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What is a hero? And who is afforded that moniker? The month of February is delegated to honor the bustling legacy and history of Black people; however, the specifics of one's gender identity and sexuality tend to be expunged from the larger narrative. By axing such crucial information, the idea of contemporary anomaly is forever implied as emerging Black artists embrace their wholeness as people of the LGBTQ experience.
Modern artists like Frank Ocean, RuPaul and Janelle Monáe are breaking down barriers in their own ways, but Black LGBTQ musicians have existed as long as music has existed -- and they've spearheaded the rise of ever-morphing genres for generations. Queer Black artists are among the pioneers of several genres, from blues to disco to house. From dancefloor diva Sylvester to jazz legend Billie Holiday, here are eight artists to celebrate during Black history month and beyond.
Sylvester was the muse of a boisterously eccentric time. His undeniable presence and melodious voice landed him with multiple recording contracts, a plethora of records sold and a key to San Francisco. His immeasurable tunes like “Do You Wanna Funk” and “(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real” (the later hit No. 36 on the Billboard Hot 100) outlined the experimental beauty of disco music, which subsequently influenced the contemporary electronic genre. Sylvester’s backup singers -- known then as the Two Tons 'O Fun -- went on to become The Weather Girls (of “It’s Raining Men” fame).
Ma Rainey sang the blues like no other, and she wore the electrifying melodies like glistening garbs. The undisputed Mother of Blues shifted the landscape of music with her deeply introspective voice and her subversive lyrics. On “Prove It On Me Blues,” she implicitly brought attention to her experiences as a queer woman: “I went out last night with a crowd of my friends/ It must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men/ Wear my clothes just like a fan/ Talk to the gals just like any old man.” Rainey was unapologetic in every sense of the term.
If you’ve seen Paris is Burning, you may be familiar with the illustrious dancer, choreographer and icon, Willi Ninja. Nicknamed The Godfather of Vogue, Ninja was a crucial presence in the ballroom scene. To him, voguing was an effective tool implemented to alleviate violence. He reeled in inspiration from the worlds of fashion and music to plant the base for the increasingly revered dance style. Much was in Willi’s grasp, as he released his house-infused track “Hot” and gave riveting performances in two of Janet Jackson’s music videos, “Alright” and “Escapade.” From Jackson to Madonna, Ninja’s liberating dance style influenced a throng of entertainers.
Jermaine Stewart left a searing inferno everywhere he went. He first entered the homes of Americans as a performer on renown television program, Soul Train. Whilst working on Soul Train, Jermaine and his peers, Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniel, decided to embark on a joint effort; after an immersive audition, the three became members of the Don Cornelius-formed group Shalamar. Though the endeavor didn’t take off, it gave way to Jermaine’s solo stardom. Jermaine’s electric hit “We Don’t Have To Take Off Our Clothes,” which was an overt ode to taking it slow, became the most impactful record of his career. The record soared to a No. 5 peak on the Billboard Hot 100.
Black transgender stage chameleon, soul singer and 2019 Grammy nominee for best historical album, Jackie Shane blazed the musical scene of Toronto, Canada like no other. Her soulful voice brought folks from all walks of life to the dance floor to put their array of dance moves on display. She was an enigma, disappearing from the musical scene in 1971 until her surprising re-emergence in 2014. The adored pioneer has since been gifted a colossal musical history mural in Toronto alongside other instrumental figures of the 1950s and the 1960s like B.B. King and Ronnie Hawkins.
Pianist and blues extraordinaire, Gladys Bentley is Harlem Renaissance royalty. As a lesbian crossdresser, she headlined theaters and nightclubs such as The Apollo, where she was known to be accompanied by a chorus of drag queens. Despite being an openly gay trailblazer (she even reportedly married a woman during a civil ceremony in New Jersey), Bentley began wearing dresses later in life and claimed to be “cured” of her homosexuality by taking female hormones.
Rock and roll hall of fame inductee, winner of four posthumous Grammy awards and the voice of jazz, Billie Holiday organically garnered notoriety by performing in local clubs before trotting her way across larger stages. Billie’s approach to performance art was highly regarded, which allowed her to continuously sell out notable venues like Carnegie Hall throughout the 1950s. As an openly bisexual woman, Holiday was severed, conceivably blacklisted, from certain opportunities. Billie’s rendition of “Strange Fruit,” a poem written by Jewish poet and educator Abel Meeropol, was blacklisted in the United States for being too controversial. The profound legacy of Billie was beautifully captured in the 1972 Diana Ross led biopic, Lady Sings The Blues.
Without the incalculable creative efforts of Frankie Knuckles, the now revered EDM genre wouldn’t exist. The legacy of EDM, which roots in house music, is often stripped of its very queer and very Black origin. Knuckles and a legion of eclectically talented DJs frequently gathered at a Chicago nightclub called The Warehouse. Who would’ve known that the fusion of widely opposite genres such as soul and gospel would give viability to a history-changing sub-genre? In a city festering with racism, the presence of house music established community for a plethora of Black queer folks.
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