In 2003, Amanda Perez had two hit singles and her videos being played on MTV. Her song “Angel” reached number three on the Billboard charts and peaked at number seven on Total Request Live. Her 2007 album Hand of Fate also did well, but wasn’t able to trump the success of her debut Where You At or 2004’s Angel. Even so, she was signed to a major label—Virgin Records—and one thing was very evident about her: Amanda Perez did not look like other R&B ingenues. Clad in baggy denim, baseball jackets and sneakers, Amanda had swagger; a masculine air about her. Her hair was in tight cornrows, and she had an eyebrow piercing and a neck tattoo. She was much edgier than her TRL counterparts, an anomaly in mainstream music, especially for women.
Although she’s been out of the public eye for six years now, Amanda is back with a new video for her song “Freak for the Weekend” and one thing it noticeably different: She’s an out lesbian.
In 2010 she performed at Long Beach Pride saying, “We’re all family,” and about the industry: “I don’t give a fuck.” If you follow Amanda on Twitter, she frequently posts photos and adoring messages about her girlfriend, Ana. She also rants on Instagram about guys that tell her she won’t be gay forever. (Check her Pussy Monster shirt in case you had any question.)
It’s not clear if Amanda was asked to keep her sexuality out of the conversation while she was signed (she now releases music independently), but she’s clearly out now.
Another masculine-style MC whose popularity in the music business came around the same time, Da Brat is also trying to make a return with her song “Is it Chu?” and she also is going to have a reality series made about her life from the producer of R&B Divas, as well as part of an R&B Divas type shows but about female rappers.
In a 2011 interview, Da Brat told a blogger:
I hope they stay fascinated with my sexuality because that’s something that makes them wonder. Some people feel like they know; some people feel like they wonder; and some people feel like they don’t know. So I probably will NEVER answer that question to make people keep on wondering.
Much of the speculation of Da Brat’s sexuality came because of her attire, which is similar to that of Amanda Perez’s. Da Brat prefers T-shirts and pants to the sexed-up outfits a lot of pop stars wear, and she was asked in the same interview why she “dresses like a guy”:
When I dress tomboyish, I don’t really consider it dressing like a guy. I am a full fledge woman and I like to dress however I feel comfortable. So when I feel like getting glam-med up, and throwing on the Christian Louboutins, and the weave, or whatever I’m going to do to my hair, and push up my titties in a push-up bra, throw on my La Perla, then that’s what it is and I’m comfortable either way. But when I’m performing or just, on the day to day, or in the streets, I’ll probably have my braids with my hat cocked to the back.
My braids is more low maintenance than me having to get up every day and curl the hair and put on a full fake fledge face of make up, you know what I’m saying.
— Shawntae Harris (@ONLY1BRAT) August 9, 2013
Of course dressing a certain way and being a part of a lesbian event doesn’t necessarily imply anything, sexually or otherwise, but Da Brat seems to be more comfortable with discussing her time in prison than who she becomes involved with romantically. At this point Da Brat is also releasing her own music after years of being signed SoSoDef. In 2000, she scored hits with singles “That’s What I’m Looking For” and “What Chu Like,” but found herself in legal trouble that next year gave her a three-year sentence. (She was released after 21 months as part of a work-release program.)
At the height of her career, Da Brat was nominated for two Grammys and was the winner of Billboard and Soul Train awards. She also made appearances in six films and three TV shows, including Sabrina: The Teenage Witch. Like Amanda Perez, she was a part of major pop culture for a time, and it just so happened to be a time where staying in the closet was much more accepted but no less fodder for speculation.
Nonetheless both artists were able to be successful at points in their career without completely ignoring who they are, what they like and how they want to present themselves to their audience. Although today’s hip-hop and R&B community is arguably more accepting than it was 10 years ago, homophobia is still a huge part of it, with rhymes dogging fags and dykes still a part of tracks and “no homo” in daily use. Homophobia in both the black and Mexican communities (Amanda is Mexican-American) is still very present.
If Da Brat did choose to speak more openly about her sexuality, it doesn’t necessarily mean she’d pen a “Same Love”-esque track about marriage equality. In fact we already have out LGBT rappers that have released pro-gay songs, like God-des and She, Melonge Lavonne and the Rainbow Noise team behind “Imma Homo.” But they are also relegated to a kind of “gay rap ghetto,” where their gayness can only exist in a sub-genre that is outside the larger hip-hop community.
In a recent Guardian interview, both rising stars Brooke Candy and Angel Haze said they think out artists can exist in hip-hop.
“I think there’s room in hip-hop for tons of gay rappers,” Angel said. “I’m sure there’s already loads of them who are too scared to come out.”
But Brooke doesn’t think that artists who align themselves with making “queer hip-hop” are doing any good within the existing community.
“What is so bothersome to me, with these emerging gay rappers, is that they’ve created a new genre called ‘queer hip-hop’,” she said. “Why the fuck is there a new genre for the same-sounding music? Half of the people rapping up there are gay and people don’t even know it. I understand people being sick of being labelled as ‘gay rappers’, but stand strong.”
The idea that you can be gay but not too gay is not just a part of the music industry, but in all forms of entertainment or popular culture. Movies or books or TV shows that are are not “about” gayness but feature gay themes are more acceptable in the mainstream than those that are specifically LGBT. A show like Orange is the New Black illustrates that progress has been made in that area, though, whereas characters of all backgrounds, sexual preferences and ethnicities can be a part of a hit television show that appeals to all kinds of viewers. (Still, the woman at the center is white and middle class in a “fish out of water scenario.” )
So can an out rapper reach that kind of scale? Frank Ocean has proven that it can work for R&B, but he still might be an anomaly. In April, Snoop Dogg said a gay rapper would “never be accepted in hip-hop,” which Brooke Candy said is ridiculous.
“I don’t understand why that mentality exists and I don’t understand why Snoop would say that, especially because I’ve met him and he’s such a cool guy,” she told The Guardian. “To say that though is so regressive.”
There’s also the idea that Brooke and Angel Haze might be able to be successful as out MCs because they are feminine enough to pass. For the Amanda Perezes or Da Brats of the world, female masculinity might be too off-putting for some hip-hop fans, which is not only sad but frustrating considering how they dress has little to do with what it is they have to say or what kinds of talents they have.
Last year, DJ/musician Syd tha Kid took some heat for calling out Missy Elliott, Alicia Keys and Queen Latifah, saying they were lying about being straight. She also talked about being “the first openly gay female artist” to make a hip-hop video like she did (starring her and a female love interest) for her song “Cocaine.”
“I decided to do it because I wish I had someone like that while I was coming up. People write on my Tumblr just thanking me for making the video, saying that I really inspire them, and they want to be like me,” Syd told LA Weekly. “But I wasn’t always this way, this comfortable with myself, and I remember what that was like. So I figure, fuck it. Everyday people aren’t given this opportunity and I realize that. And I didn’t at first. I thought I was just lucky to be along for the ride.”
The video for “Cocaine” was hotly contested for its violence against women—at the hand of a woman, no less. And that brings up the point that alongside homophobia in the industry, there is also sexism. Misogyny is alive and well in hip-hop just like it has been in rock and other genres for the entirety of its existence. It’s ultimately what it comes down to, though, when you consider this:
Women rappers and women who participate in the broader hip-hop culture face challenges that may prevent them from addressing LGBT issues or coming out of the closet if they are gay, bisexual or transgendered [sic]. Women’s sexual desire of other women and rejection of male-defined feminine sexuality constitute qualities of pariah femininities in hip-hop culture (and the broader mainstream culture.) The stigmitation of lesbians in hip-hop culture suggests that standards of hegemonic masculinity include sexual desire for the feminine and the ability to control women. (Jennifer M. Pemberto – Now I Ain’t Sayin’ She’s a Gold Digger”: African. American Femininities in Rap Music Lyrics)
That is to say, if women aren’t interested in what a man has to offer, they will be a lot harder to control.
On one hand, they must confront the sexism and heterosexism of mainstream hyper-masculinist and heteronormative hip hop. On the other hand, they have to contest the patriarchal homosexuality of many gay male hip hoppers and critique the gender hierarchy within the Homo-Hop movement. It is this double or triple bind, this “multiple jeopardy” as Deborah King contended, that makes bisexual and lesbian women’ relationship with rap music, hip hop culture, and the wider Hip Hop movement qualitatively different than any of the other members of the hip hop community. (Reiland Rabaka –Hip Hop’s Amnesia: From Blues and the Black Women’s Club Movement)
If Da Brat did come out as a lesbian, openly discussing it instead of being cheeky and mysterious in interviews, would she more successful? Less? At this point, it doesn’t seem like it would hurt her career, and it’s very likely that those she’s friends with and work with are aware by now.
Are LGBT hip-hop artists supposed to leave hip-hop and form their own homo-hop community? Both are options at this point, and it appears the choice is between acceptance or authenticity, depending on if you prefer being closeted or being marginalized. It hardly seems fair, but where will the most progress be made? If women like Da Brat and Amanda Perez have been able to create hit songs and be a part of the industry in times of less acceptance, and out artists like Brooke Candy and Angel Haze are pushing for progress on their own terms, things could be looking up, or at least in the right direction.
Amanda Perez is working on her hip-hop/R&B crossover album, Love Don’t Make Sense and Da Brat can be seen with The Legends of Hip-Hop Live in Detroit on September 28 alongside Big Daddy Kane, Doug E. Fresh, MC Lyte and Slick Rick. Could 2013 be the year of queer women in hip-hop? We can only hope.