Photo: Courtesy of artists except Q Worship/Springwood Productions, iiwaa/Celine Boyd, Knapp/Fairlight Hubbard,EYE Management
Queer Christian Artists Keep The Faith: How LGBTQ+ Musicians Are Redefining Praise Music
Song has long been part of many Christian traditions, but the religion has historically not been as welcoming to Christian LGBTQ+ artists. Today, a new generation is forging a more accepting church by refusing to compromise either part of their identity.
In 2021, queer musician Grace Baldridge (who peforms as Semler) rocked Christian music on her debut release, Preacher’s Kid. The EP centered on Baldrige’s experiences growing up in the Episcopal Church, a religion that often didn’t accept her identity, and the ways in which she wrestled with religion. "And these days I believe in Bigfoot more than God, 'cause who's he hurting?" Semler questions on the track "Jesus From Texas."
The album topped the iTunes Christan music chart.
In a genre that has doubled down on commercial hits that praise an unwavering dedication to Christianity, Preacher’s Kid was revolutionary for expressing a more nuanced connection with God — and was made even more so by Baldridge's genderqueer identity. While the Christian music industry has embraced modern musical stylings like indie rock, metal and rap, lyrical content has been slower to encompass a broader diversity of voices.
"For a genre that’s meant to harness artistic expression, there are a lot of boundaries, and I think that's very strange, especially when, thematically, we're looking at all of creation and divinity," says Baldrige, adding, "Artists like myself and others, we're presenting a challenge, and a question, to Christian music, which is, what do you want to be known for?"
In the past, LGBTQ+ artists were forced out of the genre after coming out. But a new generation of queer Christian musicians is refusing to compromise either part of their identity. They’re using art to not only express their faith, but also to forge a more accepting Christian church.
The Origins Of The Christian Music Industry
Singing has long been part of many Christian traditions, but contemporary Christian music (CCM) has its roots in the Jesus movement of the 1960s and 1970s. With acoustic guitars and long hair, "Jesus freaks" brought their own sort of counterculture to Christian denominations.
Marsha Stevens-Pino found her own way to Christianity at a Southern California church with "barefoot hippies." She described the atmosphere as being so egalitarian that anyone in the congregation could share an original song.
In 1969, when she was a high schooler still learning the Gospel, Stevens-Pino wrote "For Those Tears I Died" to help lead her sister to the Lord. Her high school choir director encouraged her to copyright the song, which would prove to be wise advice. "For Those Tears I Died" became one of the earliest CCM hits, something Stevens-Pino and her bandmates in Children of the Day could’ve never predicted. They even questioned whether it was ethical to profit from religious music.
"There was no sense of who's gonna record this, who's gonna play it on the radio," says Stevens-Pino, adding, "It was just about what’s going on in your heart and sharing what’s going on."
By the late ‘70s, CCM had become a business, with radio stations, publications and the Gospel Music Association’s Dove Awards highlighting industry achievements. But Stevens-Pino’s success within CCM came to a halt when she came out as a lesbian in 1981. After a long period of grappling with her identity, she was shunned by the industry — her songs were torn out of hymn books and she received hate mail.
She joined the queer-affirming Metropolitan Community Church in 1984, and wrote and toured with them and other churches for the next 20 years. Looking back, Stevens-Pino most regrets not being more open in her self-searching, though she realized there was no one she could’ve turned to. She never stopped writing music, including songs like "Can't We Find a Way," which is aimed at helping her parents come to terms with her sexuality.
During the height of HIV/AIDS, almost every song Stevens-Pino wrote had a connection to the epidemic. She recorded her first post-coming out album with money a friend who died of AIDS had left her. For his memorial, she wrote the song "Falling Star." The chorus goes, "Our farewell for a moment knows the promise true/When Jesus comes in glory, He will come with you."
She also found herself helping other Chrsitian musicians coming to terms with their sexuality, including singer/songwriter Ray Boltz, who came out in 2008 after a decades-long career.
Some of the artists she spoke with either went back into the closet or never ended up coming out, fearing the same sort of industry retaliation as Stevens-Pino faced. After moving to Nashville, she learned that the night before the Dove Awards, there’s a secret event for queer nominees called the Pink Party; it’s invite-only and phones and cameras aren’t allowed: "[CCM] became such a big business that you can't even be yourself when you're winning an award. It just seemed like it turned such a far right corner."
But Stevens-Pino never compromised her identity. She formed Born Again Lesbian Music (BALM Ministries) for queer communities and married her wife in 2003. Together, they ran a music ministry training school for LGBTQ+ Christians.
A New Sound, But The Same "Christian Values"
In the late '90s, a more rocking image emerged with a new generation of artists. Jennifer Knapp, who also turned to Christianity as a teenager, made a splash on the CCM scene with her singles "Undo Me" and the GRAMMY-nominated "A Little More." But in 2004, she announced she was taking a hiatus.
Knapp released her first non-Christian album, Letting Go, in 2010 and came out as a lesbian in the media. Nowadays, she describes herself as in "career 2.0," a mainstream singer/songwriter touring, recording and advocating for LGBTQ+ issues. "They watched me navigate being a gay person… and code shift in the middle of a religion that doesn't really give a lot of people an opportunity to challenge it back and still respect it."
While her new music isn’t religious, she says a keen listener could track her theology through her albums, with an exploration of love being a central theme on her last record, Love Comes Back Around. She says her fans are now about one third long-term listeners, a third who’ve discovered her through secular music and a third who are interested in her work as an advocate.
"I've had to learn to be comfortable with the legacy of having been valued as a CCM artist," she says. "And then if that audience is mixed, I've had to learn how to get people to look around them and share that space."
Creating A "State of Grace"
Now, more than ever, digital platforms are expanding opportunities for artists outside the Christian mainstream. Knapp, who found early success on MySpace, had her CCM heyday when it was gaining such cultural cache that it expanded beyond folk to a range of popular genres. Perhaps more influential than social media is the rise of so-called hipster megachurches like Hillsong Church, Mosaic and the now defunct Mars Hill Church. These churches made CCM music cool to a new generation, including with their own record labels and in-house artists.
But while their worship practice more resembles a rock or rap concert than a Sunday service, many megachurches promote the same traditional values around sexual identity, gender roles and reproductive healthcare as the larger Evangelical movement. These megachurches, along with all-important Christian radio stations like K-LOVE, continue to gatekeep CCM. This is despite myriad controversies, including Hillsong’s founder resigning after an internal investigation into accusations of inappropriate behavior toward women.
In some ways, it was this hypocrisy that drew Grace Baldridge to start writing her own Christian music. Baldrige hosted a Refinery29 series on faith called "State of Grace," including an episode on the dark reality of the CCM industry. The child of an Episcopal priest, she grew up listening to Christian punk and metal bands like Relient K, Underoath and Demon Hunter (as well as songs from Michael Jackson, Prince and Duran Duran that her brother illegally downloaded). Her entry into CCM started as a sort of joke, when she shared the first verse of a song called "Youth Group" on TikTok:
"Youth group lock-ins are a really strange concept that
Youth group leaders seem to really like
It's like ‘Let's take some repressed, hormonal teenagers
And put 'em in a church and hope they find Jesus overnight"
From the enthusiastic response, she realized there were many others who were questioning institutionalized religion. While many of her lyrics are tongue and cheek — "a loser in a button-up can't send you to hell" — they’re often connected to real trauma. Baldrige explains that singing about something takes the bite out of it.
Unlike much "holier-than-thou" Christian worship music, she’s interested in exploring the ways her faith isn’t perfect. Her latest project is Stages of a Breakdown, a mixtape to a born-again friend as their relationship was falling apart. She wrote most of the EP in just 48 hours and each track represents a different stage in the breakdown, with Baldrige exploring new genres like indie dance pop. She even wrote a song from the friend’s perspective, embodying a certain Christian who says they love everyone, but doesn’t accept queer identity. She says this lightly veiled homophobia is just as insidious as open hostility.
This also relates to CCM: She sees how the industry has changed compared to the era of Knapp or Trey Pearson (the founder of Christian rock band Everyday Sunday, who came out in 2016), with artists no longer being openly ostracized. Instead, she described it as more of a "don’t ask, don’t tell, where queer artists will just disappear."
Developing her career both in and outside of CCM is important to Baldrige, who also wants to promote a more inclusive and justice-oriented understanding of Christianity. She sees her work as part of larger progressive changes within Christian music.
Black Christian musicians, most notably the rapper Lacrae, have increasingly used their music to talk about racism and advocate for Black Lives Matter. But Lacrae has also faced pushback for politicizing his art. Baldrige struggles with understanding why "there's a genre of music that is informed by faith and how we dignify the humanity of others, that has been typically pretty vague on how specifically they want to engage with that."
Still, she sees a shift occurring where people are seeking more thoughtful Christian music.
"I think if someone is wanting to listen to music about faith, then probably they have an immense curiosity and intelligence for what’s out there and mystery and divine and creation," she says, adding, "This should be a genre that’s maybe the best at creating discomfort, both with their lyrics and sonically."
Using Music To Connect With Spirituality
Jay Mercado, who performs as iiwaa, also grew up while "faith and politics all started to merge in our country." Iiwaa is Piipaash and Quechan and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Community. From a young age, he participated in his Pentecostal church’s choir and rose to become a national worship leader. He always dreamed about using music to help people connect to their spirituality.
But at the end of 2019, he began to understand his queerness and left the church he had been involved with for almost 20 years: “I was heartbroken at first because my view of God had been so small. My view of God had been one where I believed I would be outside of that kind of love and that acceptance that the faith affords you, as a believer, because of my queerness."
But after being confined at home during the pandemic, iiwaa emerged from that place of grief, and also the freedom of no longer being under the public eye. The name iiwaa is derived from the Piipaash word for heart and represents his desire to put his whole self into what he’s creating. He used his Covid-19 stimulus check to record his debut EP, Dysphoria, and realized he could still use music "to share my experience to connect with others and to help them connect with their spirituality."
He also draws on his Indigenous heritage: “Looking beyond just our pain, I know Indigenous people have experienced joy and experience flourishing on this land,” he says. “With my music, I'm hoping to draw strength from that ancestral wisdom of joy and flourishing."
He considers a track like "Boys Don’t Cry" to be a worship song. Over a stripped back melody, he sings, "They say boys don’t cry. Guess I’m not a boy, am I?" Similar to much contemporary Christian music, he wanted to build on a repeated refrain, allowing the listener to meditate on its meaning. He thought the song might be too niche, but was humbled by the response he received: "People close to me who aren't queer identifying or who’re part of the LGBTQ+ community came to me and said, ‘the song is really healing for my masculinity.’ Men say it helps them realize all the ways society says they don’t measure up."
Last year, iiwaa also participated in Serenade, a multi-genre collection of songs by queer musicians and allies of many faiths released during Pride month. Through living in Flagstaff, Arizona, Mercado was connected with the band Tow’rs, known for Christian-related music. With couple Kyle and Gretta Miller at the band’s core, Tow’rs wanted to be an ally in an industry often not accepting of LGBTQ+ rights. So when Kyle Miller was contacted by the organization Beloved Arise — which is dedicated to celebrating and empowering LGBTQ+ youth of faith — the musician and producer immediately said yes.
Miller and his wife pulled from within and outside their artistic community to garner a diverse roster of participating musicians; many took inspiration from letters written by queer youth of faith. Tow’rs wanted to contribute a song that encompassed the album’s many themes. Miller was inspired by a poem by Hafiz about God being in drag and an experience of stumbling upon a drag show: "There were people cheering for their friends, and people being exactly who they wanted to be... it felt like what I wished church was." The result was “Love Who You Love,” a rousing number that Miller sings in tandem with his wife.
Writing The New Worship Music Canon
These collective efforts, often between queer Christians and allies, are also expanding. The Many is a Chicago-based worship group whose music encompasses folk, pop, indie, gospel and other genres, with original lyrics by Lenora Rand and music by her husband Gary and daughter Hannah. They have performed at liturgies, conventions and other events.
Lenora Rand grew up singing about the blood of the lamb and wanted to develop an alternative, less depressive church tradition. One connecting thread are simple refrains that stick with you, like "You gave us these bodies and call them good" from the song "These Bodies."
During lockdown, they released lyric videos and performed at online events, where the chat was filled with comments about what people were going through. Lenora Rand says connecting so personally with audiences is the outcome of their collective creative process: getting together and discussing issues they care about: "We often say that we write the songs we need to hear."
On "All Belong Here," the Many distinguishes between welcoming (when someone brings you into their space) and belonging (owning the space because you’re supposed to be there), explains Darren Calhoun, who sings in the Many and also leads worship at Urban Village Church. Calhoun is a survivor of conversion therapy and says he’s proud to be at the forefront of transitions happening in the church.
"The music, lyrics, timing, context, lighting and all these things create experiences that churches sometimes shy away from," he says. "But it's something that we create, this very kind of theatrical, artful, intentional space. I think that helps people engage in a harder core kind of way than just 'Oh that was really pretty.'"
Kristina Sinks, a United Methodist clergy candidate and a seminary student, recently joined the Many. Sinks grew up in a church affirming queer identities and felt no conflict when she fell in love with a woman. "Through music, we continue to build this world that we say we believe in as Christian," she says. "I think the church can only ever be as good as the best theology that we have and the best vision we have for the world."
Q Worship Collective also brings more inclusive music into Christian spaces through the creation of community-based worship music that helps people heal from trauma.
"So many of us just wanted to jump right in to doing worship again, but then realized, 'Oh, that hurts. Why does that hurt so much?'" says Q Worship co-founder Jess Grace Garcia, a worship pastor and music director in Los Angeles. One of Q Worship Collective’s members, Stefie Dominguez, not only plays percussion, but is also a mental health clinician. While she doesn’t provide former care to the group, she helps deal with the emotions that come up in reclaiming faith traditions.
This work is personal for co-founder Gabriel Mudd, who went through conversion therapy as an adult so he could keep his position as a worship pastor. He left when he "got tired of hating myself" and found a new community (including meeting his Q Worship Collective co-founders) through the Q Christian Fellowship, which has provided a space for LGBTQ+ Christians and allies since 2001. Mudd, who serves as a vocal arranger, says that in contrast to the hierarchical nature of churches, Q Worship Collective embraces a more equitable model: "We wanted to provide that community for people who weren't just singers, and weren't just musicians, but everyone in the arts who have felt like they've been marginalized from the church community.
One example was Garcia and her co-pastor rewriting the lyrics of the well-known song "Mighty to Save." They changed it so much that they took out the title lyric and referred to Jesus as a "risen King" and "risen Queen." Garcia described it as a healing opportunity: "We sang it loud and proud. And it was this beautiful moment to break the ideas of gender around God and also relate it back to our queerness."
Anna Dawahare, Q Worship Collective social media manager, says there’s a clear market for this type of worship music, given the overwhelming response whenever the collective has a new release: "I feel like Q Worship Collective should be representative of the body of Christ, and the body of Christ isn't a white guy in a V-neck with a guitar. There are people like that, but the body of Christ is so much more diverse."
For the future of Q Worship Collective, Garcia imagines harnessing the power of local organizing to be a resource for churches around the world. She says that music is so powerful, particularly in a faith context, that it’s been used to manipulate people to feel shame for their identity; she instead wants to preserve it as a sacred tool.
"For me, this isn't about showing any sort of personal agenda of music, but it's about providing more opportunity for people to feel the feeling I did when I walked into Q Christian Fellowship for the first time," Garcia says. "I was surrounded by a ton of people who all looked and felt like me worshiping, and I realized that this was heaven."
Photo: Courtesy of Claud
Press Play: Claud Gets Vulnerable In This Confessional Performance Of Their New Single, "Wet"
Emerging pop singer Claud narrates the story of a guilty pleasure toxic relationship on "Wet," the lead single from their upcoming album, 'Supermodels.'
On their new single "Wet," bedroom pop newcomer Claud places themselves in the heat of a toxic relationship. Even amid empty apologies and tearful early morning phone calls, Claud can't get enough.
"That's not an apology/ But I'll take what I can get/ Dip your feet but not too wet," Claud sings in the chorus. "I swear this isn't like me/ But you're standing on the edge/ Say you'll never jump, but I know you want it."
In this episode of Press Play, Claud delivers an intimate performance of "Wet" live from their bedroom floor. The intimate, simple setting only intensifies the diaristic nature of the track.
"Wet" is the lead single from Claud's upcoming album, Supermodels, out July 14 via Saddest Factory Records. "'Wet' was written in one fast sitting. The writing process as kinetic as the outcome. Writing these songs felt like dropping a boulder into a pond, really shaking up the way I look at myself as an artist," they explained in a press statement.
On July 21, Claud will begin their headlining international tour in Bristol, United Kingdom, wrapping on Oct. 12 in San Francisco, California.
Watch the video above to see Claud's acoustic performance of "Wet," and check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of Press Play.
Photo: Steve Granitz/WireImage
Black Sounds Beautiful: How Lil Nas X Turned The Industry On Its Head With "Old Town Road" And Beyond
In this episode of Black Sounds Beautiful, relive Lil Nas X's massive debut, "Old Town Road," and learn how he's since been an advocate for Black and LGBTQIA+ communities through his music and his platform.
Lil Nas X became a global sensation practically overnight, but it wasn't an accident.
The American singer and rapper — born Montero Lamar Hill — became fluent in music and pop culture at an early age, becoming a meme aficionado. His love for internet culture cultivated the perfect recipe for his debut single, "Old Town Road," to become one of the most viral hits in music history; the song also prompted a necessary conversation about the bounds of genre.
"Old Town Road" rose to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and still holds the record for most time spent at No. 1 at 19 weeks. The single later helped Lil Nas X snag two GRAMMY Awards for Best Pop/Duo Group Performance and Best Music Video. (To date, he's won 2 GRAMMYs and has received 11 nominations overall.)
Aside from his immense musical talent, Lil Nas X — who came out as gay on social media during his Hot 100 reign — has been a fierce champion for LGBTQIA+ and Black communities.
At just 24 years old, Lil Nas X has plenty more history-making and game-changing moves in store. As he revealed during his March 2023 campaign with Coach, "My next big chapter is coming."
Photo: Diego Compomar
Global Spin: Cub Sport Offer An Ethereal Performance Of "Keep Me Safe"
The Australian pop group chronicles the simultaneous joy and shame of a secret relationship in "Keep Me Safe," the lead single from their latest album, 'Jesus at the Gay Bar.'
With "Keep Me Safe," Cub Sport narrates the bliss of being with who they truly love in secret, while confessing the shame of putting on a different persona in public. Being in a heterosexual relationship might have kept the peace between their loved ones, but it created a painful sense of unhappiness and emptiness inside.
"Went and got a girlfriend/ Just to throw them off track/ Double lines, yeah/ It's driving me mad/ Losing everybody/ But I don't really feel that sad," Cub Sport reveals in the track's first verse. "I just want to die in our heaven/ If it'll keep me safe."
In this episode of Global Spin, the Australian pop group delivers an ethereal performance of "Keep Me Safe." Soft lights illuminate the band, while neon blue strobes accompany the song's climax.
"Keep Me Safe" is the lead single from Cub Sport's newest album, Jesus at the Gay Bar, inspired by the relationship between bandmates Tim Nelson and Sam Netterfield.
"I wrote 'Keep Me Safe' about a euphoric but complicated time," Nelson detailed in a press statement. "Shedding some light on it now feels like I'm validating my younger self and celebrating the magic in something I was ashamed of at the time."
Press play on the video above to watch Cub Sport's vulnerable performance of "Keep Me Safe," and check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of Global Spin.
Photo: Courtesy of Liza Anne
Press Play: Liza Anne Champions Love In This Groovy Performance Of Their New Single, "Cheerleader"
Rock singer Liza Anne celebrates queer joy in this electrifying performance of their newest single, "Cheerleader."
Just over a month ago, rock singer Liza Anne released their first single, "Cheerleader," since coming out as gay and non-binary. As they told Paper magazine, the song was about creating "a space of healing in a physical place where before, I wasn't fully free." So, Anne returned to the unruly place it all began — high school — and reclaimed it with unapologetic queer joy.
"So cute, and you don't even know it/ You're walking that talk, and I love it, I love it!/ Show me how you do it, oh, I want it, I want it!/ I'll be your cheerleader," Anne beams on the chorus.
In this episode of Press Play, Anne delivers a euphoric performance of their new queer anthem. The performance is driven by a wavy electric guitar with interludes of Anne's infectious dance moves, and the rock singer intensifies the high school aesthetic, performing in a football jersey.
Liza Anne is hosting an ABBA-themed disco night in Los Angeles, California; New York, New York; Chicago, Illinois; and King's County, New York, to advocate for better abortion care. On June 24, they will perform at the Being Gay Is a Miracle: Poetry Reading in New York, New York.
Watch the video above to see Liza Anne's carefree performance of "Cheerleader," and check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of Press Play.