Too Gay for Hip-Hop? Le1f Takes On Traditionally Homophobic Genre
How the aggressively out Le1f is challenging rap’s traditionally homophobic pose. By Melissa Leon.
If you’re just listening to New York rapper Le1f’s song “Wut” (and not paying close attention to the lyrics), the manic, bouncing track sounds pretty much like another shoo-in for year-end lists of best rap songs. It’s infectious and dancey and it landed Le1f on the radar of everyone from Rolling Stone to Gawker to the International Business Times.
If you’re watching the song’s music video, though, you’d not only see Le1f speed-rapping through one verse fast enough to put Busta Rhymes or Twista to shame, you’d see him doing it from under a shock of purple hair, sitting on the knee of a mostly naked, oiled-down, Pikachu mask-wearing white guy. “This yuppie’s talking blah blah, he wants to Bink my Jar-Jar,” he raps with a hand on his hip and a grin. “He’s twinked out / I’m like nuh-uh. I’m laughing at 'im like haha / I’m an emperor.” Booty-popping ensues.
He sashays around in a pair of purple Daisy Dukes and he twirls the long ends of his hat like pigtails. Le1f is a rapper who is openly gay.
Perhaps predictably, since the video’s release, hate tweets and comments have rolled in for Le1f. Less predictably came hate headlines. Two weeks before Le1f released the video for “Wut,” R&B virtuoso Frank Ocean published a blog post that, in poignant detail, recounted the story of his first real love, a man. The story was welcomed by fans with mostly open arms but in a weird twist, Ocean’s story also ended up as ammunition for Le1f’s haters. “See What Frank Ocean Started?: Gay Rapper Le1f ‘Wut’ Music Video,” read black culture blog Bossip’s headline. “This Is What Happens When Rappers Start Admitting Their Gay? Hip-Hop Artist Le1f—Wut,” said grammar-challenged World Star Hip Hop. Despite the fact that Ocean is not a rapper and gay hip-hop existed long before him, the Internet asked for the zillionth time whether homosexuality would ever be accepted in the genre—and again, nobody had any answers.
On a recent afternoon in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, Le1f, born Khalif Diouf (a Senegalese Wolof last name, pronounced “Joof”), pondered World Star Hip Hop’s choice of words over a plate of spinach white pizza. Dressed in a simple black T-shirt and shorts, the 6'3" recent Wesleyan grad was surprisingly soft-spoken. When asked shortly after sitting down about his (now slightly faded) purple hair, he sheepishly replied, “My mom does it.”
But when remembering World Star’s headline, he immediately started laughing. “I thought it would make a great T-shirt,” he says. “Like, really good merch. Including the grammatical mistakes—I wanna leave those in there.” The maniacal barrage of hate comments he got online also seems like prime creative fodder. “I wanna make a song quoting all the crazy comments,” he says, still giggling. “It would be like the most Dadaist poetry ever. It could be really major.”
When it comes to the wrath he’s incurred from the Internet’s crazies, his attitude is simple. “I’m kind of into it now that it’s about me, to be honest.”
Confidence like that is at the core of Le1f’s music, where it balloons into straight-up swagger. He turns traditionally gay-bashing words and phrases like “swisher” and “light in my loafers” into expressions of braggadocio. He calls it being a “banjee” boy—another flipped term that used to mean a closeted or straight-acting gay black or Latino but, through ballroom culture and the voguing dance style that originated in 1960s Harlem (and was popularized in 1990 by Madonna’s music video for “Vogue” and Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris Is Burning), became a sort of play on masculinity. In other words, his rap persona is one vainglorious badass.
“I’m the kind of John closet dudes wanna go steady on / Toss my gems up, raise the bar, Yung Phenomenon / I make a neo-Nazi kamikaze wanna firebomb,” he raps on “Wut.”
The stylish arrogance flows freely when Le1f is rapping about getting and sleeping with men, but he isn’t about to go on any activist rants. Throughout Dark York, the mixtape he released this year, Le1f is as comfortable cutting down gays he dislikes as he is stomping all over “phobics”—anybody is fair game.
“I’m super conscious about making activist music—I feel like it’s not cool, especially right now,” he says. “It can be cool, but it has to be delivered properly; it still has to be a pop song. It’s hard to get people to listen to music that is outwardly preachy that way.”
“It’s not like I don’t want to explore that,” he adds. “But it’s not a way to start.”
Though Dark York is his debut mixtape, it’s hardly Le1f’s “start” in music. The Manhattan native, who grew up two blocks away from Times Square with his single mom, produced alternative rap group Das Racist’s breakout hit, “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” when he was only 17. Though he is now signed with the group’s record label, Greedhead, and the spotlight is on him for “Wut” and Dark York, “gay rapper” seems to be the label that follows Le1f.
“I’ve gotten more and more comfortable with it,” he says. “It’s been so funny. As a child, I used to imagine that I would be shot on stage or something just for being a gay rapper … Now I feel it’s more and more probable that there are going to be several cool, mainstream gay rappers in the next few years.”
Even now, he muses, there are surely “tons of other actual radio rappers who are gay and not out of the closet.”
Though that may or may not be true, the traditionally homophobic rap genre has shown signs of changing, especially among up-and-comers. Rapper and fashion icon Azealia Banks revealed via a New York Times profile this year that she identifies as bisexual (though she made sure to add, “I’m not trying to be like, the bisexual, lesbian rapper. I don’t live on other people’s terms”); prolific Bay Area rapper Lil B named his 2011 album I’m Gay (I’m Happy) and has made outspoken stands against homophobia; and Harlem rapper (and sometime JFK impersonator) A$AP Rocky told Pitchfork last October, “I used to be homophobic, but that’s fucked up. I had to look in the mirror and say, ‘All the designers I’m wearing are gay.’” Even Kanye West denounced use of the word “faggot” during an MTV interview back in 2005 (though he has occasionally relapsed into casual bigotry on tracks like 2009’s “Run This Town” where he used the phrase “no homo”).
Overall, however, rap seems to be warming up to the idea of gay people only about as quickly as the rest of society is—that is, sort of but not very quickly. Along with Le1f, there are other queer artists (House of LaDosha, Cakes Da Killa, and Mykki Blanco, to name a few) who are part of New York’s hip-hop world but whose chances of mainstream success are uncertain. Zebra Katz, a 25-year-old former caterer, achieved some with his industrial-minimalist track “I’ma Read,” which played during Rick Owens’s Paris Fashion Week show in March and got him a slot at the South By Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, the same month.
“When the song hit Paris, it completely skyrocketed,” he has said of the track, which uses “read” the way it is used in voguing, as a verbal insult to opponents.
But for others, breaking out of gay subculture can become something of a concern. Mykki Blanco, a knockout glamazon—who, biologically, is a man named Michael Quattlebaum Jr., but who takes the stage as her female alter ego, Mykki—admits she once worried about how her queerness would affect her chances of making it, for instance, onto the radio. Her music was described as “allusive rap with a radical gay bent” by The New York Times but, as she described it to me, it’s more like “Horrorcore and Riot Grrrl mixed with 5 percent lyricism, weird black girls unite!” Understandably, she once harbored concerns about the mainstream market’s appetite for her music. Still, she says, “After a series of really positive things happened, I stopped being worried about ‘will I be this famous?’ or ‘will I be that famous?’”
“No one is trying to be ‘the one gay rapper,’” she added.
Blanco also says that, like Zebra Katz, Le1f is about to experience a crossover. She may be right—Le1f’s “Wut” is even a contender for song of the summer in Vulture’s eyes, and his next video, for the track “MindBody,” lands within two months. Explicitly gay lyrics or not, the spotlight is on Le1f and he believes his music is as compatible as any that’s on the radio.
“When I came out rapping as a teenager, I was worried about being too graphic, and I was cautious about using gender pronouns, so that everyone felt comfortable with my lyrics,” Le1f said. “That was when I was just generally angsty about being both black and gay. As I grew less naive, I realized if so many girls and women can like songs that suggest they should be sex slaves to any dude with a luxury car, and so many harmless white kids listen to gangster rap, then straight people can probably like my music just the same.”
Blanco seems to agree. “What’s happening is we have a crop of people who are truly doing something dynamic and new and that’s why they’re getting so much attention—but it’s not a fad or trend,” she said. “They would be working whether the attention was here or not.”