Frank Ocean Syd Mykki Blanco Kehlani Asiahn
Getty Images/Art Treatment by Liz Coulbourn

Black Queer Musicians Are Pushing the Music Industry Forward — and Proving They Can Exist Outside of It

The ability to live, be, and exist in your own center of gravity remains critical to Black queer artists whose identities already exist in opposition to normative systems of power.

In 1996, Prince performed on The Today Show with the word “slave” written across his face. It was his way of speaking to the constraints of his record deal and to the reality that Black artists can be exceptional but never an exception to the weight of exploitative record deals. 

By the end of that same year, the multi-hyphenate artist was finally released from his 18-year-long deal with Warner Bros, along with regaining his masters. Prince’s frustrations with the music industry, its constraints on artistic freedom and expression were public and well known. Prince’s refusal to be controlled and manipulated for the masses reflect in his queer self expression that deeply impacted Black queer artists for decades to come. 

When Prince died in 2016, Frank Ocean (who came out publicly in a letter on his Tumblr in 2012) spoke of the legend's impact on him. "[Prince] was a straight black man who played his first televised set in bikini bottoms and knee-high heeled boots, epic," Ocean wrote. "He made me feel more comfortable with how I identify sexually simply by his display of freedom from and irreverence for obviously archaic ideas like gender conformity." Ocean later went on to escape his own label disputes with Def Jam and release his canonical album, Blonde, independently with exclusive distribution from Apple Music.

The fight for autonomy for Black queer musicians such as Prince and Ocean have deep roots in the fight for Black expression in a music industry hellbent on upholding misogynoir, homophobia, and transphobia. Historically, Black queer artists have not always had the means or autonomy to be public with their identity; legends such as Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, and Sylvester all dealt with hiding their sexuality to move in the safety of ambiguity throughout their careers. 

“You could go all the way back to Ma Rainey, the godmother of blues. R&B doesn’t exist without the blues and she was really the catalyst, through her music she discussed Black liberation through the exploration of sexuality,” says Alaysia Sierra, head of R&B at Spotify. Sierra’s work at Spotify is a reflection of their upbringing in soul and gospel. “R&B is home to me.” The genre is and always has been a nurturing place for Black queer folks. Artists such as Frankie Knuckles and Sylvester took their upbringings in gospel and added rhythmic flair to build out subgenres such as house and disco music that remain portals to liberatory possibilities. 

“We have to give this new generation a lot of credit,” Sierra says. Artists such as Destin Conrad, Ambré, and Victoria Monét are making music unphased by the labels of gender expression or sexuality. ”I think now more than ever artists are so fluid and R&B is a place where a lot of grace is shown to people and their identities because of how important authenticity is.”

In the current day, Black queer artists have more space to express themselves, and Black music specifically is finally taking note of how audiences are building loyalty to artists with or without major label backing. 

The ability to live, be, and exist in your own center of gravity remains critical to Black queer artists whose identities already exist in opposition to normative systems of power. Artists such as Siaira Shawn, who advocates for independent artistry, say that there are so many new ways for artists to be that don’t follow the normal pathways. “Music can chew us up and spit us out, and a lot of our icons aren’t here anymore not because of old age, but because they were put through the ringer,” Shawn says. “So I want to create another timeline where we can thrive and be healthy. I want to be able to help other ppl do the same.” In 2019, Shawn released their debut album Tender album independently after being featured on the Issa Rae’s Insecure soundtrack in 2018. 

New avenues for audience outreach have made a new center of gravity for those Black artists who are seen as unconventional to the music industry. Think of Rico Nasty’s rise to fame from YouTube music videos and Kidd Kenn’s viral freestyles. Streaming platforms such Apple Music, Spotify, and Audiomack have built out bubbling hip hop and R&B playlists that regularly feature Black queer artists with and among new artists as a whole. 

Cheyenne Watson is the content marketing manager at Audiomack and the founder of Sweets, an R&B playlist Watson started on Audiomack in August of 2021 that has since amassed more than two million streams for artists such as Kaash Paige, Ambré, and Siaira Shawn. “The lane for R&B is just wide open, and we're getting back to that era of wanting good music,” Watson says. She notes artists such as Kehlani, Syd, and Tiffany Gouche as the forebears who have widened the lane for artists to make music that speaks to their full lived experiences. “These artists are just living in it fully and listeners are singing to it because they can relate to the feeling of a song.”

Internally, the teams representing Black queer musicians are shifting as well. Danielle Quebrado, a publicist and founder of No Other Agency — where she represents various Black and brown queer artists such as Dreamer Isioma, Orion Sun, and Tanerélle — says that she’s made it her mission to make PR more human-oriented. “Because I work with artists that are considered unconventional, traditional industry protocol doesn’t work for them and it didn’t work for me,” she says. “That’s why I founded my business.” Much of Quebrado’s philosophy around public relations and marketing requires that the humanity of her artists be central and malleable to evolution. The templates for success at major labels have often kept Black queer artists erased and relegated to the archives of history even as they were living. Quebrado is working to shift that. “What tends to happen when you don’t have a shared lived experience, there’s to be a disconnect with how you understand people. Artists with these nuances can be reduced to stereotypes or one dimensional versions of themselves because their team doesn’t see the world in the same ways.” 

Artist and Manager duo Asiahn Bryant and Kei Henderson have worked together for years to build out a world that centers a different way of being in the music industry. Bryant, whose R&B music and voice acting as Karma in Karma’s World, expands in and out of her identity as a Black lesbian, a fluidity that has been made easier with Henderson as her manager. 

Henderson, formerly of SinceThe80s and founder of artist-first publishing company Third and Hayden, has never lowered their standards even as opportunities to reach bigger audiences come to fruition. “To have to water down the subject matter because someone doesn’t get it sucks, but we just have to put our foot down,” says Henderson. “We’re very adamant and vocal about working with other LGBTQIA+ crew for creative work and proactive about making sure our sets are diverse. We just have the mindset of always being able to do what we wanna do,” Her advocacy for Bryant is crucial when moments of misunderstanding happen as Bryant's career grows exponentially. Henderson reiterates that ”love transcends the audience, people just wanna feel nowadays.” It's what Henderson believes keeps long lasting fans and not just temporary listening ears. 

As journalist Briana Younger states in her 2020 Vice piece, The Plight of the Black Pop Star, “Pop’s resistance to easy definition stems from the music industry’s long history of sleight-of-hand marketing, one that intentionally obscures the lines of sound while using categories like ‘race records’ and ‘urban’ to amplify those of race.” These lines of sound get even more obscured when sexuality, desirability, and gender performance come into play. 

The expansive state of Black music that includes queerness does not negate the current reality that Black trans youth are under attack via legislation, and that Black history on the state level is being erased in textbooks across the country. The saving grace is that young people have more robust options for music with artists who bring all of their identities to the forefront without apology. 

Writer and poet Hanif Abdurraqib spoke to artist Mykki Blanco in 2021 on the Object of Sound podcast about the music industry’s tendency to describe Black queer artists as “ahead of their time.” Blanco, whose music spans various genres and identities, remains clear about how waiting for the world to catch up is a waste of time for them. “Don’t tell me I should have blown up or that I deserve to get my roses, trust me honey I’m going to get my roses,” Blanco said at the time. Too many great Black artists have been told to wait for the mainstream to see the genius of Black queer artistry. Folks like Blanco, Big Freedia, and Cakes Da Killa have made their own ideas of freedom central to their dreams of success.

Shawn, whose upcoming EP drops this year, says the music industry will always be one step behind when it comes to understanding Black queer artists. That doesn’t mean artists should be discouraged. For Shawn and many other Black artists trying to create new possibilities, art is the way towards the future no matter the current conditions. “I don’t think the machine will ever know what to do with us,” Shawn says. “Thankfully we can go direct to the audience that wants to hear us.”