Since its beginning, hip-hop has been a form of self-expression and oftentimes a means of protest for underrepresented people.

Once considered at odds with the mainstream, the genre has grown to be synonymous with today’s popular culture, and in doing so has engaged narratives that were at one time not made visible.

The rise of a genre many have labeled “queer hip-hop” is one of the results of this. Identifying as queer, however, does not define the following 12 musicians – their eclectic and unique body of work does.

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Zebra Katz

Grouse Party

Ojay Morgan, better known by his stage name Zebra Katz, is much more than the bitingly sarcastic lyrics and sense of pageantry associated with his performance persona. Morgan is also a multidisciplinary artist who has studied at the British American Dramatic Academy, as well as New York’s Parsons School of Design.

As Zebra Katz, he channels the influence of Grace Jones, Nina Simone and Lauryn Hill into a body of work marked by lyrical agility and a tempo that ranges from a slow, almost seductive drawl to a lightening fast, Twista-esque flurry of words. Though he is often categorized as a part of the “queer hip-hop” wave, Morgan actively defies this label, rightfully maintaining he is simply a musician.

Big Freedia

Bottom Lounge

Crowned the “Queen of Bounce,” Big Freedia has helped bring the singular, frenzied, twerk-inducing rhythms of New Orleans bounce music to a national stage. The subgenre is often characterized by fairly simple lyrics and call-and-repeat-style hooks that make it easy to follow, and even easier to move to.

Freedia’s music in particular has refined this formula, creating a space for people to come together and let loose. “There’s no need to separate it out. All types of people—gay, straight, rich, poor, black, white come to my shows. People just wanna get out and shake their azzzz and have a good time!,” Freedia said of her shows in an interview.

Cakes da Killa

Red Bull Studios

Rashard Bradshaw, or Cakes da Killa, hails from Teaneck, New Jersey, and first began rapping in high school as a hobby. His hyper-sexualized, often raunchy output draws parallels to Lil’ Kim, which is no coincidence considering he lists her, Remy Ma, Foxy Brown and Cam’ron as his strongest influences.

In much the same way Lil’ Kim’s fearless approach to sexuality helped subvert ideas of gender roles in hip-hop, Bradshaw’s own approach helps to destigmatize queer sexuality. In his latest project, #IMF, Bradshaw, in his signature style, chronicles a love story from beginning to end. It’s well worth a listen.

Le1f

Glaad

Born Khalif Diouf, New York-based hip-hop artist and producer Le1f is a one-time student of ballet and modern dance, as well as a subversive performer who consistently challenges heteronormative gender standards.

Le1f first got his start producing music for fellow New York creatives Das Racist before striking out as a solo artist. In 2012, his track “Wut” catapulted him to mainstream attention, leading many to place him in the “gay rapper” category.

Although he doesn’t reject the label, like many of the other artists mentioned, he rightfully views himself as a musician above all else. Most recently he released his debut studio album, titled Riot Boi.

Mykki Blanco

Wonderland Magazine

Mykki Blanco was born Michael Quattlebaum Jr. in Orange County, California, and takes his stage name from Lil’ Kim’s alter ego Kimmy Blanco. A lifelong creative, Blanco won a coveted award at the age of 15 for his part in founding an experimental performance collective.

He went on to move to New York at the tender age of 16 before eventually being offered a full scholarship to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Though Blanco dropped out after two semesters, he continued to produce art, music and literature – all of which would go on to earn recognition and praise.

He is often considered a pioneer of the “queer hip-hop” movement, and most recently also came out as HIV positive, stating that though he’d worried his status may be detrimental to his career, he felt that being honest about his real life was more important.

Frank Ocean

Bluntiq

Frank Ocean’s second studio album, channel ORANGE, a followup to the critically acclaimed mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra catapulted him to global acclaim, and solidified him as an artist in his own right. Prior to that, Ocean had worked as a ghostwriter for several well-known musicians.

Nostalgia, Ultra also served as a coming out of sorts for the singer, who later wrote a Tumblr post detailing a sexual attraction to a man that eventually ended in heartbreak. Many in the industry called Ocean’s admission a game-changer, and the outpouring of support from big names like Jay Z, Beyonce and Russell Simmons led many to believe that hip-hop was changing its view on queer artists.

Brooke Candy

Festivalrykten

Brooke Candy grew up in California as the daughter of a nurse and the CFO of Hustler Magazine. In interviews she recalls how she was inspired by the decadence and hedonism of the magazine’s offices. Prior to singing, Candy worked in a strip club and also styled mannequins for Hustler. Both jobs would go on to influence both Candy’s style of dress and her music.

She has described her fashion sense as “feminist glam alien” and also says it is influenced by Tumblr culture. Candy credits Lil’ Kim as one of her inspirations, and like the New York emcee, her hyper-sexual presentation and lyrics intentionally subvert gender double standards. Though Candy has at times been criticized for appropriation, she maintains her performance persona is her authentic self.

House of Ladosha

The Cluster Mag

House of Ladosha is an artist collective that began in Queens, New York and has since gone on to open for Azealia Banks, perform at Art Basel, and gain global recognition for its irreverent, wholly original sound and style. While quite large, the two most immediately recognizable members are Dosha Devastation and Cunty Crawford.

Together with their crew they’ve turned out viral-famous anthems like “B.M.F. (Black Model Famous)” and “Rollin’,” all the while showing that world that creativity and talent aren’t gender specific.

Angel Haze

Hypetrak

Angel Haze was born in Detroit, Michigan and lived in a deeply insular, religious community until moving to Brooklyn, New York at the age of 16. Her musical output tackles everything from religious fanaticism to eating disorders, homophobia, and even sexual abuse.

While she identifies as pansexual, she has also made it clear that her orientation doesn’t define who she is as a musician. Haze is also an outspoken activist, and has shared harrowing personal experiences and openly detailed her own sexual abuse in hopes of helping others.

Siya

Los Angeles Leakers

Born Michele Sherman in California, Siya is an openly lesbian female rapper who moved to Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn as a young child. She has said she came out at an extremely young age, and in the Oxygen reality show Sisterhood of Hip-Hop she has repeatedly detailed how difficult it has been to break into the music industry because of her sexuality and presentation.

One of her early singles, titled “D.Y.K.E.,” delves into the experience of coming out and learning to accept herself. Since then, she’s gone on to open for acts like Fabolous and has also performed with Wyclef Jean.

PsychoEgyptian

Flickr

Signed to Mykki Blanco’s Dogfood Music Group, PsychoEgyptian, born Devin Kyle Cuthbertson, can be recognized by his shock of colorful hair and singular style of music. Having repeatedly described himself as a misfit, Cuthbertson’s brand of hip-hop channels inspiration from experimental genres of music.

In a recent interview with Dazed, Cuthbertson shared his desire to create music that exists outside of the stereotypical norms of black American hip-hop culture. Like many of the artists signed to Dogfood, his embracing of his own identity and unique approach to creativity are paving the way for alternative narratives.

Dai Burger

New York-based artist Dai Burger has been a backup dancer for Lil’ Mama, appeared in a Beyonce music video and worked as a stylist for Patricia Fields. When she’s not honing her artistry for others, she creates music with the likes of Junglepussy, Cakes da Killa and Darq E Freaker. Her work has been widely praised for its overt feminism, and the music video for her song “Soufflé” was even voted  one of the most feminist videos of the year.

Words by Stephanie Smith-Strickland
Contributor