Sexual liberation through music has always been a thing, despite the number of popular artists from the past who have chosen to keep their sexuality hidden for fear of backlash from a disapproving public. Pioneering queer artists from the blues and jazz heyday of the early 20th century, such as Ma Rainy and Bessie Smith, were open about their preference for same-gender love. But as the music industry and the definition of fame evolved, so too did the idea that tabloids and fans have an unmitigated right to be all up in their favs’ bedroom business.
Every generation has had popular Black artists who have played with the idea of queer identity, whether they've openly claimed the lifestyle or not: Little Richard’s beat face and coiffed hair, androgyny chic brought to life by Michael Jackson, Grace Jones and Prince. These artists made the idea of fluid sexuality acceptable and kept fans of all genders and sexual identities obsessed throughout their careers. Still, those were pre-social media times when your talent and entertainment value mattered mattered most, and what you did in private had a better chance of staying private, thanks to the publicists and crisis management professionals working round the clock to keep their clients' brand protected. From time to time, you might get a Barbara Walters/Ricky Martin ambush, but unrelenting denials and dismissals were usually enough to put gay rumors to rest.
Today’s queer artists are not waiting to be dragged out of the closet by ruthless tabloid-style reporting. They are out, proud and ready to let fans and detractors know that their sexuality is theirs to confront and control whenever and however they please. Nowhere has this newfound liberation been more visible than in the hyper-heterosexual worlds of hip hop and R&B. Despite the ongoing and ever-exhausting taboo of being Black and queer in predominantly Black music genres, new-school artists are giving a hard pass to undercover living. They are openly and unapologetically queer and paving the way for others in the industry to live their truth.
As we bring Pride Month and Black Music Month to a close, let us give flowers to the Black, queer artists who are moving the needle on diversity and inclusion, while inspiring the next generation of artists to live and create as their authentic selves.
With her deep, velvety vocals and crazy bass guitar skills, Me’Shell Ndegéocello is an early neosoul icon who has owned her bisexuality throughout her career. The seasoned among us know her for her hits “If That’s Your Boyfriend” and “Dred Loc”. You youngins may want to download her debut album “Plantation Lullabies” for a quick lesson in Me’Shell’s dopeness.
Frank Ocean broke a ceiling when he came out in 2012 via Tumblr, sharing the story of a romantic connection he had with a male friend one summer. Anyone who pays attention to lyrics noticed Frank’s referring to a male a love interest all up and through the critically acclaimed Channel Orange. It was an unprecedented move for a Black man in R&B that proved good music can still outshine controversy.
Early in Janelle Monae’s career, she said she dated androids. Truth is, the singer and actress proudly dates everyone and currently identifies as pansexual. In a 2018 interview promoting her album Dirty Computer, Janelle said, “I want young girls, young boys, non-binary, gay, straight, queer people who are having a hard time dealing with their sexuality, dealing with feeling ostracized or bullied for just being their unique selves, to know that I see you.”
Young M.A flew above everyone’s radar after the release of her 2015 hit single “Ooouuu”. Though open about her sexuality from the start of her career, M.A insists on keeping it about the music and not labels. When it comes to rap skill, M.A has proven she can hold her own against any male in the rap game. And if you've seen any of the beautiful women she’s been linked with, you'll find she’s legit competition for men in the dating game as well.
Lil Nas X
First he made a country-rap song that was certified diamond. Then he came out and had many in the hip hop and country music community washing their mouths out with soap for letting the words, “I’m gonna ride til I can’t no more” cross their lips. Say what you want about him, the Montero singer's music is a hit with the masses, despite those condemning him to hell for twerking on a guy in a devil costume in a music video. But what makes Lil Nas so lit is his ability to out-troll his trolls and shed light on hypocrisy and ignorance in a light-hearted way. It should be noted that, to date, no one has turned into a pillar of salt after seeing Lil Nas kiss another man in T.V.