Hip hop’s transgressive voices

Hillary Hansen gives us tthe low down on queer rappers and their impact in hip hop.

 

Over the past year and a half or so, ‘queer rap’ has been heralded by both music blogs and news sources as a movement of out gay rappers taking on the rap scene’s well-documented homophobia. Although these rappers exist and are being increasingly noticed, ‘queer rap’ is not a genre—focusing on their sexuality serves only to obscure all other aspects of their identities and art.  So I’d like to showcase a couple of my favourite NYC hip hop artists who are, indeed, in some way serving to break down homophobia in hip hop through their mere presence.  But more importantly, their innovation, boundary-breaking, and transgression extends far beyond their sexualities.

ZEBRA KATZ – LST CTRL

Zebra Katz’s thirty-minute mixtape DRKLNG comes after his breakout Ima Read, which burst on to the scene back in 2012 after being used during a Paris Fashion Week show.  In LST CTRL, Zebra Katz raps in a dark droning monotone over a minimal and bass-heavy beat. The video takes place in a monochrome dream-space, where Katz’s face flickers in and out of a leather mask and he stretches his limbs in the shell of a furniture-sized Swiss-army knife.  While the vocals remain understated throughout, it is clear that his dark, raw energy is very close to erupting through to the surface.

Boody & Le1f – Soda

With three mixtapes and a joint EP with Boody out in the last two years, Le1f’s output so far has been both impressively prolific and consistent. The emphasis of his first mixtape, Dark York, was on the beats.  Slippery and smooth with weightless percussive elements, the immaculate beats have carried through his two 2013 tapes. Fly Zone is, as you’d expect, lighter and airier, and by his most recent offering, Tree House, the beats have become more minimal and taken a back seat to Le1f’s sleek vocals and flow. The aesthetics of his video for Soda matches this aural fluidity.  He moves his body with elegant artistry—in fact, he completed his degree in dance.

Mykki Blanco – Haze.Boogie.Life

Mykki Blanco is not Michael David Quattlebaum Jr’s drag alter ego—she’s a blurring of the boundary between his personal life and his persona.  As Quattlebaum explains in Interview Magazine, “People have a hard time understanding that there is no difference between Mykki and Michael.  My art stands alone.” And Blanco’s art certainly makes an aggressive statement. In the video for Haze.Boogie.Life from Cosmic Angel: The Illuminati Prince/ss, Mykki embodies a spectrum of personas, from darkly sensual femininity to menacing and raw, wielding a baseball bat.  She spits impeccably and lyrically—it’s not surprising that Blanco is also a published poet.  The video is frenzied and chaotic, blending punk and hip hop aesthetics and tearing the very fabric of the masculine/feminine continuum.

Zebra Katz, Le1f, and Mykki Blanco are all rappers who are gay, but their work goes beyond that, transgressing conventions of hip hop, music performance, or identity – even all three of these at once.  Placing them in the context of a ‘gay rap’ trend is not only reductive, but seems to express continued discomfort about homosexuality in the hip hop world, even while trumpeting its downfall. “I feel like, especially after a year of being out there, if people really feel that I am a “gay rapper”,” Le1f explained to The Daily Beast, “then they are probably somehow homophobic.”

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