On the phone Shante Paradigm is an eloquent speaker with strong opinions about the intersection of queer sexuality and hip hop music. She is a co-founder and executive director of Peace Out East, a New York queer hip hop festival in its third year. She is also a singer-songwriter, emcee and poet, in pursuit of a PhD in performance studies at New York University.
“It’s a mistake [to view] queer hip hop as some kind of hilarious pastiche,” she says. “It is actually individuals saying I rhyme, I break dance, I DJ, I’m a woman, I’m queer. People are actually artists. It’s not just tacking “gay” onto hip hop culture. The attention on it has become a human-interest story, a niche market.”
Journalists writing on the subject have been quick to point out the oxymoron apparent in “queer hip hop.” Contemporary rap music lyrics are often laden with misogyny, violence and homophobia; hip hop culture can be seen as one boasting of divisions between haves and have-nots. As a result, hip hop and its most contemporary associations can make many queer people wary.
“Rather than painting ‘queer hip hop’ as an oxymoron, it’s more important to think about it as utilizing the tools to save our face. It’s all about a reclamation of space, music, fashion, art and commentary,” says Paradigm. “Some people are political rappers, some are about street life, and there are some people who really want to take it to the streets in terms of gender and sexuality. One’s own personal politics and viewpoints are essential to the music.”
At its root, hip hop grew out of the impoverished outer boroughs of New York in the ’70s. It was a cultural phenomena forged from adversity.
“Hip hop history is definitely based in Black and Latin male, and some female, cultural expression,” says Paradigm. “But it belongs, for better or worse, to anyone who wants to pick up the mic and speak.”
Both hip hop and queer cultures emerged from underground scenes through illicit parties and self-expression; rap is to hip hop as gay is to queer culture. This has led to an encompassing queer hip hop community.
When queer and hip hop are crossed, do the labels “gay” or “queer” go before the artist or before the music they make?
“I couldn’t hide my queerness if I tried,” comments Cindy Wonderful of the band Scream Club, who performed as part of the Vancouver Queer Film Festival. “It doesn’t have to be your focus… Most of our songs are not necessarily queer. Even though we are.”
“Some artists are reticent about being labeled as just one thing,” says film director, Alex Hinton. “They’re worried that it might hurt their career or their selves.”
Hinton’s film, Pick Up the Mic, screened at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival in August. It’s a documentary about the growth of queer hip hop in the US over the past three years. The film takes viewers on a character-driven journey through the emerging subgenre of queer hip hop music at what is turning out to be a very exciting time for many of the artists.
“It’s growing and growing all the time,” says Hinton. “Literally when I first started, there were the core people that I wanted to follow and every year there have been more and more people. They each thought that they were the only rapper in their area.”
Hinton’s documentary introduces a dizzying number of characters, all with different styles and messages within their music. The diversity of the music, and the people producing it, is already present.
Hinton realizes that the artists are simply creating music that makes sense to them, whether explicitly queer or not. Pick Up the Mic is a testament to that.
“It’s about queer hip hop, but in actuality it’s a documentary about people who want to express themselves truthfully and honestly about everything in their lives,” says Hinton.
With emergent artists building a community around themselves, how would success in the queer hip hop genre be defined?
The problems of money, commercial viability and the same dangers that have encroached on mainstream hip hop music come into play.
Recently, God-des and She made a splash with an appearance on the season finale of The L Word. Their current single “Love You Better” is airing constantly on MTV’s gay and lesbian channel LOGO.
“Our reception has been overwhelmingly warm and appreciative. People are more than excited to hear music that gives them hope, and makes them feel proud of who they are,” says God-des. “I don’t think it has to do with being male or female, I think it has to do with the music and how it makes people feel.”
God-des is aware of the space she is reclaiming as an outwardly gay emcee and has always pushed her identity as female, queer and Jewish in her music. She wants to make it in the industry alongside the big hip hop acts of today.
“I’ve had people say I rhyme like a straight dude,” she says. “I guess that’s a compliment though I think some of the females are the best emcees out there. But I appreciate the thought because it means I can stand up to any dude. There is room for anyone who has the talent and perseverance.”
God-des and She are currently in negotiations with Music with a Twist, a gay music label launched by Sony at the beginning of this year. Their dreams of mainstream success are seemingly in reach.
“It’s going to take that kind of acceptance of the fact that these artists are out there, doing their thing, creating their own music and creating their own scene,” says Hinton. “And people will come to it. They want to find it and they will find it. The straight hip hop community cannot deny it.”