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How LGBTQ+ Hip-Hop Artists Found Their Voices and Changed Culture

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Tupac, Queen Latifah and Page Hodel at Hodel's LGBTQ+ party, The Box, in the early '90s. (Courtesy of Page Hodel)

Editor’s note: This story is part of That’s My Word, KQED’s year-long exploration of Bay Area hip-hop history.

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n 1990, three years before she asked the world “Who you callin’ a bitch?” on her breakout hit “U.N.I.T.Y.,” Queen Latifah was an up-and-coming artist signed to Tommy Boy Records. Her labelmates, Oakland’s Digital Underground, had a smash hit with “The Humpty Dance,” and Latifah joined them on a national tour.

That year, Latifah had the chance to play her first major headlining show — finally, a gig that would pay her more than $10,000. It was a New Year’s Eve celebration at “this cool gay club in San Francisco,” she recalled in a 2022 interview with Hot Ones. She called up her friend, Digital Underground roadie-turned-rapper Tupac, and told him to meet her there. “They went crazy in there!,” she remembers.

“I was like, ‘They’re gonna tear you out your clothes,’” she remembered telling Tupac. “He took his shirt off anyway. We had so. Much. Fun.”

That party? The Box, the boundary-breaking club spearheaded by San Francisco DJ and promoter Page Hodel. Though Queen Latifah didn’t publicly speak of having same-sex partners until 2021, The Box clearly had a big enough draw that the rewards of performing in a queer space outweighed the potential risks of being outed.

An artist on stage speaking into a microphone.
Juba Kalamka (left) of Oakland queer hip-hop group Deep Dickollective with poet Exodus Williams in the early 2000s. (Courtesy of Juba Kalamka)

The late ’80s and early ’90s were a fraught time for LGBTQ+ hip-hop artists. In the male-dominated genre, homophobic lyrics were common, even as the AIDS crisis raged on. Although many influential golden-era female rappers such as Latifah, Da Brat and Special One of Oakland’s the Conscious Daughters eventually came out as lesbian or bisexual, the LGBTQ+ artists of rap largely had to keep their sexuality private to appeal to straight fans and have a chance at major-label success.

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Making matters more complicated was that the gay scene in San Francisco wasn’t as inclusive as one would expect from the nation’s LGBTQ+ mecca. Gay clubs regularly discriminated against Black and Brown patrons. LGBTQ+ hip-hop artists in the ’80s and ’90s found themselves squeezed between racism, sexism and homophobia — rendered close to invisible.

Still, across the Bay Area, a multicultural groundswell of DJs, rappers and promoters refused to be sidelined, and worked hard to create inclusive spaces that pushed the music and culture forward. Not everyone agreed on the same definition of inclusivity; even this small community had its tensions. But — as we can see now with the success of LGBTQ+ artists like Lil Nas X, Cardi B, Big Freedia, Saucy Santana and Young M.A., as well as hip-hop’s central role in Pride celebrations around the country — these ongoing, collective efforts created profound ripple effects through the music industry and culture as a whole.

In the ’80s, hip-hop enters gay clubs

When she started The Box at the Kennel Club in 1988 — before it became popular enough to attract the likes of Queen Latifah and Tupac — Page Hodel took a risk. Most of San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ nightlife catered to gay men. But in the late ’80s, Hodel launched two events: her women’s party, Club Q, and the Box, a rare space where all LGBTQ+ identities could mingle.

A black-and-white flyer features diverse female dancers.
A Club Q flyer from 1989. (Courtesy of Page Hodel)

Hodel had been a hip-hop fan since the genre’s inception. She came of age in the ’70s during the early days of the LGBTQ+ and second-wave feminist movements, at the height of the folk-driven women’s music scene. But Hodel, who is white and from Marin County, went in a different direction and joined a multiracial funk band in the East Bay.

Even before “Rapper’s Delight” hit the airwaves in 1979, Hodel had sold her guitar for turntables and began playing funk and soul records. (Eventually, she became one of the first women in the country to do a mix show on a major radio station, spinning at KSOL, KMEL and Live 105.) A birthday party of hers in San Francisco attracted so many women that venues began hiring her to DJ. Getting paid to play records and watch cute girls dance? For Hodel, it was a win-win.

The first Club Q was held at a space called the Warehouse, on 11th Street, in the industrial South of Market district. “It was this totally cool, very industrial, open space with catwalks around,” she says. “It was just fabulous.”

By the ’90s, Club Q was so popular that it attracted 1,500 women to destinations like Club Townsend and other venues each month. Hodel ran it until 2003, and the Box until 1999. She recruited go-go dancers of every body type, and flyers from both parties show young, diverse attendees dancing, hugging and beaming.

“I wanted everybody to feel perfect and beautiful,” Hodel says. “And so I made sure to put the messaging out into the world on the flyers. The flyers had people of all sizes and all shapes and colors and abilities, and it was like, ‘This is who we really are. This is the community.’”

“At that time, things were very divided in terms of where you would find who,” said Richelle Donigan, a Club Q regular and choreographer, in the 2003 documentary Club Q, The Legendary Dance Party for Women. “Everything was like white, straight, gay — the Black girls hang out over here, the Hispanic and Latino women [here]. … What was really cool about Page was that there was no divide for her.”

A black-and-white photo of a diverse group of women posing together.
Club Q partygoers with Page Hodel (fourth from right) in the early ’90s. (Courtesy of Page Hodel)

The music selection at Club Q was just as diverse as the people on the dance floor. Hodel — who had spent a few years in the ’80s living in a renovated school bus named Roxanne, after Roxanne Shanté, one of the first prominent female MCs — played a mix of Top 40 and underground music to appeal to the different kinds of dancers. And she kept hip-hop in rotation, which earned her fans outside the LGBTQ+ scene.

“In the ’80s, if you wanted to hear good hip-hop, you went to where Page and the lesbians were,” said radio host and San Francisco State University Professor David “Davey D” Cook in a 2014 interview. “Straight people and hip-hop people went to her clubs, because she had respect; she played hardcore things like 2 Live Crew.”

Caught between -isms, Black queer people create their own spaces

As rap climbed the charts, it also experienced a national backlash. During the ’90s tough-on-crime era, politicians spoke of artists like Tupac and Ice T as bogeymen, and used them as foils to conservative, white American values. And while sexism and homophobia were social problems that crossed racial lines, critics tended to single out hip-hop as if it were uniquely problematic.

Black, an Oakland DJ, sensed condescension towards the genre even within the LGBTQ+ nightlife circuit. “[People] thought it was going to be a phase. It was going to go away. It would never exist beyond the urban scene,” she recalls.

Shortly after high school in Houston, Black moved to San Francisco. While spending time with family in Oakland’s Acorn Projects, she became immersed in the music of local rappers like Too Short and RBL Posse, along with East Coast artists like De La Soul, the Fugees and Wu-Tang Clan.

There was misogyny in some of the lyrics, to be sure. But Black was gripped by songs that addressed real issues in her community: civic neglect, addiction and mass incarceration. “The music was moving a generation of folks who were dissatisfied with the way things were going,” she says.

Black plays music from a bus during the People’s March and Rally on Polk Street heading toward City Hall in San Francisco on June 27, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Eventually, Black would become a mentor to countless Bay Area DJs and open for major acts like Erykah Badu and The Roots. When she started out in hip-hop, she at one point harbored ambitions of becoming an MC herself, but decided to lean into DJing after watching Dominique DiPrima interview the Coup’s Pam the Funkstress at a live taping of her hip-hop cultural affairs show, Home Turf, on KRON.

Black yearned for a women’s party that didn’t just include hip-hop, but centered it — a party for and by queer women of color. “In the early ’90s, I felt like, ‘How can you have this many people of color come to a club and not support a genre of music?’” she says.

So Black took matters into her own hands. With the help of her DJ friends, Nadeeah, Saun Toy, Tei, Lauren, RaheNi and Ananda, she started the Bay Area’s first hip-hop party for women. On a stoned evening, they named it A.B.L.U.N.T.: Asians, Blacks and Latins Uniting New Tribes.

Long before social media, Black had to be strategic when it came to promotion. “We had to hit the clubs that we knew that people of color would go to, and hand out flyers — not to white folks,” she says, noting that her methods sometimes drew accusations of discrimination.

She’d shoot back: “How am I being racist? Y’all have a whole entire white club right here that you would go into.”

For some rappers, coming out is complicated

Around the time A.B.L.U.N.T. was taking shape, one of the nation’s few prominent LGBTQ+ rappers of the ’90s made her debut: the late Karryl “Special One” Smith of the Conscious Daughters, an Oakland duo whose groundbreaking debut Ear to the Street arrived in 1993.

Backed by their mentor Paris, the militantly political rapper who’d been dropped by Time Warner because of his song “Bush Killa,” the Daughters traveled in hardcore rap circles where they went toe-to-toe with straight men in cyphers. Though Special One wasn’t yet out within the music scene, she didn’t hide her love of women in her private life. In fact, she and Black became friends because both of their girlfriends lived in the same apartment complex. “There’s no words to describe how incredible of a human being she was, and how solid — she was there for you,” Black remembers.

Along with Queen Latifah in New York, the Conscious Daughters became part of a national wave of female rappers lyrically challenging sexism, and addressing topics like domestic violence with a gangster twist. “It was such a great combination of us being street and somewhat knowledgeable and conscious, and uplifting women, Black women — all underprivileged people,” says Carla “CMG” Green, the surviving member of the Conscious Daughters.

A black-and-white promotional photo of the Conscious Daughters, two young women who look up at the camera with serious expressions.
Karryl “Special One” Smith (left) and Carla “CMG” Green (right) of the Conscious Daughters in the 1990s. (Priority Records)

With the hit singles “Somethin’ To Ride To (Fonky Expedition)” and “We Roll Deep,” Ear to the Street hit No. 25 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Albums Chart, and the Daughters were on their way to stardom: they toured with A Tribe Called Quest and Outkast, and Jay-Z opened for them long before he was a household name.

Many female rappers in the early ’90s had a tough, “just-one-of-the-guys” image, but it was less acceptable for them to like women. By the mid-’90s, record labels began to shift resources toward female MCs with feminine, sexy images, and the Daughters hit a ceiling. It was during this time that Special One started being more public about her sexuality, despite an expectation in the music industry to fly under the radar.

“When she came out of the closet, one of our friends was like, ‘Tell Karryl to stay out of the gay club,’ because it wasn’t cool to be gay then,” CMG recalls. “So she was like, ‘Oh, fuck it, I’m gay. And Darlene’s my girlfriend.’ She pointed to this girl.”

Though supportive of her friend, even CMG, who is straight, experienced a momentary panic: As an underground female duo, the Conscious Daughters already faced slim chances of mainstream success. Now, they could be marginalized even further. “We all started crying,” she shares with regret. “I was like, ‘People are going to think I’m gay.’ It was this whole scenario.”

But CMG quickly realized that, above all, she needed to have her best friend’s back. The two remained close and continued to collaborate until Special One’s death in 2011.

“Turns out all the women now look just like her,” CMG says with pride. “She was so ahead of her time, her dressing — she dressed like Ellen back then, with the fly shoes and the vests. She was really a trendsetter. But we had no idea that she was going to be the future, you know?”

Indeed, only a couple years later, in 1997, Brooklyn’s Queen Pen — who shot up the Billboard charts as a featured artist on Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” in 1996 — made history with her song “Girlfriend,” featuring Meshell Ndegeocello, where Pen raps to a man, threatening to steal his girl.

Though she dodged reporters’ questions about how she identified, she told The New York Times in 1998 that “two or three years from now, people will say Queen Pen was the first female to bring the lesbian life to light on wax.”

Super-producer Teddy Riley, who worked on the song, heralded it as a sign of progress. “She is teaching women to be what they want to be,” he said at the time. “It’s another level for the rap game.”

Still, Riley correctly speculated that it would take many years for a gay or bisexual male rapper to break through to the mainstream. It was easy for rap’s straight, male audience to fantasize about two women together. But when it came to desire between two men, “I can only tell you the street mentality,” he said. “It’s all right for a woman. But a man?”

The queer hip-hop party circuit expands

By the mid-’90s, more queer hip-hop parties began to spring up, including San Francisco’s Club Red, created by Jamaican American promoter Chantal Salkey. Salkey, who died in 2010, was passionate about giving a platform to queer women of color DJs including Black and Olga T, who identified as a lesbian at the time, but now identifies as trans masculine and uses he/him pronouns.

“Suddenly lesbians are loving hip-hop,” says Olga, who had learned to DJ during the ’90s Club Q era as Page Hodel’s apprentice. Though originally a house music head, Olga made a name for himself while spinning hip-hop at Club Red. The same event producers went on to create Mango, the ongoing, popular hip-hop and Latin music party for women and their friends that Olga has headlined for the past 27 years at El Rio in San Francisco.

A DJ beat-matches two records on turntables.
Olga T spins at the Dyke March in San Francisco in 1996. (Courtesy of Olga T)

In the early 2000s, on the other side of the bridge in Oakland, promoter Christiana Remington began throwing a monthly women’s hip-hop party called Butta, where Special One was a regular, and would sometimes even get on the mic. Though it attracted hundreds of mostly Black and Brown women each month, Remington ran into some of the same discriminatory attitudes that Black did when she started A.B.L.U.N.T. in the early ’90s.

People called it a “ghetto party,” Remington told LGBTQ+ newspaper Bay Area Reporter in 2011. “It just hurt me so much because it was just a beautiful party,” she said. “Just because it’s predominantly more of one color there doesn’t mean that it’s that. … It’s unfortunate that we have that in our own community.”

Despite these harsh judgments, Butta became a major support for queer women in hip-hop. “I got my break from Christiana Remington,” says Femme Deadly Venoms rapper Aima the Dreamer, who currently produces another long-running party for queer people of color, Soulovely, with house music DJ Emancipation and Lady Ryan, another star of the local hip-hop scene.

After moving to the Bay Area from Hawai’i as a young adult in 2001, Aima came up in the straight-leaning spoken word and conscious hip-hop scenes. In LGBTQ+ nightlife, Aima struggled to be taken seriously as a rapper because of their femme appearance. Their glitter, flowers in their hair and seven-inch platforms didn’t match the masculine presentation of most lesbian rappers.

“You saw these masc MCs who came in and and they were emulating the toxic masculinity of hip-hop, and talking about all the women that they had and the alcohol that they drink and all this stuff,” Aima says. “And here I came in talking about social justice and what it would be like if we healed our trauma.”

As a rapper, Aima later found success touring internationally with groups like Jazz Mafia and J Boogie’s Dubtronic Science. “I also got to have the experience of being a very out, loud and proud queer MC in these very straight spaces,” says Aima, who now identifies as nonbinary. “Pretty much like nine times out of ten after I got off stage, there would be other queer people in the space who would be like, ‘Wow, thank you. I’m queer too, and I exist in this space and I often feel alone, or unseen, or a token.’”

The HERstory crew circa 2002. Top row, left to right: Shanta, Aza, Hobbs, Samantha (Sister Squid), Black, Dovanna, Boyuyaka, Amalia. Bottom row: Jessica, Loushana Rosa, Sandra, Leema, Tiffany, Aima the Dreamer. (Courtesy of Black)

‘Homo-hop’ finds its voice in the underground

While a small number of queer rappers found footholds in straight rap spaces, the price of admission for many was downplaying or altogether hiding their sexuality. Meanwhile, a contingent of artists rebelled against the status quo and created a queer movement in the underground: homo-hop.

The experimental hip-hop group Rainbow Flava emerged from San Francisco in 1997, and one of the members, Dutchboy, launched Phat Family, an online community and email listserv that allowed queer hip-hop artists and fans from all over the world to connect for the first time. In 1998, Phat Family became a record label, and featured national and international LGBTQ+ rappers like LA hardcore rapper Deadlee, Chicago battle rapper El Don and Maasen from Stockholm, Sweden. Other email listservs and message boards, like the now-defunct, London-based GayHipHop.com, soon followed.

A four-person rap group stares into the camera.
Rainbow Flava in 2000. (Courtesy of Joey Magazine)

“There were people communicating; there were people communing. Even if the opportunities to perform in a club were few and far between,” says former Rainbow Flava member Juba Kalamka, noting that LGBTQ+ parties that played mainstream rap records didn’t typically book local live performers.

After moving to the Bay Area from Chicago in 1999, Kalamka — then known as Pointfivefag — joined Rainbow Flava with Dutchboy, DJ Monkey, Reh-Shawn, Tori Fixx and N.I.Double-K.I. Concurrently, he started the hip-hop group Deep Dickollective with 25Percenter (Tim’m T. West) and LSP the Lightskindid Phil/osopher (Phillip Atiba Goff).

Deep Dickollective (D/DC) emerged from spoken word and academic circles; West and Goff had met as Stanford PhD students, and the group’s name took inspiration from another radical performance group called the Punany Poets. On their 2001 debut album, BourgieBohoPostPomoAfroHomo, D/DC’s style is cerebral and jarring, with rapid-fire, tongue-twisting rhymes and lyrics that reclaim homophobic slurs. They sounded nothing like the trunk-rattling, funky mobb music the Bay Area was known for — and they didn’t need to. D/DC were creating their own lane, and giving new meaning to the phrase “We Out.”

“I understood at that time we were out, post-grad, Black — a couple of us HIV positive and out about it — and fat and weirdos. We were not grist for the mainstream mill, if you will,” Kalamka says. “And I didn’t have any delusions about that, so I just felt like the whole point of us doing what we were doing was to say what we wanted to say and just be straight up about it.”


D/DC ran their own label, Sugartruck Recordings. And in 2001, Kalamka launched another important platform: the PeaceOUT World Homo Hop Festival, which took place during East Bay Pride.

“If the Phat Family listserv was where people got to know each other existed, PeaceOUT was where people got to meet each other,” Kalamka says.

The first PeaceOUT was at Oakland’s Preservation Park. The audience was small, but hungry to hear rap that spoke to their life experience instead of using it as a punchline. “There were maybe 50 people who showed up for that. But you thought there were 500 people in the room,” Kalamka recalls. “It was just — it was wild.”

A yellow and black text flyer advertises three days of shows from Aug. 30-Sept. 1, 2002, with acts such as Deadlee, Deep Dickollective, the Conscious Daughters and Rainbow Flava.
A PeaceOUT World Homo Hop Festival flyer from 2002. (Courtesy of Juba Kalamka)

The festival eventually expanded into a three-day affair, and continued annually until 2007 at underground venues like the Oakland Metro Operahouse and 21 Grand. It featured notable acts like the Conscious Daughters, God-des and JenRo.

Several PeaceOUT artists were the focus of a 2006 homo-hop documentary called Pick Up the Mic, which screened at festivals around the country. Many of them had stories of being shut out of rap battles or denied bookings because straight, male artists didn’t want to share the stage with them.

“Hip-hop fights against oppression, but at the same time it takes on the role of the oppressor by mirroring society at large: male-centered, patriarchal and classist,” Kalamka told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2003.

JenRo, who was 20 years old when she first performed at PeaceOUT, struggled with that dynamic. Though she earned respect from straight, male peers for winning rap battles, independent labels that saw her talent had doubts that she would succeed as an out lesbian. Some went as far as asking her to change her lyrics.

“I even had some labels like try to switch me up,” she says. “You know, maybe if I femme things up a bit or girly things up a bit, you can expand your audience. I think at the end of the day, I wanted to be comfortable; I wanted to be me.”

A pink flyer with black text advertises "A homo hop/spoken weird xtravaganza!"
A flyer for Deep Dickollective’s first show in 2000. (Courtesy of Juba Kalamka)

‘Where my gay bitches at?’

Today, JenRo is still going for her musical dreams, and unabashedly making music for women who love women: Last year, her seductive song “Drip Wet” was featured in an episode of the hit series P Valley. Though she took many professional risks by being out from the beginning, she now takes pride in having helped to open up space for more people to be themselves.

“When I see other LGBT artists out, doing their thing, I’m like, ‘Yes!’ It’s a movement,” she says.

A masculine female rapper in baggy pants raps next to a male dancer wearing a shirt airbrushed with her name.
JenRo performs in San Francisco circa 2012. (Courtesy of JenRo)

Until a few years ago, LGBTQ+ hip-hop artists had the choice of either hiding or performing for mostly gay audiences at small clubs and the occasional Pride parade. But recently, that’s begun to change — both because of some big-name artists coming out, and because queer and trans artists can now attract large audiences on social media.

Big Freedia transcended the New Orleans bounce music scene through early success on YouTube, and is now a household name who’s collaborated with Beyoncé. With numerous viral hits on TikTok, Saucy Santana — who entered hip-hop as City Girls’ makeup artist — has worked with some the biggest it girls of rap, including Latto and Flo Milli. “I came in gay, and I came in swinging,” Saucy Santana told ABC News earlier this year.

But Kalamka warns that these barrier-breaking artists’ success isn’t necessarily a sign that straight, cisgender male music industry gatekeepers have become more inclusive. (Indeed, some have only gotten more conservative.) “The tools exist now for people to clap back and to sustain the clap in a way that they could not previously,” Kalamka says.

“You have a paradigm that exists now where people are inclined and have the ability to make their own communities, to make their own economies around their music, around their art,” he adds, noting that it’s significant that record-breaking queer rapper Lil Nas X came out after “Old Town Road” had already reached No. 1 on Billboard in 2019.

Still, some popular artists like Oakland-raised R&B star Kehlani have never hidden their queer identities — which the singer discussed publicly as early as 2015, when they got their first FADER cover story. Collaborations with superstars like Justin Bieber and Cardi B followed. And in 2021, Kehlani prompted tens of thousands of fans to cheer when they asked the crowd, “Where my gay bitches at?” before performing their 2017 queer love song, “Honey,” at San Francisco’s Outside Lands festival.

Oakland’s Kamaiyah — who has collaborated with major stars like Drake and YG — now raps about same-sex love interests: “Is she gay? / Or is she straight? / I’m a hoe,” she declares on her latest single, “Groupies.” And San Jose-raised, bilingual artist Snow tha Product flaunts her love of women, which hasn’t stopped her international rise as a face of Spotify’s 2023 hip-hop campaign in Mexico.

Still, we’re a long way from mainstream America embracing a full spectrum of queerness — or an expansion of gender roles in general. But with Gen Z rising up as the queerest generation in the nation’s history, it’s only a matter of time before rap — and the music industry as a whole — shifts further, along with the rest of culture.

“I think the more that we are authentic and tell our stories and tell our truths through our music,” as Aima the Dreamer says, “the more room you make for people to do the same.”

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