Music has long been a driver of a cultural change as artists continue to push evolving social boundaries. In late 2018, Montero Lamar Hill was a college drop-out sleeping on his sister’s couch and recording songs in the closet…literally. Thanks to a $30 beat bought off YouTube and some savvy TikTok strategy, Hill made his debut as Lil Nas X and paved an Old Town Road around the world till he hit the Grammy’s stage for his first two acceptance speeches. This 21-year old has not been on the scene for long, but he has already garnered accolades from the Grammy’s, AMA’s, VMA’s and is on the 2020 Forbes 30 Under 30 List. In the midst of his mainstream success, Lil Nas X shared with the world that he is a gay Black man and told The Guardian that he “100% want(s) to represent the LGBTQ community.”
Music transformed this young man’s life. He’d battled his sexuality since high school and thought he would go his whole life hiding the secret throughout his conservative Georgia upbringing. No other artist has ever married the opposing genres of hip-hop and country so successfully, earning him awards from BET Awards and Country Music Awards for the same single. Conservative dads could be found dancing on imaginary horses in their daughter’s TikToks and rappers like Nas and Cardi B were lining up for collabs. Old Town Road (2019) remained at the top of the US Billboard Hot 100 chart for nineteen weeks, the longest for any song since the chart was introduced in 1958.
Would this have been possible in 1958? Imagine, a proud, openly gay, Black hip-hop country artist at #1. There was a Black Georgia-born soul singer, Arthur Conley, who worked with greats such as Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, but he never reached the success he deserved in the US. Many believed that his homosexuality was the reason he moved to Europe, not only to reinvent a new stage name, but also because audiences were more accepting of his sexual orientation.
In 1988, artist Tracy Chapman released her single Fast Car, which has grown popularity in recent years due to remixes on TikTok. Chapman is a multi-platinum artist with four Grammys, and was once in a relationship with Alice Walker, the author of The Color Purple. Like many other gay or lesbian artists fearing retribution, she decided to keep her sexuality private.
The artist Prince took a different approach, treating sexuality as a playground to be explored through fashion, makeup and music. His androgynous stage presence embodied the essence of his real life personality, which is what made his work so authentic and memorable.
Luckily, as times changed and Hollywood slowly opened their arms to the LGBTQ+ community, Black artists like Whitney Houston embraced the queer community with anthems such as “I’m Every Woman” (1992), and even performed at the 1999 NYC Lesbian and Gay Pride Dance. A reporter mentioned that other artists were reluctant to perform at a Pride event, and when asked why she was there, Whitney responded with a smile, “We’re all god’s children, honey.”
Frank Ocean found work in LA as a songwriter for artists such as Justin Bieber and John Legend, and established a close friendship with hip-hop artist Tyler, the Creator. Although Tyler’s lyrics often include homophobic slurs and hate for the LGBTQ+ community, he stood by Ocean’s side after a Tumblr post turned the music world upside down. In 2008, Ocean came out to his fans via a heartfelt open letter that closed with “I feel like a free man. If I listen closely…I can hear the sky falling too.” His music and lyricism about love helped change society’s stigma against homosexuality. Love is love whether it’s a gay or straight relationship. Tyler, the Creator defended his good friend in interviews and even revealed his own attraction to men in Igor (2019), his first Billboard No. 1 album.
Janelle is a LGBTQ+ icon in every sense of the word. Not only has she received eight Grammy nominations, she made her theatrical feature debut in 2016, starring in the highly successful films Hidden Figures and Moonlight. Her adrogonynous artistic flair is inspired by the greats including Prince, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson and Erykah Badu. In January 2020, Monáe tweeted “#IAmNonBinary” to express her support for the queer community and put the sexuality question to rest. Her voice, acting, music videos, and interviews are influential enough to speak to people of any sexual preference. The Art is what matters.
Lil Nas X undoubtedly set the bar high for all music artists with his 19 week chart topping hit Old Town Road. He has provided inspiration for queer Black artists to believe in their own potential and never be afraid to live their truth. Thanks to other LGBTQ+ artists of color such as Frank Ocean, Princess Nokia, Tyler, The Creator, Janelle Monáe and ILoveMakonnen, the music industry is finally making room for the queer community to connect with artists that represent their experiences in life and love.
Check out this final fourth episode in our Queer Moments In Pop Culture | So What? series to dive into the cultural shifts in attitudes towards queer and trans people and how these shifts have been reflected in pop culture. Over four episodes, we go back in time throughout the history of film, television, music and queer culture, to understand how far we’ve come and become inspired to continue making change for the future.