freestyle. At the end of the two minutes of unexpected great rap, the teens can’t help but cheer. Over the past two years since this particular interview was made, the cheers for Mykki Blanco have only gotten louder.

One essential characteristic that defines rappers, both old and new, is the creation of a persona. In his book Rap Music and the Poetics of Identity, Adam Krims discusses this fashioning of a persona and its inextricable link to the rapper and his or her identity in both hip-hop and the general media. Krims continues to describe a particular rap artist, Ice Cube, stating that:

Ice Cube’s entire early persona, straight down to the ubiquitous scowl, depends on the collapsing of the angry, aggressive, and politically charged figure onto the historical figure of O’Shea Jackson (Ice Cube’s given name); thus, while the identity formed in the song “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate” is as virtual, in a sense, as that of any singing or rapping voice in a song, the production of that identity serves a dual purpose. “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate” here is both persona and artist, the formation of the necessary collapse of the two which one may see as synonymous with “keeping it real. 

Michael Quattlebaum takes advantage of the same collapsing of persona on person. He is both Michael and Mykki, and it is this persona that has created such a strong gay hip-hop performer. The duality if his persona creates a hip-hop personality that can both appeal to the historical masculine side—that is, someone in touch with the streets and drugs—and to a feminine side portrayed by Mykki Blanco, who is in touch with the popular fashion of today. 

To continue this argument and apply it more aptly towards Mykki Blanco and his duality, Mickey Hess, in his article “Metal Faces, Rap Masks: Identity and Resistance in Hip-hop’s Persona Artist” expounds upon Krims argument saying,

such play can take the form of a mask itself, as rap artists obscure, confuse, or split their identities to subvert the often conflicting standards of authenticity and marketability. The persona artist constructs a second, distinct identity that goes beyond a change in name. Although a mainstream artist like Eminem may alternate names to form his trinity of Eminem, Slim Shady, and Marshall Mathers, none of these is an entirely separate persona as much as an aspect of the same MC. 

By examining the music video to Mykki Blanco’s song “Wavvy,” I hope to further define and delineate the persona artist that Krims and Hess argue are  necessary for hip-hop and rap—the persona that Quattlebaum has created.

The “Wavvy” video switches between two very clear focal points of the persona. The first is Michael Quattlebaum, dressed in only ripped jeans and a silver and black Raiders hat; the second is Mykki Blanco, a club queen sitting on her throne. The video begins with a drug deal: Michael is buying Wavvy from a friend. Michael’s masculine vocabulary and mannerisms are juxtaposed with painted fingernails and an effeminate voice. He is jumpy, looking around for cops and ready to run at a moments notice. The themes manifest in the first fifteen seconds of the “Wavvy” music video are the themes familiar from the beginnings of rap. It is important for Michael to keep his music relevant and relatable to the rap’s general public. 

Mykki, however, is portrayed as a glamorous, seductive queen, a side of the hip-hop persona that has been seen in music videos and pop culture by artists such as Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj, both of whom are known for their glamorous but risqué styles. Lil’ Kim, for example, infamously wore nothing but a pasty on her left breast during the The MTV Video Music Awards in 1999.  This event was not unexpected, however, as Lil’ Kim’s hip-hop persona was known for “raunchy lyrics and looks.” 

Mykki Blanco’s first appearance in the music video takes place during the song’s first hook. The setting is a chic, prohibition-era club adorned in gold and candlelight. Mykki is scantily clad in nothing but a short, gold sequined skirt and a long strawberry blonde wig. This juxtaposition is striking and Michael and Mykki truly unite two sides of hip-hop with a single persona. The rags-to-riches story so often heard in rap lyrics has become Michael/Mykki’s story of rags and riches—both of which are important to the Michael/Mykki persona. 

Krims’ and Hess’ idea that a rap musician’s persona becomes one with the actual person is an important point to remember as hip-hop becomes more accepting of its LGBT artists. Krims states that the persona in hip-hop is almost synonymous with the idea of “keeping it real”—an integral part of hip-hop culture. The idea of being one’s self without succumbing to societal demands and expectations is a cornerstone of rap culture, and is an important reason that rap is becoming the voice of the marginalized LGBT community.

Hip-hop and rap, having begun as a community and form of musical expression for the minorities of New York City and its boroughs, continues to grow into a genre of music that supports men and women of any race and sexuality. Fans of hip-hop have fallen in love with personas from the undeniably masculine Jay-Z to the lesbian Azealia Banks, from the straight ally Macklemore to the gay Mykki Blanco. It is only natural, then, for this music to support a diverse worldview and to continue to do so for years to come.


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