This piece appears as part of our initiative on Identity & Representation, a six-month-long project highlighting different facets of identity and how they shape the practices, conventions, and conversations happening in the Highsnobiety world. Head here for the full series.
We know that there is no blueprint – neither sonic nor aesthetic – for queer rap. We know that some artists reject the label entirely; that someone’s identity doesn’t determine the music they make; that queer artists shouldn’t only be celebrated during Pride Month.
Having said that, the industry more generally has a serious inequality issue which makes it difficult for queer musicians to thrive. There are notable exceptions – Tyler, the Creator, Young M.A., Kaytranada and BROCKHAMPTON’s Kevin Abstract among them – but the fact remains that too many talented queer rappers aren’t getting the recognition they deserve.
From Brazilian cyphers to New York battle rappers, artists around the world are carving out their own lanes and telling their own stories. Whether they’re political (which is increasingly common, given the ongoing political hostility towards queer people worldwide), tongue-in-cheek, or simply equipped with an arsenal of ferocious punchlines, these are the queer rappers you might not know yet – the ones who deserve a place on your favorite playlist through Pride Month and beyond.
It’s no understatement to say that Bali Baby is one of the most productive rappers in the industry right now. Since recording her first ever track back in 2016, she’s released no less than five records (upcoming EP Hoodbratz is also scheduled for release this month) and a slew of music videos, some of which have amassed more than a million views. Since blowing up back in 2017 with her “Dip Dip Freestyle” and the playful, bass-heavy “Banana Clip,” Bali has switched effortlessly between genres and continued to drop viral hits like the endearingly cocky “Amber Alert,” all the while speaking openly about her queerness in candid, long-form interviews. Bali’s hustle and versatility set her out as a product of the internet age, but her determination to win makes her one of the promising talents in the industry right now.
LA’s WEDIDIT Collective has spawned some seriously interesting artists over the last few years, but now Deb Never has emerged with a sound and a standpoint that resists definition. Her music contains all the hallmarks of ‘emo rap’ – a vocodered drawl, menacing trap snares and disillusioned lyrics – but Never always brings an off-kilter element to throw fans off. The newly-released “Ugly” video is exemplary; it might open with the seemingly melancholy image of Never sprawled across a lawn in a dog costume, but it quickly escalates into an adventure which breathes optimism into the track’s lyrics. She might have just a handful of songs to her name – of which D33J feature “Nothing Left” and “In the Night” are arguably highlights – but Never already has backing from 88rising and write-ups describing her as one of the collective’s most exciting talents. With an EP currently in the works, it looks unlikely that she’ll disappoint.
Dope Saint Jude
Dope Saint Jude has been one of the hottest names on the Johannesburg scene for years now, but the late 2018 EP Resilient – as well as the colorful, joyous new visuals for “Liddy” – are indicative of an artist coming into her prime. Buoyed by bass-heavy lead single “Grrrl Like,” the self-assured Resilient drips with confidence and a “don’t fuck with me attitude”, which is particularly stamped across standout track “Didn’t Come To Play.” This charisma is what sets Dope Saint Jude apart, as is her backstory (she used to perform as a drag king character inspired by Lil Wayne) and her strong connection to South Africa’s queer scene. As an exciting prospect on the international rap scene, it’s likely that whatever she does next will be guaranteed to increase her already-strong fanbase.
Kandie may have been conceived as the hyper-glamorous alter ego of Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood regular JayWill, but his combination of comedy skits with real rap talent has spawned a genuine star. Although remixes of hits like “Money” and “Good Form” – as well as hilarious skits like the nail salon scene, which sent his “Ouuuu” remix viral – make up most of Kandie’s recent output, 2017 album Bundles, Furs and Gold shows an interesting point of view currently missing in hip-hop. Behind the nails, bundles and dick jokes lies a self-described “faggot” willing to call out industry homophobia and galvanize an entire genre – and to look sickening while doing it, naturally.
Self-proclaimed ‘Grime Barbie’ Karnage Kills loves dick, and he’s not afraid to say it; whether servicing sugar daddies for Timberland boots or candidly recounting his “Hoe Diaries,” the young Londoner delivers every raw, explicit line with a heavy dose of charisma and a filthy wink. His long wigs and short shorts have attracted homophobia on grime channels, but Karnage remains unbothered. If anything, the comments make him more determined to prove his skill – which he does frequently, especially on blazing freestyles of “Thotiana” and Stormzy’s “Shut Up.” For now he’s busy touring London’s queer underground circuit, but infectious 2019 release “Runaround” shows that he’s no stranger to radio-friendly hooks – and that more could be in store in the very near future.
Despite an impressive back catalog which dates back to 2007, Niña Dioz is only just getting the recognition she deserves. A big break of sorts came earlier this year in the blistering “Ratatá,” which made the soundtrack of Netflix original On My Block. The track is signature Niña in some ways – it’s high-octane, dripping with confidence and armed with an earworm hook – but 2018 album Reyna dives deeper. A blend of Spanish and English lyrics deal with topics including colonization (“América”) and political disruption (“Tambalea”), whereas the message of “Magdalena” – rooted in survival of prejudice – recently spawned a powerful video, which queers religious iconography. It’s emblematic of Niña’s clear, radical point of view which, especially in today’s political climate, feels vital.
OMB Bloodbath is a self-described storyteller. Born and raised in Houston’s Third Ward, her musical output over the years has touched on everything from gentrification (“Not So Gone”) to general struggle and survival (“Same Boat”). This was largely ignored by a police officers’ union last year, which responded to her performance at a local school by digging up old mugshots and blasting her for graphic lyrics about sex and violence. “We will not let this throw us off track,” she later tweeted. “We have a whole community, a whole CITY depending on us.” Controversy aside, Bloodbath’s profile is steadily rising; she was part of a queer hip-hop showcase at this year’s SXSW, and her latest release “My Body” has already racked up more Spotify streams than any other track in her extensive back catalog. With a slew of mixtapes and freestyles to her name already, Bloodbath looks set to become an international name to watch.
Prism Battle League
After years of attempts to launch the first ever LGBT+ Battle Rap League, New York’s Sara Kana finally succeeded back in 2016. Although she explained that Prism wouldn’t solely platform queer rappers, it would prioritize them, promote them, and aim to foster a spirit of genuine inclusivity. This ethos has attracted the talents of a series of acclaimed lyricists including Tez Love, Dear Summer, Ty’ Mack and Tia S, all of whom have battled to earn respect and work their way up through the rankings. The importance of leagues like these can’t be underestimated; battle leagues have served as training grounds for some of the most iconic rappers in hip-hop history. It’s a sure sign that not only are queer rappers finally being taken seriously, they’re being given serious opportunities to hone their skills and come up in an industry which still treats them as outsiders.
Back in 2017, Bronx-based rapper Quay Dash confidently declared herself “Queen of This Shit” over SOPHIE’s frenetic, textural production. 12 months later, the track closed out a Versace show. For longtime fans of Dash, this sharp rise in visibility came as no surprise; 2016 release Transphobic proved her lyrical skill and showcased her ferocious delivery, whereas more recent cut “U.A.F.W.M” – a Sega Bodega collaboration – allowed Dash to flex and talk shit over more experimental beats. Despite a handful of glowing profiles and clear industry buzz, Dash remains an independent artist by choice – and, if latest release “New Bitch” is any indication of what’s to come, we haven’t heard the best of her yet.
Collectivism and community have been core values throughout both queer and hip-hop histories, so it should come as no surprise that LGBT+ rappers are coming together to strengthen their voices. Artists Guigo, Murillo Zyess, Harlley, Lucas Boombeat and Tchelo Gomez garnered millions of views last year when they came together for a music video, “Quebrada Queer” – also the name of their cypher, thought to be the first queer cypher in Brazil – on one of the world’s most influential hip-hop channels. Since then they’ve released a slew of other videos (standouts include the infectious “Sem Terror” and “Pra Quen Dividou”) and interviews depicting life as queer people in Brazil, notorious for its LGBT+ murder rate and recent election of a far-right president. This may be the country’s first queer rap collective, but it’s unlikely to be the last.
On this episode of The Dropcast, we are joined by activist and educator DeRay Mckesson who schools us on some history of black and gay activism.