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7 groundbreaking Black LGBTQ+ artists making their musical mark

This Pride Month, REVOLT acknowledges seven groundbreaking Black LGBTQ+ artists who represent the once-impracticable dream of being a Black queer musical headliner.

Lil Nas X, Kehlani, Victoria Monet Getty

In a world that makes it hard for love to be love, LGBTQ+ identities frequently navigate with a level of caution that heterosexuals do not need to honor their most authentic selves. During a month reserved for celebratory enrichment of queer culture, all individualities can work toward a future without discrimination.

The struggles for inclusivity of varied sexual orientations must be referenced appropriately. From gay rights predecessors of the nation’s homophile movement to the Stonewall Riot and separate follow-up LGBTQ+ liberation efforts, Black allies mobilized substantial change. Today, as “gay-friendly” rainbow-washing or commercial slogans are pressed onto branded items for profit, we can respect past LGBTQ+ activists’ contributions.

There are many prevalent factors approaching advancement. At the front of generations of organizing, music has always uplifted LGBTQ+ bodies. And if visibility plays a significant role in evolution, then few things can connect people from different walks of life, like musical entertainers. Pioneering Black queer icons include Billie Holiday, Little Richard, and Gladys Bentley.

This Pride Month, REVOLT acknowledges seven groundbreaking Black LGBTQ+ artists. Between distinguished experiences and genres, they represent the once-impracticable dream of being a Black queer musical headliner. Beyond hit-making, their talent brings awareness to LGBTQ+ concerns and helps strip industry shareholders’ of archaic homophobic bias.

1. Frank Ocean

One of the splendors of Frank Ocean’s artistry is his mystery. Between the genre-bending tracks, visual artwork, and prolific song credits, the Odd Future representative is a once-a-generation musician. But, anonymity has always been a part of his identity. The Long Beach-born, New Orleans-raised crooner returned to California following Hurricane Katrina. With his former recording studio damaged, Ocean became inspired to trek to Los Angeles with a $1,100 budget.

The visit intended to be a few-week music session became the hit-making vocals, and legendary composition listeners adore today. Ocean remains Hollywood-based. Initially starting as a ghostwriter, the multi-hyphenate transitioned into a brighter spotlight, penning under icons like Beyoncé, Kanye West, JAY-Z, and John Legend. In 2011, the self-starter released a mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra, online at no cost. The ethereal body of work cemented the foundation of his cult-like fanbase with the earworms “Novacane” and “Swim Good.” Ocean gained mainstream notoriety swiftly. And his love songs that released following helped evolve visibility for LGBTQ+ performers and audiences of the queer experience.

Ahead of his major debut, channel ORANGE, the star published a note on Tumblr acknowledging a same-sex first love. Much like his leap of faith across states, bravery is rooted deeply in his coming out publicly. Subsequently, his LP enlisted features from veterans including André 3000 and John Mayer — and Ocean was praised by Tyler, The Creator for living his truth. His 2016 sophomore album, Blonde, went No. 1 on the charts among vulnerable relationship references. Though he has not pinpointed his sexual identity, Ocean’s continued musical contributions inspire the LGBTQ+ community.

2. Kehlani

A global artist who wears her heart on her sleeve is Kehlani. With a hard knock origin, the singer-songwriter, dancer and mogul developed her talent by making her rounds at Oakland School for the Arts and beside the teen group PopLyfe. She appeared on fans’ TVs with “America’s Got Talent” ahead of releasing her 2014 mixtape, Cloud 19. Throughout this period, the on-the-rise songstress experienced contractual limitations and bouts of homelessness before establishing a buzz on SoundCloud.

Committed to her process, Kehlani took no shortcuts. Her 2015 EP You Should Be Here released beside Atlantic Records detailing the highs and lows of relationships, and finding yourself. The artist identified as bisexual at this stage and recorded detailing her encounters with men and women. Her 2017 full-length debut, SweetSexySavage, became a top-three album, which jointly made motion picture waves with the Suicide Squad compilation song “Gangsta.”

Beyond radio smashes, Kehlani’s intersecting identity and growing platforms amplified her voice at Pride events and touching LGBTQ+ matters worldwide. In 2018, the starlet announced she was expecting her first child with her guitarist, Javaughn Young-White, who is bisexual. Before giving birth, Kehlani dropped the 9-track poetic While We Wait to much fanfare. It Was Good Until It Wasn’t, her 2020 sophomore LP, became her highest mainstream credit to date beside the entrepreneur’s TSNMI imprint. Earlier this year, Kehlani came out as a lesbian.

3. Big Freedia

Revered as the “Queen of Bounce” music, Big Freedia is a hometown hero to New Orleans and an international LGBTQ+ luminary. The artist is credited for popularizing the inclusive musical movement, and the Queen Diva herself acknowledges being gay and gender fluid. Still, there is no one-fits-all box for Freedia. And with decades of entrepreneurial plays from the performer, how could there be?

Freedia’s commitment to taking a once underground scene to the mainstream did not stop at radio. She is now an author, activist, reality TV star, and cultural influencer outside of bounce. The talent emerged in 1999 with the debut single “An Ha, Oh Yeah,” mothering the hip hop sub-genre. Her ball-friendly anthems placed the 504 in a distinct bracket with unique recordings, compilation features, and multiple albums.

Conventionally, nightlife environments can be unwelcoming to queer identities. Before a Grammy-awarded song sample on Beyoncé’s hit “Formation” or vocals on Drake’s track “Nice For What,” Big Freedia was resilient in creating safe spaces for LGBTQ+ joy. With her productions’ airhorns, heavy bass, and witty raps, bounce supporters are welcomed to come as they are and wobble beside her.

4. Janelle Monáe

Upon making her rounds among NYC theater expositions, and ATL’s independent circuit, Janelle Monáe found herself getting fired from her day job. While on the clock, the vocalist used a display computer at Office Depot to respond to a fan letter praising a recent performance. The experience of being laid off birthed her 2006 single “Lettin’ Go,” which fell on the radar of Big Boi, who became a studio collaborator, before he introduced her to Sean Love Combs.

Having provided the leg work, in 2008, Monáe made her seven-track major debut beside Bad Boy Records with Metropolis: The Chase Suite (Special Edition). Its futuristic synths and lyrical content on the song “Many Moons” garnered a Grammy nomination in the Best Urban/Alternative Performance category. Soon, the industry became hers for the taking. Under her imprint, Wondaland Arts Society, Monáe’s LPs, The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, extended earlier strains — waxing wordplay on technology, classism, and sexuality.

In 2018, a day before her third album, Dirty Computer, dropped, the musician came out as pansexual. Queer institutions celebrated Monáe’s acknowledgment of relationships with women and men — including Pride festivities. Today, she offers her voice to numerous LGBTQ+ causes while prevailing as a music magnate, acclaimed actress, and entrepreneur at large.

5. Tyler, The Creator

Chart-topping, Grammy award-winning Tyler, The Creator and his Odd Future collective have existed left of center since premiering to the music industry. Touching nearly every aspect of his workings, Tyler dismantles perpetuated notions of masculinity by simply being himself. Earlier projects such as Goblin, Wolf, and Cherry Bomb + Instrumentals confirmed the wordsmith’s expertise and brought commercial success.

Simultaneously, some leading tracks received criticism from organizations, including the Gay And Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, for the rapper’s lyrical expression — later discovering Tyler was a member of the LGBTQ+ community. His fourth LP, Flower Boy, broke through with hits like “See You Again” beside Kali Uchis, and was recognized for harmonious course correction. Even so, the way Tyler’s art affects hearers may divide.

Notably, the single “I Ain’t Got Time!” reached outside his interest in women and recognized same-sex dynamics: “Next line will have ‘em like ‘whoa’/ I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004.” The genre-bending playthrough album IGOR, is Tyler’s most significant artistic success yet. He produced the No. 1 record in its entirety and won the 2020 Grammy Award for Best Rap Album — making gifts undeniable.

6. Victoria Monét

Singer-songwriter and dancer Victoria Monét is at the mainstream juxtaposition of being a force to be reckoned with — yet the calmest of storms. And she deserves her flowers. While Monét writes hits on behalf of some of the world’s brightest Top 40 favorites, the triple threat is a star all by herself. The songster began paying her dues eons ago by making musical connections on MySpace.

Initially developing with producer Rodney Jerkins, Monét had numerous tests recording beside different labels. As a soloist, EPs Nightmares & Lullabies: Act 1, Nightmares & Lullabies: Act 2, Life After Love, Pt. 1, and Life After Love Pt. 2 beautifully apostrophized her range. Still, her verse contributions took off first. Monét’s younger poetry pages developed into globally charted numbers for musicians including Ariana Grande, Nas, Fifth Harmony, TWENTY88, and Chris Brown.

A hook or stanza from her can assist over a billion streams on a single song. Enter: “7 rings” and “thank u, next.” Even so, Monét’s 2020 debut project, JAGUAR, became the hard-earned win her fans were waiting on. An uptempo penchant approaching sexual freedom creates visibility for her LGBTQ+ supporters. The bisexual artist recorded ballads about male and female partners ahead of giving birth to her first child earlier this year.

7. Lil Nas X

In December of 2018, the strength of the internet took on a new meaning when Lil Nas X’s independently uploaded a track titled “Old Town Road (I Got The Horses In The Back)” to SoundCloud. Balancing banjo plucks against bass loops, the artist posted his bop’s genre as “Country Trap” and “Hick Hop” before TikTok users delivered viral pandemonium. Soon after, the new song entry charted three places simultaneously: Hot Country Songs, Hot 100, and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs.

Yet, when the country enthusiasts’ appreciation poured in for the Atlanta-based newcomer, Billboard silently removed Lil Nas X from the Hot Country Songs chart. Subsequently, Rolling Stone reported his new label, Columbia Records, was informed by the publication, “...upon further review, it was determined that ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X does not currently merit inclusion.” However, when media dialogue concerning Black artists and who merits inclusion began, the chart-counting affiliates had a change of heart, and “Old Town Road” topped the Hot 100.

Lil Nas X’s ascension was unique because he had the love of the people before he signed any deal. His Hot Country chart champions included Justin Bieber, Reba McEntire, and Billy Ray Cyrus. The latter legend responded to the controversy by jumping on the “Old Town Road (Remix).” This collaborative cut now has over 1.1 billion streams on Spotify alone, and launched Lil Nas X to superstardom before releasing his 7 EP in June 2019.

During that same pride month, the budding artist came out as gay on Twitter. After pushback to establish himself in general markets, X’s debut single became the Hot 100 chart’s longest-running No. 1 ever. Still, the queer entertainer is no stranger to buzzing LGBTQ+ disputes. His 2021 music video “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” features X giving Satan a lap dance. And no matter what viewers feel, the bottom line is Lil Nas X will always do him, regardless.

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