Photo: BBR Music Group
From "Old Town Road" To "Small Town Girl": The Growing Connection Between Rap & Country
Hip-hop music and culture are weaving their way into the fabric of country music. Yet the marriage of hip-hop's liberal sensibilities with the often conservative culture of country music presents unique challenges.
Dec. 17, 2021 was an average new music Friday; there were no superstar album launches or hotly anticipated single drops. But when music fans dove into their favorite streaming service, they may have stumbled on a new song that had them taking a double-take: Superstar country artist Morgan Wallen had released a new single called "Broadway Girls," featuring Southside Chicago's own Lil' Durk.
On the surface, the collaboration may have appeared odd. Wallen is a traditional country artist who sports plaid cut off t-shirts and cowboy boots on stage, and tells tales of dirt backroads. “Broadway Girls” is a follow-up to Wallen's Dangerous double LP, which set the record for the most weeks ever at No.1 on the Billboard Country albums chart. Lil' Durk, best known for his Voice of the Heroes collaborative album with Lil' Baby and his appearance on Drake's "Laugh Now, Cry Later," is a rapper from the Southside of Chicago.
That rebellious spirit is reaching the youth in small town America. Kidd G, an 18-year-old from Hamilton, Georgia, a town of just over 1,000 people, grew up freestyling and listening to artists like Chance the Rapper. He is now cracking the Top 40 country charts with emo sing-rapping flows such as those on "Small Town Girl."
Country rap artist UpChurch, formerly known as Upchurch the Redneck, began his career as a comedian posting videos to YouTube. His 2021 album Same Ol, Same Ol charted as high as No. 17 on the Billboard country albums chart and he currently has over 1.5 million monthly listeners on Spotify. His most recent project, People’s Champ, features a collaboration with Boosie Badazz on the song "YZ Remix," where the two rap of Range Rovers, creeks, pistols and country living.
These artists follow a trend in country music that has been happening for several years now: Hip-hop music and culture are weaving their way into the genre's fabric. Yet the marriage of hip-hop's liberal sensibilities with the often conservative culture of country music presents unique challenges. Even for its own artists, country music has traditionally been less than welcoming to ideas that don't fit neatly within the genre's narrative.
During a 2003 concert, the Chicks' lead singer Natalie Manes called out then-President George H.W. Bush's war in Iraq, telling the audience that she was "ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas." As a result, the Dixie Chicks (the group has since dropped "dixie" from their name) were banned from country radio.
And while she wasn’t banned from country radio as a result of her statement, Maren Morris openly supported Joe Biden and Kamala Harris during the 2020 Presidential election saying that she believes "country music is for everyone, and so is this country." The statement stood out in an overwhelmingly conservative country music fanbase.
This begs the question, is country music ready for hip-hop's infiltration and outspoken views?
"Social media and streaming's ability to remove context from culture has significantly benefited hip-hop and country's commingling," says Marcus K. Dowling, the Tennessean's country music reporter. "A 'great song' is now far more defined by sound than by its vocalist's racial, ethnic or social background."
A 2013 article in the Tampa Bay Times titled "Country and rap music are more alike than you think" highlighted the similarities between the genres, including their respective penchants for partying and the sense of pride that runs through their individual musical styles. "Rappers and country stars…share the same template," Sean Daly wrote.
The template Daly speaks of is rooted heavily in the pride both genre's artists share for their hometown roots. There isn't much difference between Lil' Durk talking about the gritty streets of the Southside and Wallen talking about the dirt-filled backroads of his Tennessee hometown. Through their music, each artist holds their upbringing in high regard.
One artist that has managed to blur the lines between country music and hip-hop with significant success is Blanco Brown. As the self-proclaimed inventor of "trailer trap" music, Blanco saw monster success in 2019 with his single "The Git Up," which topped the Hot Country Songs chart and landed in the Top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100.
Brown grew up in a rural Southern town and was drawn to the relatability of country music. "What drew me to it was growing up in Butler, Georgia, in the summertime listening to Sammi Smith," says Brown of his affinity for the female country music legend. "I can relate to that. I don't know nothing about no drugs, no prostitutes," Brown says, referring to hip-hop's penchant for lyrics about drugs and sex.
The blending of country and hip-hop first saw a flash of success in 2004 when Nelly collaborated with country legend Tim McGraw on the single "Over and Over," which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. But instead of setting off a wave of prosperous country and rap collaborations, the meshing of the genres largely disappeared.
"People still didn't understand what it was," Brown says of the 2004 collaboration. "They just thought it was a cool song. You had Nelly, and Tim McGraw in their prime and Tim McGraw was already legendary."
In 2012, Nelly, again mixed country and hip-hop by appearing on the remix of "Cruise," the hit song by country duo Florida Georgia Line.
This time, "Cruise" spurred more country and rap collaborations from artists like Ludacris, Carrie Underwood, Jason Aldean, Young Thug, and others, though no song reached the same height. That was until 2019, when a new song eclipsed not only "Cruise" but also any expectations of what could become of country meeting rap music.
In March 2019, Columbia Records re-released "Old Town Road," a twangy country-rap ode to riding horses over a trap-influenced beat that was originally released independently in December 2018. Athen-unknown Black artist named Lil' Nas X, had unwittingly recorded what would become one of the best-selling singles of all time — accelerated when Nas X released a remix of "Old Town Road" with country legend Billy Ray Cyrus.
It would also put rap and country at the forefront of the music industry together as they had never been before. But aside from the monstrous success of Lil Nas X, why are these two genres finding such paired success? Blanco Brown chalks it up to music fans driving cultural shifts in the sounds of the industry.
"The world knows what it needs and wants. That's how to create new things," says Brown. "Why separate the two genres? There shouldn't ever be a musical genre, and those things should have never been put in place. The world is starting to hear things with a free form abstract ear."
And Brown is looking to capitalize on the brewing marriage of rap and country music with a collaborative album with one of hip-hop’s biggest superstars.
“TIP is my homie”, says Brown referring to multi-platinum rap superstar T.I. “We got a whole album together. We’re going to name it Trailer Trap. Trailer park music meets trap music. I’m just bridging the gap by bringing him in.”
But there is also something else at play. Despite the significant challenges of racial divides highlighted by evening newscasts across America, rural America, which has traditionally been an overwhelmingly white demographic, is changing. And along with that change comes more co-mingling of musical tastes.
"Population shifts have moved rural whites and urban-to-rural Black people much closer together than ever before," says Dowling. "So for millennials — especially those from not-so-traditionally urban upbringings, racial differences are far less common than ever."
And while we do know that music streaming has made people draw less defined lines between the genres of music they listen to, Brown again stresses the similarities between the two genres.
"They are one and the same. It's storytelling," Brown says of country and hip-hop's uncanny abilities to weave strong narratives. "The artists in both of those worlds want them to work together, and it's radio that holds it back. When I walk into sessions with these country producers and songwriters, they say, " Man, we've been waiting for your style."
It doesn't appear that the fans or artists have been holding back the further co-mingling of country and hip-hop but rather the engrained Nashville establishment.
"Country music's establishment will always solidly be on the fence regarding anything that oversaturates its already lucrative and thriving revenue streams," remarks Dowling.
A fuller embrace of hip-hop will require country to more deeply diversify its already existing revenue streams. The jury is still out on whether this trend will continue, but these rising artists and popular appetite for this meld is a sign that audiences, and industry, are shifting toward acceptance.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
Essential Hip-Hop Releases From The 2000s: T.I., Lil Wayne, Kid Cudi & More
The 2000s saw the ascension of now-household names while holding space for established rappers to enter new phases. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, revisit 10 albums fron the 2000s that captured the genre's diversity and influence.
Rap albums of the 1990s showcased diverse sides of the hip-hop landscape, broadening both the sound of the underground and hits of the mainstream. By the 2000s, reigning hip-hop artists were either reinventing themselves — among them, Jay-Z, Nas, Snoop Dogg and Lil' Kim — or giving way for up-and-comers.
The 2000s hip-hop held space for rappers entering different phases of their careers, from luxuriant to conscious. Most 2000s hip-hop soundtracked a rowdy decade-long party, where Timbaland became a sought-after beatmaker for his experimental sounds, and the Neptunes’ synthetic production made them dominate radio play. Rappers continued to retell their rags to riches stories, while celebrating the fruits of their labor.
A creative streak permeated throughout the decade, creating new styles and geographical hotspots. While the East, West Coast and Midwest held down their rap enclaves, hip-hop’s core largely went below the Mason-Dixon line, giving cities such as New Orleans, Atlanta, Houston and Miami well-deserved respect in the game.
In the 2000s, different sectors of entertainment wanted to cash in on hip-hop's ever-growing traction. Hood films of the ‘90s evolved into heists (Paid In Full), biopics (8 Mile) coming-of-age stories (ATL) and dance flicks (Honey), many which had rappers taking their first acting roles. These new faces of Hollywood were also even tapped to star in TV advertisements for the likes of Nike and Sprite, the latter which has championed hip-hop for over 35 years. At the same time, a diamond-encrusted bling redefined hip-hop style, and several artists helmed self-established streetwear brands.
Most importantly, the music kept spinning, turning hip-hop into a free-for-all playground that grew more inclusive as the years rolled on. While hip-hop’s golden age had undoubtedly ended, the 2000s saw the ascension of now-household names whose music is now being reworked by Gen-Z rap and pop artists. Here are 10 albums that captured hip-hop’s growing diversity and influence in music in the first decade of the new millennium.
Nelly - Country Grammar (2000)
The East vs. West Coast cataclysm took over in the late 1990s, but the Midwest waved its flag high in the Y2K era. St. Louis-raised Nelly unapologetically recited nursery rhymes and dished out heartland twang on his seminal debut Country Grammar. Bringing local culture to the masses, Country Grammar catapulted Nelly into megastardom, as the album topped the Billboard 200 in its first week.
Cornell Haynes Jr., Nelly would forgo his baseball dreams when"Country Grammar (Hot S—)" ran hip-hop airwaves. A consistent run of hits followed: party-starter "E.I.," the hoedown-worthy "Ride Wit Me," and the "The Jeffersons"-dedicated "Batter Up," which featured Nelly’s side project, St. Lunatics. The rapper’s commercial appeal made him an instant favorite for kids and club-goers, both who raved over Nelly’s sing-a-long music. Nelly gave the world a glimpse of his "derrty" character, solidifying him as an early 2000s rap mainstay.
Missy Elliott - Miss E... So Addictive (2001)
If Missy Elliott's Supa Dupa Fly and Da Real World were the one-two punch of the late ‘90s, those releases were also a prelude to her most globally successful album. Elliott sent her progressive sound out of the stratosphere on her third album Miss E… So Addictive. Hypnotic, authentic and brilliantly innovative , So Addictive imagined spaced-out hip-hop and R&B scenes that fans could revel in.
Timbaland-produced lead single "Get Ur Freak On"—which heavily used elements of non-traditional Punjabi music Bhangra — burned up dancefloors worldwide and won a GRAMMY for Best Rap Solo Performance in 2002. The near-misandrist bedroom banger "One Minute Man" shamed weak male lovers while Elliott and Ludacris asserted their sexual dominance.
So Addictive dropped just months before the death of Aaliyah, Elliott’s longtime friend and collaborator. Elliott later dedicated the downtempo ballad "Take Away" to the late 22-year-old. Elliott’s most experimental LP yet made her a powerhouse that never ran out of off-the-wall ideas.
Eminem - The Eminem Show (2002)
Already a superstar due to 1999’s The Slim Shady LP and 2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP, The Eminem Show gave the Detroit native the title of the highest-selling rapper of all-time. The album would even earn two GRAMMY Awards, one for Best Music Video ("Without Me") and another for Best Rap Album.
For his fourth studio album, the Real Slim Shady went rogue. Hip-hop needed "a little controversy," EM rapped on lead single "Without Me," offering the middle finger to sensationalized celebrities and political figures. Zany and comedic in nature, "Without Me" spoofed impressionable suburban kids and Electronic musician Moby.
Yet The Eminem Show offered more than just shock value. On "White America," Eminem acknowledged that his commercial appeal was partially due to being a white rapper. He continued confronting his problematic childhood, troubled relationship with his mother and faults on the cathartic "Cleanin’ Out My Closet."
"Sing for the Moment," which interpolated 1973 Aerosmith classic "Dream On," garnered more radio play while harkening back to Eminem's impoverished upbringing and rocky start to fatherhood. As Eminem was just six years into his career, The Eminem Show was a lightning rod in a continued streak as a polarizing artist.
Clipse - Lord Willin’ (2003)
Missy Elliott wasn’t the only Virgina-bred rapper who reigned during the 2000s. Virginia Beach rhymesayers Pusha T and No Malice, known jointly as Clipse, rode high on their major label debut Lord Willin’. An early act on the Neptunes’ record label Star Trak Entertainment, Lord Willin’ predestined the legacy of the twin brothers.
Bars of fury flew throughout the regional statement album, ensuring that lunchroom tables would never be the same when lead single "Grindin’" released. The song’s table-beating and locker-slamming nature recalled high school cypher nostalgia, while Clipse boasted of their hustle mentality.
Pharrell Williams (one half of the Neptunes) acted as Clipse’s hype man with adlibs and memorable hooks throughout the album. Faith Evans belted on "Ma, I Don’t Love Her," where Clipse pleaded for their significant other to avoid messy dating gossip. Club banger and MTV favorite "When’s the Last Time" still brought the wordplay, as Pusha T cleverly referenced a legendary 1980s crooner ("What did it, the whip appeal or my baby face?").
Both in the zone, Clipse made their mixtape rap flair a crossover smash. The brothers, who would shut down ComplexCon for the LP’s 20th anniversary, continue to salute their groundbreaking debut during rare performances, the next being IQ/BBQ in Queens.
50 Cent - Get Rich or Die Tryin' (2003)
Queens titan and Eminem protégé 50 Cent brought hip-hop to its knees with his 2003 debut, daring critics to test his gangsta. Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, just three years after 50 Cent recovered from being shot nine times. Over 19 tracks, the G-Unit frontman retold his story of victim to villain.
The former Jam Master Jay protégé kicks down the door on "What Up Gangsta," and denies being anyone’s Superman ("They say I walk around like I got a S on my chest / Nah, that's a semi-auto and a vest on my chest."). He keeps his enemies close and depicts near-death experiences on "Many Men (Wish Death)." The rapper showed his affectionate side on "21 Questions," where he probes his partner’s loyalty. He flosses his extravagant lifestyle on the steel pan-tinged "P.I.M.P.," which was customary to blinged-out artists of the 2000s.
The album’s biggest single, "In Da Club," made a resurgence when 50 Cent was a surprise guest during the Dr. Dre-curated Super Bowl LVI halftime show in 2022. 50’s brief spot during the performance paid homage to his "In Da Club" music video, where his bold entry into hip-hop paved the way for his East Coast rap successors to reclaim the streets.
Outkast - Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2003)
Atlanta rap forerunners Outkast brought quintessential funk to their fourth studio album. Released as a double album — where Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx boomed and André 3000 opened up his innermost romanticism on The Love Below — each record highlighted the duo’s individualism.
Big Boi gave a masterclass in rhyme and flow on Speakerboxxx, exuding a warmth that made songs like "The Way You Move," "Bowtie" and "The Rooster" playlist selections for summertime gatherings for years to come. The nightmarish "Bust" featuring fellow ATL emcee Killer Mike references a mid-’70s era George Clinton. The electronic production on "Tomb of the Boom" is the perfect freestyle backdrop for Boi to trade verses with rap trio Konkrete, fellow Dungeon Family member Big Gipp and Ludacris.
3000 demonstrated his multi-hyphenate chops, acting as singer/-songwriter, rapper, producer and maestro on The Love Below. He falls into lustful temptation on the Prince-inspired "Spread" before finding his close-to-perfect match ("Prototype"). An Outkast reunion takes place on the soulful "Roses," where 3000 wails about a snobby "Caroline." Karaoke staple "Hey Ya!" invented whimsical and now-classic lines like "What’s cooler than being cool? (Ice Cold)" and "shake it like a Polaroid picture."
Speakerboxxx / The Love Below preceded Outkast’s 2006 musical film Idlewild, which reinterpreted select songs, and the album scored three GRAMMY Awards in 2004, including the coveted Album of the Year. By 2004, Outkast approached their hiatus, which has continued albeit a brief music festival run in 2016.
T.I. - King (2006)
Titled after the rapper’s fifth child, King made a statement that T.I. had the "top spot," as declared on DJ Toomp-produced lead single "What You Know" (which also won a GRAMMY Award for Best Rap Performance in 2007). The album was a perfect cross-promotion with T.I.’s acting debut in the comedy-drama ATL, which arrived in theaters just days after the release of King.
T.I. recruited top hip-hop producers from all coasts to bring their best to his fourth studio album. The effort paid off, as Alabama’s Kevin "Khao" Cates reimagined Crystal Waters’ 1991 deep house anthem "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)" on "Why You Wanna." Bronx-born superproducer Swizz Beatz brought out the sirens on the marching band sounds of "Get It." The piano-laden "Goodlife" featuring Common was courtesy of the Neptunes, with Pharrell Williams providing the song’s hook.
Whilst calling out his competition, the self-appointed King of the South came to the game with nothing left to prove.
Kanye West - Graduation (2007)
In 2007, Kanye West and 50 Cent went head-to-head over first week sales. The two were well into their respective careers, but the friendly rivalry went public, including a competitive Rolling Stone cover shot.
But West would win the war, amassing 957,000 in first-week sales and earning the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 for his third studio album Graduation. Exploring more sonic ground, Graduation marked an end to West’s alt-rap heyday.
The Chicago-raised artist aired out his frustrations on "Stronger," which expertly sampled the 2001 Daft Punk single "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger." The synthy and anthemic "I Wonder" finds West reaching his hip-hop dreams. The rapper gives a shout out to "Summertime Chi" and flaunts his riches on the head-knocking "Good Life." Barely escaping the clutches of a vengeful ex, "Flashing Lights" shows a more vulnerable West, who admits his relationship flaws.
West’s final Graduation Bear era would earn him two GRAMMY Awards in 2008, in the categories of Best Rap Song ("Good Life") and Best Rap Album.
Lil Wayne - Tha Carter III (2008)
New Orleans lyricist Lil Wayne conquered mainstream hip-hop with his sixth studio album, Tha Carter III. In lieu of guest appearances and frequent mixtapes, Wayne challenged Jay-Z’s "best rapper alive" status while boasting features with some of R&B’s elite players. In fact, Wayne nabbed Jay-Z for the chipmunk soul of "Mr. Carter," titled after the pair’s shared last name (no relation).
The daring move paid off, as TC3 won GRAMMY Awards for Best Rap Album, Best Rap Solo Performance ("A Milli") and Best Rap Song ("Lollipop"). Hip-hop’s top hook singer of the mid-2000s, T-Pain, contributed his auto tuned vocals to the frenzied "Got Money." Bobby V’s absurd police car sounds coated "Mrs. Officer," where Weezy shows his affections for women in uniform.
His agile rhyme schemes run rampant throughout the album, notably "Phone Home," where he proclaims "we are not the same, I am a martian." TC3 proved that Wayne was surely from another planet, and the rapper continues to demonstrate that he’s inimitable.
Kid Cudi - Man on the Moon: The End of Day (2009)
Kanye West walked so Kid Cudi could run. Both hedonistic and conscious, the Cleveland rhymer marched to his own drum on Man on the Moon: The End of Day. Split into five acts, MOTM hazily conceptualized Cudi’s path to inner peace.
Production that ranged from psychedelia to synth-pop also made the rapper distinct from his peers in the blog era of rap. Arguably the most memorable track, the diamond-certified "Pursuit of Happiness (Nightmare)" played as an electronic rap midnight jam session with collaborators MGMT and Ratatat.
"Soundtrack 2 My Life" detailed Cudi’s mental health woes and the death of his father. The minimal ambience of "Day ‘N’ Night" saw Cudi taking shape as "The Lonely Stoner," who uses medication to escape depression. Despite Cudi’s bleak outlook on life, he gave space to his "wildest dreams" on "Enter Galactic (Love Connection, Pt. 1)," which later titled his 2022 Emmy-nominated animated Netflix special.
MOTM gave way to a forward-thinking side of hip-hop, where rappers could ambitiously experiment with a multitude of genres. Cudi's fans include Travis Scott, Chance the Rapper and A$AP Rocky, each of whom followed Cudi's example in distinct ways.
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: Monica Schipper/Getty Images for iHeartRadio
9 Artists Who Advocate For The LGBTQIA+ Community: Troye Sivan, Taylor Swift, Madonna & More
From Big Freedia to Beyoncé, artists who identify as queer and allies alike celebrate love in all its forms.
"GAY RIGHTS!!!!!" Betty Who captioned a cheeky photo earlier this month. Yes, it was a well-known inside joke among the LGBTQIA+ community, but the all-caps message held some serious meaning. The queer pop star's photo was from the White House's 2023 Pride Celebration, where President Biden formally announced the New Actions to Protect the LGBTQIA+ Community plan — and Betty Who was the star performer.
Music has always been a safe haven for gay and trans people of all kinds — from the closeted kids in Middle America finding sanctuary in the songs of their favorite pop stars, to the out-and-proud artists forming the soundtrack for the next generation of LGBTQIA+ fans. And Pride has always been a special time of the year to celebrate visibility and inclusion in the music industry — a place where everyone deserves to show up and be seen (and heard!) as their authentic self, and where every proverbial note, melody and harmony make up a beautiful and unique soundtrack that can only be yours.
Recently, queer musicians and allies who use their platforms to stand up for the LGBTQIA+ community has felt more important than ever. A rash of anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation has swept through state legislatures across the country, from so-called "Don't Say Gay" bills to blatant legal attacks on drag queens, trans kids and LGBTQIA+ history as a whole — but those who stand for the community are fighting even harder.
As Pride month carries on, GRAMMY.com has rounded up a list of nine LGBTQIA+ artists, allies and bonafide gay icons who've made advocating for the community a central tenet of their music, their words and their actions. Of course, there are dozens to highlight, but take a look at how queer artists like Kim Petras and Troye Sivan and allies like Taylor Swift and Madonna have helped fans shine as their authentic selves.
Petras cemented her place as a rising star in the pop music echelon in February, when she became the first trans woman to win the GRAMMY for Best Pop Duo/Group collaboration with Sam Smith for their subversive collaboration "Unholy." (Smith, who identifies as non-binary, also made history with the win, though they graciously ceded the floor for Petras to give her awestruck acceptance speech on the GRAMMYs stage.)
As the cover star of Out's 2023 Pride issue, the German pop princess spoke out about the rash of anti-trans rhetoric taking root in legislatures across the country and harming vulnerable trans youth. "I literally was very suicidal as a kid, and I just wouldn't still be here had my parents not believed me," she told the magazine. "I hate that another generation is going through this, and I hate that young kids are going through the same s–t I was going through, and that apparently just isn't changing. I think it's sad. I just never understood why people were so obsessed with what people do to be happy. Just focus on what you can do to be happy."
Lil Nas X
Lil Nas X has never been shy when it comes to sticking up for the queer community — and he usually does so with a healthy dose of snarky humor on social media. He's cheerfully clapped back about everything from the explicit queerness of his music videos to his place in the modern pantheon of hip-hop; mostly recently, he hopped on Twitter to hilariously take down conservative outrage over Pride-themed merchandise at Target.
"Can't believe target is supporting this nonsense, im never shopping there again, my son is not 'too cool for school' these shirts are ridiculous. He is going to school and he WILL learn," the GRAMMY winner wrote in a since-deleted tweet, mockingly referencing the anti-LGBTQIA+ crusaders upset with inclusive and trans-friendly apparel being sold at the popular retailer.
In another instance from late April, Montero made his stance hysterically clear when he tweeted, "I want to clear all the straight rumors. i have many straight friends and i support their community, but that is NOT me!"
Years before releasing his debut album Blue Neighborhood in 2015, Troye Sivan came out publicly via YouTube. Since then, he's been consistently outspoken about his experiences as a gay artist in the music industry.
The Australia native, who announced his long-awaited follow-up to 2018's Bloom earlier this month, has made a consistent point in his career to turn his visuals into unapologetic examples of queer art — from the lusty defiance of 2018's "My My My!" to the "gushy juicy doting adoring power b^tt^m gay ballad" perfection that was 2021's "Angel Baby."
Perhaps most powerful of all, though, was his video for early single "Heaven" featuring Betty Who, which depicted historic moments in the LGBTQIA+ rights movement including some of the earliest Pride parades on record. "We have always been here. we will always be here. this video is dedicated to all those who've come before me and fought for our cause and those who now continue the fight," he wrote in the video's description. "in dark and light times, let's love forever. love, troye x."
Speaking of Betty Who, the indie pop star received an invitation directly from President Biden to perform at the White House's official 2023 Pride Celebration, where the commander in chief formally announced his administration's plan titled New Actions to Protect the LGBTQIA+ Community. The three-point roll-out promises to focus on "Strengthening Physical Safety," "Addressing Civil Rights Violations" and "Strengthening Mental Health and other Support Resources."
"Today was the biggest pride celebration ever held at the white house and i got to be a part of it!!!!!!!!" Betty, who identifies as both queer and bisexual, wrote afterwards on social media. "So many things i want to say! What an honour it is, how proud i am to be part of the lgbtqia+ [community], how special today's event was and how grateful i am to @potus, @drbiden and the amazing white house staff for hosting us. queer joy spouting everywhere!!! very grateful for this incredible experience."
Earlier this year, Big Freedia was honored by PFLAG — the nation's longest-running LGBTQIA+ organization — with its first-ever National Breaking Barriers Award. The new honor, which she received at PGFLAG's 50th anniversary gala in March, is meant to shine the spotlight on "an individual who uses their platform to help remove obstacles to LGBTQIA+ and intersectional equality in pursuit of a more just, equitable and inclusive world."
Upon receiving the award, the bounce music trailblazer (and 2023 GRAMMY winner) took to Instagram with a determined message, writing, "There's still so much work to do to fight discrimination and I will continue to work on behalf of our whole community to spread love, acceptance, inclusion and everyone's right TO BE FREE."
While she'd slyly referenced her support for the LGBTQIA+ community in the past on songs like "Welcome to New York," Taylor Swift took a public stand in 2019 with her Lover era single "You Need to Calm Down." The gay anthem's celebratory music video issued a call to action for her fans to support the as-yet-unpassed Equality Act with her very own Change.org petition.
During her Eras Tour stop in Chicago earlier this month, the superstar spoke specifically to her LGBTQIA+ fans, promising them that her concerts would always be a "safe space" for them to celebrate who they are.
"I wish that every place was safe and beautiful for people in the LGBTQ community, I really wish that. We can't talk about Pride Month without talking about pain," she told the sold-out crowd of Swifties at Soldier Field. "There have been so many harmful pieces of legislation that have put people in the LGBTQ and queer community at risk. It's painful for everyone — every ally, every loved one, every person in these communities. And that's why I'm always posting, 'This is when the midterms are. This is when these important, key primaries are.'
"'Cause we can support as much as we want during Pride Month," the 12-time GRAMMY winner continued. "But if we're not doing our research on these elected officials — Are they advocates? Are they allies? Are they protectors of equality? Do I want to vote for them? — I love you guys so much and happy Pride Month."
What hasn't Madonna done in her iconic career to lift up the LGBTQIA+ community? In fact, there's an entire Wikipedia page dedicated solely to her status as a living gay icon.
Famously, Her Madgesty's love for the gay community started with her early mentor and dance teacher Christopher Flynn. Early in her career, she became one of the first artists to speak out about the HIV/AIDS crisis and decry the stigmatization of gay people at the time.
She's been recognized by the GLAAD Media Awards multiple times, including in 1991 with the Raising Gay Awareness award and in 2019 with the Advocate for Change award. (At the latter ceremony, GLAAD president Sarah Kate Ellis stated, "Madonna always has and always will be the LGBTQ community's greatest ally.")
More recently, Madge added multiple dates to her upcoming Celebration Tour, including a special stop in Nashville to stand in solidarity with the state's queer, trans and drag communities as they've been bombarded by a string of anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation from the state's Capitol.
"The oppression of the LGBTQIA+ is not only unacceptable and inhumane; it's creating an unsafe environment; making America a dangerous place for our most vulnerable citizens, especially trans women of color," she wrote on Instagram alongside the announcement. "Also, these so-called laws to protect our children are unfounded and pathetic. Anyone with half a brain knows not to f— with a drag queen. Bob and I will see you from the stage in Nashville where we will celebrate the beauty that is the queer community!"
Long considered a gay icon in her own right, Beyoncé paid reverential honor to the LGBTQIA+ community and her late uncle Johnny with 2022's Renaissance, an undulating magnum opus inspired by the underground ballroom scene sparked by Black, trans and gay pioneers of the 1970s, '80s, '90s, and beyond.
Queen Bey also holds space for queer artists throughout Renaissance's sprawling, hour-long track list, collaborating with TS Madison and Big Freedia, sampling Kevin Aviance and late drag star Moi Renee, working with Honey Dijon behind the boards and more. "Thank you to all of the pioneers who originate culture, to all of the fallen angels whose contributions have gone unrecognized for far too long," the living legend wrote in a note posted to her personal website upon the album's release. "This is a celebration for you."
Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons
Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds has emerged as a powerful advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community through his nonprofit organization Loveloud and its popular Utah festival, which he launched in 2017 to support LGBTQIA+ teens in the state's overwhelmingly conservative (and outspokenly anti-LGBTQIA+) Mormon community.
This year, though, Reynolds and the Loveloud board — which includes out and proud musicians like Tyler Glenn of Neon Trees, Vincint, Wrabel and Parson James — have expanded Loveloud's mission beyond the Mormonism of the Wasatch front. In early March, Loveloud announced it would be transforming into a traveling festival for its sixth year with stops in Austin, Texas, where dozens of anti-LGBTQIA+ laws have been pursued by the state legislature and Gov. Greg Abbott, and Washington D.C.