In celebration of LGBTQ+ History Month, we invited writers, researchers and thinkers to pitch us editorial on queer music, sounds and the people who make it. This article by writer Seth Pereira asks why the UK rap scene hasn't yet seen an openly queer rapper go mainstream.
Homophobia and hip-hop have had an ongoing entanglement for decades now. Its pervasiveness ranges from the flagrant use of homophobic language littered throughout the lyrics of the genre's biggest proprietors to the lack of any real artistic representation. What's more startling is that hip-hop is celebrating its 50th birthday this year, and the influence of Queer culture can be traced right back to the beginning. A cursory look at the fashion of some of the founding fathers is a starting point for how deep this influence goes.
Take Grandmaster Flash & Furious Five for example, who were frequently draped in tight leather outfits, bare chested, exuding flamboyance. And it doesn’t stop there—modern day auteurs like Young Thug, whose pioneering sonic approach spawned hordes of imitators, openly spoke about wearing women’s clothing, claiming that the garments were simply more comfortable. Closer to home, Skepta, a stalwart of grime and someone who’s taken the sound to new frontiers also sported womenswear on the red carpet of the Ivor Novello awards. There have clearly been countless examples of LGBTQIA+ influence on rappers at various points throughout hip-hop's history.
Despite this, there have been precious few moments of acceptance or even acknowledgement of the LGBTQIA+ members of society by the tastemakers of the hip-hop community; and when acceptance has come, it has always been conditional. Lesbian rappers or bisexual AFAB artists often appear to be welcomed into the fold: stateside success stories like Young MA and Cardi B are two artists in particular who openly express their sexuality in their lyrics, and have faced less of the atypical resistance usually found within hip-hop culture. Both have achieved commercial and critical acclaim throughout their careers, something usually only reserved for their heterosexual counterparts. This is likely to do with the fetishisation of lesbian relationships by heterosexual men: Young MA and Cardi B’s lyrics can be co-opted into a heteronormative framework where the male gaze is still being catered for.
Openly gay rappers have been pushing their music since the early noughties, with the likes of Deep Dickollective and Cazwell, but it wasn't until Frank Ocean published his open letter in 2012 that homosexuality in hip-hop really hit the mainstream. It was a watershed moment that would see more and more artists openly express their sexuality in the face of the heteronormativity pervasive in the genre. Artists like Kevin Abstract, Kid Kenn, Le1f and of course Lil Nas X are just a few names that have managed to excel in spite of homophobic hegemony. Kid Kenn even featured on the 2021 BET Cypher, a platform only reserved for the most prestigious crop of artists.
These breakthroughs have almost exclusively occurred on American soil, and it seems to be taking the British industry a little longer to make the same inroads. The closest we’ve come to a breakthrough is Mista Strange, who saw viral success after performing on an underground freestyle rap platform called Bl@ckbox. During his performance, he proudly reveals his sexuality in the opening few seconds, before quickly reminding the audience that the type of masculinity that is typically lauded in hip-hop and adjacent genres is not exclusive to heterosexual men. Mista Strange showcased never seen before duality in that five minute freestyle, so it was little surprise that it took the internet by storm upon its release. It wasn't only the internet that was set alight by his incendiary freestyle—it was the national news too. Strange was being heralded at the forefront of a cultural awakening for a scene that can oft times be antiquated with its views on sexuality.
Although virality is impermanent by its very nature, there was real hope that the values and change that Mista Strange represented would remain. Sadly, it wasn't the watershed moment that the UK was waiting for, but it's important to remember that we're still around two decades behind our American counterparts. UK rap, grime & drill are in their infancy in comparison to the behemoth that is US hip-hop, and it has taken almost half a century for the United States to see any real change in terms of the representation of LGBTQIA+ artists.
We're still in the early stages of our journey: we haven't really had any of our mega stars speak out openly against homophobia like Ice T and Kanye West famously did, and we haven't seen any home-grown artists explore their internalised homophobia on wax or otherwise. Central Cee’s “Doja”, which recently became the most streamed UK rap song ever on Spotify, has come the closest. But although Cench denounces homophobia (albeit in a very tongue in cheek way), he’s also very quick to remind listeners that he “doesn’t swing that way”, reaffirming a fragile masculinity. Even though it's certainly far from perfect, having hordes of young people reciting the words “How can I be homophobic” might be a subtle step in the right direction.
In spite of all that, there are a whole raft of LGBTQ+ artists continually pushing for that breakthrough. Gay Times' Rising Star Keanan, Karnage Kills, and Peckham-hailing Carter The Bandit are just a few names that are breaking down doors. The democratisation of the industry has made this easier than ever, with social media and streaming services making it possible for artists to get their music straight to the audience, without the need for labels. This is precisely what is happening: many of the aforementioned artists are gaining millions of views on TikTok without any label backing whatsoever.
The alignment of changing attitudes and the quality of the music will ultimately result in the birth of a mainstream star from the LGBTQIA+ community in the UK. The current generation are already showing a much greater understanding about the fluidity of sex and gender, and are less restrained by the archaic viewpoints many from previous generations were. So although it may not have happened yet, it really is only a matter of time.
About Seth Pereira
Cover image: Lil Nas X, sourced from Shutterstock, credited to Christian Bernard