The nominees for GLAAD’s music award form an unlikely group — an off-beat bluegrass duo, a venerable disco duo, a foulmouthed chanteuse, glitzy hitmakers and an avant-garde violinist. Other than competing for the same award, what could these five possibly have in common?
“Well, we’re all musicians,” says Amanda Barrett of the Ditty Bops, nominated in the category along with the Pet Shop Boys, Peaches, Scissor Sisters and Final Fantasy. “Looking at the other nominees, there’s clearly a wide range.”
The history of pop music is littered with gay musicians of disparate styles, from Freddy Mercury to Elton John and even Judas Priest’s Rob Halford. And yet there has never been a homogenous scene — no “gay music” genre to compare with similar movements in literature or cinema.
For many artists, sexuality has become a minor issue. The bluegrass-inspired Ditty Bops, composed of Barrett and her partner Abby DeWald, make only oblique reference to their relationship in their songs. And the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant, who came out in 1993, has frequently voiced his disapproval of the “gay band” label.
And yet, the most vibrant movement in gay music is found in a genre where sexuality is still very much an issue — hip-hop. As documented in Alex Hinton’s film “Pick Up the Mic,” the “homohop” scene has grown into a sizable underground movement, with scant attention from either the gay or straight press until recently.
“We felt that the gay community as a whole was kind of leaving kids behind,” Hinton says, “because kids don’t really identify with that kind of Judy Garland stuff that makes up the predominant gay culture.”
Although out rappers like Dutchboy, Johnny Dangerous and God-des have been playing to growing audiences since Hinton’s film preemed at the Toronto Film Festival in 2005, one of the genre’s biggest obstacles is the gay community itself.
“When you start going to these gay hip-hop shows, you think the gay community would automatically say, ‘Wow, this is it, this is finally here for us,’ ” Hinton says. “But then you find out that the gay community is generally scared of hip-hop, because for a long time it was seen as the music of ‘the other,’ as homophobic music.”
L.A.-based rapper Deadlee, a self-described “gayngsta,” has become the scene’s de facto spokesman after confronting the rampant homophobia of some rappers.
“50 Cent and Eminem have to be aware that gay people buy their albums, too,” Deadlee explains. “It’s just not cool to attack us anymore.”
Deadlee has certainly gotten his share of attention, with profiles in Rolling Stone and the Advocate, and an interview on CNN. The rapper now looks to parlay this attention into his own summer tour with other rising homohop artists, dubbed the HomoRevolution. It’s this support network that has enabled the scene to grow, but the true test will be the response of the public at large.
“You have to be aware of what you’re creating,” Hinton says. “Are we creating a further gay ghetto that we all have to stick to? I can see Johnny Dangerous on Logo, but there’s no way they’ll put him on MTV.”
Hinton hopes to avoid the fate of the “queercore” punk movement of the early ’90s. When Pansy Division, the scene’s most prominent band, went on an arena tour with Green Day in 1994, many predicted the band would break through to the mainstream. The crossover never panned out, and media attention faded.
However, Deadlee sees plenty of room for himself and other gay rappers. “I think we’re opening up hip-hop to people who wouldn’t have related to it before,” he says. “We’re telling our own stories that people weren’t hearing, and I think people relate to that.”