Lil Nas X, Saucy Santana, Ice Spice: LGBTQ rappers are queering hip-hop like never before

LGBTQ hip-hop is here and proudly queer — and it’s been here all along.

Gender-bending provocateur Lil Nas X struck gold with his Top 10 pop hit “Star Walkin’” this spring when the song sold a half-million copies, marking his 10th single certified by the Recording Industry Association of America at the time. Viral emcee Saucy Santana, who received a cosign from gay icon Madonna when they teamed up for a Pride Month performance, got a nod for a MTV Video Music Award for a performance of his Billboard Rap Airplay hit “Booty.” 

And rap princess Ice Spice is melting down heteronormativity with her red-hot success. The rapper gave a breezy shoutout to her queer sexuality on the song “Bikini Bottom,” taken from her Top 5 rap EP “Like..?”

While these rappers have ushered in an “unprecedented visibility of LGBTQ hip-hop” with their queer-friendly lyrics and aesthetics, they join a storied lineage of queer pioneers – including Age of Consent, Medusa and Deep D--kollective – who have been pushing the envelope in hip-hop since its inception 50 years ago.

“It’s an exciting moment,” says Lauron Kehrer, assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Western Michigan University. “We’re finally having this mainstream representation of what many of us have always known, which is that there’s always been queer hip-hop.”

LGBTQ artists such as Lil Nas X, from left, Saucy Santana and Ice Spice are diversifying hip-hop with their queer self-expression.
LGBTQ artists such as Lil Nas X, from left, Saucy Santana and Ice Spice are diversifying hip-hop with their queer self-expression.

A ‘dollars and cents’ music industry stymied diversity in hip-hop, success of LGBTQ artists

Da Brat, who became a hip-hop heavyweight with the release of 1994’s “Funkdafied,” welcomed her first child with wife Jesseca Harris-Dupart in July. In a 2020 interview with Variety, the rapper reflected on how industry expectations and public reception informed her decision to remain closeted at the start of her musical career.

“I was always told you want to be (desirable) to men and women to sell records — you don’t want anybody to discriminate,’ Da Brat told the outlet. “It was absolutely my decision. I mean, you saw what happened to people like Ellen (DeGeneres): Remember when she lost her TV show, and all these horrible things were happening? People were totally against it.”

"Freedom Moves" author H. Samy Alim, faculty director of the Hip Hop Initiative at the University of California, Los Angeles, says financial concerns within the music industry discouraged the mainstream inclusion of LGBTQ hip-hop artists in the past.

“If the industry believes that queer artists cannot sell, which it did for decades, then they won’t promote it and won’t support it,” Alim says. “That never meant that there weren’t queer hip-hop artists doing the work because there always was, but the industry itself is dollars and cents.”

Kehrer says this commercialization of hip-hop led to a predominant image of rappers as being straight Black men, which ultimately limited representation in the genre. “When we have this narrow approach to what we expect a rapper to look or sound like, that makes it challenging for anyone outside of that norm,” they say.

A fluid generation, social media aided LGBTQ hip-hop artists’ breakthrough

Bisexual rapper Doechii, who attracted a queer following with her 2020 song “Yucky Blucky Fruitcake,” opened up in an October 2022 interview with GQ about how having a community of LGBTQ peers in her personal life helped her embrace her queer identity.

“I always knew that I was queer and I was bisexual, but I didn't really feel comfortable talking about it because nobody around me was gay,” Doechii told the outlet. “I just started indulging myself with more friends who were like me, and that's when I could become more comfortable talking about it because that's my normal everyday conversation now with my gay friends.”

Kehrer says it’s this combination of openness and sense of community – both in real life and online – among today’s youth that’s helped create a space for queer hip-hop artists. “We’re looking at a generation now that is much more comfortable with ideas of gender and sexual fluidity,” they say.

The ability to organically create community provided by social media platforms has had a “huge influence” on the rise of queer representation in media, including hip-hop, says Eve Ng, associate professor at Ohio University’s School of Media Arts and Studies.

“In the past, if you were a musician, you basically needed a (record) label to sign you in order to get the product out there and be able to circulate your music. But, of course, now with social media, you don’t need any of that,” Ng says. “If you’re a queer performer, you could use those platforms to build your audience.”

Alim says queer emcees’ efforts to create community and self-advocate in their work, going as far back as the homo-hop movement (a collective of openly LGBTQ hip-hop artists in the 1990s), has allowed them to fight “for greater voice, for greater impact.”

The future of queer hip-hop

During a November 2021 interview with GQ, Lil Nas X said he foresaw a bright future for LGBTQ representation in the hip-hop landscape.

“Change is happening. There’s going to be so many gay rappers. There’s going to be more trans people in the industry and whatnot,” the rapper told the outlet. “Ten years from now, everything that I’m doing won’t even seem like it was shocking.”

Although this recent wave of queer hip-hop artists signifies progress within the genre, Ng says queerphobia still poses a threat to the success of LGBTQ emcees, especially those lacking industry status.

“It’s misleading to think just because there’s Lil Nas X that there’s no more homophobia,” Ng says. “You can’t just point to one or even five or 100 successful people in a marginalized group and say that those issues aren’t there anymore.”

Alim says LGBTQ artists in hip-hop will use the revolutionary “spirit of hip-hop culture” to challenge anti-queer stigma and expand the genre’s diversity.

“Hip-hop culture comes from communities that were meant to be decimated, not just marginalized: communities that were destroyed, abandoned, intentionally robbed of resources,” Alim says. “If hip-hop culture in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ’90s was decentering white supremacy, recent hip-hop culture and hip-hop of the future is decentering sexism (and) heteronormativity, along with white supremacy (and) capitalism.”

More: Run-D.M.C's 'Walk This Way' brought hip-hop to the masses and made Aerosmith cool again

From streetwear to 'street couture': Hip-hop transformed fashion like no other before it

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Queer hip-hop: Lil Nas X, Ice Spice, more bring LGBTQ culture to genre