What is Queer Rap?

In another attempt to assign art a neat niche, music journalists bore the term queer rap. In 2012, music writers everywhere dubbed Mykki Blanco, Le1f, Cakes da Killa, Zebra Katz, and House of Ladosha, a group of artists scattered around New York, the queer rap clique. A small storm of think pieces on the genre followed, comparing artists whose only similarities boiled down to their sexual preferences. Then earlier this year, three years after publishing an in-depth overview of the queer rap movement, Pitchfork released an article on its use of the term. “Queer Rap is Not Queer Rap” argues that queer rap is not in fact a genre—it may be easy to classify the work of queer artists as such, but it ignores the broader narrative of these artists’ lyrical and production content.

So, queer rap is decidedly nothing. Artists’ sexuality should not define their work, and these artists deserve more than to be the poster children of an in-today-out-tomorrow underground trend. The pursuit of catchy (read kitschy) genre names shouldn’t overshadow the innovative work that these artists are doing, especially since the LGBTQ community has always been a huge influence on music and culture in a broader sense. From David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust to the television show RuPaul’s Drag Race, LGBTQ art has always permeated the bounds of the mainstream and influenced music, slang, beauty, and fashion. More specifically, the existence of LGBTQ rappers is not new—there is a 2006 documentary called Pick Up the Mic that chronicles the development “homohop,” a genre that started gaining traction in 1990s. LGBTQ voices are finally achieving their overdue recognition and are now shaping the future of music.

Welcome to the future.

The future of rap draws heavily from the archives of LGBTQ history and culture. In the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, director Jennie Livingston made waves for her portrayal of the ball scene of New York City during the late 1980s. The balls featured contests that focused on costume, dance, runway walks, and “realness”— the ability to pass as certain genders or social classes. The balls were held between prominent members of houses, which were both literal homes that provided shelter for individuals who had no other places to call home as well as teams in the ballroom scene. They were like families. The ball scene bred its own legends, celebrities in a community that was otherwise ostracized through racism, poverty, and homophobia. People like Willi Ninja, mother of House Ninja, later gained mainstream success as dancers, choreographers, and runway walking coaches, but first gained their notoriety in the ballroom scene.

These balls and the forms of expressions that emerged from them, among them the art of voguing and slang (e.g. “throwing shade”) which are still a large part of our culture, were a form of self-assertion that was triumphant and even cocky. The bravado expressed in the balls is an inherent part of rap—these two movements that developed in 1980s New York are inextricably linked; however, queer rappers like Le1f, Mykki Blanco, and Cakes da Killa are challenging the notion that only heterosexual, traditionally masculine rappers can release hard-hitting rap. To lump these artists into a genre because of their sexualities is a mistake, but there is a movement happening here—a new generation of LGBTQ voices in rap is challenging the rapper archetype loudly and boldly. They are pushing us out of the old and into the new: new sounds, new aesthetics, and new ideas. Though their sexualities definitely influence the lyrical content of their work, the work these artists produce is innovative. Period.

More concretely, though there is a level of separation between ball culture and what these rappers are doing; aspects of ball culture retain a presence in their art. Le1f’s video with Boody for “Soda” features voguing drawn from ball culture as well as Le1f’s signature aesthetic—near ambient beats, avant-garde fashion, and minimalist yet engaging shots. It’s a marriage of a dance form with a rich history and a futuristic, unexpected sound for rap. That’s the problem with the term queer rap—it shifts the focus from the cutting edge work that Le1f and his contemporaries are doing to their sexuality. House of LaDosha, an art collective that specializes in forms of art from dance-rap to fashion, continues to draw from ball culture both in the name of the group and in their art. Though rappers like House of LaDosha and Le1f continue to draw from the legacy of ball culture, the ball aesthetics, the ballroom sound, and voguing continue to shape music outside of rap too. FKA twigs’ release of M3LLI55X features dark futuristic sounds in its production and is a combination of R&B, trip hop, and electronic music. The short film that accompanies the EP showcases these futuristic aesthetics as well as a vogue battle. Music is moving in the direction of avant-garde, electronic, performance-heavy art, and artists who are at the forefront of that move have significantly drawn from ball culture.

The LGBTQ community is pushing music forward because rap is becoming a more inclusive and diverse genre of music. However, LGBTQ artists are also pushing the boundaries of music by combining several different forms of art like visual art, dance, and fashion as well as by marrying different musical styles. Rap isn’t just expanding as a genre because of the myriad of identities represented in the group of rappers that are pushing their way to the forefront of our conversations; rap is expanding because of the large development and diversification of sound that is happening within the genre—whether it’s hard-hitting, industrial rap, or electro-soul-rap love children, rap is becoming bigger and better. The result is studio recordings, music videos, and live performances that are innovative and exciting, and that is due in large part to LGBTQ artists. So, let’s stop pin-holing the artists who are shaping the future of the genre.

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