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.