New York City rapper Le1f (pronounced “Leaf”) wanted to be a dancer ever since he was a kid.
“I started dancing at the Dance Theatre of Harlem when I was four,” says Le1f, now 22. “The switch [to rapping] happened in high school. I was in the dance program and a bunch of kids were learning to make beats in the computer lab – one of them is now a computer engineer for Snoop Dogg – and after that I decided I wanted to do vocals for music.”
It was not a revelation, he says. “But it became an obsession.”
The New Yorker is part of a new generation of rappers that features many extraordinary queer voices leading the pack, among them the up-and-coming Le1f, whose debut album, Dark York, drops later this summer.
But if Le1f is new at the game, so is Montreal’s Rough Diamond Collective. So Le1f’s Aug 11 concert is not just that rapper’s first Montreal gig, but also Rough Diamond’s first-ever concert.
“We felt there was a lack of queer hip-hop music coming to Montreal,” says Rough Diamond Collective member Alex Heggie. “Queer people have been in hip hop since the early 1980s. But there’s also been a [queer] surge the last four or five years – they’re at the forefront of rap. They are not just interesting queer rappers but the best rappers out there. So me and the others in the collective [Priscilla Pleasant and Betty Fikre Mariam] asked ourselves, ‘Why isn’t anybody booking this here?’ So we decided to do it ourselves.”
Le1f says he is as comfortable playing for straight audiences as he is for gay crowds. And he says he doesn’t believe that performing at gay events, such as on Toronto Pride’s Alterna-Queer stage back in 2008 or the Rough Diamond concert this week, during Montreal’s queer Pervers/Cité Festival, will ghettoize him.
“I also want to play my music for gay people and black people, because I really enjoy playing for those audiences, especially with all my disco samples,” he says. “It’s really music for the gay black community.”
I tell Leif that Terrance Dean – the black and openly gay former MTV executive who wrote the 2008 bestseller Hiding in Hip Hop – told me in 2009: “Hip hop is all high-testosterone machismo and bravado. In the black community, you cannot be hip hop and be gay… You [also] cannot come into this business openly gay; the business won’t support you. So it will have to be somebody established and well-known. People will be shocked [over the big names who are closeted]. I think if Queen Latifah came out, it would create a whole new precedent.”
But Le1f says he can’t even imagine being a closeted performer.
“I couldn’t do it,” he says. “I’ve been out forever. I came out before I went to high school. I didn’t have the choice to be in the closet, and I would never want to be. I think closeted performers feel obligated to not be themselves in their music and that also makes it harder to make music. I’m not into that. The whole point is to be as expressive as possible, and as a gay person I feel totally comfortable being exactly who I am.”
Meanwhile, in Montreal, Alex Heggie says the Rough Diamond Collective is “booking a really big queer rap act for October. We’ll have monthly DJ nights and bimonthly concerts, and right now we’re working on booking a really big queer rap act for October.”