It shouldn’t come as a surprise that female rapper Nicki Minaj, the “first lady” of incarcerated rapper Lil Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment, hip-hop’s latest mainstream success, has been hit with lesbian/bisexual rumors. After all, appearing on song and in video with Usher arranging a ménage á trois for him in “Lil Freak” provides plenty of fuel to the fire. The pressure she’s received from some factions to come out of the closet as evidenced by Natalie Stein’s December 9, 2009 “Sapphic Salon” blog post for Bitch, a magazine that’s prided itself on being the “feminist response to pop culture” for more than a decade now, is a bit more unusual, however.
Twenty years ago, it would have been almost unfathomable for any group to insist publicly that a female celebrity, let alone a rapper, come out of the closet. Yet, Minaj has received quite a bit of criticism for not publicly announcing her sexual preference. Despite also appearing in a previous ménage á trois song, “Girls Kissing Girls” from her own 2009 mixtape Beam Me Up Scott featuring recently released Atlanta-area rapper Gucci Mane, Minaj has generally refused to address her sexuality, even when baited by well-known hip-hop figures like DJ Whoo Kid. Times have certainly changed but does the curiosity surrounding Nicki Minaj’s sexuality mean that hip-hop, often singled out for its homophobia, is also changing with them?
Now, let’s be clear. Hip-hop has been a fan of girls-on-girls action for some time now. T.I. bragged about “chillin’ with women who like women,” among other things, on his 2004 hit “Let’s Get Away”. For most, “My girl got a girlfriend” is the most memorable line from Grand Hustle rapper Dro’s 2006 chart-topping, debut single “Shoulder Lean”. Even when there are no lyrics specifically pointing to bisexuality among women, it’s still depicted in many videos.
When it comes to women sexually exploring other women, hip-hop has generally accepted such behavior, encouraged it even, on the condition that those women still engage in sex with men. Lesbians often present another problem. Women who love women only are considered “gay” while women who sometimes dabble in sex with women are considered freaks. Same-sex loving men or, even worse, bisexual men, are not even in the conversation.
Over the years, hip-hop’s homophobia has spilled over into the mainstream. Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP drew protests from GLAAD for such songs as “Criminal” and “Kill You” where words like “fags” don’t go unnoticed. In the midst of the controversy, Eminem performed with Elton John at the 2001 Grammys as GLAAD members protested outside.
But Eminem’s actions aren’t as contradictory as they appear. If there’s any industry that thrives on a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, it’s the music industry, especially hip-hop. Two years ago, Terrance Dean had the industry on edge when his memoir, Hiding in Hip-Hop: On the Down Low in the Entertainment Industry – from Music to Hollywood was released. Although rumored to resemble Karrine Steffans’s explosive 2005 book Confessions of a Video Vixen, Dean’s book didn’t name names. Instead Dean, who once worked for BET and MTV, used fictional names that led to a guessing game, especially among urban bloggers.
Still Dean’s book exposed a side of the industry that few had envisioned. He did erase all doubts about whether there were indeed gay rappers. Knowing that gay or bisexual rappers with mainstream appeal exist and waiting for them to come out is another thing. Dean does not believe that the industry will allow this to happen any time soon.
“You have to realize there’s a lot of pressure from the inside, from the label, because the label knows as well. When I say everyone knows in the industry, everybody knows in the industry,” he told theGrio.
Even if a gay male rapper was willing to come forward, Dean is doubtful that the record label would allow it. “Unfortunately, because we haven’t seen a black, gay hip-hop artist in the marketplace that’s successful and maintained [his] career, the record label is not going to allow any of their commodities to be the first to do it.”
According to Dean, the image of black gay men presented in overall popular culture is largely to blame. “We haven’t seen any images of masculine gay [black] men on the screen so that people can identify and see that ‘oh I can make a distinction between the two’ like our white counterparts,” he said. “They go from drag queens to the all the way masculine, even in the soap operas…. We haven’t seen that happening in the black community period or the Latin community. It’s either you’re very feminine and you are a drag queen or you want to be a woman.”
On the local level, there have been some breakthroughs however. In New Orleans, where bounce music is a distinctive sub-genre of hip-hop whose energetic influence can be heard in the music of Lil Wayne and other artists from the area, there are several popular “sissy rappers”, as some people call them. Of them, Katey Red is the most recognizable name.
Since appearing on the scene in 1998, Katey Red has made considerable headway. In March, VanityFair.com even ran an article about “sissy bounce” titled “New Orleans Sissy Bounce: Rap Goes Drag” in which Katey Red was prominently featured. Recently, Katey Red was briefly featured in Treme and also performed at this year’s influential South by Southwest in Austin.
According to Katey Red, who is 6’2” and performs in heels and mini-skirts, it was never a consideration not to be openly gay. “I make good music because of the person that I am— personal experiences, things around New Orleans. I been liking bounce music. I been shaking my ass to bounce music. If I’m a shaker and know how to shake my ass, I love shaking my ass, I know how to get the girls shaking their ass and have fun.”
While Katrina slightly slowed Katey Red’s career progression, it hasn’t stopped Katey Red’s momentum. Offers to perform overseas have recently come in and Katey Red is hopeful that the music will be accepted outside of New Orleans in time. Right now, what’s most important is that New Orleans accepts Katey Red and others who make similar music.
“New Orleans embraces me. They open their arms and accept me for who I am and what I do,” Katey Red shared. “I think because New Orleans has my back, it won’t be such a hard thing for the world to embrace me because, in every city, they have gay people.”