Le1f’s only been on stage for 20 minutes. In that time, he’s brought four different friends up to rap with him, asked the sound engineer to turn his mic up and down and up again, and told the DJ to stop the beat so he could debut a new verse a cappella. After a few lines, he stops. “Actually, never mind,” he says, giggling nervously.
His purple-tinted short hair and dark skin are glistening in the late-afternoon summer sun. And while Le1f (pronounced “Leaf”) is obviously flustered by the heat or his somewhat shaky performance, he’s giddy. He can’t stop smiling.
It’s Le1f’s first time at the AfroPunk festival, a free Brooklyn event that, in its ninth year, is renowned for showcasing African-American talent, from the up-and-coming to the ubiquitous. In fact, with 28,000 people flooding the gates, this is easily the biggest show he’s ever played—at least in his hometown of New York.
A year after the 24-year-old’s sassy, infectious hit “Wut” (off his first mixtape, Dark York) was hailed as the not-so-underground song of the summer, Le1f is living every aspiring musician’s dream. He’s nearly finished two more mixtapes, gone on three world tours, and signed with a major indie label. All while transitioning seamlessly from a masculine persona to a feminine one and back again.
Le1f, along with fellow AfroPunk artists Mykki Blanco, Big Freedia, and Mursi Layne—as well as many not even on this year’s lineup like Azealia Banks, Zebra Katz, and House of Ladosha—are hardly the first LGBT artists in hip-hop. But over the past two years, they’ve far surpassed the success of their predecessors, prompting many to declare the start of a gay rap revolution.
But the transition from viral music videos and MySpace mixtapes to music festivals isn’t easy. And at AfroPunk, the typically magnetic and captivating performances of Le1f and his queer cohort are a bit muted.
Clad in cutoff black jeans, Timberlands, a white Hood By Air T shirt, and John Lennon–style sunglasses, Le1f’s almost unrecognizable as the same fierce performer seen twerking and whipping waist-length neon braids on YouTube and small indoor stages. Of course, he’s still dancing. But, out here, in front of a crowd that’s half engaged, half milling around, texting and posing for photos, Le1f’s usually defiantly sensual moves seem disconnected and even awkward.
“Let me rock one more for you guys,” Le1f says. “Like one more, and I promise I’ll really do it this time.”
A few days before AfroPunk, Le1f is over an hour late to meet me for coffee in Dumbo. He may be enjoying the rise to fame, but it’s still hard to get a taxi.
“I’m so sorry I’m late!” he says. “I ordered a cab, and they just drove right past me. They wouldn’t pick me up,” For the rapper it’s frustrating (he got a rise out of the company Uber by tweeting about the incident), but also material for his upcoming album. He’s already working on a song that uses taxis that pass him by on the street as a metaphor for men.
Le1f (born Khalif Diouf) came out as a proud gay rapper, voguing and sitting on the lap of a greasy, shirtless man in the video for “Wut.” (It’s been viewed more than a million times.) Unsurprisingly, the hype over Le1f’s lyrics was soon overshadowed by press naming him one of the pioneers of the latest gay rap movement.
There’s no denying the significance of so many LGBT artists breaking through hip-hop’s heteronormative glass ceiling, or the fact that they, as a group, undoubtedly propelled one another to success. Still, Le1f resents being lumped into a single category based not on musical style but sexual orientation.
“When I started making the first mixtape I knew I was speaking about gay things and that would be a focus, but I also thought that the fact that I was a gay, African Wesleyan grad would be more interesting,” he says. He was so frustrated by last year’s barrage of headlines labeling him a “gay rapper” that he took time off from doing interviews to focus on his music—and it worked. Not wanting to spoil the official announcement of his record deal, Le1f gushes, “It’s the label I wanted to be on as a kid.”
Le1f was raised in midtown Manhattan by his mother, a former political activist, travel agent, and singer who performed at Carnegie Hall. His father lives in Seattle but is originally from Senegal—where, in his caste, both art and homosexuality are not an option. Le1f’s been on stage all of his life, performing and training with the Dance Theater of Harlem as a kid and even going to a boarding school known for its dance program. He was a DJ and produced beats for other rappers at the end of high school before he actually got up the nerve to try it himself.
“I thought my voice was too weird,” Le1f says. “It doesn’t sound like an average guy’s voice or girl’s voice—especially when I was a prepubescent gay, African kid, you know?” He spent a lot of time working his voice into a deep, syrupy—sometimes garbled—sound heard vacillating between warp-speed multisyllabic raps and slower verses. It’s a twist on the airy, soft-spoken twang he uses in conversation.
Growing up in the Timbaland, Missy Elliott, and Busta Rhymes era of radio hip-hop, Le1f realized there might be room in rap for a voice like his when he started listening to artists like M.I.A. and Dizzee Rascal. They, too, sounded different. But it was a lesbian rap duo named Bunny Rabbit and Black Cracker and the pair of Queens-born Indian dudes behind Das Racist—college classmates whose viral hit “Combination Pizza Hut Taco Bell” he produced—who taught Le1f everything from how to use a microphone to how to meld witty banter with his “flaura fauna political gay side.”
“I don’t need to be famous, but I might have to be if I want to stay in New York,” Le1f says, admitting that manual labor isn’t really his thing. He worked as a busboy at a Manhattan restaurant for about a month and a half after graduating college before he decided, “Fuck it, I can’t bus tables. I’m just going to be a rapper.”
On a weeknight in January, the tiny backroom of Manhattan’s Lower East Side Mercury Lounge was packed to see Michael Quattlebaum, better known by his drag persona Mykki Blanco. Blanco transitioned from female to male effortlessly, stripping off everything from his wig to his bra, one article of clothing at a time.
But here at AfroPunk, something is missing. After allowing his lesser-known rapper friend, the shrieking Psycho Egyptian, to stall until he was ready, Blanco takes the stage. Shirtless, sporting boxing shorts and short greenish yellow braids, Mykki bounds around aggressively, this time only showcasing his masculine side.
Blanco, who’s often mentioned in the same breath as Le1f, also cultivated a persona on the Internet. His dueling identities combined with brash, gender-bending lyrics atop danceable beats, make it hard to look away from his videos, let alone not play them on loop. While the 27-year-old New Yorker has successfully transferred his act from the computer screen to the small stage, something got lost in translation on the way from the club to the festival.
The question of what it takes for a gay artist to make it in one of the most hyper-masculine, traditionally homophobic musical genres is periodically revisited as more dudes who like dudes or chicks who like chicks come out with game-changing hits. The answer isn’t really reflected in audience reception, but instead in acceptance by more mainstream rappers.
And these figures—at least those speaking out—are starting to stray away from comments like those made by the artist formerly known as Snoop Dogg, who said that being gay “is 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.” In May, rapper A$AP Rocky threw his support behind gay people who are unafraid to be out of the closet, and just last week Talib Kweli mused, in an interview with Mother Jones, that while the black community may be “begrudgingly more accepting” than it was twenty years ago, “there just needs to be a gay rapper—he doesn’t have to be flamboyant, just a rapper who identifies as gay—who’s better than everybody,” for there to be full and genuine acceptance—like Eminem did for white rappers.
Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University, notes that it really just takes an endorsement to translate that acceptance to the masses. “Look at Frank Ocean, the fact that he’s on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s labels, that’s important as a symbol for young people of what is accepted,” he told The Daily Beast. He also noted that identity has become more of a fluid concept for young people than in generations past. “A man was a man, a woman was a woman,” he says. “Now, they’re able to play around with what’s acceptable and that plays into what kinds of artists they’ll accept in pop music.”
The open-mindedness of young audiences may not even be the most important thing. Instead, artists can come out now without fear of damaging their brand. “[Before] for black artists especially that could really damage their base,” Neal says, pointing to Luther Vandross, who never addressed rumors that he was gay. “That’s less of an issue for modern artists.”
And for these gay artists, MySpace, YouTube, and SoundCloud are like the open-mic nights and demo tapes of days past. Now getting a record company’s attention means first finding fame online. This has allowed performers who might not otherwise appeal to corporate music executives to first win over fans with their finely tuned sounds and highly produced videos.
Jocelyn Cooper was an A&R executive at Universal Records before joining her partner Matthew Morgan in producing AfroPunk. She knows it’s only a matter of time before Le1f, Mykki Blanco, or any of the other gay hip-hop artists commanding attention has a commercial song. “Pop music is about one song on the radio,” she says.
“What’s happening is that record companies are recognizing that queer audiences are also hip-hop audiences. I was a hip-hop fan all my life, but I was also a queer kid,” says Shante Paradigm Smalls, American-studies professor at the University of New Mexico, who both studies and participates in the queer rap movement.
Just last weekend straight rapper-DJ duo Macklemore and Ryan Lewis took home the MTV Video Music Award for Best Video With a Social Message for their gay-rights anthem “Same Love.” Having previously accused Macklemore of ripping off the “Wut” beat for his song “Thrift Shop,” Le1f flooded Twitter with his thoughts.
“That time that straight white dude ripped off my song then made a video about gay interracial love and made millions of dollars,” he tweeted. “It saddens me out that a straight man is the voice pop music has chosen for gay rights.” He later tweeted that his issue was with plagiarism, not the gay-rights movement. If Macklemore is such a supporter of the gay community, Le1f wondered, why would he rip off a gay artist?
Le1f is gay, but he’s no gay activist. If it were up to him, his sexuality wouldn’t still enter the conversation. “I don’t wake up and look in the mirror and say, ‘Oh, you’re a gay person.’ And that’s not how I go into the studio,” he says. “I don’t think there’s one song on the last mixtape that would qualify as a ‘gay rap song’ if you broke down the lyrics. So I feel like, especially after a year of being out there, if people really feel that I am a ‘gay rapper,’ then they are probably somehow homophobic.”