Navigating white supremacy while existing at the intersection of multiple identities – Black, dark skinned, non-binary, and queer – often feels like an isolating experience. Starting at a young age I’ve doubted and actively fought against myself, reinforcing the oppressive forces being projected onto me. Discovering musicians who shared my intersections created safety, made me feel seen, and gave me the tools to exist in my full authenticity.
Music has always been a huge part of my experience. My earliest recollections of music come from my grandmother, Elzoria. She filled my life with songs. One of the earliest memories came from riding in the car with her on the way to the grocery store. During the car ride I heard Prince’s 1979 hit single “I Wanna Be Your Lover” floating from the speakers for the very first time. Overcome, I remarked how beautiful “her” voice was. I was astonished when my grandmother told me that Prince was a man. My astonishment only intensified when I saw the 1984 film, “Purple Rain.” Prince’s beauty went beyond the expectation of manhood. Prince embodied femininity and masculinity all while not being the nasty butt of a joke. In the song, “I Would Die 4 U” Prince sings,
I’m not a woman, I’m not a man.
I am something that you’ll never understand.
Prince was the first artist to open my eyes to what was possible, not only musically, but also in terms of gender identity, gender expression, and the glory of pleasure.
While I began to reconcile my personhood, Tracy Chapman’s catalog served as a balm that soothed ugly emotional bruises accrued in childhood. In Chapman’s 1995 striking song, “Remember the Tinman” she explores the experiences that might have left the Tinman without a heart:
Who stole your heart, or did you give it away?
And if so then when and why?
Who took away the part so essential to the whole?
Left you a hollow body,
Skin and bone?
What robber? What thief?
Who stole your heart and the key?
She ended by reminding us that the Tin Man “found he had all along what he thought he lacked.” Those lyrics took me to a moment in my journey where I understood that so much of what I needed to heal and grow fully existed inside of me. This song inspired me to dive deeper into her discography. Each song gave me language, laid a foundation for my future politic, and deepened my capacity to feel.
In 2012, I’d been living as a proud, Black, queer person for five years, and I was starting to feel disenchanted by hip-hop, one of my favorite musical genres. Right when I wanted to abandon the art form, I saw a Vibe Magazine article introducing Kalifa, whose stage name at the time was Le1f. Kalifa was the first out, queer rapper I ever experienced. For the first time I felt fully at home in an art form I have loved since childhood. In “Wut,” Kalifa not only displayed that he was a gifted lyricist, but also beautiful, unabashedly queer, and a dork. Inspired, I began a quest to find more of myself in music that allowed me to live fuller and freer.
The thirst for freedom Kalifa’s music inspired led me to listen to disco. Originally, my understanding of this genre was John Travolta doing his best impersonation of Soul Train dancers. Little did I know, disco had a queen, and that Queen was Sylvester.
His freedom called to me at a time I felt I was finally breaking out of confinement. I resonated deeply with many songs; however, “Stars” was the sonic baptism I needed to carry all I had learned about myself, about my people, and about my history. In the song, written by Patrick Crowley, Sylvester sings, “Everybody is a star…and you only happen once.” The Gospel-infused disco flooded my veins, filled my steps, and reminded me that I come from a long legacy of brave pioneers and remain in community with those past, present, and future.
While scrolling through social media, I came across a promo for Cakes Da Killa’s album “Hedonism.” In the video to the first song, Killa looked stunning in a black and white video with large, coy eyes. The album title alone hooked me, but Killa’s brilliant lyricism stood out. After devouring “Hedonism,” I found an interview Killa did with Hot 97. As I watched the interview, it was hard to miss the hosts inability to reconcile the fact that Killa was a talented rapper and gay. Killa reinforced that they weren’t just a rapper but also made music because he loved it. Songs like, “Goodie Goodies” served as a sonic landscape for my sexuality while “Up Out of My Face” became an anthem for when I needed to be sharp tongued.
For me, each of these artists served as a possibility, a model for Black, queer people. They offered a vital part of the formula we all need to create and evolve into a more intersectional and liberated society. In their own way, each artist shifted the DNA of culture just by existing fully in their authenticity and sharing their brilliance with the world. As a result of their music, I am grateful and whole.