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Black Queer Music Pioneers

Six artists who have greatly impacted the industry.

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This month, we highlight and celebrate the talented Black LGBTQ recording artists who have not only enjoyed mainstream success, but have forever changed the musical landscape with their trailblazing talents.

Black American creatives have birthed pop-culture staples such as jazz, rock ’n’ roll, disco, hip-hop and rap, permeating every aspect of mainstream culture with their unique sights and sounds. Queer Black muscians have been at the forefront in each of these genres, and will influence generations to come with their music, fashion, and activism.

 

Billie Holiday (1915–1959)

Billie Holiday’s music continues to be a staple in the jazz and swing genres, although her identity a queer woman of color has been largely erased. Rising from humble beginnings, Holiday’s enchanting voice gained worldwide notoriety throughout the 1930s and ’40s. In spite of discrimination and even incarceration, Holiday enjoyed continuously sold-out shows throughout her career. Notably, her penchant for improvisation influenced new styles of jazz that were precursors to modern pop music. Holiday was among the first Black women to perform at Carnegie Hall, win a Grammy, and be inducted into the Grammy and Rhythm and Blues halls of fame. 

Billy Strayhorn (1915–1967)

Billy Strayhorn was jazz icon Duke Ellington’s right-hand man and collaborator for over thirty years. The pianist and composer helped shape mainstream jazz through his work in the renowned Duke Ellington Orchestra. Many of his notable contributions to the sound of contemporary jazz have gone unnoticed, although Strayhorn’s hypnotic soundtracks played a key role in the New Wave Cinema movement of the 1960s. Strayhorn had a famously lovable personality and lived his life as an openly gay man, gaining the acceptance and respect of his peers and friends, including
Martin Luther King Jr. 

Sylvester (1947–1988)

The renowned ’70s disco legend Sylvester celebrated his blackness and his queerness throughout his life. Sylvester began his career with the avant-garde drag troupe The Cockettes, where he started to experiment with sounds and styles inspired by Black queer icons Josephine Baker and Billie Holiday. Lauded as “The Queen of Disco,” Sylvester also dedicated himself to activism during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, ultimately leaving all of his royalties and future earnings to San Francisco HIV/AIDS charities. This out-and-proud Black artist enjoyed a career that reflected the dramatic rise in LGBTQ acceptance during the 1970s. 

Frankie Knuckles (1955–2014)

Known as “The Godfather of House Music,” DJ Frankie Knuckles became a pillar in the Chicago and New York club scenes during the ’80s and ’90s. His sound gained popularity after moving to Chicago and DJing at a friend’s private Black gay club. His pulsing house-music style was popularized in London and imitated worldwide. Knuckles became a coveted act, and was even hired to remix for the likes of Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. His house music produced for the queer underground club scene paved the way for mainstream pop and hip-hop sounds.

Janelle Monáe (b. 1985)

Uniquely creative, Janelle Monáe’s sound is a perfect blend of retro pop iconography and trendsetting Afro-futurism. Fascinated by science fiction and technology, Monáe’s work has garnered praise for her naturally gifted voice, genre-bending music, and strong conceptual work. Her music has tackled themes of oppression with futuristic concepts of androids and artificial intelligence. The avid songwriter has also ventured into acting and activism, and is a strong advocate for feminist and LGBTQ causes. Lauded as Prince’s protégé, Monáe’s music and style has toyed with gender and sexuality norms since her debut. Now openly nonbinary and bisexual, her future endeavors are widely anticipated.

Kevin Abstract (b. 1996)

One of the founding members of the experimental audiovisual collective Brockhampton, Kevin Abstract is a young talent carving out his place in the public consciousness. A Texas native, Abstract began his musical ventures at 17 by releasing a solo album shortly before moving to California to form his popular boy-band Brockhampton. The vocalist, rapper, and visual artist’s work combines rock and rap influences with his distinctly modern and alternative sounds. Openly gay, his music and videos often feature queer themes—something still rare among his rap and rock contemporaries. While still in his early 20s, his work has gained notoriety in historically homophobic musical genres, proving that the winds of change are blowing in a more positive and tolerant direction.

This article appears in the February 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.

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Alys Garcia Carrera

Alys is a spring 2020 intern for OutSmart magazine and an international student who currently attends the University of Houston. They are majoring in Political Science and have three minors: GLBT studies, English/Spanish translation, and film studies. They also work for the University's Special Collections LGBTQ archives at M.D. Anderson Library.

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