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lil nas x and artists who couldn’t live their truths

July 17, 2019
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Immediately after the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, and a World Pride celebration many of us are still trying to recover from, artist Lil Nas X turned the internet on its head as only he could do on the final day of Pride Month. Through various tweets about his song “C7osure,” and other hidden “rainbow” effects on his EP’s cover he essentially “came out” — a term I hate (I’ll explain later) — to the world, and was met with much praise. However, there is another story here about several Black male artists, who likely dreamed of seeing a day when identity didn’t matter, and how they could have lived in their truths. 

Following Lil Nas X’s coming out, several hetero men made statements about how “no one cares about sexuality as long as the music is good.” I want to be clear that these men must understand that they are the exception (if they were being honest — which they weren’t) and that the rule is “Homophobia Trumps Talent. The proof of this was in the names that kept being listed — Luther Vandross, Teddy Pendergrass, Freddie Jackson, Frank Ocean, etc. — as examples of people whose music we loved despite their “queer” identities.

This is where most people got this all fucked up. Let’s start with Luther. First of all, he NEVER said he was gay at any point in his life. The first celeb to ever say that he was gay, was comedian Bruce Vilanche following Luther’s death. The second to acknowledge it was his best friend and singing partner Patti Labelle, on an episode of Watch What Happens Live. Patti explained that Luther lived closeted because he didn’t want to disappoint his fans, or his mother. Many criticized Patti for essentially “outing” him, despite her not being the first to publicly say this. 

I often think about this story because how do we ever fix a problem we can’t speak about? Luther was not the only name that came up following Lil Nas X’s “coming out,” as Teddy Pendergrass and Freddie Jackson’s were also floated in these discussions. Let’s again be clear: Freddie Jackson has to this day NEVER identified as gay despite ANYONE’S assumptions, and the same goes for Teddy Pendergrass, despite any stories surrounding him and his past. 

And why is it even necessary to “come out” — a designation that alludes to straightness as a norm, and implies that those who identify as otherwise must declare publicly — for the appeasement of society. In all 33 years of my life I have never had a conversation that centered the question, “Do you think [insert name here] is straight?” And we know that no one is asking, “When did you know you were heterosexual?”  

The music industry hasn’t been kind to artists whose sexuality was questioned, or rumors were spread about. It is not a coincidence that queer artists continue to struggle with becoming mainstream. And before you start listing, yes, we know that we have some have EXCEPTIONS to the rule. We know about Sylvester, Frank Ocean, Rhapsody, Kehlani, Janelle Monae, Frankie Knuckles, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Josephine Baker, and others. But for every one of them, there are likely thousands who will never make a billboard chart. Never get on a main stage or even be invited to an awards show. 

Folks were quick to say “as long as the art is good no one cares,” like we didn’t just watch Pose, one of the most critically acclaimed Black television shows currently broadcast, be snubbed by both NAACP and BET in the same year they were recognized by every other major white awards show. And let’s again be clear, we shouldn’t give two shits about white appeasement of Black art, however the juxtaposition of seeing our own not see it for queer folks is right in line with Black queer artistry not being welcomed in Black communities.  

At the end of the day, we as a comunity have to accept that we failed — and continue to fail — Black queer artists, and, specifically the men who hav been named and unnamed. It is disingenuous to think that it’s okay to have accepted the music of Black artists who never got to live in their truth on some moral high ground that you didn’t care about their identity. Because if you did, names like Syd, MNEK, Cakes da Killa, Shea Diamond, Mykki Blanco, and countless others would roll of your tongue.

The truth of the matter is that their lack of acknowledgement of their oqn queer identities is the only reason you ever allowed yourself the space to listen to their music in the first place. 

Weeks since his “coming out”, there are still other artists both in support and somewhat against it. Only time will tell if Lil Nas X will be the change that opens the door for many Black queer artists who remain silent about their truth, and those who are publicly making some of the best music that many refuse to listen to. What I do know is “Old Town Road” continues to break every music barrier across in pop, and I hope it leaves just enough room open for the thousands waiting on their break to step on in.