Queer on the mic
Is rap music the final frontier for GLBT artists?
Published Thursday, 11-Nov-2004 in issue 881
On stage, JenRo looks like your average, aspiring hip-hop star, with mic in hand, hat cocked to the side, baggy jeans, and a hip-hop attitude that is both cool and confident. A quick scratch below the surface reveals, however, that JenRo is anything but average. The Bay Area MC is what some would call the queen bee of homo-hop – a vibrant, underground hip-hop movement dedicated to open expression of GLBT identities and issues on the mic. Part musical genre, part political statement, homo-hop and its enthusiasts throw the lyrical middle finger up at anyone who says there is no room for gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender voices in rap music, and fight for a day when sexuality will be a non-issue on the mic.
JenRo, who recorded her first rap song on a tape recorder at age 13, never thought to conceal her lesbian identity on the mic. “Honestly, I never really made a serious decision to keep it on the DL,” she told the Gay & Lesbian Times recently via email. “At 14, I would just rap [about] whatever came out in my rap book, which was real life. I wrote what I did that day and about the girls that I liked – you know?, normal teenage stuff. Not until recently did I have to think that it was a problem for people to listen to how I really feel and live. But I think it’s important for me to be out as an artist because there are many people who go through the same struggles as me and can’t find music to relate to. Hip-hop is about being real so I’m not going to follow other ‘closeted’ MCs because the rap game will never change without leaders.”
The “rap game” that JenRo is referring to is illustrated by a long history of homophobic and misogynistic sentiments in hip-hop music. We can all easily recall the images of GLAAD protestors picketing outside record stores to protest bigoted lyrics from mainstream MCs such as Eminem and DMX. Many homo-hop artists, including Deadlee, a gay MC based in Los Angeles, believe that the best way to combat against this bigotry is to provide listeners with a strong, proud alternative.
“I think all the pressure some gay organizations have put on the reggae and rap artists that are homophobic has at least brought light to the issue,” explains Deadlee, who has always felt the importance of being an out MC. “My only problem is that there is a fine line between an artist’s right to say what he wants and organizations like GLAAD who try to stifle it. I think what GLAAD could be doing is showcasing or helping all these gay/trans/lesbian rappers to get there messages out to the masses. They have chosen to attack Eminem, DMX, etc. and give no light to artists like myself who are fighting the battle with the same language. I think if a rapper like myself is heard and seen that it is much more powerful. So my deal is to let people say what they want to say, and hope the gay community gets behind all the homo-rappers. That would be a lot better strategy to combat this homophobia in the rap game.”
On the forefront of homo-hop’s battle for visibility is Phat Family Records, an untraditional label whose focus is producing compilation CDs featuring top unsigned homo-hop and homo-friendly artists from around the world, with all proceeds going to GLBT charitable organizations. Phat Family’s compilation series is now in its fourth volume and has helped artists in various U.S. and European cities to connect, collaborate and spread music across the globe.
Many of Phat Family’s artists perform annually at the PeaceOut Festival, an international gathering of GLBT hip-hop artists, activists, fans and supporters, which takes place every year in Oakland. PeaceOut is hosted by East Bay Pride and produced by Sugartruck Recordings (home to popular artists such as DeepDiCkollective and Katastrophe) in conjunction with A.C.R.O.N.Y.M. Records. And as homo-hoppers from around the world will attest, the PeaceOut festival provides performers and fans with more than just a weekend full of good music; the festival has become “the place” to mix, mingle, and connect with like-minded artists interested in exploring the potential of queer hip-hop culture.
Perhaps that is why, when asked, most homo-hop artists will attest that being GLBT in the rap game has actually helped them gain visibility and success. Katastrophe, a San Francisco based, FTM transgender MC, credits the queer community with making it possible for queer MCs to hit the stage and make their voices heard.
“Queer people are so supportive of queer artists,” he explains. “Queer artists don’t just make music or art – they make social change. Or at least I like to think that they do. I would never have gotten the media attention that I get if I was just a straight man. I wouldn’t get to play most of the shows I get paid for if I wasn’t queer.”
And although Katastrophe is not certain that mainstream hip-hop will ever welcome GLBT artists openly, he remains optimistic. “There are so many queers making and listening to hip-hop that at some point they will have to let us in a bit. At least I hope,” he explains. “If not, [for] anyone who wants to join us, there is a vibrant underground scene.”
JenRo agrees. “I think society and the media are both slowly realizing to acknowledge our people positively and just put us on the map. The truth can only be hidden for so long,” she explains. “Black folks, women, and people of color have all struggled and gone through historical movements. As long as we have leaders like myself to help our queer people through our movement to be accepted in this crazy world, slowly but surely, our sexuality will only be looked at as if it were the color of hair.”
Let’s all throw on a pair of headphones, and hope she’s right.