American, queer music has a rich history in predominantly black and brown communities today. Whether it’s inspired by blues artist Gladys Bentley, early, Latinx pop musician Ricky Martin, or trap music pioneer DJ Ken Collier, queer music historically developed in marginalized communities of color. Unfortunately, queer music usually raises acclaim and revenue when white or straight artists commercialize it in the mainstream.
I write this with full acknowledgement of my privilege as a white lady. I’m not an expert in the experiences of black and brown members of the music industry. But, I ask the following question: Is it possible for artists and allies to appreciate queer music made by black and brown artists without appropriating?
Why do I keep saying “black and brown,” you may ask? The people I interviewed are black and Latinx folks who have lived in Denver and experienced the music industry here. Their experiences are theirs alone, as unique as the music they interact with.
Not everyone had the same understanding of musical appropriation and appreciation. For example, Julian Nilsson is the education and recruitment specialist for Boston GLASS, an LGBTQ resource center. He is also a member of the Boston ballroom House of Mona Lisa, having previously vogued here in Denver. While Taylor Swift has released multiple songs with pro-LGBTQ lyrics, Nilsson was skeptical of her intentions as a white, straight artist. Were those songs an effort to pander to a new market, or has she only recently noticed the experiences of those around her?
Compare Swift’s experience with that of Lady Gaga, who made music in the same time period. According to Nilsson, Gaga’s pro-LGBTQ bops were “straight-washed” by the mainstream music industry because she was a bisexual woman dating men. This isn’t factoring in race. Nilsson commended artists like Bad Bunny for his fluid gender expression and advocacy in the public eye, especially as a straight-identifying, Puerto Rican man.
Ru Johnson, owner and promoter at Roux Black Consulting, sees Bad Bunny’s gender-fluid performances as a form of allyship, but not as a “statement about his sexuality.” She believes we need to push gender fluidity farther than cisgender men dressing feminine. Johnson cited Drake’s music video for “Nice for What” featuring inspirational black women in pop culture. However, she pointed out how Big Freedia wasn’t represented in the music video she provided vocals for. According to Johnson, “It would have only enhanced Drake’s perspective as a progressive ally if she was included in the video.”
Johnson mentioned artists like Junglepussy and Snow Tha Product for their fierce advocacy for members of the LGBTQ community. When at Snow’s shows, she feels safe because, “[Snow]’s a woman in rap who doesn’t let the typical misogyny slide at her shows and provides an atmosphere we can all enjoy.”
Johnson said she had to fight harder to be heard in the Denver music industry, especially in hip-hop. When dealing with white, industry folks, they discounted her because of her blackness. When dealing with black colleagues, men’s voices were often heard first. Intersectionality is useless if people only feign inclusivity but don’t change their behavior.
Similarly, Vonna Wolf is a proudly Chicana, Denver musician who has dabbled in punk, hip-hop, and everything in between. She recently got her MS in recording arts from the University of Colorado Denver. While Wolf doesn’t consider herself expressly queer, she describes herself as an “alien” rather than traditionally feminine. Her experiences as a Chicana musician mirror LGBTQ experiences: watching white artists make money from music trends her community invented.
Wolf was disappointed with peoples’ response to Shakira and Jennifer Lopez’s Super Bowl performance. While white women could wear essentially the same outfits and dance the same choreography, when women of color did it, it was seen as obscene.
But Wolf was proud to see two Latinx women performing in one of America’s most-watched musical events. Wolf brought up Snow Tha Product’s advocacy as well, appreciating her heritage and bisexuality, which are often expressed on stage. Fans in Denver hand her Mexican and Pride flags. Considering her vibe is “out of this world,” Wolf is very down to earth about how artists can be good allies.
Nilsson, Johnson, and Wolf agreed the internet provides opportunities for musicians of color. With permission, musicians can borrow sound samples to repeat in electronic and trap music released for free on platforms like SoundCloud. Wolf appreciated the communication and connections artists could forge through the internet.
Nilsson was excited artists like Lil Nas X can reach the Billboard Top 100 while openly queer and black. But Johnson saw less accountability as a result of online music sharing. Does every SoundCloud rapper research the audio clip they borrowed and properly cite who first made it?
We are in an interesting age in the music industry. More people today can access instruments and production technology, lowering a barrier to aspiring musicians. People are listening to genres they wouldn’t have encountered if it wasn’t for their YouTube algorithms. But have our attitudes really changed? We are still hearing white- and straight-washed versions of previously raw and honest, queer musical trends. Karen at the grocery store still says “yaaaas queen” while calling trap music too aggressive.
I would say some attitudes have changed. If this article were written 40 years ago, the interviews would have been with straight, white record executives. But even today, you’re reading about appropriation in the music industry from a straight-passing, white lady.
What are you able to control in this situation? The music you listen to. To not be a part of the problem, all us white folks need to listen to more queer artists of color in a way that will get them paid. There are a couple mentioned above. Buy their albums, and tell your friends about them. You aren’t personally responsible for the past, but you’re responsible for what you choose to do now. Don’t let white, straight artists take all the credit for the music you like.