Dressed in an ombre caped shirt, neon yellow fishnet shorts and an LED mask, Emmanuel Williams — who goes by DDm, or Dapper Dan Midas — captivated the audience of nearly a thousand people at Baltimore Soundstage.
Gusts of air reminiscent of a Beyoncé wind tunnel made his garment float behind him. His backup dancers bounced and popped as they shook their metallic pom-poms.
As he launched into a rap over a sample of Rick James’ “Super Freak,” the crowd went wild, with those gathered hanging on his every word.
Black hip-hop artists are part of the LGBTQ community and act as a bridge between both. With nods to the past while remaining ahead of the curve, these entertainers are constantly exciting, entertaining and cutting edge.
When DJ Kotic Couture is spinning, she’s paying homage to Baltimore club music as well as breaking down barriers as a trans woman. And when the statuesque Aave Blue is not turning heads performing drag, he’s whipping up mixes of Nicki Minaj, Janet Jackson and GloRilla.
With a genre defined by straight social constructs and centered around masculinity, it’s not an easy feat being a pioneer — especially a subgroup of an already marginalized demographic.
“I’m told, ‘You are really talented. People like you. You make good music.’ It makes people stand back and question. Some people don’t think this is what the culture [hip-hop] is,” Couture said. “The great part is that we get to make the culture our own. We make something out of nothing. I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, whether some people like it or not."
Black queer hip-hop artists face a myriad of obstacles compounded by the intersectionality of race, gender and sexuality, according to Brittnay L. Proctor, assistant professor of race and media at the New School in New York City.
“I think Black queer performers and artists have to contend with a double malalignment because of their race and sexuality. They have contributed to hip-hop since its founding. But in many ways, we are still having discussions about the contributions of Black queer people in hip-hop,” Proctor said. “Hip-hop is a big genre because of the contribution of Black queer people.”
Known for his sharpened acerbic tongue, Williams got into hip-hop 15 years ago through battle rapping.
“It was like a roasting session,” he recalled. “It was an easy way to get your name out there. Baltimore was competitive back then. If you couldn’t do that, it was going to be hard for you.”
Over his career, Williams said, his style has evolved into what he describes as “hip-hop Broadway.”
“It’s very visual, theatrical, loud and pronounced. It’s very theater. It’s very cinematic. Everything I do, I like for it to have a point of view and to be thought-provoking. I like for it to say something.”
Currently, his lyrics include working through grief and personal trauma.
“When I started, it was so surface. I rapped about street life. It was braggadocious. It was a bunch of nothing. I had lived. But I hadn’t lived life enough to say something outside of punchlines and metaphors,” he said. “Now, I’m addressing a lot of what it is like being a queer black man developing a love life. There’s geopolitical stuff. I’m a very socially minded person.”
Williams is also using his voice to call out inequalities — particularly when it comes to the racial divide within the LGBTQ community.
“Today, things are becoming more segregated. The avenues and support are becoming more segregated,” Williams said. “After marriage equality was passed, we weren’t needed in the ranks because then [white gays] had their rights. There was no need to have a community. It’s going to be interesting to see how everything is viewed now that everyone is under attack again.”
Williams also sees the divide being applied to opportunities and support of artists.
“I know how it feels to be a Black queer person in this country and in this business. Seeing how some of my counterparts are treated across the aisle, I see the difference,” he said, adding that the inequalities have only forced him to be better. “I was never first choice. When you don’t have that christening, you have to learn your craft. I have always been a student of the game.”
Rosie Hicks, who goes by the stage name DJ Rosie, is credited with being one of the first to create gay hip-hop nights at clubs in Baltimore.
It was tough in the beginning, but Hicks quickly built a following that resulted in capacity hip-hop nights at The Hippo, a now-closed gay club in Mount Vernon. There, Hicks’ hip-hop nights would draw lines that often extended around the block.
Hicks’ success was noticed by a number of establishments that then tried to have their own hip-hop nights. It was a far cry from Hicks having to convince bar and club owners to allow her to play music from the popular genre.
“It’s definitely been an issue that I have had to push against. Maybe you don’t like hip-hop. But it is the Top 20 music that’s on the charts. This is the music that people want to hear. I definitely have fought for it,” she said.
With the closing of The Hippo, Hicks said the momentum to play hip-hop in gay venues essentially ended.
“Honestly, it kind of felt like the end of the era,” she said. “People saw the success and wanted to emulate it. But it’s never been the same.”
Devin Portee, who goes by the stage name DJ DNYCE, created a following from Baltimore and Washington, D.C., to Atlanta — all while remaining unapologetically gay. His often-nostalgic mixes have created a following regardless.
Portee, 38, got his start in the industry when he was 19 and emceeing at the famed Paradox, a now-closed club in Baltimore.
“It was amazing. I loved being an emcee,” he recalled. “I think that’s how I got known. My voice alone and how I interacted with the crowd made people love me. To this day, I think everyone knows me from there.”
Portee considers himself a music historian who bridges the gap between the younger and older generations.
“I’m old school. I’m an old soul. I like new music. But I will definitely take it back,” he said with a laugh.
Harwood resident Ray Waire, who goes by the drag name Aave Blue, has been dazzling crowds with avant garde ensembles and precise lip sync performances. But it has been his ability to DJ that has set him apart from other performers in the region.
Although he’s been playing music since he was 16, he started to DJ professionally two years ago. He estimates that 70% of his sets are dedicated to hip-hop and R&B artists. The other 30% are devoted to Baltimore house music.
“I play what’s going to make it hot,” the 29-year-old said. “People mainly want drag queens to play pop songs. I’ve gotten … venues to play more white songs for my set. But I’m going to keep my 70-to-30 split. I’m going to keep playing what I need to play.”
Waire said he became inspired to start DJing after listening to DJ/Producer B. Ames, who is also a drag queen.
“You hear her everywhere in the ballroom scene,” he explained.
Waire said he is mindful to mix older hip-hop classics with newly released tracks.
“It’s always more interesting to have a broad perspective of the hip-hop community so you can create more interesting sets,” he said.
As a teen growing up in Chestertown on the Eastern Shore, Ky Couture, who now goes by the stage name Kaotic Couture, was drawn to Baltimore and its club music
She would long for Friday nights when she’d listen to mixes by the late K Swift on 92Q.
“I always felt one with club music,” she said. “There is a definite connection to the diaspora and Blackness. It is innately underground and Black. It’s also queer.”
Couture, who describes herself as a “music nerd,” has made it a mission to increase the popularity of Baltimore club music, which she considers part of the hip-hop genre.
“I think hip-hop is one of the few types of music where the subgenres don’t get the same respect,” Couture said. “People just love to say hip-hop and leave it at that. There are so many patterns. Drum patterns and the repetitive hooks. The fact that club music is made off of remixes. That’s all intertwined with hip-hop culture.”
Even though Couture is considered by many in Baltimore to be one of the leaders of the city’s club music scene, she has found it difficult at times to ascend. She suspects being a trans woman has contributed to that.
“It’s definitely been hard to watch and see certain opportunities pass you,” Couture said. “I’ve had producers say, ‘I just can’t co-sign you.’”
Hip-hop’s gritty, masculine-dominated roots also make it difficult for gay artists to gain traction.
“There is never really an outward explanation. There is an understanding. Hip-hop, the Culture, is hard. You’re supposed to argue. You’re supposed to give verbal shots. You’re supposed to get under someone’s skin,” Couture said of denied opportunities in the past. “They equate femininity to softness. It’s a lie that people use not to give an explanation.”
Despite noticeable increases in the visibility of Black queer hip-hop artists, the genre, which turns 50 this year, has not yet seen a breakthrough artist who has risen to the level of a Cardi B, Jay-Z, or DJ D Nice.
There have been notable moments of success.
In 2016, lesbian rapper Young M.A. released the quadruple-platinum hit single “OOOUUU,” which amassed more than 400 million YouTube views. Lil Nas X made splashes with his 2018 country rap single “Old Town Road” and with subsequent hits “Panini” and “Montero (Call Me by Your Name).” But hip-hop purists say his music is more pop than hip-hop.
Frank Ocean, the Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter, and rapper who has been public about his same-gender-loving history, took a six-year break from performing and headlined this year’s Coachella music and arts festival in Southern California. That performance was met with mixed reviews. And in 2022, Saucy Santana, an androgynous gay rapper, made a small smash with “Booty,” a rap collaboration with Latto. He performed the single on NBC’s “Tonight Show.”
Proctor thinks there are major obstacles preventing queer artists from achieving superstar status in hip-hop.
“As many gains [that] folks might say there have been, the plight of Black queer people in this country and in the world — there still is a way that folks try to represent Blackness and queerness,” Proctor said. “It’s not a matter if there are LGBTQIA folks that can create the type of work, it’s a way of how you package, modify and commodify that.”
Hicks thinks a breakthrough is coming.
“It’s closer than we think. The closest one that I have seen is Lil Nas X. He’s been able to cross over. I’m just so happy to see it,” she said. “But there still exists some hatred and prejudice against our community. And our Black community still has their challenges accepting people who are queer. We’re a marginalized community. It’s sad to see other marginalized communities hateful toward others.”
Williams, who performed the Miss Tony tribute at the AFRAM festival in Baltimore this past weekend, ultimately thinks that Black people will dictate whether a queer artist finally breaks through and crosses over to superstar status.
“It’s a dollars-and-cents game. By hip-hop being a platform created by people of color, and propagated of people of color, because of that you have to face the reality of the lens you are looked at by people of color,” he said.
“The scope of hip-hop has changed a lot. The conversation is changing,” he said. “We have a very specific way of how this person or that person is going to look. When you have people having open conversations about queer identity, that is progress. To get to that next level it will be someone who is under the radar.”