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How Queer Rappers Are Defining The Next Generation Of Chicago Hip-Hop

Roy Kinsey and Mother Nature 

Photo by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank 

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How Queer Rappers Are Defining The Next Generation Of Chicago Hip-Hop

In a music industry that’s still heavily straight and male-dominated, and in a city that's still deeply segregated, queer artists like Roy Kinsey, Mother Nature, Mister Wallace and more are creating spaces for themselves

GRAMMYs/Jul 11, 2019 - 09:28 pm

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."

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Pearl Jam Named Record Store Day 2019 Ambassadors

Pearl Jam

Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage.com

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Pearl Jam Named Record Store Day 2019 Ambassadors

Pearl Jam's Mike McCready says "if you love music," record stores are the place to find it

GRAMMYs/Feb 13, 2019 - 04:05 am

Record Store Day 2019 will arrive on April 13 and this year's RSD Ambassadors are Pearl Jam. Past ambassadors include Dave Grohl, Metallica, Run The Jewels (Killer Mike and El-P), and 61st GRAMMY Awards winner for Best Rock Song St. Vincent.

McCready was also the 2018 recipient of MusiCares' Stevie Ray Vaughan Award

The band was formed in 1990 by McCready, Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, and Eddie Vedder, and they have played with drummer Matt Cameron since 2002. They have had five albums reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and four albums reach No. 2.

"Pearl Jam is honored to be Record Store Day's Ambassador for 2019. Independent record stores are hugely important to me," Pearl Jam's Mike McCready said in a statement publicizing the peak-vinyl event. "Support every independent record store that you can. They're really a good part of society. Know if you love music, this is the place to find it."

With a dozen GRAMMY nominations to date, Pearl Jam's sole win so far was at the 38th GRAMMY Awards for "Spin The Black Circle" for Best Hard Rock Performance.

Pearl Jam will be performing on March 3 in Tempe, Ariz. at the Innings festival, on June 15 in Florence, Italy at the Firenze Rocks Festival and at another festival in Barolo, Italy on June 17. On July 6 Pearl Jam will headline London's Wembley Stadium.

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Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards

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Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards

Dreamville, Meek Mill, 21 Savage, Tyler, The Creator, and YBN Cordae all earn nominations in the category

GRAMMYs/Nov 20, 2019 - 06:28 pm

The 2020 GRAMMYs are just around the corner, and now the nominations are in for the coveted honor of Best Rap Album. While we'll have to wait until the 62nd GRAMMY Awards air on CBS on Jan. 26 to find out who will win, let's take a look at which albums have been nominated for Best Rap Album.

Revenge of the Dreamers III – Dreamville                                                                        

 
This star-studded compilation album from 11-time GRAMMY nominee J. Cole and his Dreamville Records imprint features appearances from some of the leading and fastest-rising artists in hip-hop today, including label artists EARTHGANG, J.I.D, and Ari Lennox, plus rappers T.I, DaBaby, and Young Nudy, among many others. Recorded in Atlanta across a 10-day recording session, Revenge of the Dreamers III is an ambitious project that saw more than 300 artists and producers contribute to the album, resulting in 142 recorded tracks. Of those recordings, 18 songs made the final album, which ultimately featured contributions from 34 artists and 27 producers.

Dreamers III, the third installment in the label’s Revenge of the Dreamers compilation series, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and achieved gold status this past July. In addition to a Best Rap Album nod, Dreamers III is also nominated for Best Rap Performance next year for album track “Down Bad,” featuring J.I.D, Bas, J. Cole, EARTHGANG, and Young Nudy.

Championships – Meek Mill

In many ways, Championships represents a literal and metaphorical homecoming for Meek Mill. Released in November 2018, Championships is the Philadelphia rapper’s first artist album following a two-year prison sentence he served after violating his parole in 2017. Championships, naturally, sees Meek tackling social justice issues stemming from his prison experience, including criminal justice reform. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, his second chart-topper following 2015’s Dreams Worth More Than Money, and reached platinum status in June 2019. Meek Mill's 2020 Best Rap Album nod marks his first-ever GRAMMY nomination.

i am > i was – 21 Savage

Breakout rapper and four-time GRAMMY nominee 21 Savage dropped i am > i was, his second solo artist album, at the end of 2018. The guest-heavy album, which features contributions from Post Malone, Childish Gambino, J. Cole, and many others, has since charted around the world, topped the Billboard 200 – a first for the artist – in the beginning of 2019, and achieved gold status in the U.S. As well, nine songs out of the album’s 15 original tracks landed on the Hot 100 chart, including multi-platinum lead single “A Lot,” which is also nominated for Best Rap Song next year. 21 Savage’s 2020 Best Rap Album nomination, which follows Record of the Year and Best Rap/Sung Performance nods for his 2017 Post Malone collaboration, "Rockstar,” marks his first solo recognition in the top rap category.

IGOR – Tyler, The Creator

The eccentric Tyler, The Creator kicked off a massive 2019 with his mid-year album, IGOR. Released this past May, IGOR, Tyler’s fifth solo artist album, is his most commercially successful project to date. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, marking his first time topping the coveted chart, while its lead single, "Earfquake,” peaked at No. 13, his highest entry on the Hot 100. Produced in full by Tyler and featuring guest spots from fellow rap and R&B stars Kanye West, Lil Uzi Vert, Solange, and Playboi Carti, among many others, IGOR follows the rapper’s 2017 album, Flower Boy, which received the Best Rap Album nod that same year.

The Lost Boy – YBN Cordae

Emerging rapper YBN Cordae, a member of the breakout YBN rap collective, released his debut album, The Lost Boy, to widespread critical acclaim this past July. The 15-track release is stacked with major collaborations with hip-hop heavyweights, including Anderson .Paak, Pusha T, Meek Mill, and others, plus production work from J. Cole and vocals from Quincy Jones. After peaking at No. 13 on the Billboard 200, The Lost Boy now notches two 2020 GRAMMY nominations: Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song for album track “Bad Idea,” featuring Chance the Rapper.

Rosalía Announces First Solo North American Tour

Rosalía 

Photo: Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

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Rosalía Announces First Solo North American Tour

El Mal Querer Tour, named after the Spanish pop star's latest album, will come to Los Angeles on April 17 in between her Coachella performances

GRAMMYs/Mar 20, 2019 - 12:25 am

Rosalía is set to perform at some of the most popular music festivals around the globe, including Primavera Sound in Spain, Lollapalooza (Argentina and Chile) and Coachella, but the Spanish pop star isn't stopping there when she gets to the States. Now, she has announced her first solo North American Tour with a string of dates that will bring her to select cities in the U.S. and Canada.

El Mal Querer Tour, named after her latest album, will come to Los Angeles on April 17 in between her Coachella performances. Then she'll play San Francisco on April 22, New York on April 30 and close out in Toronto on May 2.

 

RELATED: How Rosalia Is Reinventing What It Means To Be A Global Pop Star

"I’m so happy to announce my first solo North American tour dates," the singer tweeted.

Rosalía won Best Alternative Song and Best Fusion/ Urban Interpretation at the 19th Latin GRAMMY Awards in November and has been praised for bringing flamenco to the limelight with her hip-hop and pop beats. During her acceptance speech she gave a special shout-out to female artists who came before her, including Lauryn Hill and Bjork. 

Rosalía has been getting some love herself lately, most notably from Alicia Keys, who gave the Spanish star a shout-out during an acceptance speech, and Madonna, who featured her on her Spotify International Women's Day Playlist. 

Tickets for the tour go on sale March 22. For more tour dates, visit Rosalía's website.

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