With the rise of Black feminine gay rappers, male queerness in hip-hop has become less taboo than it’s been before.
Last May, Joe Budden and Isaiah Rashad sat down and had an open conversation centered around the topics of mental health and sexuality in hip-hop.
The conversation, which was sparked by a leaked sextape that allegedly outed Rashad as being sexually active with men, found the TDE rapper revealing that he identifies as sexually fluid, and explaining nuanced topics around queerness that Budden did not understand (like pansexuality versus sexual fluidity). Much of the social media commentary criticized Budden’s line of questions as ignorant, but the two rappers coming together to talk showed just how far the male rap industry has come.
“This is not the hip-hop I came into,” Budden said during one part of the conversation where Rashad talked about being comforted when the world found out about his sexuality. And that’s the thing — this isn’t the hip-hop Budden came into anymore.
Hip-hop is slowly changing in terms of inclusion, but it still remains this space for cisgendered, dominant, heterosexual, and hypermasculine men. Even two years prior to Lil Nas X becoming a household name thanks to his 2019 hit “Old Town Road,” rap was still outspoken against queer male rappers. When ILoveMakonnen began identifying as openly gay in 2017, the Atlanta rap group Migos criticized the artist, with member Quavo suggesting that Makonnen’s sexuality undermined his trap lyrics. Now, entering the early ‘20s, last year felt like a step in the right direction for a handful of notable reasons: there was the rise of unapologetically queer male rappers like Saucy Santana; the conversations being had on queerness like the one between Budden and Rashad; and even instances where rappers like Lil Uzi Vert feel comfortable updating their pronouns to they/them. 2022 has shown that male queerness has become less taboo than it’s been before.
A significant part of this shift is hip-hop becoming so globally popular. The genre is evolving into something that encompasses artists with different backgrounds and, as a result, is gaining a broader fanbase.
“However the world goes, hip-hop is going to go the same way,” Dr. Jemayne Lavar King, Director of The Institute of Hip Hop and Cultural Studies at Virginia State University, said. “So, artists are letting their true selves be revealed because as a society, we’re becoming more accepting of individuals and their talents.”
This acceptance has allowed some queer male rappers to achieve notable success, and become a blueprint for aspiring queer male rappers. This is something Benji Fetch, a 27-year-old up-and-coming queer rapper from Atlanta, expressed, sharing that the closest thing he had to queer representation in rap growing up was Nicki Minaj. Now, he sees more queer male representation.
“We actually have gay rappers out there,” Fetch said. “Some are charting. Some are not, but they’re there and they have influence within the culture.”
One of the biggest stories of last year was the rise of Saucy Santana, a gay, Black, and feminine rapper who represents something completely new in mainstream rap. Initially serving as the City Girls’ makeup artist, Santana made his foray into rap in 2019 with his debut single “Walk Em Like A Dog.” In 2020, he released singles “Up & Down” and “Walk,” which went viral on TikTok.
Santana also had a notable collaboration with Houston rapper BeatKing on his 2021 project, Keep It Playa. Their song, “Spoiled,” was progressive in the sense that a masculine presenting heterosexual rapper could collaborate with a feminine queer rapper. In April, it was announced that Santana had signed to RCA, which the artist said he chose because they allowed him to maintain control of his creative vision.
“Artist development now for a lot of labels, is almost finding the artists that have built some type of following,” Ricky Parker, a former A&R at Studio 43 who is now the Deputy Director for the Mary Lumpkins Center for African American History and Culture at Virginia Union University (where he also teaches hip-hop studies), said. “The big piece of it now is being able to go to a label, and then show your leverage. Who is your following? How many streams have you done? What have you done on your own?”
Social media is one of the biggest reasons for why queer male rap artists are rising to prominence in the music industry. Lil Nas X is known for his Twitter presence, Santana became popular because of Instagram Live, and up-and-comer Kidd Kenn was first recognized as a rapper for his viral Instagram reworkings of songs like “Drip From My Walk” and “Slide” by Famous Dex and FBG Duck, respectively.
When these queer artists hit your timelines, they are garnering visibility and making the queer community more accessible. But just as important as the visibility these artists are getting, are the conversations they’re having, too. Although not as shared as Budden and Rashad’s interview, an equally important chat occurred between Big Freedia and Slim Thug on BET+’s College Hill: Celebrity Edition series. During their informal discussion, the pair talked about gender identity and pronouns, with Freedia explaining why they use all pronouns.
“I’m gender fluid. I don’t have a pronoun,” Freedia said. “It’s a new age for me, too — with the pronoun stuff. With my homies in New Orleans who I kick it with, who I grew up with, I’m they bro. To my girls, I’m they sister. To my kids, straight and gay, I’m they mom.”
Slim Thug admitted he doesn’t spend a lot of time around queer people, but he was willing to come to the table and learn. Although much more brief than Budden and Rashad’s interview, Slim and Freedia’s back-and-forth felt more effective for a couple of reasons. First, it was more like peers speaking to each other, whereas Budden, who referred to himself as a journalist during his chat with Rashad, treated it more like an interview. There was also an instance of Budden wrongly equating Rashad’s sexual fluidity to being non-monogamous, something that viewers pointed out as to why he shouldn’t have been leading this interview in the first place. But both were important in showing how queerness is an ongoing journey, with Freedia and Rashad stressing that they’re still learning about the terms that come with trying to understand their queerness.
All of these conversations are what the male rap industry needs to continue to be progressive, but it’s important to also center queer voices that also aren’t masculine presenting. This is why Slim and Freedia’s conversation was so significant, as well as why it’s important that Saucy Santana and Lil Nas X are able to speak on their experiences, too. As the latter highlighted during his feud with BET, Black queer men are arguably more respected when they present more masculine than feminine, and aren’t overt about their sexuality in their music. This is presumably why BET turned heel on X after he performed at their 2021 awards show and ended his set kissing a male dancer, something he credited to his “painful and strained” relationship with BET amid the network snubbing him from their awards show.
There’s also the reality that many cisgender heterosexual men have their own experiences with queerness as well, but lack the rhetoric to properly explain them. Kendrick Lamar tried his hand on the controversial song “Auntie Diaries” from his latest album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers. The song peers into the mind of an adolescent Lamar as the rapper explains watching his transgender uncle’s transition. However, it fails in its execution with Lamar misgendering his uncle and uttering homophobic slurs throughout. The song’s message split social media, with some people defending the rapper in the name of storytelling, while others criticized him for his dangerous lyrics.
Depending on who you ask, the onus on who should lead the charge to make the music industry more inclusive varies. Fetch said he feels like the record labels should play a larger role in changing the male rap industry, saying: “At the end of the day, it’s up to the label, whether they want to push you or not. And the label is gonna go based off of what’s charting now and what’s hot.” In contrast, Parker said the responsibility falls on the artists to make male rap more inclusive because he looks at labels as only financial institutions.
Entering the ‘20s, it’s been interesting to see the different representations of queerness among male rappers on a mainstream level, as well as the frank discussions that have been taking place about sexual fluidity and gender fluidity with male rappers. But there’s still more work to be done to make rap more inclusive as queer artists continue to become a part of it.
“Having these patriarchal MCs sit down with members of the LGBTQ+ community to have an open dialogue, is a great foundation for the development of hip-hop [and] for the expansion of hip-hop,” Dr. King said. “And also, more importantly, for the creativity involved in hip-hop.”
Matthew Pittman is a reporter from Hampton, Virginia who enjoys covering style, music, and culture stories. You can keep up with his latest on instagram at @matt.jordan.pitt.