the changing identity of queer artists
Syd Tha Kyd’s new single signals a tipping point in the way queer artists are represented in the mainstream.
Anyone tuning in to recent 1Xtra shows from MistaJam or DJ Target has had a chance to hear a significant, almost entirely unheralded cultural shift taking place. Both Jam and Target, major players in Britain's grime/dubstep/house/garage landscape have given extensive support and no small amount of love to The Internet's new single Girl. Jam went so far as to award the track 'Jam Hot' status, an accolade reserved for his favourite track of the week.
Girl is a sensual slow jam, the kind of yearning declaration of love and lust that has had R&B fans swooning for decades. It's built around vocalist Syd tha Kyd crooning a plea of teenage love - "If I told you that you rock my world, I want you around me / Would you let me call you my girl, my girlfriend, my girlfriend?" So far, so Michael Jackson.
Here's the thing; Syd tha Kyd is also a girl, and Girl is a queer love song. Granted, this in itself isn't new, but the way the song has been written, and is being responded to, is. There have been numerous past attempts to market female queerness, almost always as a cheap shock-tactic marketing technique. From Katy Perry kissing girls, to Madonna engineering gruesomely stilted onstage threesomes with Britney and Christina, to back when Russian teenagers TaTu were faux teenage lesbians cavorting to 90s Euro pop, the prevailing logic has been that lesbianism is a comfortably transgressive way to titillate the audience. It's never treated as anything more than a temporary digression - every one of the acts I've just mentioned has gone on to show that, actually, they're as hetero as the next red blooded gal, and the whole thing was just a bit of silly juvenile fun - TaTu are probably the most egregious example of this, with one of the duo (who were almost certainly coerced into their whole 'lesbian' relationship by cynical management) going on record to say she wouldn't 'accept a gay son'.
Syd tha Kyd is something else entirely. She's openly, unapologetically queer. Girl isn't a song designed to titillate by breaking taboos - yeah, it's meant to sound sexy, but in the same way a song by Jodeci or Tinashe is meant to sound sexy. Whilst mainstream songs featuring queer women have, up until now, been written to appeal to sweaty male fantasies, this song isn't about satisfying anyone else's kicks - this is about Syd and the girl she's chasing. The fact that a song that so deftly presents its sexuality, with no sniggering, or winking, or 'isn't-this-shocking' chicanery, can be played on 1Xtra, the UK's home of hip hop, is indicative of a wider sea change going on, both in the more innovative edges of hip hop and R&B, and the UK itself. Crucially, neither DJ Target or MistaJam commented on the song's lyrics, or noted any controversy in Syd writing a queer love song; it's no longer seen as worthy of comment. The UK is a country where 49% of 18-24 year olds no longer identify themselves as completely heterosexual - in that context, the rise of a star like Syd makes all the more sense. And whilst hip hop and R&B are often accused of harbouring a disproportionate amount of homophobes, it would seem in this case that 1Xtra, the official home of black music in the UK, has proved far more progressive than critics would have you believe.
It's probably worth noting at this point that Syd's career kicked off as a producer for Odd Future. We can only assume that home secretary Theresa May was unaware of this when she denied Odd Future's Tyler, the Creator the chance to perform in England, citing violent and homophobic lyrics recorded back in 2009 as just reason to ban the rapper from the country for the next five years. This was an entirely arbitrary ruling - under this logic May could just as easily ban screenings of Santa Claus: The Movie because Dudley Moore had previously made a stack of cash from telling rape jokes. Syd herself doesn't seem to have a problem accepting that Tyler isn't a homophobe -- it would seem that the younger generation have a far more nuanced grasp of sexuality and language than those who would police what they can hear.
This is reflected in the growing number of artists playing with gender in mainstream spaces. Admittedly, it seems crass to lump together performers working in R&B and hip hop based on their sexuality, with both Zebra Katz and Mykki Blanco speaking out about their unwillingness to shoulder a 'queer hip hop' tag, and rightly so - ghettoising performers in such a way does hip hop as much of a disservice as the performers themselves. However it can be pointed out that Syd isn't alone in introducing queer themes to R&B, and there are a couple of other artists out there of increasing profile who are also making openly queer songs that are crossing over to a straight audience.
Ziggy is a rapper from Maryland. Having come up as part of an all-female crew called Raw Abstract Project, her career changed direction when she met producer Just Dre. Since 2014, the pair have made a series of club shakers that have been pulling in a wider and wider pool of fans. The tracks see Ziggy spitting from perspectives usually reserved for a male rapper, whether that's the tender auto-tuned love of Passenger, or the dropping the dutty Rae Sremmurd-esque filth of Look Back At It. Look Back At It has racked up over a million plays and had all sorts of conservative hip hop commenters scratching their heads trying to work out if it's OK to like something that's as obviously a banger as it is unashamedly gay. As ever, the UK has been quick to support, and having already played London once, Ziggy is scheduled to appear again later this year - no mean feat for an act barely a year into her career.
Coming from a different direction are Barf Troop. A collective of five self-confessed 'gender fluid' rappers, Barf Troop bonded via Tumblr over a shared love for floral print and the aforementioned Odd Future. A product of the internet age, Barf Troop live in three different states and have only recently crossed into meeting IRL. Still, that hasn't slowed them from releasing a slew of tracks that take inspiration from the surreal sex raps of Odd Future, adding their own slivers of psychedelia and vulnerability to the mix. Bratty, candy coloured, quick witted and nerdy, they are determined to widen what a performer can be and do, and, along with artists such as Syd tha Kyd and Ziggy, are having some success doing so. When their unofficial leader Babeo Baggins' spoke to the Washington Post, her words summed up exactly the kind of future they, and a growing horde of fans, are aiming for; "We want to show black girls that you don't have to be this or that to be a rapper. You don't have to be hard like Lil' Kim. You can be soft. You can be a nerd. You can have colourful hair. You can be yourself."
Read our full interview with Syd Tha Kyd here.
Text Ian McQuaid
Photography Jabari Jacobs