Queer hip-hop: breaking down barriers


Rene Rodriguez

Chicago-born rapper Big Dipper was recently featured on the Viceland show “Balls Deep.” 

By Arts & Culture Editor

Chicago-born rapper Big Dipper seems to share physical attributes with a hip-hop star like Rick Ross: a hefty build, big chains, busty video vixens and hyper-sexualized lyrics. But the similarities end there.

Big Dipper is part of the rap scene known as “queer hip-hop,” which has a distinctly different message and audience, although the same fascination with jewelry and high fashion, Big Dipper said.

“All these boys look like pretty boys wearing designer clothes, but no one in the mainstream is talking about being gay,” Big Dipper said.

And that’s a problem: Queer content—and the rappers themselves—has been marginalized, and mass success is out of reach for these performers, Big Dipper said.

Big Dipper is not alone in his belief. Other queer rappers, including Le1f, Mykki Blanco and Cakes Da Killa, have gained loyal followings but have yet to break into mainstream hip-hop, where they’re often classified as a subgenre—“queer rap.” Appropriation of gay culture—and, in particular, slang—is at the forefront of hip-hop, but gay artists themselves are kept out of the spotlight.

Within queer social circles, gay rappers, like Big Dipper and West Coast performance-based duo Double Duchess, have been extremely successful, gaining a cult-like following through social media followers and club promotions worldwide.

Big Dipper said queer hip-hop took off in 2012 under the phrase “homo-hop” because queer rappers wanted to own their sexual identities through rapping.

“They wanted to make their own name for themselves in order to be seen,” Big Dipper said. “The backlash was that a lot of artists were saying, ‘Well, why do I have to be gay? Why can’t I just be an artist, speak to the truth of my own life, and if people want to listen, they want to listen?’”

The mainstream hip-hop community has had a long history of homophobia. Eminem, for example, has been heavily criticized for using derogatory slurs aimed at the LGBT community.

In addition, prominent rappers in the hip-hop community have been accused of being on the “down-low,” or hiding their sexuality, in order to maintain their prominence in the mainstream community.

Hip-hop also faces the same problem as other popular music genres—cannibalizing its influences without extending credit, queer rappers say.

Big Dipper said as a white rapper, he is always aware of appropriation because he is working in a predominantly black music genre.

“It’s like that T-shirt that says, ‘White girls copying gay guys copying black women,’” Big Dipper said. “It’s all about privilege. Culture is initiated in one group, and someone who has more access and privilege borrows from it, and they get seen as an innovator.”

Krylon Superstar of Double Duchess said the appropriation of queer rap culture is nothing new. He notes how popular music has appropriated queer culture since the disco era, when Donna Summer  “ripped off” Sylvester’s music.

“The gay world has always been for fronting a lot of what is subculturally interesting,” Krylon said. “It’s part of the very fabric of being queer because we have a community that’s consistently changing creatively.”

The appropriation of gay culture is not only evident in hip-hop but almost every form of pop music. Madonna turned the underground dance “voguing” into a worldwide phenomenon, and hair metal in the ‘80s turned the masculine world of rock ‘n’ roll into a scene full of crimped hair and lip-liner.

Alain-Philippe Durand, director of the University of Arizona’s Africana studies program and founder of the country’s first college minor focusing on hip-hop, said the rap community has always been a sort of melting pot of different subgenres. He said he does not understand why queer rappers would not also have a place in the mainstream genre. In the old-school days of hip-hop, the ideological type of rap like Public Enemy’s song “Fight the Power” and Grand Master Flash’s “The Message,” took a more political stance. Though, other subgenres of hip-hop like the comedic type of rap from artists like The Fat Boys and the Beastie Boys were also popular on the radio.

“If you look at rap itself among heterosexual male rappers, you don’t just have one kind of rap, and it has always been that way,” Durand said.

If, in theory, the hip-hop umbrella ought to be all-inclusive, as Durand said, queer rappers contend it is very exclusionary in its practice.

Big Dipper said queer rappers have always felt pressure to hide their sexuality in the mainstream rap community, while heterosexual rappers have always dominated the genre.

davO, who makes up Double Duchess with Krylon Superstar, said it is difficult for queer rappers to be taken seriously as hip-hop artists because of the homosexual themes present in queer hip-hop. davO said music of all genres includes sexually-charged lyrics, but those sexual themes are considered taboo in hip-hop when coming from a gay male.

“It’s still taboo to be referred to as a queer hip-hop artist because the reality is you’ll suffer on a mainstream level,” davO said. “The ability to cross over to the mainstream is more difficult the more explicit you are about sucking d–k. Those are things that are just not going to fly. But at the same time, some people need to talk about it and that’s the reality of their lifestyle.”

Many queer rappers who want to reach a wider audience walk the fine line of trying to shake off the “gay” label without abandoning their queer identities. But those hopes have proven to be nothing more than wishful thinking. Heterosexual artists have been championed for embracing the gay community, but many gay rappers remain isolated to the “homo-hop” genre.

The market began to improve for queer rappers about four years ago, though, when heterosexual rappers began showing signs of abandoning the genre’s homophobic reputation. Rapper Lil B named his EP I’m Gay (I’m Happy), Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ gay rights anthem “Same Love” won mainstream success and Nicki Minaj embraced the gay community in her performances and an interview with Out magazine, all suggesting gay rappers may soon be welcomed in the established hip-hop arena.

But some rappers in the queer hip-hop community would prefer not to be labeled at all.

Sissy Nobby, a prominent figure in the New Orleans bounce music scene—an energetic New Orleans-based rap style of the city with roots dating back to the ‘80s—said he wants to have his music appeal to a broader audience, instead of being pigeonholed to the queer demographic.

“I don’t want to make the music seem too gay,” Nobby said. “I’d rather ease my way into [the rap scene]. But, I also want everyone to relate to my music and understand where I’m coming from.”

However, Nobby does not hide his sexuality. He said it is important for gay artists to continue to speak out honestly to show how gay culture influences music.

“[Mainstream artists] take a lot of the things we do in the gay community and take credit for it without ever giving us the proper recognition,” Nobby said. “If you have someone like Nicki Minaj talking about ‘shade,’ that doesn’t help us much. But if you put more support behind gay artists, we can show where the art comes from rather than praising people like Madonna or Macklemore.”

Cazwell, an East Coast-based gay rapper, said he does not foresee hip-hop becoming more inclusive in the near future given the genre’s history of homophobia.

“If you’re a straight-up hip-hop label, you’re probably not looking to sign a group or rapper who’s ‘out’ or gay if you know your clientele has association issues with that,” Cazwell said. “That’s basically the problem. Being gay is never seen as a positive [in rap].”

However, Krylon thinks change could happen, citing Prince’s success despite his androgynous style and sexual fluidity. Krylon said while Prince was able to reach a broader audience with his music, the queer hip-hop community still has a long way to go to reach that level.

“When he first came out with Controversy, he talked a lot about, ‘Am I black or white? Am I gay or straight?’ And how forward thinking it was to even say that and still have people in the hood singing about that was absolutely amazing,” Krylon said. “But there’s still going to be a slow progression for people to get over [being gay].”

Michael Kolar, owner of Soundscape Studios, a recording studio in Uptown, said artists’ queer identities should not detract from the music they create.

“It shouldn’t take away from anything,” Kolar said. “There is no tenet or pillar of hip-hop that says it should be straight only. It’s not detracting from its origins or principles that have obviously been so forgotten about at this point anyway. No one knows what the five pillars of hip-hop [rapping, breakdancing, DJing, graffiti and knowledge] are anymore, anyway. It’s become mainstream music now.”

Many queer hip-hop artists are still in no rush to sign with a major label. Independent artists are gaining more popularity with self-released music more than ever before.

Big Dipper may never be as widely successful as famous rappers like Rick Ross, but he said he is OK with that. He’d rather shape his career without the help of a major label looking to pigeonhole him as a gay artist.

“We’re breaking down those barriers now, so you don’t have to be a queer audience member in order to listen to a queer artist,” Big Dipper said. “It used to be so much more of a political statement than it is today. Back then, if you were making music with gay content, it was about speaking up and being political. Now, it’s more about self-expression because so many awesome and brave artists paved the way for us.”