It’s 2001. My mother opens the bathroom door and I am in my underwear, breathing heavily like a backup dancer. I have a smile on my face and sweat on my shoulders. My little ribs under my brown skin are sore because I’ve been shaking my hips from left to right for an entire verse and chorus. I’m looking at myself in the mirror and seeing myself as what resembles a Keith Haring painting; vibrant colors, bold lines creating motion. My mother lets out a small laugh, reminding me she is still there watching, and then she joins me in singing the chorus and moving her hips, “Chumpy, I break up with him before he dumps me/ To have me, yes you’re lucky.”
I have an obsession with flipping through my mother’s book of CDs and looking at all of the album art with awe until I find my selection, and I always seem to gravitate towards Missy Elliott, Da Brat or Queen Latifah; not that I am familiar with who those people are at 5 years-old, but because the album art has a curious way of making me feel something that resembles confidence.
It’s 2008. The Keith Haring painting the mirror had grown familiar with has turned into a small medium brown boy who looks more like a Basquiat painting, or a question walking around waiting for someone to answer it. My body feels awkward like my limbs and shoulders are a bit too big for my middle school being, and I am no longer the best dressed in class. I got headphones for Christmas and haven’t stopped playing Trina’s “Glamorest Life” in my ears since Christmas morning because when her loud and braggadocious voice comes crashing onto the treble-fueled beats, I feel like I fit in a bit more. I feel a strange confidence become me when I hear her rap “who you lovin’ who you wanna be huggin/ I seen her in your six hundred and you claim it's your cousin,” and I am proud of myself for understanding the first half of that line as a Lil Kim reference.
It’s 2011. The Basquiat painting feels like a Marina Abramović piece at this point, as I’ve begun to master the performance art of my own sexuality. I am driving the first car I own at night with the windows down, and Lil Kim tells me, “I used to be scared of the dick/ now I throw lips to the shit, handle it/ like a real bitch/ Heather Hunter, Janet Jacme.” I grip my hand on the passenger’s thigh, we kiss at a red light, and I say “Yo, you’ve gotta Google who Heather Hunter and Janet Jacme are real quick. Kim always comes through with the crazy references!” We laugh and pontificate on that line for a second before kissing again. I used to be scared of the dick lingers in the air, with Kim’s voice heavy and thick and a certain kind of honesty that is uncomfortably interesting, as I sit in the car with the first person to ever have sex with me.
They tell me all I ever do is listen to female rappers. They assure me they don’t think that’s a bad thing. They ask me why that is, and I explain how much I admire not only their lyrical delivery and dramatized personas, but I also love their performances of gender. I adore the way they help me, in some strange and almost inexplicable way, navigate my own relationship to the gender I was socialized into. I enjoy the way their gender within hip-hop, within their songs and lyrics, within their aesthetics, is politicized -- because it is something I am familiar with, and didn’t know how to express until I found them. My relationality to gender has always been one of having identities and labels ascribed to me, with terms and assumptions projected onto my body, and I saw pieces of that in the Black women who inspired me through their music.
Female rappers have narrated more moments of my life than I know how to explain, and have projected feelings on me I either forgot I needed to feel or couldn’t explain that I felt. When Nicki says “you was sleepin’ on me, thinking it was sumber time/ Now I’m a trending topic, lil mama, number signs” there is a breath of relatable energy that exists between us. It is in the way she openly refers to being slept on and openly discusses her struggles being a Black woman in a male-dominated industry that I am able to vibrate in a similar wavelength to her. The way that she is referred to as “difficult” for simply being about her business is a sentiment that resonates deeply with me as well because queer Black boys aren’t allowed to be outspoken without being “sassy” or seen as a queen. And if Nicki Minaj is slept on, her bravado simplified, her demands demeaned, then I can relate to her on a deeper level. And it is in the way she snaps back, reminding her ‘haters’ that she’s now a trending topic, that makes the inner scared and awkward queer boy in me go back to swinging his hips like a Keith Haring painting.
To be Black and queer is to have a strange relationship with space, or the lack thereof, and to have an even stranger relationship with confidence. The space that we are able to carve into this world looks a little different than other people’s. Our space looks nocturnal; night clubs, ballrooms, and dancing in our underwear with our friends to the newest Remy Ma song, grabbing pieces of her confidence and wearing it like an invisible cloak that hides us from the world. Women who rap, much like queer Black boys, manage to be both hypervisible and invisible at the same time; our bodies are sexualized before we have the choice to do it ourselves, and when we do own our own overt sexuality we are called conceited.
We can also look at the queer aesthetic often found in female rappers presentation to fully understand the massive appeal they are able to have to the Black queer community. I heard a friend say one time, “Nicki Minaj is one of the world’s greatest drag queens.” At the time, I was offended. What I assumed to be a transphobic remark likening Ms. Minaj’s appearance to that of a masculine figure was really a sly and subverted critique on the queerness of her aesthetic.
In reality, she is one of the world’s best drag queens, as are Lil Kim, Eve, Missy Elliott, and Left Eye, and several others. Drag and ball culture are such large parts of our Black queer community that you can’t help but notice the aestheticism seeping into the music video of Missy Elliott’s new single “I’m Better,” or the outlandishly early-2000s era fashion that Foxy Brown often adorned. The only one who switches a wig as much as a drag queen is Nicki Minaj, with the extravagance of a couture outfit and high-contoured cheekbones to match.
I am reminded of the artist and philosopher Adrian Piper’s “dear friend, I am black...” calling cards she would give to people who said racist or problematic things to her, and it feels that in this similar sentiment exists female rappers’ performance of gender and sexuality. As if through lyrics and aesthetic they are reminding you, “dear friend, I am a sexual being, I Black woman…” It is as if they understand the need to subvert femininity and sexuality into a performance, one that at times is even exaggerated, for the sake of the artistic statement. And because so much of the vitality surrounding modern interpretations of gender and sexuality is performance, the female rapper has the transcendent ability to do what only an artist can do: blue the line between sociopolitical commentary, art, and expression.
Whether through intentional subversion or simple fashion-forward styling, several female rappers have played with the traditions of gendered clothing and presented themselves as something far more interesting than a gender binary could ever allow them to be. I am reminded of Left Eye in the music video for “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” wearing baggie jeans and t-shirts, holding her crotch while she raps her sex-positive lyrics alongside the feminine presentation of Chilli and T-Boz. I think of Lady of Rage in the “Afro Puffs” music video, dressed almost like a biker chick, with her broad shoulders, dark and oversized leather draped from her body, and it makes me think of almost every Da Brat, Queen Latifah, and Yo-Yo music video I’ve watched where they wore traditionally masculine suits and clothing.
Plenty of the visual specificities in fashion and art between the early 90s and now have been influenced by this presentation, with women and other queer people drawing inspiration from this aestheticism. So, when we arrive at a Nicki Minaj, or an Angel Haze, or an Azealia Banks, or a Princess Nokia, or a Lola Monroe, or a Young MA, it is no surprise that they continue to transform and uphold the legacy that was established for them through generations of foremothers. They continue to be the fire-spitting drag queens at the front of a battle for inclusivity and acceptance in a cis-hetero patriarchal industry, one that often reflects the values of the Black community.
As a Black queer boy, female rappers embody much of the confidence we often aspire to and achieve. When Trina taught me to be the baddest bitch, I didn’t know that Queen Latifah had already told me I need to be addressed as “your highness.” When Foxy asked why “all the sudden all these rap bitches got accents too?” Nicki Minaj was ready to ask where the fuck is her curry chicken and her rice and peas? You see, it is in the way they demand to be referred to as a queen and the Queen Bitch, to be given what they deserve, to be adorned with the highest fashion and pop bottles right next to the male rappers, that a confidence so bold and unique exists and flourishes. They are able to embody a powerful, magical feminine strength that reads like confidence but feels like life being handed over in a syringe.
When I was the small boy who was still carefree and still had space in his chest for joy, Missy Elliott, and Left Eye were there to help me shake my hips; their music would bring me the movement and vibrations like in the Keith Haring paintings. When I was an awkwardly small child in a world that felt too big, Trina, Remy Ma, and Foxy Brown gave me the confidence I didn’t know I deserved but definitely needed. I heard Foxy tell me she has these rap bitches in a chokehold at least once a week. And when I became intimate for the first time and love tasted like sex, I had many Lil Kim lyrics that lent themselves to me.
Today as a Black queer activist and artist navigating the world through an intersectional lens, I’m able to see just how monumental the role of a woman rapping on the radio can be for a Black queer boy. I now have the language, voice, and ears to realize that it has been female rappers playing in the background of my life for decades. They’ve always been the ones that have given me life time and time again when the world hands little queer boys nothing but death, and they’ve always been the ones to be doin’ things that you won’t regret.
Devyn Springer is an outcast who likes Outkast and fried chicken. An Atlanta writer, activist and artist who recently published his debut book "Grayish-Black" which is available on Amazon. Check him out on Twitter at @HalfAtlanta, or see some of his artwork at Urbansoulatlanta.com.