Bending Gender, Bending Genres: Queer Rappers Take Center Stage
Photos: Front page, Cakes da Killa. Above, Le1f.
Upon coming out last summer, Frank Ocean met welcoming arms from the music industry and fans. Russell Simmons commented, “Today is a big day for hip-hop.” And since then everyone, even the enigmatic Snoop Lion, has put in his or her two cents. What Lion and others, many of whom only listen to the radio and top 40 charts, fail to realize is that there already are openly gay, bisexual, and transgender rappers. Artists like Mykki Blanko and Zebra Katz have made names for themselves in the rapping community. Their brands may not be global yet, but they, along with the rest of queer hip-hop, are blowing up the mic.
Approaching this subject without mentioning Mykki Blanco might be a sin. She is the alias of 28-year-old Harlem resident David Quattlebaum. Skilled and eloquent, Mykki flows from line to line with speed and skill. Her performances on stage and off are nothing short of spectacular. I first jumped on the Blanco bandwagon after seeing “Join My Militia” a year ago. The dark twisted video took the song, which was already quite twisted, to a different level in its clear reliance on the theme of persecution.
No one can question her talent: both Mykki and Quattlebaum can spit. But over time it becomes clear that, though Blanco is light and charming in appearance, she rhymes from a place of hurt. Don’t mistake reflection for weakness; the rapper is sure of herself and her abilities.
Blanco’s “no fucks given” attitude is attractive, especially in light of the theatrics she uses on stage and in her music videos. Her gender-bending image takes the looks of the new era of female emcees—among them, Angel Haze and Azealia Banks are most prominent—to a new level of sincerity and confidence. David Quattlebaum accepts himself as a man, yet flaunts Mykki whenever he feels the desire. As a result, he is in control of his identity and music. So whether you accept her skill or not (most do), know that Mykki couldn’t care less what you think.
Before continuing on it must be noted that the topic of queer emcees is a difficult one to address. Why, you ask? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve never heard of the term “straight rap” or “heterosexual hip-hop.” Our inclination to box very different artists into the same category points to the sad but true human inclination to stereotype. In addressing this subject, hopefully you get the sense that—save sexual orientation, equating Blanco to Le1f or Zebra Katz to Nicky da B is like calling night day.
With this warning, let us venture into the world of Le1f—pronounced “leaf.” While listening to Le1f, do not be surprised if you feel like you’ve entered a mixed-up Wonderland, in which the mad hatter wears short shorts and the rabbit hole is really some dark, underground nightclub. This description makes little sense, but neither does the effect that Le1f’s music seems to have on listeners. His heavy backbeats evoke a “grinding” feel, but he often layers this heaviness, which is in part due to his deep voice, with synth overtones.
What’s more, Le1f is quite playful. He draws from electronic music, alternative rock, and hip-hop all at the same time. His most recent mixtape Fly Zone embodies all genres, but most of all points to Le1f’s high marketability, as his music has incredible potential for the radio and club market. The track “Autopilot” captures this perfectly; in it you see Le1f shift between his signature muffled groan and the singsongy verses of featured artist SAFE almost seamlessly. The musicality and creativity behind Fly Zone and Le1f’s cinematographic achievements “Soda” and “Wut” contradict the notion that he and other rappers might be riding the wave of progress. Even if they are, listening to Le1f’s music is an active process in which playful sensuality, not sexuality, plays the true role.
In this same vein is Cakes da Killa, a 22-year old student from Englewood, New Jersey. Following Cakes de Killa is truly a journey, as he seems to be studying all the right things. Songs like last year’s “Cuntspiracy” evoked traditional 90’s swag, yet the track “Goodie Goodies,” from his album Eulogy reflects the new wave of playfulness in hip-hop, seen most often in characters like Harajuku Barbie, Nicki Minaj. Although the video for “Goodie Goodies” features a pink backdrop, cutesy winks and an auto-tuned accompaniment, the song is still hard-hitting.
Out of all of the artists mentioned, Cakes de Killa most often refers to his sexuality; and yes, he is not afraid of being explicit. But Cakes, unlike many mainstream rappers, knows how to pair raunchiness with cleverness. In Eulogy, he says it best: he can “spit that shit that make a homophobe a hypocrite.”
In no way is what’s happening now new. From Voguing to Katey Red’s booty-bouncing NOLA love in the late 90’s to Nicky Da B’s Diplo-fied booty-shaking, the queer music culture has been around for a while. The only difference is that now artists and fans are more willing to acknowledge it. I wouldn’t go as far to say that the rise of these artists is a movement. Instead they are a faction of a greater trend in music in which the status quo is rejected and difference is embraced.