It’s Pride Month, the perfect time to look at the historic and ongoing contributions of Black LGBTQ music artists.
Choosing to not conform to the preferences and expectations dictated by society, these artists define themselves. They lead the way in non-conforming and defining one’s self against society’s expectations.
Black women of the early 20th century are largely responsible for the representation of LGBTQ identities and ideas. During that time, it was equal parts challenging and unlawful for women or men to publicly engage in homosexual acts. Even in this present day, pressure to live up to a certain image has led many men to remain closeted.
Despite social and cultural challenges, LGBTQ musicians have created a body of work in Black and American music history that is expansive, avant-garde, futuristic, and innovative.
Early pioneers laid the foundation for later cultural phenomena and social movements. And the newer age of artists continues to redefine and break barriers, sharing with larger audiences what it means to be different, but to also be one and the same. Here is a brief timeline of some of the most popular and publicly LGBTQ musical artists, and artists who became icons in the LGBTQ community.
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (1886-1939)
Anointed the “Mother of the Blues,” Rainey achieved notoriety on the vaudeville circuit of the early 1900s. She secured a contract with Paramount records in 1923, furthering her ability to collaborate with some of the best contemporary musicians of her time. Her preference for women was most exemplified in her track “Prove It on Me,” where she says, “They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men.” Activist Angela Davis commented that the song is a cultural precursor to the lesbian cultural movement of the 1970s.
Bessie Smith (1894-1937)
Another talented female blues singer, Smith was the prodigy to Ma Rainey. She worked tirelessly to share her talents through the recording industry. Signed to Columbia Records in 1923, she eventually made 160 recordings for them. She was equally accompanied by notable musicians of the day. Much of her music carried a message stressing independence, fearlessness, and sexual freedom, implicitly arguing that working-class women did not have to alter their behavior to be worthy of respect. Like Rainey, Smith sang songs with explicit lesbian content such as “It’s Dirty But Good” from 1930.
Billie Holiday (1915-1959)
With distinct vocals and improvisational skills, “Lady Day” cemented a lasting legacy within the next era of music, jazz. She recorded many endearing songs, including “Summertime,” “Strange Fruit” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” Her 1948 performance at Carnegie Hall is highly regarded and decorated.
Little Richard (1932-2020)
Little Richard was the creator and originator of the type of rock and roll music that would eventually be overtaken by white, mainstream acts. The master pianist, singer, and songwriter hit the jackpot with “Tutti Frutti” in 1955. He and his accompanying bands racked up more hits, including “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly Miss Molly.” While jumping the line between secular and religious music throughout the rest of his career, he is forever remembered for the show stopping performances he contributed to music history.
Sylvester is one of the few cross-dressing artists to break ground while being an out gay man. In the disco age of the ‘70s, Sylvester brought the funk. He did not separate his personality from his music. He was unabashedly flamboyant, and he set the standard for many of the same choices seen today.
Tracy Chapman (1964- )
Not many Black artists occupy the folk music space, but four-time GRAMMY Award-winning artist Tracy Chapman distinguished herself with such a sound. With a more subtle personal and public persona than some of her fellow LGBTQ artists, Chapman’s multi-platinum hits “Fast Car” and “Give Me One Reason” covered the difficulties of living.
Meshell Ndegeocello (1968- )
A multi talented singer-songwriter, rapper, and bassist, Ndegeocello helped popularize the sound of neo-soul music. More than a neo-soul artist, her funk, soul, hip hop and rock-influenced tracks have led to 10 GRAMMY Award nominations. She is featured on work by Madonna, Chaka Khan and others.
Big Freedia (1978- )
From the vibrant city of New Orleans, Big Freedia is a mainstay of the bounce music sound. She’s racked up awards for pushing the movement LGTBQ movement forward with her outspoken representation. She gained mainstream attention as a result of being featured on Beyoncé’s single “Formation.”
Janelle Monáe (1985- )
Janelle Monáe emerged on the scene with a distinct style that rivaled that of other female artists. Her sound has been described as innovating as well as the modes in which she presents her work. A multidisciplinary storyteller, her album Dirty Computer gained notoriety as a defining project for the LGBTQ community. Specifically, the messages within it give Black women clearance to declare love to whoever they want–including other women.
Lizzo (1988 – )
Before finding widespread chart and media success, Lizzo built her career with small musical acts and even contributed to Prince and 3rdEyeGirl’s album Plectrumelectrum. Her big break came in 2016 with the single “Good As Hell.” She’s a staunch advocate for body positivity and self-love. She can even play the flute. When asked about her gender and sexuality, Lizzo said, “I personally don’t ascribe to just one thing…That’s why the colors for LGBTQ+ are a rainbow! Because there’s a spectrum and right now we try to keep it black and white. That’s just not working for me.”
Frank Ocean (1987- )
Frank Ocean has quietly changed the course of music. His platinum-selling album Channel Orange came with the confession of loving another man, an unthinkable stance to many in R&B and rap music. Ocean was simultaneously heralded and ripped apart. Prior to the solo release, he was part of the Odd Future collective. The follow-up to Channel Orange, Blonde, is an equally riveting account that also details ideas of Black discrimination and freedom.
Lil’ Nas X (1999- )
Lil’ Nas X smashed records with his digital viral song, “Old Town Road.” With it, he solidified rare country and urban music crossover success. On the last day of Pride Month in 2019, he tweeted what many perceived as a public coming out statement. Just prior, Rolling Stone noted the song “touches on themes such as coming clean, growing up and embracing one’s self.” He followed up with an interview confirming that he did identify as gay and understands that his sexuality is not readily accepted in the country or rap music communities. At 21 years of age, he’s achieved the rare feat of becoming the only artist to come out as gay while having a number-one record.
The fight for representation and inclusion still looms large for Black LGBTQ musical artists. Despite resistance, these few have publically emerged. Daring to be just who they are and love just who they choose to love, they encourage subsequent generations that can relate to pursue music careers.