Roy Kinsey and Mother Nature
Photo by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank
How Queer Rappers Are Defining The Next Generation Of Chicago Hip-Hop
On a rainy Chicago night during Pride month, queer youth gathered at D.I.Y. venue Concept Sanctuary for a night of hip-hop in an area of the city that's considered one of the country's largest open-air drug markets. Close to midnight, rapper and librarian Roy Kinsey played a new song "Fetish" about being objectified as a black gay man before performing with Mother Nature, a female duo dedicated to empowering youth through music. Utilizing underground venues and grassroots creative collaborations, these artists have worked for years paving paths for historically marginalized communities. Now their voices and messages are influencing the future of rap in the Midwest and beyond.
From producers and club DJs innovating house music in the 1980s to hometown musicians like Kanye West, Chance The Rapper and Common dominating the airwaves, Chicago holds a central role in hip-hop’s development. But compared to coastal scenes in Los Angeles and New York City, it's an unassuming cultural tastemaker. Similarly, the history of American queer art often focuses on New York and San Francisco, but Chicago has a longstanding and flourishing LGBTQ+ community and is a hotbed for drag performance and nightlife talent. But in a music industry that’s still heavily straight and male-dominated, and in a city that's still deeply segregated, queer artists are creating spaces for themselves.
Formed in 2016, the artist collective, record label and media platform Futurehood provides an outlet for queer creators of color. Futurehood cofounder Mister Wallace (Erik Lamar Wallace II) said, "One of our foundations is hip-hop and the tool hip-hop has become for storytelling and as a way of exposing what's happening in the underground or to the underdogs."
As a "skinny gay black kid," Mister Wallace turned to performance to be seen, finding inspiration in supermodels Naomi Campbell and Jourdan Dunn. Mister Wallace said, "I play with gender identity and sexuality. But at the end of the day I'm just trying to show people that we're all human beings and we all deserve respect."
Formed with DJ/producer aCe a.k.a. aCeboombaP (Anthony Pabey), Futurehood provided the support for Mister Wallace to release music, including the 2016 EP Faggot and 2018 album Cool Mom. That title came from their role in Futurehood supporting up-and-coming musicians navigating the entertainment industry. They help with both the creative process sitting in on studio sessions and business aspects, like negotiating contracts.
Although Mister Wallace lauds mainstream culture and rap becoming more accepting of queer stars, citing Atlanta rapper Little Nas X, who came out on World Pride Day, they also worry about the commodification of their identity. They're particularly concerned with corporations monetizing queer culture, seen most visibly during Pride month. This year, they participated in Chicago’s first Pride South Side festival, a community-based alternative to the city’s North Side celebration.
"Right now we're competing with major labels that if anything are going to take what we do and what we've innovated and put it on some artists because they already have the metrics and the A&R," they said, adding: "These artists in Chicago, or wherever in the world, are going to be looked over or they're going to be taken from, like, their style, their content, their flows, their ideas. It's hard to fight against those machines. Right now, it looks like being black and gay is marketable."
As a city, Chicago also carries stereotypes, particularly around violence and its unfortunate nickname "Chiraq." Young activists and creatives are leading the charge in battling decades of corruption and institutional racism to build a more equitable city. Mister Wallace, who recently performed at Germany’s WHOLE United Queer Festival, said it’s important to uplift their hometown: "I consider Chicago to be a portal. I consider her to be a mother. I try to honor her and all of her legacy through my work."
Kinsey, who works with teens for Chicago Public Libraries, is also challenging preconceptions of who can be a rapper. His 2018 album Blackie: A Story by Roy Kinsey was a personal dive into his life, from his family coming north during the Great Migration to visions of a black future, through what he described as a new queer spirituality.
"I like being a part of this Chicago community that is so rich with history but daring to do something different," he said, adding, "That's a lot of what my album is: It's me trying to put together what I thought were fragments, things that I thought I had to keep separate, which were my scholarly side being a librarian and then my hip-hop side being a rapper. Or my queerness and my hip-hopness."
A storyteller, Kinsey is inspired by the people he meets as a librarian. He said, "I'm around words all the time. But I'm also around a lot of people who are existing in the margins, especially in this city. That's what I talk about when I speak on the duality: When I speak on how Chicago can be a world-class city but also a city that is experiencing its own inverse migration. So many people are leaving because of gentrification, violence, the closing of mental health facilities."
This article features the music video premiere for "Fetish," a song that explores Kinsey's teenage search for romantic connection in historic Boystown. While the Northside neighborhood is recognized as the country’s first gay village, Kinsey shared the common sentiment that "Boystown is a very exclusive space for wealthy white men. It's not until young queers of color get there that they understand this isn't necessarily your home."
Kinsey is finishing his fifth album, Kinsey, out this fall. While in the recording studio mixing a track he performed with RuPaul’s Drag Race star The Vixen, he reflected on why the city has become an epicenter for queer rappers. He couldn't pinpoint a singular reason, but he highlighted the importance of remembering queer pioneers, from the powerful drag ball emcees to the two mothers who raised him.
"We're not inventing something," he said. "We're understanding that we operated for a long time thinking that we were the only ones. In trying to remedy some of the wrongs and add a balance back into the world, it's important for us to share our truths, to share our stories and to just say that we were here."
Others are working to develop future musicians in underserved communities. Klevah Knox (Shasta Matthews) and T.R.U.T.H. (Tierney Reed) met at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and formed their duo Mother Nature. While women have traditionally been left out of hip-hop, Knox, whose father was a rapper, said it's exciting to be an anomaly, particularly with a supportive musical partner.
"Say we're opening for a male artist, I just feel that it’s a breath of fresh air to see women who are fearless and aggressive and loving," said Knox. "It slowly starts to free people."
Mother Nature taught internationally through the U.S. State Department Next Level initiative and started the nonprofit Miseducation Of Hip-Hop. Since 2015, they've worked with more than 300 kids around the country, teaching the art of the rap cypher and empowerment through self-expression. Now, some of their mentees entering college are pursuing music careers.
"We're living testimony of everything we're teaching young people," said T.R.U.T.H, "It's possible for you to grow yourself, build your career, everything through this culture of hip-hop because it's more than just a genre of music."
Mother Nature released their four song EP Pressure in March and some of their students even starred in the music video for the track "Simple." While they participated in Pride and other queer-centered events, they don't want to be boxed in by their race, gender or sexuality.
"In trying to remedy some of the wrongs and add a balance back into the world, it's important for us to share our truths, to share our stories and to just say that we were here."
"I feel like hip-hop in its essence, you're talking about community," said T.R.U.T.H. "Most importantly it helps us to freely express. You let go of your boundaries. You let go of your preexisting notions and just be."
In promoting positivity and acceptance, Mother Nature also don't shy from exploring social issues and their mental health impact, particularly on people of color.
"For me, ideas and inspiration come in time of failure and 'death': not actual death but when you've hit a rock bottom or ending of something," said Knox. "For a second I'm in that space and then that's when the new flower starts to sprout."
She said Chicago's music scene reflects this ethos: "There's just something about the energy in Chicago that's really genuine, really multifaceted, really gutter. But at the same time really bright and loving and life-giving."
Younger queer artists have fewer barriers to mainstream success because of the foundation laid by their predecessors. When he was only 15, Kidd Kenn gained viral fame when he freestyled over FBG Duck’s "Slide," queering the opening line to "It's a faggot party baby, you cannot get in." In a short time, he was performing with Kehlani at San Francisco Pride. Embracing his youth, he released his first album Childish last year. While he's now signed to a record label and working with producers around the country, he still most enjoys writing in his bedroom.
"I love recording in Chicago because it's home so I'm comfortable already," he said. I know which studio I want to go to. If I want to have people there with me, I can do that."
Like many creative digital natives, Kidd Kenn uses social media to catapult his craft, while also being open about his gay identity. He’s collaborated with female rappers including Queen Key and Zani Band$ and joked they’re better than their male counterparts. With ambitious goals to have number one hits, be in movies and create clothing lines, he's inspired by megastars like Nicki Minaj.
"Her confidence, her work ethic, she doesn't care what people have to say about her," he said. "She's doing her with the colorful costumes in the beginning and just her being her."
Kidd Kenn’s bravado and dedication—he's now homeschooled to dedicate more time to music—represent a shift for queer rappers. Building on hip-hop's rebellious nature, these young creators are questioning the status quo and reclaiming spaces. When asked about Kidd Kenn, Mister Wallace recalled a recent experience in Boystown when he saw Kidd Kenn in a Mercedes, pumping music and dancing with friends. In that moment, Mister Wallace saw the freedom and power they'd envisioned for queer communities. While racism and homophobia are still rampant, Chicago's queer rappers prove art can be a force of not only resilience, but progress for their city.
"When I'm on stage I carry this confidence, this coolness," Mister Wallace said. "Yeah, there's a lot of aggression. Yes there's a lot of the struggle still present. But I overcome and I win. That's what I want them to know about Chicago. We're winners. We're going to overcome."