Ahead of this year’s Meltdown, its curator, the groundbreaking musician M.I.A., spoke about her vision of the festival as a platform for creative pioneers.
Many of the artists in this year’s Meltdown advocate the right to love whom you choose and to interrogate social norms around gender. This corresponds to the way young audiences see the world - a 2015 poll by YouGov showed that 49% of 18-24-year-olds don’t consider themselves completely heterosexual.
At M.I.A.’s Meltdown, they’re represented by artists who identify as LGBTQ or QTPOC, are open about queer experiences of gender and sexuality and write song lyrics expressing same-sex desire or non-binary identities. Let us introduce the rising stars behind a queer musical revolution.
Until very recently, LGBTQ hip-hop fans have had to read between the lines to find artists to identify with, with performers often unwilling to unequivocally ‘out’ themselves to audiences. In the 2010s, a new wave of rappers, such as Zebra Katz and Le1f, have created music dealing with queer themes, but in doing so risked compartmentalising themselves.
In this context, New York-based music magazine The Fader made headline news out of Young M.A’s acceptance by mainstream hip-hop. This year, their long read interview with the newly notorious artist asked: ‘Women and queer-identifying rappers are often defined by their gender and orientation first. How did Young M.A get to be “regular”?’
It’s questionable whether Young M.A’s rise to fame could best be described as regular. Aged 24, she made swaggering debut single 'Ooouuu' and found her song Instagrammed by Beyoncé, who invited her to perform her first show outside a club - in an 82,000-seat stadium.
Her popularity might lie in the fact that lyrics about bedding beautiful women and seducing rivals’ girlfriends sit neatly into the framework of straight male hip-hop braggadocio. But as a queer woman, her presence on airwaves and in bedrooms subverts the beliefs on which the framework is built: that to be macho is the opposite of being female, or gay.
Amidst grunge-chic fashion shoots and meltingly sensual collaborations with other artists from the Awful Records collective, Tommy Genesis fuses lyrics to present a take on sexuality which is complex, fresh and queer. In a single line, she’ll switch from rapping about a potential boyfriend to referencing the ladies she lays, and debut album World Vision featured singles like ‘Shepherd’ (‘about a girl who broke my heart’).
Her unflinchingly specific writing about her love life might remind listeners of the hypersexual vibes of mainstream pop, but this is a more confessional, analytical approach that calls into question cultural norms of gender and desire. In interviews she refers to her schoolgirl attire as ‘drag’, explaining ‘I have a masculine and feminine duality (we all do)’. ‘If I had it my way, you wouldn’t know my gender,’ she told W Magazine. ‘I hate being put into any box.’
On her 2014 debut album, Metallic Butterfly, Princess Nokia imagined an all-female community living off the land in the song ‘Young Girls.’ ‘It was kind of like writing a place where they could raise their children and be happy and live amongst each other. And there would be no men and there would be no technology... It would be very harmonious and holistic.’
Helping young women of colour flourish is a theme to which Princess Nokia’s artistic output often returns. In tracks like ‘Tomboy’ and ‘Brujas’ she presents herself proudly as a desirable woman who doesn’t conform to mainstream gender values, or a powerful witch who draws on the spiritual aspects of her Yoruban, Taino and New York Puerto Rican ancestry. She conceived her art collective Smart Girl Club to empower women of all backgrounds, putting out poetry, zines and a regular podcast exploring politics, spirituality and creativity.
Offering an enchanting alternative to the racism and sexism of mainstream culture, she’s creating a musical world that a lot of women want to live in.
Using a mix of pronouns throughout his career, Mykki Blanco doesn’t resist definition so much as ask people to pay closer attention. During a time in which he identified as trans feminine, he often had to correct critics who saw him as a drag performer; he still has to clarify that his reference points include riot grrrl music and performance art.
A teenage runaway, he’d been an Elle magazine intern, a playwright, a poet and a performance artist by the time he found music aged 26, in a YouTube skit playing a teenage girl who aspired to be a rapper. Fantasy became reality as he began releasing music as an independent artist, collaborating with Le Tigre’s Kathleen Hanna, touring with Bjork and gaining a celebrity following for albums that explored everything from punk to hip-hop to noise.
When he came out as HIV positive in 2015, he was worried this would be too ‘real’ for audiences and that he would no longer be able to make music; instead, it lit a fire under his career, leading to the release of his debut album, Mykki, in 2016. His lyrics and music videos give vent to uncomfortable and important truths about queer lives and experiences, less cabaret glitter than grime and grit.
Rising to prominence as part of queer, feminist riot grrrl band Le Tigre, JD Samson has long been a figurehead for the LGBTQI community. Her art-dance band JD Samson & MEN makes high-energy electronica dealing with queer rights and left-wing causes – she says she hopes eventually more musicians ‘will be less apathetic and afraid to be literal with their politics’.
JD’s political activism has included a musical collaboration in support of Russian protest punks Pussy Riot and a TED talk about the violence and oppression experienced by queer people. As a visibly genderqueer person, she is ‘used to the feeling of being a stand-in… for my community’ whether she’s appearing in a music video or an indie film. This time, it’s good to be part of a line-up of queer artists. ‘I am lucky to be in such amazing company at Meltdown and think that M.I.A. has done some really important work as a curator to include marginalized artists for a large-scale festival.’
She’s pretty sure M.I.A. is correct about where music is heading: ‘I think the future of music is open and that is essentially queer.’
by Lucy Peters