Home Arts & Culture How LGBTQ+ Hip-Hop Artists Found Their Voices and Changed Culture

How LGBTQ+ Hip-Hop Artists Found Their Voices and Changed Culture

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Indeed, only a couple years later, in 1997, Brooklyn’s Queen Pen — who shot up the Billboard charts as a featured artist on Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” in 1996 — made history with her song “Girlfriend,” featuring Meshell Ndegeocello, where Pen raps to a man, threatening to steal his girl.

Though she dodged reporters’ questions about how she identified, she told The New York Times in 1998 that “two or three years from now, people will say Queen Pen was the first female to bring the lesbian life to light on wax.”

Super-producer Teddy Riley, who worked on the song, heralded it as a sign of progress. “She is teaching women to be what they want to be,” he said at the time. “It’s another level for the rap game.”

Still, Riley correctly speculated that it would take many years for a gay or bisexual male rapper to break through to the mainstream. It was easy for rap’s straight, male audience to fantasize about two women together. But when it came to desire between two men, “I can only tell you the street mentality,” he said. “It’s all right for a woman. But a man?”

The queer hip-hop party circuit expands

By the mid-’90s, more queer hip-hop parties began to spring up, including San Francisco’s Club Red, created by Jamaican American promoter Chantal Salkey. Salkey, who died in 2010, was passionate about giving a platform to queer women of color DJs including Black and Olga T, who identified as a lesbian at the time, but now identifies as trans masculine and uses he/him pronouns.

“Suddenly lesbians are loving hip-hop,” says Olga, who had learned to DJ during the ’90s Club Q era as Page Hodel’s apprentice. Though originally a house music head, Olga made a name for himself while spinning hip-hop at Club Red. The same event producers went on to create Mango, the ongoing, popular hip-hop and Latin music party for women and their friends that Olga has headlined for the past 27 years at El Rio in San Francisco.

Olga T spins at the Dyke March in San Francisco in 1996. (Courtesy of Olga T)

In the early 2000s, on the other side of the bridge in Oakland, promoter Christiana Remington began throwing a monthly women’s hip-hop party called Butta, where Special One was a regular, and would sometimes even get on the mic. Though it attracted hundreds of mostly Black and Brown women each month, Remington ran into some of the same discriminatory attitudes that Black did when she started A.B.L.U.N.T. in the early ’90s.

People called it a “ghetto party,” Remington told LGBTQ+ newspaper Bay Area Reporter in 2011. “It just hurt me so much because it was just a beautiful party,” she said. “Just because it’s predominantly more of one color there doesn’t mean that it’s that. … It’s unfortunate that we have that in our own community.”

Despite these harsh judgments, Butta became a major support for queer women in hip-hop. “I got my break from Christiana Remington,” says Femme Deadly Venoms rapper Aima the Dreamer, who currently produces another long-running party for queer people of color, Soulovely, with house music DJ Emancipation and Lady Ryan, another star of the local hip-hop scene.

After moving to the Bay Area from Hawai’i as a young adult in 2001, Aima came up in the straight-leaning spoken word and conscious hip-hop scenes. In LGBTQ+ nightlife, Aima struggled to be taken seriously as a rapper because of their femme appearance. Their glitter, flowers in their hair and seven-inch platforms didn’t match the masculine presentation of most lesbian rappers.

“You saw these masc MCs who came in and and they were emulating the toxic masculinity of hip-hop, and talking about all the women that they had and the alcohol that they drink and all this stuff,” Aima says. “And here I came in talking about social justice and what it would be like if we healed our trauma.”

As a rapper, Aima later found success touring internationally with groups like Jazz Mafia and J Boogie’s Dubtronic Science. “I also got to have the experience of being a very out, loud and proud queer MC in these very straight spaces,” says Aima, who now identifies as nonbinary. “Pretty much like nine times out of ten after I got off stage, there would be other queer people in the space who would be like, ‘Wow, thank you. I’m queer too, and I exist in this space and I often feel alone, or unseen, or a token.’”

The HERstory crew circa 2002. Top row, left to right: Shanta, Aza, Hobbs, Samantha (Sister Squid), Black, Dovanna, Boyuyaka, Amalia. Bottom row: Jessica, Loushana Rosa, Sandra, Leema, Tiffany, Aima the Dreamer. (Courtesy of Black)

‘Homo-hop’ finds its voice in the underground

While a small number of queer rappers found footholds in straight rap spaces, the price of admission for many was downplaying or altogether hiding their sexuality. Meanwhile, a contingent of artists rebelled against the status quo and created a queer movement in the underground: homo-hop.

The experimental hip-hop group Rainbow Flava emerged from San Francisco in 1997, and one of the members, Dutchboy, launched Phat Family, an online community and email listserv that allowed queer hip-hop artists and fans from all over the world to connect for the first time. In 1998, Phat Family became a record label, and featured national and international LGBTQ+ rappers like LA hardcore rapper Deadlee, Chicago battle rapper El Don and Maasen from Stockholm, Sweden. Other email listservs and message boards, like the now-defunct, London-based GayHipHop.com, soon followed.

A four-person rap group stares into the camera.
Rainbow Flava in 2000. (Courtesy of Joey Magazine)

“There were people communicating; there were people communing. Even if the opportunities to perform in a club were few and far between,” says former Rainbow Flava member Juba Kalamka, noting that LGBTQ+ parties that played mainstream rap records didn’t typically book local live performers.

After moving to the Bay Area from Chicago in 1999, Kalamka — then known as Pointfivefag — joined Rainbow Flava with Dutchboy, DJ Monkey, Reh-Shawn, Tori Fixx and N.I.Double-K.I. Concurrently, he started the hip-hop group Deep Dickollective with 25Percenter (Tim’m T. West) and LSP the Lightskindid Phil/osopher (Phillip Atiba Goff).

Deep Dickollective (D/DC) emerged from spoken word and academic circles; West and Goff had met as Stanford PhD students, and the group’s name took inspiration from another radical performance group called the Punany Poets. On their 2001 debut album, BourgieBohoPostPomoAfroHomo, D/DC’s style is cerebral and jarring, with rapid-fire, tongue-twisting rhymes and lyrics that reclaim homophobic slurs. They sounded nothing like the trunk-rattling, funky mobb music the Bay Area was known for — and they didn’t need to. D/DC were creating their own lane, and giving new meaning to the phrase “We Out.”

“I understood at that time we were out, post-grad, Black — a couple of us HIV positive and out about it — and fat and weirdos. We were not grist for the mainstream mill, if you will,” Kalamka says. “And I didn’t have any delusions about that, so I just felt like the whole point of us doing what we were doing was to say what we wanted to say and just be straight up about it.”

D/DC ran their own label, Sugartruck Recordings. And in 2001, Kalamka launched another important platform: the PeaceOUT World Homo Hop Festival, which took place during East Bay Pride.

“If the Phat Family listserv was where people got to know each other existed, PeaceOUT was where people got to meet each other,” Kalamka says.

The first PeaceOUT was at Oakland’s Preservation Park. The audience was small, but hungry to hear rap that spoke to their life experience instead of using it as a punchline. “There were maybe 50 people who showed up for that. But you thought there were 500 people in the room,” Kalamka recalls. “It was just — it was wild.”

A yellow and black text flyer advertises three days of shows from Aug. 30-Sept. 1, 2002, with acts such as Deadlee, Deep Dickollective, the Conscious Daughters and Rainbow Flava.
A PeaceOUT World Homo Hop Festival flyer from 2002. (Courtesy of Juba Kalamka)

The festival eventually expanded into a three-day affair, and continued annually until 2007 at underground venues like the Oakland Metro Operahouse and 21 Grand. It featured notable acts like the Conscious Daughters, God-des and JenRo.

Several PeaceOUT artists were the focus of a 2006 homo-hop documentary called Pick Up the Mic, which screened at festivals around the country. Many of them had stories of being shut out of rap battles or denied bookings because straight, male artists didn’t want to share the stage with them.

“Hip-hop fights against oppression, but at the same time it takes on the role of the oppressor by mirroring society at large: male-centered, patriarchal and classist,” Kalamka told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2003.

JenRo, who was 20 years old when she first performed at PeaceOUT, struggled with that dynamic. Though she earned respect from straight, male peers for winning rap battles, independent labels that saw her talent had doubts that she would succeed as an out lesbian. Some went as far as asking her to change her lyrics.

“I even had some labels like try to switch me up,” she says. “You know, maybe if I femme things up a bit or girly things up a bit, you can expand your audience. I think at the end of the day, I wanted to be comfortable; I wanted to be me.”

A pink flyer with black text advertises
A flyer for Deep Dickollective’s first show in 2000. (Courtesy of Juba Kalamka)

‘Where my gay bitches at?’

Today, JenRo is still going for her musical dreams, and unabashedly making music for women who love women: Last year, her seductive song “Drip Wet” was featured in an episode of the hit series P Valley. Though she took many professional risks by being out from the beginning, she now takes pride in having helped to open up space for more people to be themselves.

“When I see other LGBT artists out, doing their thing, I’m like, ‘Yes!’ It’s a movement,” she says.

A masculine female rapper in baggy pants raps next to a male dancer wearing a shirt airbrushed with her name.
JenRo performs in San Francisco circa 2012. (Courtesy of JenRo)

Until a few years ago, LGBTQ+ hip-hop artists had the choice of either hiding or performing for mostly gay audiences at small clubs and the occasional Pride parade. But recently, that’s begun to change — both because of some big-name artists coming out, and because queer and trans artists can now attract large audiences on social media.

Big Freedia transcended the New Orleans bounce music scene through early success on YouTube, and is now a household name who’s collaborated with Beyoncé. With numerous viral hits on TikTok, Saucy Santana — who entered hip-hop as City Girls’ makeup artist — has worked with some the biggest it girls of rap, including Latto and Flo Milli. “I came in gay, and I came in swinging,” Saucy Santana told ABC News earlier this year.

But Kalamka warns that these barrier-breaking artists’ success isn’t necessarily a sign that straight, cisgender male music industry gatekeepers have become more inclusive. (Indeed, some have only gotten more conservative.) “The tools exist now for people to clap back and to sustain the clap in a way that they could not previously,” Kalamka says.

“You have a paradigm that exists now where people are inclined and have the ability to make their own communities, to make their own economies around their music, around their art,” he adds, noting that it’s significant that record-breaking queer rapper Lil Nas X came out after “Old Town Road” had already reached No. 1 on Billboard in 2019.

Still, some popular artists like Oakland-raised R&B star Kehlani have never hidden their queer identities — which the singer discussed publicly as early as 2015, when they got their first FADER cover story. Collaborations with superstars like Justin Bieber and Cardi B followed. And in 2021, Kehlani prompted tens of thousands of fans to cheer when they asked the crowd, “Where my gay bitches at?” before performing their 2017 queer love song, “Honey,” at San Francisco’s Outside Lands festival.

Oakland’s Kamaiyah — who has collaborated with major stars like Drake and YG — now raps about same-sex love interests: “Is she gay? / Or is she straight? / I’m a hoe,” she declares on her latest single, “Groupies.” And San Jose-raised, bilingual artist Snow tha Product flaunts her love of women, which hasn’t stopped her international rise as a face of Spotify’s 2023 hip-hop campaign in Mexico.

Still, we’re a long way from mainstream America embracing a full spectrum of queerness — or an expansion of gender roles in general. But with Gen Z rising up as the queerest generation in the nation’s history, it’s only a matter of time before rap — and the music industry as a whole — shifts further, along with the rest of culture.

“I think the more that we are authentic and tell our stories and tell our truths through our music,” as Aima the Dreamer says, “the more room you make for people to do the same.”

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