With two men arrested in connection to the alleged bias attack on Empire’s Jussie Smollett, we may soon know what transpired on that polar vortex night in downtown Chicago last month. Regardless, when the actor’s harrowing details of the incident were first reported, it was a moment—a story that blew up Twitter and drew messages of sympathy and condemnation from the highest reaches of entertainment and government. No one, it’s fair to say, felt the story more deeply and personally than LGBTQ people of color.
iLoveMakonnen was one of the many shaken by the incident. The rapper and singer occupies arguably one of the toughest roles in music: a gay male hip-hop artist. While homophobia and transphobia have long permeated all genres of music, historically it is undeniable that rock and rap — those fields most epitomized by masculine, heterosexual swagger — have been the most egregious when it comes to either passively or actively accepting anti-queer hate. Which made Makonnen’s decision to come out publicly in Jan. 2017 — not coincidentally, on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration — one that carried added risks. Three years earlier, the L.A. native who relocated to Atlanta as a youth emerged as one of the Southern hip-hop hub’s brightest new melodic trap talents. There were cosigns and collaborations with Mike WiLL Made-It, Drake, Gucci Mane and 21 Savage. But even as his star was rising, Makonnen felt like an outsider — mixed race, gay but, at first, in the closet — and increasingly surrounded by opportunists.
He’s had his dose of setbacks. A highly touted deal with Drake’s OVO Sound ended up being an exercise in frustration, and he left the label in 2016 with no love lost. A year later, he had come out, but found support lacking from some of his Atlanta friends and former collaborators, and still has palpably raw feelings about the response. Soon, he had a new friend and creative partner in Lil Peep, with whom he created a project in London in Aug. 2017, only three months before the emo star’s tragic death — another gut-punch for Makonnen.
But he’s soldiering on. The entire Peep collab — tentatively titled Diamonds — is due out later this year, and the two tastes we’ve heard of it are remarkably bright and upbeat coming from two artists known for moody (if not downright sad) music. There’s the recent release “I’ll Be Waiting,” a collaboration with Fall Out Boy that places Makonnen and Peep somewhat jaw-droppingly in breezy Walk The Moon/DNCE-level dance-pop terrain. The two also traded verses on last fall’s sweetly sentimental “Sunshine On My Skin”; Peep’s parts of the track were, of course, also married to vocals by the late XXXTentacion to create “Falling Down,” a bona fide hit that was recently certified platinum, despite controversy and criticism that surrounded the posthumous single’s release. He may also have as many as three solo projects released this year by Warner Bros.
Makonnen has much more music to make, but also a lot to say: about his own unlikely path; on homophobia in hip-hop, whether it’s gotten better in recent years, and if so, why; as well as the need for a new sense of community among queer people of color — and the daily threat of abuse that’s faced by black LGBTQ Americans far less famous than Jussie Smollett. In a wide-ranging phone call this week, he talked to Billboard about those topics and more.
First of all, congratulations on the new single, “I’ve Been Waiting.” It’s so bright and different from what people have come to expect from not only from you, but also from Peep. What do you make of the reaction to it?
I think the reaction is great! I’m surprised how many people enjoy it as much as I do. It seems to be very multi-generation: people from a lot of generations seem to connect to it and enjoy it. And that was the goal.
I’m told you were quite affected, as many of us were, by the Jussie Smollett story. What was your reaction to the incident when it was first reported, and have your feelings changed over time as questions have been raised about exactly what happened to him?
Well overall, the story when it broke was very shocking, but it’s stuff that a lot of people deal with. It’s just that most celebrities don’t have to deal with it. So to see a celebrity dealing with something like that was eye-opening, and it just makes you feel not safe. And being an openly gay person of color in music, in entertainment, it raises concern about security. It’s like, “So, do I need security now when I’m walking down the street at night?” Because somebody could say, “There’s the gay hip-hop dude” and try and attack me. And I don’t live my life in fear like that, but it’s something to be aware of.
Then as the story went on and people were raising questions about whether this is true or not, it just seemed very weird. And the way they said they have no suspects and whatnot, it started to seem like it was maybe a made-up story, and to think that it would be a made-up story is even worse. Because like, why would somebody make up something so tragic, when this is a real thing that does happen? So it’s been very confusing.
The initial response on Twitter and elsewhere was interesting, because you had a lot of people of color calling it a racist attack, and a lot of queer people calling it a homophobic attack, and for me a lot of that underscored that as much as we like to talk about intersectionality and solidarity between communities, it’s not always there.
Yeah, it’s a little weird for me. Everyone wants to claim the tragedy as an attack on their people. You know, “This happened to us, it’s against gays!” or “This happened to us, it’s against blacks!” But it should just be: it happened to a human. It happened to an American. It happened to another person, and it shouldn’t matter if he’s white, gay, black, straight — if he was attacked, then he was attacked, and that’s wrong. People are always trying to start a fight or a war rather than finding a solution to make peace.
You came out publicly a little more than two years ago. Do you think it has gotten better, or easier, for people of color, or people in hip-hop?
It has gotten better, but I don’t think it’s gotten to the point where people feel safer to come out. You can see a community now. But it’s like, “If I come out, where am I gonna go?” The thing is, people tell you to keep it to yourself. “Keep your sexuality to yourself, we don’t wanna know.” But then, everybody wants to know. So how can I keep it to myself when you’re going around saying things to suggest I am gay? It’s like, if you’re in the closet, people try to do things to bring you out of the closet. They’ll say, “You just need to be honest. You just need to be real.” And then when you’re real, everyone turns their back on you for being honest. And yes, you reach a new crowd who accept you, but it’s like, “Damn, I wanted my friends I had, the people that I was around to accept me!”
I remember covering music in the ’90s, when casual homophobia in lyrics and conversation were much more common. I would interview certain artists where I felt like when I walked out of the room they’d be like, “f—-t.” But I don’t feel that as much today, especially with younger artists. It seems to be that they just don’t care, for the most part.
Past generations are full of lies and hiding and deceit. But the new generation — they don’t even look up to the past generation, really. Because it’s like, you’ve been lying and deceiving me all this time, why would I listen to your lies and deceit. So they — they really feel like they’re on their own.
But a lot of these kids grew up in Barack Obama’s presidency, right? Barack Obama was supportive of gay marriage and gay rights. So a lot of kids who grew up in that time. They’ve just grown up to believe it’s okay.
Do you think the pop world is still more accepting than hip-hop?
Pop is definitely more accepting, more open, more worldly. But you know, hip-hop has become the biggest genre. So it’s like, it’s gonna come to a head eventually, gay and hip-hop. Because they’re two worlds that try to act like they don’t fuck with each other, but they do, very hard. You can listen to any rapper and they’ll tell you about a gay designer, more than their female counterparts. Sooner or later, people are gonna have to be like, “okay, what is it?” Because I keep hearing about all the gay designers, seeing you guys in all the gay designer clothes. You guys all come from Atlanta, the known black gay capital of the world. So it’s like, when are we gonna have this conversation? You’re so anti-gay, but you support gay brands? You can’t support a gay man, you can support a gay brand?
What about more hopeful signs? Lil Yachty put two guys kissing on his record cover a couple of years ago…
Well, yeah, but the thing with him putting the gay couple on there, they did that right after I came out, right? Because Migos had some backlash, saying some shit about Makonnen and stuff, they pulled a little marketing stunt, and I was like, whatever it’s cool. But I was like, “Why don’t y’all put a black gay couple on the cover?”
So you don’t think his intentions were pure in putting the couple on there?
Nah, it’s not sincere. It was — I’m just trying to appeal, because I saw this thing happen where we saw backlash because of someone saying negative things about this person. So now let’s put a gay couple on our album to make it seem like we’re all chilling. But it’s like, yo, why don’t you put black gay males on the cover? Why you gon’ put two white gay males on the cover? First of all, being white and gay is a whole different thing to being black and gay. You know what I’m saying? A lot of whites have been supported, their families are more accepting of it, so it’s like, him putting that on there? Nobody really saw that for our community.
It is a very different experience, and I think a lot of white LGBTQ people don’t understand that.
I just feel like there is not enough conversation. White gay males, they have more engagement about it. They’re more communal, and their community is an “us” thing. And the black gay thing is a very — it’s me versus all y’all. And that’s how it is for every black gay. It’s like no black gays are on a team together, it’s everybody versus everybody. It’s like, we can’t speak about nothing, we end up fighting. Why can’t we be bigger for the culture and show that we can all support each other?
What about all the people on the [Atlanta] south side? What about everybody that was dealing with what I was dealing with? They can’t go run to Hollywood, hang out with the white gays in West Hollywood, and live some new type of life. We just have so many people in leadership positions that could be making a big change for the world, and for this generation. But it’s like everybody is afraid to stand up, because they’re afraid of the backlash they might receive from some fans.
Last year, you had some Peep fans questioning the decision to take Peep’s vocals and XXXTentacion’s vocals and create “Falling Down” after they both had died. They cited the domestic violence charges against X and the story of him beating up a guy in jail that he thought was gay, and they said Peep would have never worked with him. How did you feel about that reaction?
As far as X in jail and fighting the guy he thought was gay or whatnot — a lot people haven’t been to jail, and don’t know what goes on in there. Now, I’m not defending X, and I don’t know exactly the circumstances of his situation where he fought the guy. But as someone who’s been in jail, I do know a lot of times in jail or prison there is male on male rape. It’s real. So you have to defend yourself. You do need to fight back.
And then, the thing that happened with beating on a girl, I don’t really know for sure. I can only connect with him as an artist. People and what they’ve done in their past, they’re gonna have to deal with that themselves. If you’re growing and trying to be a better person, more power to you. And from what I saw with X’s last months, he seemed to be trying to better himself, and be a better person.
I’d even seen him on stage, at shows, saying, “It doesn’t matter if you’re gay, straight, black, white, whatever, I support you and love you and want to accept you as you.” And that’s what a lot of people were blind to about him, people didn’t want to see those things. They just wanted to see the negative shit that he was involved in and that’s all they highlighted.
As for the fans that expressed outrage and backlash, I don’t know man. That’s fans. People are always wanting to have an opinion. It’s like, y’all don’t know what they would have done! You don’t know what type of path they were on as humans, that they were trying to grow and learn. I feel like they were both growing up and trying to put their differences aside to be more for the youth. That’s what I found them both doing — it was for the youth.
Your original song with Peep that was used for “Falling Down” — “Sunlight On Your Skin” — was really beautiful and surprisingly sweet and happy. It seemed like a love song in a sense. I’ve heard from [Peep’s producer] Smokeasac how happy he was when you guys were working on those songs in London. He said it was like a cloud had lifted.
We were both in dark times when we first met. I met him in 2017 in February, so I had just come out as gay Jan. 20, 2017. So I had been receiving a lot of both support and a lot of backlash and fake support, fake backlash. The music that we were listening to when we first met was very dark, sad shit. We were like the kings of sadness, like, “Who can make a sadder song?” But then we thought, “Let’s do something new. Let’s make some happier songs! Let’s make something celebratory! Let’s make people cry tears of joy!” you know, rather than tears of sadness. That’s what we were thinking going into making these songs. So, yes these are love songs, and it’s love for each other, but it’s not a sexual thing, even though people could take it to a sexual level with their partner if they want to.
It was almost like we wanted to heal our fans. When me and Peep were together, we were healing each other. You know what I’m saying? This was our happiness. It was like, “I’m with you, you’re with me, we’re happy and creating and having fun. So let’s do this thing for our fans to help them feel the same kind of happiness that you and me have from being around each other. Let’s put this in the music.” So that’s why the music is so much happier.
And talking of happier, “I’ve Been Waiting” is basically a dance pop track. Is this a rebirth musically for you?
I’m a fan of music, so I try not to just stick to just one genre. And even though I come from certain genres, I’m heavily influenced by all genres. And the way things are going with music, it’s like genre doesn’t matter anymore. Artists should not be afraid to try something new, and I don’t want anybody to think that they’ve got the full version of me, because they don’t. I’ve still got great trap records that I plan on dropping later on this year as well.
Three records, you said recently, this year alone with Warner Bros.?
Yep. That’s what we’re working towards. Make sure that’s in there so that Warner Bros. sees it!
iLoveMakonnen will play the Rolling Loud Festival May 11 in Miami.