Chicago has long been known as a mecca for hip-hop culture. Within recent years, however, there's been a rise in queer and gender non-conforming hip-hop artists in the city. From Kidd Kenn, who recently signed to Island Records, to Futurehood, the queer Chicago-based hip-hop collective, queer rappers are creating their own sub-culture.
With rappers Lil Nas X and Tyler the Creator being openly gay, many rap fans equate visibility with acceptance. But visibility and acceptance are not the same; many queer hip-hop artists in Chicago have been forced to create their own spaces.
Queer Chicago-based rappers Mother Nature, Roy Kinsey, Blu Bone, KC Ortiz, CJ Run, Sun BLVD and Kidd Kenn spoke about visibility, the connections between Black culture and gay culture and Chicago's unique brand of art activism.
"You've got that stigma [that] Chicago's real hard," said Truth, one half of the queer hip-hop duo Mother Nature. If you find your own "tribe," Chicago can be an accepting place, according to Truth. "I love tribes," said Klevah, the other half of Mother Nature. "I love that we're able to navigate multiple spaces within the hip-hop community and the arts community in Chicago."
Queer rapper Roy Kinsey agreed, noting, "As much as Chicago gets this reputation of being violent or intolerant, there is a corner in Chicago for everybody," said Kinsey, who's a member of Futurehood, the Chicago-based record label and multi-media platform for queer and transgender artists of color. The creative collective is also associated with queer artists across the country including Chae Buttuh from North Carolina, Taylor Alxndr from Atlanta, and Rozay LaBeija and Linda LaBeija from New York City.
"When I came to Chicago, I found [Futurehood]," said Blu Bone, the Chicago-based bisexual rapper who came to Chicago for school. Now a senior at UIC, Blu Bone has also gotten heavily involved with the ballroom scene in the city. "Ballroom in Chicago is very Black American. Very intimate, exclusive. It has that Midwest intimacy. I think that way about the Chicago scene [too]."
On the last day of June 2019, 20-year old country-hip-hop artist Lil Nas X announced over Twitter ( or, suggested ) that he was queer. "By all means, it was a marketing move," said Blu Bone. "As far as real change in hip-hop, I'm going to have to see. I'm hopeful that [this] will open doors for a lot more of us, or [for] the public to start questioning the Black male monolith."
Other queer and trans people of color in the city are also waiting to see how Lil Nas X's career plays out. "One thing about hip-hop is [that] you may slide in on the trend, but your talent will keep you there," said transgender rapper KC Ortiz. "Other rappers can't stop people from liking [his] music. He could be successful, but who's going to stand up and support him? That's what I look at. Who's going to back him up, who's going to be an ally?"
Kinsey sees Lil Nas X as the young gay rap icon that the culture needs. "I think the world needs to see him be a young heartthrob," he said. "That's exactly what I wanted when I was 15 and 16 years old. 'Mom, that song you like, that you can't stop singing? Yeah, he's gay.' [To me] it's more about whose lives can be possibly improved because they get to honor their truth because they've seen someone else tell it."
While it might be easy for some to celebrate the success and hope surrounding Lil Nas X, non-binary rapper CJ Run is concerned that visibility isn't enough.
"In the media, being queer is like the hot new topic. It's very in, and I don't know if that's so much acceptance," they said, comparing the constant commotion around queerness to the feeling of being under a microscope. "Like, 'Hey, trans people exist!' That doesn't mean we're being accepted more, it just means people know about us more. We're more visible, so hopefully the acceptance piece can come with that."
Additionally, Lil Nas X is still a cisgender man, meaning he identifies with the gender assigned to him at birth. "Is the mainstream really ready for gender non-conforming rappers and people that look visibly gender non-conforming?" Asked Run. "I don't know, because when you look at the outrage and everybodys' conspiracy theories around Lil Nas coming out, I'm [thinking], 'he's just a cis gay boy, and you guys did that because of him. You're not ready for me.'" Though he represents visibility, Lil Nas X only represents the visibility of cisgender gay men in hip-hop, not necessarily those who are genderqueer or trans.
Run is not alone in her concern. "Our trans brothers and sisters [are] being killed every day, gay youth are being kicked out of their homes and are homeless," said Truth of Mother Nature. "[Visibility] opens eyes to an extent, but on a global level or even nationally, it's [not] saying, 'okay, we're good!' You know? It's moving in the right direction as we push mainstream, but people still have to get in their heads: this is not [just] entertainment, these are peoples' lives."
It's no surprise to many Chicago artists that queer Black people are becoming more visible, specifically within hip-hop. "It is an evolution in the culture of hip-hop that the ones most oppressed, the ones cast out, whose stories weren't told, would then feel it is time to take their power back," said Kinsey.
"[With] queer Black kids in particular [there] is a legacy of rapping, creating, tongue tying, orating, commentary," said Blu Bone.
The history of hip-hop is comparable to that of ballroom culture in that both are rooted in struggle. Given that queer and transgender people of color exist, and at the most marginalized intersections at that, the two cultures are inextricably linked as well. "We have been pushing the culture forward this whole time and you didn't even know," said queer rapper Sun BLVD, who also came to Chicago for school before deciding to pursue music full-time. "[The ballroom scene] spills over into everyday life, into fashion, into music, into slang. Gay culture is popular culture now."
While Black queerness is overflowing into the mainstream, those who are genderqueer are in danger of being left behind. "It's so much easier to be queer in sexuality but still conventional in your gender presentaton, if you still sort of look like the gender you were 'assigned,'" said Run. "It's so much easier to be a cis gay that does music in comparison to being a gender non-conforming person that does music and uses pronouns that people maybe aren't used to." Cisgender gay men being normalized in hip-hop is a significant step for the culture. The next step in hip-hop's evolution is transgender visibility.
Creating the culture
Although the struggle for Black and queer liberation are connected, that doesn't mean that queerness has always been accepted in traditionally Black spaces. "Queerness always has to make space for itself," said Blu Bone. "We're very rarely asked to be in [hip-hop] spaces."
The animosity towards queerness in hip-hop is evident, from lyrics that outright decry homosexuality, such as Offset's line that he can't "vibe with queers," to the fetishization of lesbians. "[To be] queer in hip-hop is to already dare to exist against," said Blu Bone. "That's why Futurehood has been really instrumental in terms of supplying me with spaces." Blu Bone credits Futurehood with making a queer hip-hop scene in Chicago feasible. "A [queer] scene is not possible without its spaces, without its cohorts, without its gatherings," he said.
Futurehood isn't the only space in the city for QTPOC in hip-hop. The standing party Slo 'Mo, which produces "slow jams for queer fam," and Party Noire, the "cultural hub" that focuses on and uplifts Black femmes, QTWOC and gender non-conforming Black womyn/people, are also helping normalize the presence of queer people in hip-hop spaces, in addition to creating spaces just for queer hip-hop artists and fans. "We're creating the culture," said Kinsey. "A lot of us have just been underground bubbling for such a long time, waiting to get the mic. These cultures are big and rich and ready."
Though Chicago is beginning to see more safe spaces for queerness in hip-hop, it's still not something universally accepted. "There are certain relationships that you won't have," said Kinsey. "To me, that's a blessing. That was God clearing them out of my sphere."
Ortiz and Run share a similar mindset. "Sometimes [people] say stuff like, 'if you weren't trans, you would be way bigger right now,'" said Ortiz. "In my mind, it's just not my time. No matter what I am or who I am, I'm good. At the end of the day, trans, Black, whatever, I'm going to let my work speak for me," she said.
Run agreed. "There might be certain opportunities that I know I should have but maybe didn't get because of certain things," said Run. "I still just remember I'm really fucking good at what I do."
Art as activism
"There's something very special happening in Chicago," said Kinsey. "There's something beautiful happening [here] because there's this activism and art that we merge in a very specific and special way." Sun BLVD agreed. "We have something very unusual here. It's been happening, and it's still happening. We're pushing the culture forward. We want to make Chicago a city for everybody."
Kidd Kenn, the gay rapper from the south side who signed to Island Records at the end of July at just 16, is the return on the creative, underground movements like Futurehood, Slo 'Mo and Party Noire. "My city took me in," said Kenn, who's only been rapping for about a year. "I thought they weren't going to fuck with me just because of who I was and what I did. It shocked me when they did," he said. In Chicago, art and activism are combined in a unique way. This is shown in the music and activism of Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa as well as Chicago Votes' 2018 "Give a Shit Weekend," which used visual art, fashion and music to mobilize young people in Chicago to vote in last year's midterm elections. This atmosphere of advocacy and advancement within art communities in Chicago has allowed for a gay Black kid from the south side to be his complete self, unapolagetically, and actually see success.
Despite Kidd Kenn's popularity and accomplishments, Chicago isn't perfect; there's still work to be done. Klevah and Truth questioned the notion of acceptance, saying that they want more: "I don't want to be accepted, I want to be loved," said Truth.
The queer hip-hop artists that are thriving and popping up around the city are helping set the stage for that love and affirmation. "I want to be a part of that wave of artists that paves the way for other people like myself, so it's not as hard as it is for me," said Run.
"Everything I went through was to give me a resume," said Ortiz. "'Hey, I went through this too. That happened to me.' A lot of times if you can see someone where you're from, [and they're] where you want to be, it shows you it can be done."
For those who live at the most marginalized intersections in society, simply existing is a form of activism. Many people think of queerness as an antithesis to hip-hop, but the queer and transgender hip-hop artists here in Chicago, simply by being their authentic selves, are proving this to be false.
"It took me a while to understand that I had to be the person to create the music that I wanted to hear," said Kinsey. "I love that my intersections that I tried to keep separate were the key, once I put them together."