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This year’s headliners are up-and-coming hit makers

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Main Stage, gay news, Washington Blade
Main Stage, gay news, Washington Blade

Betty Who (Photo by Molly Cranna; courtesy RCA)

Capital Pride Festival
Capitol Main Stage
Pennsylvania Ave. between 3rd and 7th streets
Sunday
Noon-7 p.m.

Betty Who’s song “Somebody Loves You” went viral when it accompanied the YouTube video that featured a gay marriage proposal set to a flash mob in a Home Depot in Utah. The 22-year-old Aussie native has two EPs out and is working on her first full-length album.

Karmin is 28-year-old musical and personal partners Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan known for their No. 1 Billboard Dance Chart hits “Brokenhearted” and “Hello.” Their debut album “Pulses” was released in March.

And Bonnnie McKee, 30, has written a monster string of hits for artists like Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Ke$ha, Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson and more, eight of which have gone to No. 1. Last summer, her breezy song “American Girl” inspired a 7-Eleven-set video and she continues to work on a debut album.

They’re three of the acts headlining on the Capitol Stage at the Capital Pride Festival Sunday. We caught up with them by phone from Los Angeles — where all happened to be at the time — this week. Their comments have been slightly edited for length.

BETTY WHO

Betty Who, main stage, gay news, Washington Blade

Betty Who (Photo by Shane McCauley)

WASHINGTON BLADE: Spencer and Dustin, the guys in the Home Depot video, said they wanted you to sing at their wedding? Has that happened yet?

BETTY WHO: Yes, I sang at their wedding in Utah in February and it was like the most perfect, beautiful day of my life. I can’t imagine my own wedding being any more perfect.

BLADE: How did you feel when they asked you?

BETTY: They are the most sweet, amazing men in the world. It was just one of those days where I thought, “I could not be doing anything better with my time. My boyfriend played guitar for me so it was kind of very sweet the two of us. I sang an acoustic version of “Somebody Loves You” as their moms walked them down the aisle so it was kind of this beautiful small moment in time.

BLADE: How did it come about that you developed such a strong gay fan base?

BETTY: I’ve always been supportive, but you know, I didn’t set out initially to have that as part of my platform, though I always knew I would support gay rights. It just so happened when I put out my first EP, that the first few bloggers who picked up on it were these gay pop music blogs in New York, so it kind of worked out perfectly that my biggest demographic is LGBT. I’ve just spoken up for what I feel is right.

BLADE: Did you know gay people growing up?

BETTY: Our next door neighbor was my mom’s best gay friend and his partner, so I have definitely been surrounded by a very kind of wholesome and well-rounded community my whole life and it’s always been this wonderful thing, gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, whoever it was, it didn’t really matter. I was never taught to think of anybody differently. Then I got a little older and I had friends who came from very conservative backgrounds and I was confused as to why they thought that being gay made you different. I just didn’t get it. It was funny, it wasn’t about becoming open minded but putting myself in the shoes of people who were less open minded and going, “Oh, like not as everybody was as lucky as me to have this great experience and this really kind of you know urban community I guess. I grew up in the middle of Sydney, so I had always been around everybody.

BLADE: Have you done many Pride festivals?

BETTY: This will be one of the first ones. I’m doing this little tour through June called the “Hopeless Romantic Tour” and I think something like 80 percent of the shows are Pride festivals. It will definitely be very fun and wonderful and drunk, I imagine. I play Los Angeles, then Salt Lake City, then D.C. on Sunday. So that will be my first one on Friday.

BLADE: Do you know how long your set will be?

BETTY: I’m not sure. I think maybe 30 or 45 minutes.

BLADE: You mentioned singing at the wedding with your boyfriend. Is that Peter Thomas, your collaborator or someone else?

BETTY: No, people ask me that all the time. He’s a good friend, but this is somebody else.

BLADE: Often you don’t really hear accents much from British and Australian singers. In your songs, your accent is there. Is that a conscious choice?

BETTY: It was definitely a choice because I think even Adele sometimes, she sings and you don’t hear her accent. So much about being a star today or a popular artist in the industry is about dong what makes you different and what makes you special and to me I always thought being Australian was something that definitely made me different. And I never wanted to suppress that part of who I am and where I came from.

BLADE: I know you’ve been in the U.S. since you were a teen so you may not know, but do you think it would have been harder to break a pop career in Australia than in the U.S.?

BETTY: I think being a really famous person in Australia is actually much harder than to come over to America and make a go of it. I remember all of these really famous and beautiful singer/songwriters that I loved growing up and then I came over to America, only a handful of my friends knew about them. I thought, “What do you mean she’s like the most famous person in Australia, what do you mean you don’t know who she is?” So I think because it might be different now because the internet has made such a difference. Spotify wasn’t really a thing and Pandora was just sort of starting to be popular, so I think that it’s probably a little bit different. It looks easier and made more sense for me to start my career from the ground up in New York and have my biggest demographic of fans be there.

BLADE: Did you and Peter realize you had musical chemistry immediately?

BETTY: I think he and I have always been musical soul mates. When we met we were like, “Oh My gosh, we like all the same music, this is perfect.” Surely we knew as friends and creative partners we knew we would be great together. I remember being at a party at his house and he was in charge of the playlist and I was like, “Every song on this is a smash. …Who is this person, we are destined to be musical friends,” and it ended up being Peter. So I think that was really easy and was very immediate but it took us almost three years to write music that we knew was perfect or to get it to a point where we didn’t think, “Oh, we should keep rewriting it.” When we wrote “The Movement” EP, that was the first body of work that we put together and said, “Oh my gosh, this is it, this is how we meant to do it,” all of that. I think in that process we had been working together three years.

BLADE: When you get to that point and find pop songs that work, do you feel you’ve cracked a code in a sense?

BETTY: I think it is kind of like we cracked a musical code. We had been writing an working together so long that at some point you just work together so well and you understand each other so well and so deeply that you are like, “We have to put this here, that worked on this song so it will work here.” …When we’re writing a song now, if there’s something that’s not working, we can say exactly why it’s not working. And what we need to change, or if it’s going really well we know why and we know how to keep it going.

BLADE: Do you still play cello?

BETTY: I do, but not in public. Just kind of on my own in my bedroom.

BLADE: Did you initially plan a classical career?

BETTY: I was at a classical high school Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan and when I left I had only applied to colleges for voice and songwriting. So I knew when I was leaving I wanted to go into pop, but it definitely took me a second to kind of get out of that mind frame. Because I remember  my first two semesters at Berklee (College of Music in Boston), I performed more playing cello for other people than I did singing my own stuff. So it took me kind of about a year at Berklee to figure out I definitely didn’t want to keep playing cello for other people and I definitely want to be singing on my own and doing that.

BLADE: Are you planning a full-length album?

BETTY: Yes, I am currently working on it actually. We hope to have it out sometime in the fall.

BLADE: Was “Somebody Loves You” particularly hard to write?

BETTY: The verses and chorus were done, like, in a night. But we didn’t have a bridge. I didn’t worry about it. We were in the middle of a semester and we didn’t have anything out, nobody knew who I was, so I took a break from it for a couple months. We had written it in, like, February, then when we went to record it in summer, I remembered, “Oh, I need to sit down and write this bridge” and I wrote it in like 10 minutes. …I think because we gave it so much space, the song as a whole kind of just worked because there was no pressure. But it wasn’t ’til we recorded it that we were like, “Oh fuck, this is amazing and we love it and feel really passionately about it.”

BLADE: You’re straight, right?

BETTY: Yes

BLADE: Do you have a gay best friend?

BETTY: Several, from all walks of life. My gay friend from college, from high school, from childhood. I kind of have a bunch of gay friends that have kind of all come to know and love each other which is perfect.

BLADE: Is Peter straight?

BETTY: Yes, to the dismay of many of gay best friends.

BLADE: Is your family mostly here in the U.S.?

BETTY: It’s kind of split. My mom is American and my dad is Australian so my dad’s whole side is there but he and my mom and her side are all in America.

KARMIN

main stage, gay news, Washington Blade

Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan of Karmin. (Photo courtesy of Epic Publicity)

BLADE: How long have you been rapping, Amy?

AMY HEIDEMANN: I want to say I’ve been free styling on the streets of Nebraska since I was a little girl, but that’s not the case at all. I was raised in a super Christian household so I wasn’t allowed to listen to most rap music that I love today, but I was able to sneak you know a couple burned CDs I got from school from my classmates. So I did learn to rap sort of on accident. I was practicing to be a singer and the rapping came later.

BLADE: You two met at Berklee (College of Music in Boston)?

NICK NOONAN: Yes.

BLADE: Were you planning a pop career then?

NOONAN: We were kind of all over the place. I was originally a jazz trombone player, believe it or not.

HEIDEMANN: I always had dreams of being an R&B superstar. My favorite singer growing up was Brandy. We started out more indie and kind of hipster when we were doing the covers and the pop thing just sort of happened. I don’t know if it was really intentional, but it’s been awesome.

BLADE: But do people go to school to study pop music?

HEIDEMANN: Actually it’s weird because at Berklee they kind of do. There aren’t many schools like it, maybe one in California. But yeah, like, they have hip-hop classes. I think the place Jessie J and Adele went to in London I think is really comparable.

BLADE: Did you immediately realize your musical camaraderie?

NOONAN: No, it took a minute. We were both doing music independently from each other and then after we graduated we decided to start the group.

HEIDEMANN: We literally had to learn new instruments.

NOONAN: Yeah, Amy started to rap and I started playing piano and she was playing guitar. It kind of started from the bottom up.

BLADE: Did you start dating first or making music together?

NOONAN: Dating.

HEIDEMANN: Yeah, dating three or four years before.

BLADE: What’s your current relationship status?

NOONAN: We’re still engaged and trying to figure out the marriage thing.

BLADE: Are you concerned that if things continue going well for you musically, there could be a Fleetwood Mac-type impassion on the personal front or are you far enough into it now to not worry about that?

NOONAN: That’s always kind of on our minds but honestly we’d been dating and knew each other so well before we got any attention that it was kind of like all the skeletons were out of the closet before. So there really isn’t much to hide anymore.

BLADE: “Brokenhearted” and “Hello” were both No. 1 dance hits. Did you realize you were onto something writing them as opposed to other songs?

NOONAN: We did know pretty early on. Even with the covers, the strongest thing for us is playing live, so we knew that if we had some kind of energy, some feeling to get behind and get on stage and play this, there are certain songs that have an energy there and really translate well live and that’s our biggest thing. We wanted to make sure that those songs had those elements. When it feels really good, feels right, usually those write themselves and they are a lot faster to write.

BLADE: Did you realize early on you had a strong LGBT following?

HEIDEMANN: Yeah, it was pretty early. I used to put the covers up and we used to read every single comment, which can be really bad because people can be super mean. But the gay audience early on, there was a lot of guys who were commenting on Nick’s attractiveness. We were kind of like, “Oh, this is awesome.”

NOONAN: We have a very theatrical performance style, there were kind of a lot of elements. We didn’t really go out trying to say, “OK, we’re going to go get the gays,” but it made sense and we started doing a lot of Pride festivals and you know how we feel about everything, it’s more of a civil rights issue for us. So it kind of just made sense.

HEIDEMANN: And those are the best shows. So we were kind of like, “Why are we wasting our time playing anywhere else?”

BLADE: People are more relaxed at Pride events?

NOONAN: It’s just a completely different freedom and we’re able to feel that on stage, so they’re great shows.

BLADE: How so?

NOONAN: More celebratory, probably. The energy is more …

HEIDEMANN: Free

NOONAN: Free, I guess. We just did our first headlining tour and there actually was a lot of energy, we were kind of blown away, but still the Pride festivals, even if they didn’t know who we are, or people say, “I never heard of you before today,” they’re still — they want to love us, you know what I mean? That’s a very cool energy.

BLADE: How long will your set be at Capital Pride?

NOONAN: I don’t know. If it was up to us, it would be about 75 minutes, but I think we’re told maybe 30 or 40. So I don’t know.

BLADE: Your act obviously has gay sensibility. Was that something natural from your personalities, fashion sense and all that or did you play it up more when you started realizing you had gay fans?

HEIDEMANN: Definitely the first thing you said. Like I said, we had no idea that would be who we attracted, but that’s how we’ve been in our blood, in our veins, I’m very theatrical in my style. Fashion is incredibly important to me. We have this monochromatic thing. Even when you walk in our closet, it’s like a rainbow. Everything is organized by color so we didn’t really see it coming, but it’s the perfect fit, so it’s all worked out great.

BLADE: Why do you think LGBT rights are important?

NOONAN: Being gay is not new. it’s been around since the beginning of recorded history. It’s just a natural thing for us. Just kind of how we were raised and stuff to not see race or difference in religion to see people. … We really try to not have any of that stuff in our brains at all. … It’s crazy and very very cool how far it’s come in the last 10 years.

HEIDEMANN: Even four years ago. In my high school, there was only one guy who was semi-out. And it was like this huge taboo thing. I’m from the midwest. So it was super religious and pretty scary. I had a family member who came out recently and it was a struggle. So it is personal to us, but also exciting to be part of such an important part of history. And I know we’re going to be looking back and telling our kids about it and they’ll be like, “Really? Why would you ever discriminate against anyone?”

BLADE: You were born just a few days apart. Is there any astrological significance to that or is it just a random factoid?

NOONAN: It’s funny because we just went to an astrologer like last week. But we won’t go into that. We are both Tauruses, so there’s a lot of creativity but also a lot of stubbornness. Usually we get along very well, but when we butt heads, it’s like a colossal shitstorm.

BLADE: You said your parents were conservative, Amy. How are they now with what you’re doing?

HEIDEMANN: My parents are strict but they’re much better now. I know at the beginning it was a little stressful being from a little small town of 7,000 people, everybody is constantly asking about us, my parents are very protective and sometimes really worried about the stuff we encounter, but it’s getting easier. For a long time, it was hard for them to read like critical reviews of our music but it’s starting to become more of the norm I guess.

BLADE: Now that you’ve had a few hits, what’s your opinion of what it takes to break through on the U.S. pop landscape?

NOONAN: It’s mainly persistence. You look at the people now who are superstars, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, they bounced around from label to label for years before they had any success so persistence is definitely one of the biggest things. It is not the most talented people, it is not the best singers. It can help you for sure, but it does not guarantee you a damn thing. So that’s one of the things about the industry, you know, for us. We’re just now starting to semi hit our stride.

BLADE: I know your album is still pretty new. What’s next for you? More singles from that? What will you be doing the rest of the summer?

NOONAN: We’ll hopefully have more information for you soon but we’re always kind of writing and working on new music and obviously touring a lot.

HEIDEMANN: The album just came out and then we went on tour really quickly so it’s all really still fresh for us. There had been a lot of delays with the record  label.

BLADE: Is your appearance at Capital Pride a one-off or are you playing a couple Prides this year?

HEIDEMANN: We’ll be with you guys, then a couple dates in the midwest, then we’ll come back. It’s like a week-long mini-tour.

BLADE: Was there a tradeoff in signing with a major label?

NOONAN: It’s difficult, definitely.

BLADE: How so?

NOONAN: Just getting everybody on the same page.

HEIDEMANN: There’s a lot of turnover. You’ll work with a lot of different people, then they might move on to another company.

NOONAN: Differences of opinion. We’re not big fans of art created by committee.

BONNIE McKEE

BLADE: You just toured with Karmin this year, right?

McKEE: Yes, I’m excited to be reunited with them again. We did five weeks together and it was amazing. So much fun. They’re a really fun act and they have a great audience.

BLADE: Did you get to hang out much on the road?

McKEE: I knew them before. We had written songs together and we’re label mates, so it was fun.

BLADE: Was the “American Girl” video really shot in a 7-Eleven?

McKEE: It was actually an AMPM, but it was a quickie mart. We wanted to give some love to 7-Eleven, but they weren’t with me on that.

BLADE: You didn’t have to get permission to use Slurpee in the song?

McKEE: I never got a call about that.

BLADE: Obviously I know you could be playing a character in a video or even if it’s you, that’s not your entire persona, but the video presents you as this carefree girl sunbathing, changing clothes in a car wash and so on. Yet being a pop singer takes enormous work and discipline. Does your real life feel removed from that girl?

McKEE: I’ve been trying to take more time for myself recently. When you’re on tour, yeah, it’s a blast of course, but it’s also a lot of hard work. I’m trying to let myself be a little more carefree like the girl in the video.

BLADE: There was talk of you having an album out this spring. The first single was out last summer. What’s the status of that?

McKEE: Well, I want to do some more visual stuff. I’ve made a couple videos, I just put a single on iTunes and I’m also trying to sell “Sleepwalker” which I never officially put out. …So I don’t know when it’s going to happen. It’s all about timing, so when we get it set up properly, it will be out. I’m really a visual artist, so I think videos are really my sweet spot.

BLADE: Has there been label pressure to have a decent hit before putting the album out?

McKEE: It’s really up to them. I’m just showing up and playing for the people who want to hear me play. They’ll figure it out when they’re ready.

BLADE: How did you meet Katy Perry?

McKEE: At a thrift store in Los Angeles. We were both trying to sell our clothes and being rejected, so we kind of bonded over that and we’ve been friends ever since.

BLADE: When was that?

McKEE: Oh, maybe 10 years ago.

BLADE: When you write together, do actually sit down together or just send ideas back and forth?

McKEE: We it down in the room together, do a lot of spooning. We get in a bean bag chair together and kind of hash it out. We fight a lot over every line but that’s what makes it great. She’s a perfectionist and so am I.

BLADE: You’re friends too? You hang out?

McKEE: Yeah, when there’s time and if we happen to be in the same city, definitely. She always has extravagant birthday parties.

BLADE: Has your classical training growing up come in handy in the stuff you do now, like with knowing chord progressions and stuff like that, or is it apples and oranges musically?

McKEE? Really grateful to have the training I have but it doesn’t help much. I think the only way it really comes into play in my pop songwriting is, you know, keeping my voice healthy and knowing how to sing properly and not injure myself. That was the most valuable thing I learned. And also work ethic. It was just drilled into us in a world class choir. We were yelled at a lot. Really prepared me for real life.

BLADE: Some of the other acts who’ll be at Capital Pride who are eking out pop careers also had classical training. Do you think that’s just a coincidence or does the general rigidity of classical music make some people want to bust out and go crazy with fun pop stuff?

McKEE: I don’t know. Maybe the ones that are have had training, but so many just have the natural instinct and never had a lesson in their life.

BLADE: Did you always love pop music?

McKEE: Yes, always. I used to get in trouble because I’d have a solo and I’d sing it in a completely pop voice and they said, “You can’t sing like that in choir.” Well, why not? I didn’t know I was a pop singer until people started telling me that.

BLADE: Who were your favorite singers when you were 13, 14 or 15?

McKEE: I loved Whitney Houston, Fiona Apple. Mariah Carey of course. I really liked the divas. And Carole King. She was kind of the first person where I realized songwriting was something you could make a living doing and how important it is for the message to be coming from the artist.

BLADE: You identify as bi, right?

McKEE: Yes

BLADE: At the moment, though, you’re dating a man?

McKEE: Well up until a few years ago. I’m not seeing anyone now.

BLADE: Do people ever accuse you of saying you’re bi just to have street cred or something or do they take it seriously?

McKEE: I think it’s ridiculous. Do I have to prove to everyone that I’m bisexual? They want me to make out with girls publicly to prove it? That’s something I identified as when I was 12 years ago and I don’t feel I need to prove that to anybody. If I meet a girl I love, great. If I meet a boy I love, that’s great too.

BLADE: What do you have planned for D.C.?

McKEE: We get in kind of late the day before, unfortunately. I wanted to go to see all the monuments but I don’t know if we’ll have time for that. But I’m really psyched for Pride.

BLADE: You have a strong gay following?

McKEE: Yes, more than anybody else to be honest. I love it. I play a lot of gay clubs on tour. We did a lot of drag shows which are fun. Everyone there can just be themselves and that’s what I’m all about.

BLADE: Your hair is always these wild, great colors, but they tend to fade so fast. Do you have to constantly have it redone?

McKEE: Yeah, well luckily my friend is a hairdresser, I do it about every two and a half weeks but yeah, if you’re going to have crazy color, you have to — it’s a commitment for sure.

BLADE: Do you have times where you let it go more, like if you’ll be in the studio for awhile and not making as many public appearances?

McKEE: Oh, never! Never, no. I always keep it fabulous.

BLADE: Your publicist said you’re en route to the studio today. What are you working on?

McKEE: I’m writing a song for a movie but I can’t really talk about it yet. But it’s a song for a musical, which is fun. I’m looking forward to it.

BLADE: Why are gay rights important to you?

McKEE: It’s important for everybody to have a place where they can go and be themselves and celebrate themselves. I’m really grateful and excited to be part of that and to be in D.C. for that.

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a&e features

Hip-Hop’s complicated history with queer representation

At 50, experts say the genre still doesn’t fully welcome LGBTQ inclusion

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Rapper Lil Nas X faced backlash for his music video ‘Montero,’ but it debuted atop the Billboard 100.

I didn’t really start listening to rap until my college years. Like many queer Black children who grow up in the closet, shielded by puritanical Christianity from the beauty of a diverse world, I longed to be myself. But the affirming references I could pull from — in moments of solitude away from the wrath and disdain of family and friends — were in theater and pop music.

The soundtrack to my teenage years was an endless playlist of pop divas like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, whose lyrics encouraged me to sashay my hips anytime I strutted through a long stretch of corridor.

I was also obsessed with the consuming presence of powerful singers like Patti LaBelle, Whitney Houston, and the hypnosis that was Chaka Khan. My childhood, an extrapolation of Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays spent in church groups, choir practices, and worship services, necessitated that I be a fan of throaty, from-the-stomach singing. But something about the way these artists presented themselves warmed my queer little heart. LaBelle wore avant garde geometric hairdos paired with heavily shoulder-padded blazers. Houston loved an elegant slender gown. And Khan? It was the voluminous red mane that gently caressed her lower back for me. 

Listening to rap music in college was a political experience. My sociology classes politicized me and so it was only natural that I listened to rap music that expressed trauma, joy, and hope in the Black experience. However, I felt disconnected from the music because of a dearth of queer representation in the genre. 

Nevertheless, groups like Outkast felt nostalgic. While delivering hedonistic lyrics at lightning speed, André 3000 — one half of the rap duo — mesmerized with his sleek, shoulder-length silk pressed hair and colorful, flowing shirts and trousers — a style that could be translated as “gender-bending.” Despite the patriarchal presentation rampant in rap and Hip-Hop, Andr​​é 30000 represented to me, a kind of rebellious self-expression that I so badly wanted to emulate but couldn’t because of the psychological confines of my conservative upbringing. 

My discovery of Outkast was also sobering because it was a stark reminder of how queerness is also often used as an aesthetic in Hip-Hop while actual queer people are shunned, rebuked, and mocked. Queer people in Hip-Hop are like backstage wingmen, crucial to the development of the show but never important enough to make a curtain call. 

As Hip-Hop celebrates 50 years since its inception in New York City, I am filled with joy because it’s been half a century of Black people owning their narratives and driving the culture. But it’s fair to ask: At whose expense? 

A viral 2020 video shows rapper Boosie BadAzz, famed for hits like “Set It Off” and “Wipe Me Down,” rebuking NBA star Dwayne Wade and award-winning actress Gabrielle Union-Wade for publicly supporting their then-12-year-old daughter after she came out as transgender. 

“Don’t cut his dick off, bro,” said BadAzz with furrowed eyebrows and a gaze that kept turning away from the camera, revealing his tarnished diamond studs. “Don’t dress him as a woman dawg, he’s 12 years. He’s not up there yet.” 

The responses from both Wade and Union-Wade were a mixture of swift, sarcastically light-hearted, and hopeful.

“Sorry Boosie,” Union-Wade said to an audience during a live podcast appearance at Live Talks Los Angeles. “He’s so preoccupied, it’s almost like, ‘thou doth protest too much, Little Boos.’ You’ve got a lot of dick on your mind.”

Wade also appeared on an episode of podcast, “I AM ATHLETE,” and looked directly into the camera.

“Boosie, all the people who got something to say, J-Boogie who just came out with [something] recently, all the people who got something to say about my kids,” he said. “I thank you because you’re allowing the conversation to keep going forward because you know what? You might not have the answers today, I might not have the answers, but we’re growing from all these conversations.” 

This exchange between the Wades and BadAzz highlights the complicated relationship between Black LGBTQ individuals and allies and the greater Hip-Hop and rap genres and communities. While Black queer aesthetics have long informed self-expression in Hip-Hop, rappers have disparaged queerness through song lyrics and in interviews, or online rants like BadAzz, outside the recording studio. 

And despite LGBTQ rappers like Queen Latifah, Da Brat, Lil Nas X, and Saucy Santana achieving mainstream success, much work lies ahead to heal the trauma that persists from Hip-Hop’s history of  patriarchy and homophobia. 

“‘Progression’ will always be relative and subjective based on one’s positionality,” said Dr. Melvin Williams said in an email. Williams is an associate professor of communication and media studies at Pace University. “Hip-hop has traditionally been in conversation with queer and non-normative sexualities and included LGBTQ+ people in the shaping of its cultural signifiers behind the scenes as choreographers, songwriters, make-up artists, set designers, and other roles stereotypically attributed to queer culture.”

“Although Hip-Hop incorporates queerness in their ethos, ideas, and trends, it does not privilege the prospect of an out LGBTQ+ rapper. Such reservations position LGBTQ+ people as mere labor in Hip-Hop’s behind-the-scenes cultivation, but not as rap performers in its mainstream distribution,” he added. 

This is especially true for Queen Latifah and DaBrat who existed in the genre for decades but didn’t publicly come out until 2021. Still, both faced backlash from the Black community for daring to challenge gender roles and expectations. 

Queen Latifah dodged questions about her sexuality for years before acknowledging her partner and their son in 2021. (Photo by DFree via Bigstock)

Lil Nas X also faced backlash for his music video “Montero” with satanic references, including one in which he slides down a pole and gives a character representing the devil a lap dance. Conservatives such as South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem accused him of trying to scandalize children. 

“You see this is very scary for me, people will be angry, they will say I’m pushing an agenda. But the truth is, I am,” Nas X said in a note that accompanied “Montero.” The agenda to make people stay the fuck out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be.”

Regardless, “Montero” debuted atop the Billboard 100. 

In an article published in “Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society,” scholar C. Riley Snorton posited that celebrating queer visibility in mainstream media could be a problem as this kind of praise relies on artists presenting in acceptable forms of gender and sexuality expression and encourages representation that is “read alongside…perceptions of Hip-Hop as a site of Black misogyny and homophobia.” 

In the case of Frank Ocean, who came out in 2012 prior to the release of his album “Channel Orange,” his reception was warmer than most queer Hip-Hop artists because his style of music is singing, as opposed to rapping. Because of this, his music was viewed more as R’n’B or pop. 

“Frank Ocean ain’t no rapper. He’s a singer. It’s acceptable in the singing world, but in the rap world I don’t know if it will ever be acceptable because rap is so masculine,” rapper Snoop Dogg told the Guardian in 2013. “It’s like a football team. You can’t be in a locker room full of motherfucking tough-ass dudes, then all of a sudden say, ‘Hey, man, I like you.’ You know, that’s going to be tough.”

So what’s the solution for queer people in Hip-Hop? Digital media.

Williams, the Pace University professor, says that being divorced from record labels allows queer artists to be independent and distribute their music globally on their own terms. 

“We witnessed this fact with artists such as Azealia Banks, Cakes Da Killa, Fly Young Red, Kevin Abstract, iLoveMakonnen, Lil Nas X, Mykki Blanco, and Saucy Santana, as well as legacy LGBTQ Hip-Hop acts like Big Freeda, DeepDickCollective, and Le1f,” he said. “The music industry has experienced an increasingly mobilized market due to the rise of digital media, social networking platforms, and streaming services.”

“More importantly, Black queer Hip-Hop artists are historicizing LGBTQ+ contributions and perspectives in documentaries, films, news specials, public forums, and podcasts. Ultimately, queer people engaging in Hip-Hop is a revolutionary act, and it remains vital for LGBTQ+ Hip-Hoppers to highlight their cultural contributions and share their histories,” he added. 

(Hip-Hop pioneers Public Enemy and Ice-T will headline The National Celebration of Hip-Hop, free concerts at the West Potomac Park on the National Mall in D.C. on Oct. 6 and 7.)

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Cuisine and culture come together at The Square

D.C.’s newest food hall highlights Spanish flavors

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(Photo by Scott Suchman)

Downtown got a bit tastier when “the next generation of food halls” opened its doors on Tuesday near the Farragut West Metro stop. Dubbed The Square, its half-dozen debut stalls are a Spanish-flecked mix of D.C. favorites, new concepts, and vendor-collaborative spirit.

After two years of planning – and teasing some big-name chefs – the market is, according to the owners, “where cuisine, culture, and community are woven together.”

Behind this ambitious project with lofty aims are Richie Brandenburg, who had a hand in creating Union Market and Rubén García, a creative director of the José Andrés Group who also was part of the team of Mercado Little Spain, the fairly new Spanish-themed Andres food hall in Hudson Yards.

Food halls have come a long way since the new Union Market awakened the concept a decade ago. Instead of simply rows of vendors in parallel lines, The Square has a new business model and perspective. This food hall shares revenue between the owners and its chef partners. Vendors are encouraged to collaborate, using one software system, and purchasing raw materials and liquor at scale together.

“Our goal was two-fold: to create a best-in-class hospitality offering with delicious foods for our guests; and behind the scenes, create the strong, complex infrastructure needed to nurture both young chefs and seasoned professionals, startups, and innovation within our industry,” says Brandenburg.

The Square has embraced a more chef-forward methodology, given that the founders/owners themselves are chefs. They’re bringing together a diverse mix of new talent and longtime favorites to connect, offer guidance to each other, and make the market into a destination. 

(Photos by Scott Suchman)

The first phase of The Square premiered this week. This phase encapsulates a selection of original concepts from well-known local chefs and business owners, and includes:

• Cashion’s Rendezvous – Oysters, crab cakes, and cocktails, from the owners of D.C. institutions and now-closed Cashion’s Eat Place and Johnny’s Half-Shell (Ann Cashion and John Fulchino).

• Jamón Jamón – Flamenco-forward food with hand-cut jamón Iberico, queso, and croquetas, sourced by García himself.

• Brasa – Grilled sausages and veggies are the stars here. Chef García oversees this Spanish street-food stall as well.

 Taqueria Xochi – Birria, guisado, and other street tacos, plus margs. Named after the ruins of Xochitecatl in Central Mexico, and from a Jose Andres alum.

• Yaocho – Fried chicken, juices, sweets, and libations.

• Junge’s – Churros and soft serve ice cream. Brandenburg and García both have a hand in this stall.

• Atrium Bar – The central watering hole for drinks. Atrium Bar serves cocktails, wine, and beer curated by The Square’s Beverage Director Owen Thompson.

“Having been part of Jose Andres’s restaurant group and getting to know Ruben and Richie, it’s amazing to see how their values align with ours at Taqueria Xochi. Seeing all these incredible chefs heading into Square feels like a full-circle moment,” said Geraldine Mendoza of Taqueria Xochi.

Slated for fall 2023, the next round of openings includes Flora Pizzeria, Cebicheria Chalaca, KIYOMI Sushi by Uchi, Shoals Market (a retail hub), and more. Additionally, chef Rubén García’s Spanish restaurant, Casa Teresa, will soon open next door to The Square.

The Square is just one of a handful of new food halls blossoming in and around D.C. Up in Brentwood, Md., miXt Food Hall is an art-adjacent space with tacos, a year-round fresh market, coffee, and beer. Across from Union Market is La Cosecha, a Latin marketplace with everything from street food to a Michelin starred restaurant and a festive vibe. Closer to The Square is Western Market by GW University, which opened in late 2021 with a buzzy, relaxed style.

For now, the Square is open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Square plans to open on weekends and extend hours to offer dinner service in the coming months. A few alfresco seats will accompany the hall.

(Photo by Scott Suchman)
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Charles Busch reflects on the paths he didn’t take in new book

‘Leading Lady’ a riveting memoir from legendary entertainer

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'Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy' comes out on Sept. 12.

“Charles, I’m telling you, I go to plays in rat-infested basements where I’m the only one who shows up,” the late queer icon Joan Rivers once told the queer, legendary playwright, actor, director, novelist, cabaret performer and drag icon, Charles Busch. “I can see the actors peeking through the curtain and groaning, ‘Oh God, that old bitch in the fur coat is here. Does that mean we’ve gotta go on?’”

Busch reminded Rivers that she’d seen him perform in a rat-infested basement.

This is just one of the many stories that Busch, born in 1954, tells in his riveting memoir, “Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy,” which comes out on Sept. 12.

“Leading Lady” is a page-turner. Some of its tales of Busch’s life and career, such as his account of a Christmas party with Rivers as a guest, are dishy. Others, like his memories of trying to care for his beloved Aunt Lil, when he knew she was dying, would make even the Wicked Witch in Oz tear up.

The memoir, is, as Busch says on his website (charlesbusch.com), the story of “a talented artist’s Oz-like journey.” 

“Leading Lady” isn’t linear. This isn’t a detriment. Busch deftly intertwines memories of his life and career from his mom dying when he was seven to being raised by his loving Aunt Lil to being the author and star of the cult classic “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” to watching Kim Novak handle fans to being the Tony-nominated writer of “Tales of the Allergist’s Wife” to being creative during the pandemic.

“Storytelling is a huge part of my life,” Busch told the Blade in a lengthy phone interview, “I get into various adventures and, I think, this could be a good story to tell.”

Interviewing Busch is like chatting with a fab storyteller over coffee or a glass of wine. Except that you’re talking to a legend who’s entertained and inspired queers (and discerning hetero audiences) for decades. (I’m wearing my “Vampire” T-shirt as I write this.)  

As a playwright, Busch writes “linear” plays, with a beginning, middle and an end, he said. As a cabaret singer, “the way I sing songs is telling a story,” Busch said.

Since childhood, he’s been creating vivid scenes in his imagination. From early on, Busch has felt as if he’s both a spectator and star in the movie of his life.

It seemed inevitable that he’d write a memoir. It’s the ultimate form of storytelling. “You reach a certain point in your life,” Busch said, “where you’re more reflective and see your life as a whole.”

“You reflect on the paths you didn’t take,” he added.

Busch spent his childhood in Hartsdale, N.Y. He had two older sisters, Betsy and Margaret. His mother’s death was devastating for Busch. His Aunt Lil and Joan Rivers have been among the women who have been “mothers” to Busch since his mom died.

Once, Busch said he and Rivers dined with friends. “Joan Rivers said ‘I wish I had a gay son I could phone at midnight and discuss whatever movie was on TCM,’” he recalled.

Busch would have loved to have been Rivers’s “gay son.”

Life in Hartsdale was hard for Busch after his mother passed away. His father was often absent and showed little interest in his children.

Things were miserable for Busch when his grandmother, for a time, cared for the family. He knew, as a boy, that he was gay and hated going to school where a movie-and-theater-loving kid who liked to draw wasn’t one of the cool kids.

Yet Busch forgave his “father’s failings,” he writes in “Leading Lady, “because he gave me the theater.”

Busch became entranced with the theater when his father, an aspiring opera singer who performed in summer stock, took him to the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York City to hear Joan Sutherland sing the role of Amina in Bellini’s “La Sonnambula.”

Busch was saved from a life of boredom and bullying when Aunt Lil, his mother’s sister, took him to live with her in Manhattan. There, like Auntie Mame, she raised him. She prodded him into applying to the High School of Music and Art in New York City. He was accepted there.

After high school, Busch graduated with a bachelor’s degree in drama from Northwestern University in 1976.

“My Aunt Lil is the leading lady [of the title of his memoir],” Busch said, “she was the most influential person in my life.”

One of the reasons why Busch wrote “Leading Lady” was to paint a full portrait of her. “It was important that it not be this kind of gauzy, sentimental memory piece,” he said, “making her out to be a saint.”

Aunt Lil adopted Bush when he was 14. Her goal was that he would go to college, become independent, be a survivor – make a place for himself in the world.

“I don’t know what would have happened if she hadn’t stepped in,” Busch said.

“She was very intellectual,” he added, “I’ve never met anyone [else] with such a pure devotion to thinking. It was a little intimidating.”

Aunt Lil’s standards for caring – for giving of oneself – were so high that it was almost impossible to meet them. “She believed that you should anticipate what people would need,” Busch said, “before they told you.”

Looking back, Busch is most proud of himself when, “I’ve gone past my natural self-absorption,” he said, “when I’ve thought of someone else.”

Busch is being too hard on himself. In “Leading Lady,” and when interviewed, he’s caring and curious as well as witty, savvy, and as you’d expect, a bit campy.

His sister Margaret died recently. “She declined gradually over nine months,” Busch, said, choking up, “I gave her my bedroom and I slept on my sofa.”

Like many of her generation, Aunt Lil didn’t understand queerness or drag. But she loved Busch. She didn’t go to see his productions, he said. “She could have gone like other parents,” he said, “and been tight-lipped. And said something nice that she didn’t believe.”

But “she didn’t want to lie or be hurtful,” Busch added, “so, for her, it was: can’t I just love and support you, and not go?”

Aunt Lil didn’t get Busch’s sexuality. But she knew about secrecy. Busch learned of a terrifying secret that his aunt had long kept hidden. In the 1930s, during the Depression, Aunt Lil worked as a nurse. One day, when she worked overtime, one of the patients suffered a burn. She had to leave nursing. “Her sister in a nasty mood revealed this,” Busch said, “Aunt Lil never discussed it.”

In the 1970s, Busch had trouble getting into theater because there were only roles for actors playing straight male characters. “The only way I could get on stage was to write my own roles,” he said, “I have a rather androgynous nature.”

Busch found that the feminine within him was a place of authority and strength. “I’m fine when I play male characters,” he said, “but I’m better when I play female characters.”

Why this is so liberating for him is a bit of a mystery to Busch. “But I accept and love it,” he said.

Times have changed since Busch made his first big splash with “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.” “In 1985, being a drag queen was considered a negative,” Busch said, “my generation of drag performers bristled at being referred to as drag queens.”

Busch no longer bristles. “I feel like the characters,” he said, “I enjoy costumes and getting the right wig.”

“But, I go from male to female not through trickery or anything visual, I transfer through my soul.”

In “Leading Lady,” Busch recalls AIDS and other dark moments from the past. Many of his friends and colleagues died from AIDS. “AIDS was the World War II of our generation,” he said.

But Busch, in his memoir and in his life, isn’t only looking back. He’s very much in the present. Busch is embarrassed to say he was lucky. During the pandemic, devastating to many, he made art. He did play readings on Zoom and finished writing “Leading Lady” which he’d worked on for 14 years.

During the pandemic, Busch with Carl Andress co-wrote and co-directed the movie “The Sixth Reel.” The film’s cast includes Busch, Julie Halston (Busch’s longtime muse), Margaret Cho and Tim Daly.

Busch describes the film, an homage to the Hollywood madcap movies of the 1930s, as “a comic, caper movie.” 

“I play a disreputable dealer in movie memorabilia,” Busch said, “a legendary lost film is found, and I see it as my ticket out of debt.”

The “Sixth Reel” is playing from Sept. 21 to Sept. 27 at the LOOK Dine-In Cinema West 57th Street in New York City.

“I hope the run in New York will encourage people to distribute this little movie,” Busch said.

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