The music industry is still filled with heteronormative conditions that constrict many of its most talented stars to conform. But there are queer musicians on the fringe who are boldly being themselves — a simple yet defiant act that results in sounds and stories heard for the very first time.
The 12 rule-breaking queer musicians on this list are idols we look to, not only for their musical abilities but for their visibility, rebelling against a system that is constantly telling us conformity is key. Some are more established, while others are still fighting to be seen and heard. What they all have in common is that we see them, and we hope we continue seeing them just as they are: visible queer identities the world so desperately needs right now.
Here are 12 queer musicians currently redefining the music industry:
1. Boy Radio
Brooklyn-based experimental R&B artist Boy Radio released his debut album Neon Romance earlier this year. The 10-track LP is aesthetically innovative. Out Magazine described his music as a blend of “’80s pop and lo-fi bedroom R&B” that transcends traditional rhythm and blues.
“One thing in music that is a constant battle between mainstream versus underground is something as simple but so personal as pronouns in lyrics,” Boy Radio tells us. “I and a lot of queer musicians play with the idea that ‘she’ or ‘he’ could represent anyone. Being able to express that sentiment is important to me. It’s authentic and a form of rebellion, because a song where I talk about a lover and say ‘he’ might never get on the radio. I’ve become OK with that.”
“Active visibility is an act of rebellion, yes. But it’s not just entertainers and people with a following that matter,” he says. “There are babes out there who don’t have a community to feel secure in, who live their life authentically, wearing what they want, talking how they talk … who don’t have the safety net of New York City to comfort their queerness. They’re out there being 100% visible, and I am inspired by their rebellion.”
Kehlani just won an award for doing what she does best: breaking rules. She walked away with Billboard’s Rule Breaker Award at its annual Women in Music event. Upon receiving the honor, she noted, “Being acknowledged for breaking rules in a positive light is so important to me. My entire career, I’ve been very outspoken. I just have to speak up. It hits me in the gut.”
The singer-songwriter just released a clip for her latest single “Honey.” The sultry sweet track begins: “I like my girls just like I like my honey / sweet, a little selfish / I like my women like I like my money / green, a little jealous.”
This has been a big year for Kehlani, and even though it’s almost over, it’s about to get even bigger for her. Eminem just released the track listing for his highly anticipated new album Revival. Out this week, the album is a star-studded event with appearances by Beyoncé, P!nk and Ed Sheeran, with Kehlani appearing on the track “Nowhere Fast.”
2017 belongs to Kehlani.
3. Told Slant
Brooklyn-based band Told Slant’s frontperson Felix Walworth is a songwriting genius. Their deeply personal and poetic lyrics will move anybody to tears.
The group is also not just moving people with music but also with social resistance. Earlier this year, Todd Slant cancelled an appearance at SXSW, a huge moment in any musician’s career. The band backed out over a clause in the artist agreement that allows the festival to “notify the appropriate U.S. immigration authorities” if it is determined that a participating act has “acted in ways that adversely affect the viability of their official SXSW showcase.”
“After looking through this contract sent to me by SXSW I have decided to cancel Told Slant’s performance at the festival,” Walworth posted on Twitter. “I’m not interested in aligning myself with an institution that interacts with immigration authorities as a means of controlling where art is shared and performed, and who makes money off of it. This festival uses an imperialist model and prioritizes centralizing and packaging culture over communities & people’s safety. … It’s no secret that SXSW has played a huge role in the process of Austin’s rapid gentrification. The whole festival exists to the detriment of working class people & people of color in Austin.”
If that’s not rebellion, we don’t know what is.
4. Aye Nako
Brooklyn-based DIY punk band Aye Nako is made up of four proficient queer musicians: Mars Ganito (vocals/guitar), Joe McCann (bass), Jade Payne (guitar) and Sheena McGrath. When asked to describe their music, Mars says their go-to response is “sad punk songs about being queer, trans and black.”
But asked about visibility, Payne explains to Spark magazine the importance of putting their faces on the album cover. “I grew up going to shows alone and feeling like I didn’t belong,” she says. “I’d be watching Rilo Kiley opening for Bright Eyes and feel like some kind of phony, amidst a sea of hip-looking white kids. So POC visibility is very important to us in what we do. Mars has set a great example by talking about his songs to the audience before we play them, even when the subject matter is deeply personal and difficult to hear.”
“It definitely matters to the other trans kids in the audience or the other black kids,” she continues. “Our last show of the tour was at Everybody Hits [in Philadelphia] and I talked a little about one of my songs before we played it. After the show someone actually thanked me for not only saying what I said, but also for giving a content warning. Sometimes you never know what kind of impact you have on your audience. I always remember when Katie Crutchfield said in some article, ‘If you have a pedestal, use it.’ It can be scary, but it’s important to use music and art to give visibility and voice to other marginalized people.”
5. Baby Yors
Baby Yors is a triumphant slice of rock-pop exploration. The rare queer musician who can address the temperature of his turbulent experience while also providing musical escapism and a theatricality that’s missed in today’s pop scene.
“If there’s one thing I want when people hear this song or see my shows,” he says, “it’s to leave the planet with me for a little bit.”
Yors thinks musicians being more open and honest about their sexuality is a trend happening now, and he hopes it doesn’t go anywhere.
“There seems to be trends across the years when it comes to sexuality and how open you can be,” he tells us. “The time has come when if everyone is an open book we can soon eliminate taboos and be as fluid as ever. Everyone has a platform, and there’s no need to hide behind it.”
Yors continues, “I often find my audiences to be extremely diverse. My biggest dream is to unite people from different worlds through my art.”
6. Jay Boogie
Determined to tell his story, the forceful and fearless Jay Boogie is a Dominican-American MC from Brooklyn continuing the legacy of the borough’s thriving underground art scene. He released new music earlier this year with Jesus Loves Me Too, an album Remezcla referred to as “a clapback at homophobes and haters.”
Boogie turned to performing as a way to survive the homophobia around him as a child. “Performance art became what I had to go through,” he tells Noisey, “or the simple fact I had to navigate through the space of heteronormative gang activity in my neighborhood. I had to navigate through a single-mother household. I had to move through a lot of different spaces at once.”
“Shit, it takes a lot more courage for a man to walk out of his house the way I do than it takes for a boy to get on the corner, sag his pants and be with the rest of the boys in the hood,” Boogie explains. “I pump down that same avenue, in that same poverty-stricken neighborhood, around those same armed men that think they’re soldiers and cadets. … It takes a lot more to be me than the average Joe, trust me.”
Singer-songwriter Wrabel made waves this year with his politically minded music. His stunning anthem of protest “The Village” made a bold statement, standing up for our transgender sisters and brothers who were attacked by our current administration.
“I wrote this song on Feb. 23, the day after Trump took away federal protections for trans students in public schools,” the queer musician writes in an open letter he penned with the release of the passionate track. “Today I release it, just days after he tweeted to ban trans people from serving in the military.”
“I just wanted to write a simple song letting anyone that feels like an outsider know that the problem isn’t you, it’s them,” he says. “It’s the village. Not in an aggressive us vs. them way, but just because you are the minority … just because people whisper ‘freak’ when u walk down the hall, there’s nothing wrong with you, there’s something wrong with the village.”
SSION (pronounced “shun”) is a musical group formed in 1996 in Kansas City by vocalist Cody Critcheloe. In 2003, SSION made its label debut in 2003, releasing the EP Minor Treat and the album Opportunity Bless My Soul on Version City Records.
For the first time in five years, SSION is back, and even they are calling it a comeback. During the gap, Critcheloe was busy making videos for Charli XCX, Perfume Genius, Grizzly Bear, Robyn and Kylie Minogue, among others.
“Comeback” is the name of the lead single from SSION’s new album, due out early next year. The track is accompanied by a trippy and complex seven-minute video that doubles as a pop odyssey. It travels in a million crazy directions, including cow-print body-paint, coffee-cup hallucinations and grand disco stage shows.
“I make an album every four years,” Critcheloe told The FADER. “And so it’s kinda like this psychic thing where it’s like, well, it’s gonna play out your life. You’re gonna be performing it every night. What kind of energy do you wanna bring to people and take home? All those things come into play and ultimately, you know, I wanna connect with people and raise them up.”
“But then again, everything I do — even if it’s kinda funny, or done in this way that’s a little bit camp — there’s always a sadness to it,” says the queer musician. “That’s the only way it’s good. There’s always a darkness to what’s happening behind it.”
9. Solomon Ray
Solomon Ray has been on our radar for some time now. In 2008 the openly gay rapper, billed only as Solomon, attracted wide attention when his first mix tape sold more than 10,000 copies. As an artist, he continued to grow until 2014, when he retired in order to pursue art in a different direction.
In 2015, he announced his “transformation” into Solomon Ray, stripping back his aesthetic and changing his journey to reflect his battle to overcome depression.
We’ve also been huge fans of his Instagram, where he posts everything from hilarious rants to thirst-quenching bare booty pops.
Solomon Ray just released a new track, “El Otro.” Historically, he has referred to Kanye West and Robert Mapplethorpe as his inspirations. but for this moment in his career he seems to be looking to Selena as a spirit guide for his music and his style.
10. Big Momma
A Florida-based rap performer, Big Momma just released two new tracks, “Redrum” and “Jeffre Dahmer.” The former came out on Friday, Oct. 13, and the latter on the anniversary of Dahmer’s death.
Big Momma recently told Huffington Post: “I am the voice of the voiceless, those who are afraid to express themselves for any reason, whether it’s because of insecurities, disabilities or beliefs that have been forced down their throats. I am here to inspire people to be who you are and love the skin you’re in no matter the circumstance.”
“I’m here, and I’m hungry,” says Big Momma. “I’m not going to stop until there’s a new world order, and the voiceless is the ones with the almighty voice.”
11. Cory Wade
Cory Wade is a trailblazer. He rose to fame on the first-season of America’s Next Top Model that included male contestants. As the first out gay man to be on the show, his gender-bending and androgynous energy revolutionized an otherwise stale brand.
Building brands is something he knows about, but modeling is only one part of him. He’s also a performer, and earlier this year he released the music video for a song he wrote titled “There For You” with fellow androgyne Rain Dove.
“I am someone who has always stood by my convictions in an honest way,” Wade tells us. “I have the power to do this through a number of different artistic mediums. Music is one of those mediums, and I happen to love it dearly and so I give myself to it. My album carries a message of queer empowerment for those who might receive it.”
“It is set to be featured in future LGBTQ+ advocacy media pieces,” Wade says of his album, “and I am always looking to find new ventures for it to live through. I quite enjoy getting the band together to perform the songs live, so I suspect that will be happening in the near future. I love being a musician. It’s all the joy I need.”
EHRIE is made up of twin brothers Kameo and Romeo Latortue, who began performing at an age when most were just playing with toys. Carefully crafting their musical gifts and abilities ever since, the pair of queer musicians have spent years perfecting their sound and blending their voices.
Influenced by artists like Michael Jackson, Usher, Fred Hammond and Destiny’s Child, the pair is about to return to the public eye with a set at Holiday RAWK at Brookyln Night Bazaar on Dec. 20.
Something tells us we’re about to hear a lot more from them.