For decades, hip-hop has often taken inspiration from queer sounds and aesthetics. In the ‘90s, Lil Kim was open about the fact the extravagant outfits and makeup she wore were inspired by drag performers and figures of the underground ballroom scene. She was a vocal supporter of the LGBTQ+ community, displaying a sense of allyship that was vital at the time. Despite the fact that Lil Kim had love for the queer and trans communities — a love that was reciprocated — homophobic ideology within hip-hop was rampant. Artists like NWA, DMX, and Ice-T were often praised for their conscious lyrics about racial disparities and economic inequality, however, many listeners reeled over their homophobic lyrics.
Early works by Eminem and the Beastie Boys often depicted violent acts against queer and trans people, which would later be the subject of GLAAD protests. Though the aforementioned artists have since recanted these lyrics and actions, or have otherwise have shown support for the LGBTQ+ community, many listeners and artists believe bigotry towards queer and trans people is still an issue within the genre. However, in recent years, with LGBTQ+ artists rising through the charts, and at the helm of production of inescapable hits, signs seem to point at a queer revolution within hip-hop.
For the past few years, queerness has had an undeniable presence in hip-hop. Though some women rappers have utilized ballroom lingo and queer aesthetics in their music and visuals, despite not openly identifying as LGBTQ+, many others have made it known from the jump that they are not inhibiting themselves for anybody.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when and how the recent LGBTQ+ revolution in hip-hop began. Perhaps it was when Lil Nas X earned the longest-running Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 in 2019 with “Old Town Road,” or maybe it was during the pandemic, when fans helped elevate artists like Doechii, Ice Spice, and Lacy through dances and storytelling on TikTok. Ice Spice alluded to her bisexuality in one of her earliest hits, “Bikini Bottom.” She doubled down on this during an interview with Genius, where she explained that fans “need to know – we’re here and we’re queer!”
The eccentric Doechii has also captivated listeners, not only with her witty one-liners and vibrant displays of the characters she invents with her music, but also simply by unapologetically being herself. Before signing to Top Dawg Entertainment, which has housed the likes of Kendrick Lamar and SZA, Doechii went viral with her autobiographical song “Yucky Blucky Fruitcake,” on which, she proclaims, “I think I like girls, but I think I like men.” One of her first major label hits, “Persuasive,” likens the idea of smoking marijuana to giving into the affections of a woman.
In an interview with British GQ last year, Doechii cited the LGBTQ+ community in helping her find confidence in her sound, saying, “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. So it’s not like I was hiding it — but I also wasn’t fully embracing it. 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.”
Around the same time Doechii began blowing up, her Top Dawg labelmate Isaiah Rashad was the subject of rumors surrounding his sexuality. In February 2022, sex tapes of Rashad engaging in activities with other men surfaced online. Rashad would not address these tapes until his performance at Coachella two months later. During the performance, he thanked fans, who sent messages of support following the leaks, saying, “I see all the messages and all that sh*t, all the positivity,” and noted that his fans kept him “alive these last couple months.” A month later, he came out as sexually fluid during an interview with Joe Budden.
Also that year, Lil Uzi Vert, who had previously identified as a man, started using they/them pronouns. Though they made this announcement simply by updating the pronouns in their Instagram bio, and have not officially labeled themselves as non-binary, Uzi revealed in an interview with 032c that this change came without any sort of hesitation.
“I did take my time to learn as much as I could about this before I was able to proceed,” said Uzi. “Taking the time to figure out who you are is a big part of what it means to be alive.”
They continued, explaining that the LGBTQ+ community has always been an essential component of the hip-hop game.
“I just think a good product [is] a good product,” Uzi said. “Think about fashion. Gay and trans designers are some of the biggest talents out there, and gangster-ass guys wear their stuff without a thought. What you make is what matters, not how you identify.”
And the quality of Uzi’s work has certainly been reflected in their sales and streams. Last month, their long-awaited Pink Tape album reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200, becoming the first hip-hop album of 2023 to do so.
But also, in regards to “a good product,” several queer producers are working behind the scenes to give these hip-hop records a magical touch. Over the course of the past year, openly gay producer Kaytranada has cut tracks for rappers IDK and JID, and even collaborated with rapper Aminé on a full-length collaborative album. Bisexual singer and instrumentalist Steve Lacy has been a go-to collaborator for artists like Kendrick Lamar and J Cole for years.
Last year, Lacy earned the biggest hit of his career with “Bad Habit,” a chart-topping song which tells the painful story of a missed connection. Throughout the song, Lacy doesn’t mention anyone by name, or allude to specific pronouns, which makes the song all the more relatable. “[I]f only you’d known, things would be different,” said Shani Fuller-Tillman, RCA Records VP of Marketing in a 2022 interview with Variety. “There’s no one of any age, race or gender identity that hasn’t experienced this in life.”
While relatability is a key factor in the success of songs like “Bad Habit,” the tune also got a viral push through TikTok. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, TikTok has been crucial to a song’s success — whether it be from the song’s genesis to its official release, or as the platform documents the song’s second — or even third — life.
LGBTQ+ artists, especially, have felt the effects of TikTok on their music, especially Lil Nas X, who began teasing his single, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” through TikTok months before its official March 2021 release. The song reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and though Lil Nas X hasn’t released an album since September of 2021, he continues to tease new music through the platform — the snippets often met with fans in the comments, demanding he release the full song immediately.
In 2022, fellow gay rapper Saucy Santana went viral on TikTok with his opulent single, “Material Gworllllllll!,” though the song had been released three years prior. Its viral resurgence prompted Madonna — who has long been deemed a gay icon — to perform the song alongside Santana at New York City Pride that year, and later, release a remix of the song in the form of a mashup with her 1984 hit, “Material Girl.”
But what is the catalyst for hip-hop’s recent embrace of queer and trans artists and producers? Is it online virality? The post-COVID desire to dance and feel liberated? The genre-fluidity in which streaming is pushing hip-hop numbers into similar territory as pop?
Is it even fair that hip-hop gets all the flack for homophobia? At the time of writing, Miley Cyrus is the only openly queer artist in the top 10 of Billboard’s Pop Airplay chart. Meanwhile, Jason Aldean, whose recent small town-romanticizing music video for his song “Try That In A Small Town” has been accused of racist imagery, is within arms length of his first Billboard Hot 100 topper.
Rap and hip-hop are certainly not monolithic, but even as the pop-adjacent rappers and hip-hop artists, like those mentioned above, have been met with support from hip-hop fans — both queer and straight — even conscious rappers, like Rashad, have received an outpour of love from their day-one fans.
Across any artistic platform, there’s always room for improvement in terms of LGBTQ+ acceptance and representation; but it feels safe to say that hip-hop is on the right track.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.