With big pop stars letting their queer flags fly, music is basking in the LGBTQ+ rainbow like never before. Artists like Toronto's Witch Prophet are succeeding on their own terms, but the industry needs to realize queerness is more than a trend
WITCH PROPHET as part of TOO QUEER: A BI VISIBILITY CABARET at Alexander Street Parkette (16 Alexander), Saturday (June 23), 1-5 pm. Free. buddiesinbadtimes.com. And with ABOVE TOP SECRET at ALTERNAQUEER at Pride South Stage (Church and Gould), Friday (June 22), 7-11 pm. Free. pridetoronto.com.
ZIIBIWAN plays CATALYST at Pride’s Village Stage (Church and Wellesley), Friday (June 22), 7-11 pm. Free. pridetoronto.com.
The story of queerness in music is told in milestones – Ma “Mother of the Blues” Rainey unabashedly singing that she “don’t like no men” in 1928 – and train wrecks, such as Rita Ora’s recent single, Girls, where women (sometimes) love women if the red wine and kush so takes them.
It’s a story that’s been consistently told by LGBTQ2SIA artists but only sometimes heard by the mainstream. Queer storytelling in song is currently “having a moment” because enough of those ears – audiences and industry types alike – are catching up.
This year’s Pride Toronto headliner Kehlani, Janelle Monáe, Sam Smith, Frank Ocean, Halsey, Troye Sivan and the Internet’s Syd are part of a rising generation of queer artists with major label support, singing about their sexuality in an industry where being out has long been considered a career-ender.
Still, it’s too early to declare this a watershed moment for queer and trans acceptance in music. The LGBTQQIP2SAA acronym can get that long for a reason. As Rae Spoon, one of the six singers, songwriters and label owners – queer, trans and straight – interviewed for this feature point outs, “Pop music is like a lottery and there are reasons why not every queer, trans and LGBT singer is getting a ticket.”
So while there’s a lot to be celebrated, if the community is to see its artists supported on a larger scale, there’s much more that needs to be resisted.
Toronto artist collective 88 Days of Fortune could have blown up a lot bigger than it did if it wasn’t so gay. Ayo Leilani, aka Witch Prophet, is talking about the misguided pronouncements she’s received over the success of the collective she co-founded.
“It was crazy to be told we were too gay, and it’s because we’re two queer women – me and [producer] Sun Sun – who were taking the lead,” says Leilani, who recently released her eclectic solo R&B debut, The Golden Octave. The video for the new single Time Traveler gathers a community of strong femme and non-binary folk, such as featured artist Lido Pimienta.
We’re sitting in a café on Ossington, a strip where the DIY collective/label at times threw its renowned free parties, inclusive spaces where music collided at many intersections, before the area was gentrified.
It’s frustratingly appropriate: the locale and the topic at hand. While Leilani notes that queer and trans representation has always been “bubbling under the surface” in the grassroots spaces she’s created in for a decade, there’s a gentrifying process at play – when music with queer themes is co-opted by the mainstream, it’s pedalled for its trendiness while still conforming to acceptable mores.
Gay anthems are prolific, but it’s telling that so many are sung by white, cis women. The Lady Gagas and Katy Perrys taking it upon themselves to lovingly coax the community out of the closet are easier to market than a non-binary or gender-non-conforming artist kicking down the door.
“What if it were a trans woman with a beard, somebody who didn’t follow a beauty norm or an ideal, at the forefront singing about this?” challenges Leilani. “Are you still going to connect to it? Or are you going to recoil from the image?”
Pepo Fernandez/Vijat Mohindra
Nomi Ruiz (left) and Allie X have had very different experiences breaking into pop songwriting rooms.
Singer/songwriter Nomi Ruiz (Jessica 6, Hercules and Love Affair) will call out a legend, particularly if it’s to hold the industry accountable.
“Androgyny and people who have been risqué with gender have been accepted only when it’s in a cis body, like David Bowie, Grace Jones or Prince,” says Ruiz, a Latinx trans woman and Brooklynite whose been vocal about QTBIPOC discrimination in the music industry. “It was okay for those artists to express gender fluidity, but they still weren’t sexually threatening in the way a non-conforming body would be.”
Ruiz is speaking to a certain type of queerness that has consistently made strides in pop.
Spoon boils it down to a not-so-equitable equation: “If you’re seen as having one thing going on that’s not in that rigid, white-centric patriarchal thing, then you can cross over,” they say. “But if you have more than one, you can’t.”
Female artists expressing queerness or bisexuality often get a pass, observes Ruiz, as do cis artists “who use queerness as a promotional tool.” When those expressions are filtered through a male gaze, they aren’t viewed as a sexual threat.
Rita Ora’s Girls was marketed as a bisexual anthem. Ora sings of being “fifty fifty,” a clear case of heteronormative math as it assumes only two genders. Bisexuality is treated less as a full-fledged expression of desire, and more as a girl-on-girl fantasy that men can access. One lyric teases a one-night stand with “a dude” who was eyeing the girls, while the video largely takes place in a harem. Girls is sung by four women: Ora, Charli XCX, Cardi B and Bebe Rexha and two women received co-writing credits, Ora and Cardi B. The rest were six male writers and three male producers.
Allie X, who has written for queer artists like Troye Sivan, found the song tasteless. The Canadian-born CollXtion I & II singer has been in those infamous Los Angeles songwriter’s rooms, which task multiple creatives with churning out hit songs factory style.
She describes: “I have been in session with up to six people. It’s amazing at times because you can write a song within an hour, it’s good and everyone is on the same page. You have a responsibility when you’re writing for these big artists to make sure you’re putting words in their mouth that are respectful and responsible.”
She’s also participated in sessions where Girls-style songs were written. “Being a part of the queer community is somewhat ‘trendy’ right now,” she explains. “So you see a lot of people in the industry exploiting it and overplaying it in a way I don’t find tasteful.”
Asked whether, as both an ally and a woman, she’s raised an issue over the direction of those exploitative songs, she admits, “It’s a weakness of mine to be in those sessions and feel like they’re never going to get it. Let them just finish the song and never sell it to anyone.”
Ruiz has tried to get into those writer’s rooms but has consistently been “told by men in publishing companies that it’s difficult to get in,” which is coded language for: it’s difficult for you, a trans woman of colour, to get in.
“That’s what gatekeeping is: I want to write with other artists, and [the industry] says: ‘It’s difficult to get in. But they’re standing in front of the door. I’m like: ‘Okay, but the door is right there.’”
To break through the doors and achieve the recognition she deserves, Ruiz has turned the same privilege used against her to her advantage.
“I’ve had to exploit other people’s white male privilege in order for me to get to where I’ve been,” she says. “It was easy for the world to digest me in Hercules and Love Affair because it was under the guise of a male DJ: it was Andy Butler’s project. But when it comes to my solo work, it’s a whole different issue.”
Having to always contend with other people’s privilege so one can simply work, play and live is, as QTBIPOC folk know well, emotionally exhausting.
Ziibiwan is a queer, Anishinaabe experimental-electronic artist. They don’t “really look at gender as a thing” and is as comfortable wearing a dress onstage as they are anything else. They released their first EP, Time Limits, in 2016 and in their first year of playing live felt pressured to perform masculinity. Trying to adapt to the toxic masculinity they found within the electronic hip-hop community, particularly at festivals, almost drove them to quit music.
“It felt unbearable to be at those shows,” they say. “I wound up having anxiety attacks onstage.”
After playing Pride last year, Ziibiwan found acceptance with fellow queer artists and audiences. Feeling like they’ve found their footing now, they’re “not trying to conform to fit into a more socially acceptable, masculine crowd.”
It’s ironic when communities pushed to the margins are expected to normalize their experience so those who did the shoving can permit them back in. Yet normalization is often touted as a benefit for more queer songs, more queer anything, in pop culture.
“When I think of how the industry packages [queer experiences], it’s like tutorials for straight people,” says Ruiz. “How do we make this language digestible for others? It’s important to make each other feel normal in each other’s worlds, but not if it’s just queerness trying to fit into heteronormative society, which needs to start widening its perspective and evolve a bit to see the world as a vaster spectrum of experiences.”
Muted Fawn/Red Works Photography/Dave Todon
Robert Alfons (left), Ziibiwan and Rae Spoon are pushing back against traditional gender expectations.
To those who told Leilani that 88 Days exceeded some queer boundary of success, she offered: “Okay, we’re too gay? We’re going to be ultra gay.”
With her partner Sun Sun, she’s bought a farm 40 minutes outside of the city, which will be a space for queer, LGBTQ+ and female-identified artists. The duo plans to celebrate 88 Days’ 10th anniversary there with an inclusive festival, and throughout the year will use the 50-acre space to hold artist residencies and retreats.
Many of the artists in this feature are also supporting the community by keeping it DIY. Ruiz has her own label, Park Side Records, and Spoon heads up Coax Records. Being at the helm means that critiques like “too gay” fall by the wayside.
For the first time in his career, Los Angeles-based Canadian musician Robert Alfons, aka TR/ST, has written an album that deals with moving past shame – so prevalent in the community – and owning desire.
“This is my third record and the one I’ve struggled with the most,” says Alfons. “It’s weird because how did I make music before? Maybe I was just running away from it for two records. But now’s the time.”
Alfons has long taken charge of his career. He recently found supportive management after also hearing “you’re doing a very queer thing” from top-level managers, who couldn’t see a broad enough appeal.
The openness on his yet-to-be-released record (he’s looking for the right label support) was inspired by close friends facing down their own shame and, in the climate of queer artists around him, creating work with equal candour. He was moved, in particular by Fever Ray’s second album Plunge, which is “very sexual and explicit about desire.”
Spoon recently released the single Do Whatever The Heck You Want (in live shows “heck” is replaced with “fuck”) from the upcoming LP bodiesofwater. On it, Spoon asks what gender they should be, what gender they should date, what’s gender anyhow and whether they should change their body. The answer is the resounding chorus (curse or no curse).
“The song is almost too much in some ways,” says Spoon about how pointed it is in regard to their experience. “But at the same time it works.”
Spoon recently played the track during a stop in Norway. Some in the audience got it others didn’t. It’s a trans and non-binary anthem that didn’t have to be shaped under a male gaze so apparently everyone could get it. It didn’t have to come in a marketable package by a cis singer pedalling a beauty ideal and it didn’t have to hedge its queerness.
Spoon did something that many queer artists do and will need to do more of if LGBTQ+ musicians are to thrive beyond this current moment.
“It’s cool to disrupt places,” says Spoon before a slight pause to reconsider. “I mean, not really to disrupt, but I’m here so I might as well be myself.”
Read also: Ten years since Katy Perry kissed a girl, pop still stumbles around queerness
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