Four Bay Area lesbians are rising stars in a genre that has long-shunned LGBT artists.
SF Weekly (Cover story)
It’s an unusually warm Sunday in October, and half a dozen women mill around the Chabot Space and Science Center in East Oakland, in a room designed to look like a Mission Control. Dressed in black latex, metallic fabrics, and colorful wigs, the women pound away on large, clunky keyboards, mouthing silent words into disconnected landline phones and scribbling gibberish into notebooks.
Suddenly, they stop what they’re doing and glance up, their eyes directed to the front of the room, where a 5-foot-4-inch woman stands. Except for her rainbow-tinted cyclops sunglasses, she’s dressed entirely in black and silver, and her short brown hair is woven into tight braids that hug her skull. Even though the silver gleams on her shoulders are actually drainage grates, and the “armor” on her elbows is rollerblading pads, her DIY outfit has done the trick.
JenRo looks like a futuristic astronaut from a faraway planet.
Arms straight at her sides, like a soldier, she clears her throat and begins her monologue: “Planet Earth, do you read me? Straight people, can you hear me? Animals, can you hear me? We’re calling all people, not just lesbians, who want to come to Planet Z. We’re coming back to collect our allies. Do not be afraid. You have not been left behind. You will not be left out of the party. Planet Z is here for you.”
They’re filming a music video for the lead single of JenRo’s album, Planet Z.The song tells the tale of a fictional future in which every nation sends its lesbians to the faraway world. It’s not clear why they’ve chosen to do so, but it’s ostensibly for homophobic reasons. And yet their plans backfire. Planet Z ends up becoming the place to be, where parties go on for days, and everyone has a grand old time. Pretty soon, people of all sexual orientations are boarding spaceships headed for Planet Z, deserting the now-dull Earth en masse.
Despite the fact that Planet Z was intended only for lesbians, the planet’s occupants welcome newcomers with open arms. In the video, JenRo and her specially equipped cadre of assistants return to Earth to scoop up those who have been left behind.
Though she admits it’s a silly premise, the idea of a utopian society in which lesbians are the leaders and not the outcasts is something the 33-year-old — who pairs her raps with eclectic soundscapes, that range from smooth R&B cuts to upbeat, bass-heavy and hyphy-influenced bangers — has been thinking about for a while.
“As a lesbian, I feel like I’m on another level or planet than everyone else,” she says. “But Planet Z is where you can be yourself and just have fun no matter who you are.”
In many ways, this is a goal not only for JenRo, but for other Bay Arealesbian rappers as well. Artists like Blimes Brixton, YSD, and Babii Cris may not have devised a theoretical planet to escape to, but they’ve made names for themselves in other ways, and not just as queer or female rappers, but as rappers in general. And though they’re by no means the only queer emcees in the region, they represent the struggles and hardships that artists with similar backgrounds must go through, even in the relatively left-leaning Bay Area.
“I want to prove to the world that, first and foremost, we are humans,” JenRo says. “And we want to be taken with as much value as any other rapper, artist, or singer.”
A RAP OF ONE’S OWN
Songwriting is a means of expressing and discovering oneself, and many of the rappers I spoke with started penning songs around the same time they realized they were gay.
Blimes Brixton, a 27-year-old emcee from San Francisco who recently changed her name from Oh Blimey, realized she was gay in the seventh grade and started incorporating references of her newfound sexuality in her music soon thereafter.
“I think it went the other way around,” she says over the phone from her home in Los Angeles, where she has lived since 2011. “Rather than rapping helping me figure out who I was, it was more like once I figured out who I was in terms of who I liked and the fact that I was queer, it was easier for me to step out and express myself in creative ways. So I guess you could say I kind of found my voice and myself at the same time.”
The first time JenRo started rapping was at the age of 10, during a skit at summer camp. She wrote a song about raccoons on her bunk bed and how she hated her cabin leader, a move that did not bode well with her camp — she was pulled offstage — but it was an inspiring event nonetheless. She continued rapping through middle school and high school, crafting tracks about hanging out with her friends and discovering the city by taking BART and Muni to unexplored places. When she was a teenager, she realized she was gay, and her newfound realization began to pop up in her music as well.
“It just started to come out as I got older, because that’s what I was going through,” she says.
It was a daring move, she adds, because “everybody was pretty much afraid back then [in the ’90s] to be out.” But, as a self-described rebel who didn’t care what people thought, JenRo continued to be candid in her music, and even purposely included references to her sexuality in her music so as “to make it a point.”
Others, like Babii Cris — who is 23 and has a penchant for laid-back, old-school hip-hop sounds paired with jazzy instrumentals — have been slower to incorporate overtly gay references in their music. A friend of Cris’ mother taught her how to produce and record music on a home computer as a freshman in high school, and by the time Cris was a sophomore, she had started writing raps. Simultaneously, she also realized she was gay, which led her to pen love songs to the girls that she liked. But, unlike the other rappers, Cris never made it clear in her music what gender she was talking about, opting for words like “you” instead of “she” or “her.”
This trend continued in her music for years, until 2012, when Cris met her current girlfriend, Jackie, whom she describes as “the love of my life.” Cris uploaded a music video onto YouTube called “My World,” which was composed of photos and videos of her and Jackie. It was a big step, she says, not only for herself, but for Jackie as well because she had still not come out to her parents.
“We both opened each other up to being OK with being gay and feeling comfortable enough to let other people know,” she says.
To date, the video has received dozens of supportive comments, like, “Wishin yall the best!,” “Goals,” and “Omggg, you guys are so adorable.”
Thanks to “My World,” Cris now feels more comfortable expressing her sexuality in her music.
“A little bit ago, I wasn’t ready, but now I’m ready,” she says. “I don’t want to hold anything back anymore. The more that I make music, the less I want to hold back.”
‘WE DON’T WANT TO APPEAL TO NOBODY’
Brixton cut her teeth battle-rapping in middle school, where, as an openly gay tween, she was taunted with vile insults that more often than not included words like “faggot” and “dyke.”
“I heard all the negative comments that could have possibly been said about my sexuality, right there as a 12-year-old,” says the rapper who makes dark, bassy, and Southern rap-inspired music.
But that experience turned out to be helpful. Through battle-rapping, Brixton developed a thick skin, learning how to cope with the discrimination and negativity that she would face in later years as well.
YSD, a high-pitched, nasally rapper from Berkeley whose name stands for “Young Shorty Doowop,” has experienced her fair of hardships and challenges thanks to being both a woman and lesbian. She’s had song features pulled once artists found out she was gay, DJs have refused to play her music, and musicians haven’t wanted her name on the bill for a show because they don’t want to be associated with someone of a non-heterosexual orientation.
“You know how some people are, they’re closed-minded,” YSD says. “It’s crazy, and it happens all the time.”
JenRo has experienced her fair share of obstacles, as well. On multiple occasions, she’s had run-ins with promoters who have booked her “because they know I can draw a crowd and make them money,” she says, but who also demanded that she not include any references to being gay or lesbian in either her music or her stage banter with the audience.
“Some janky promoter who is homophobic wants to profit off of someone who is LGBT, but not let her say anything about that?” she says. “To me, that is just discriminatory.”
One trend she has also started noticing is labels who will add one queer artist to their roster — their “token gay person,” she says — so that they can brag about how diverse their label is.
And it’s not just the rappers’ sexualities that get in the way of their success, but their wardrobes, too. Because most of these women identify as studs, they don’t dress like stereotypical females, shunning crop tops and booty shorts for menswear items, like sweatshirts and baggy pants. And, unfortunately, these fashion choices don’t satisfy the industry-ingrained truism that “sex sells.”
“They always want to glam us up,” YSD says. “They want to change our whole persona and image because they want us to appeal to men, even though we don’t want to appeal to nobody, and we’re just trying to be ourselves.”
She points to well-known female hip-hop artists like Nicki Minaj and the openly bisexual Dej Loaf, who initially dressed in a more typically masculine fashion — or at the very least, in Minaj’s case, in a less revealing way — but who are now primped to the max. It’s no coincidence, YSD says, that those artists’ trajectories to fame coincided with the changes they made to their appearance.
Brixton, who started wearing baggy clothing in the fourth grade to hide her curvy frame, decries the fact that she can’t dress in a way that makes her feel more comfortable in her own skin without receiving negative comments or backlash from others.
“I get a lot of comments from men about how I’m ‘trying to be a dude’ or ‘I want to be a dude,’ which is a complete misconception,” she says. “I love being a woman. And I know that not fitting the ‘standard’ has affected the trajectory of my name, but I don’t let that disparage me.”
With her worker boots and loose-fitting overalls, JenRo, too, gets categorized as a “thug” or “tomboy.” Though she’s now an independent artist, she had previously been signed to record labels that were constantly trying to change her image and get her to dress in a way that appeals to heterosexual men. But, like the others, she pushed back on their suggestions to change, amplify, or modify her appearance, because that’s simply not who she is.
“I feel good when I am being myself onstage wearing and saying what I want,” she says. “And I’m not going to let anyone change that.”
INDEPENDENCE IS KEY
To maintain their independence, all four women have remained unsigned artists, a route which they recommend to any other lesbians looking to break into the rap game. After having “a lot of issues” with the two labels she’d signed with, JenRo started her own label, Ro Records, which will be celebrating its 10-year anniversary in 2017. She sells all her own merchandise and hardcopy CDs herself, and, after putting out five albums on her own, it’s paid off: In 2013, she purchased a house.
“I learned the ‘independent game’ being raised in the Bay Area, with role models like E-40,” she says. “I didn’t wait for anyone to put me on. I did it myself and made it happen.”
Last year, Brixton also started her own label, Peach House Records, which is strictly for female artists. Though she currently has a “silent partnership” with a label overseas, the reason it is “silent” is because she never wants to be controlled by someone else.
“I want to be completely in charge of my production and music,” she says, “and I don’t want someone telling me what to write about, how to present myself, or who to be.”
With Peach House Records, Brixton is not only able to do what she wants with her own music, but she can offer a similar safe haven of sorts to other female artists who feel like their identity and message could be impinged upon were they to sign with a major label.
YSD, who remains staunchly independent largely because she feels like she can make more money as a solo artist, supplements her musical career with acting gigs. She had a non-speaking role in the 2015 biopic Steve Jobsand appears in the YouTube show Lipstick Series; the Hulu show Chance; and FOX’s 2016 drama Pitch. She demonstrated her rapping chops in a cypher on Oxygen’s Sisterhood of Hip-Hop, and has a song that will appear in an upcoming episode of Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta.
As for Cris, she’s ensured that she has all the skills necessary to be her own operation. Thanks to electronic music classes she took while at community college, and later the audio production program at the San Francisco Art Institute, Cris can record, engineer, mix, and master all her own music. She has also built her own in-home studio, where she recorded both her debut and sophomore albums.
Through the skills they’ve acquired and the businesses they’ve created, each of these women has found their own way to subsist in the music industry without having to rely on others. Because even if a label or manager were to invite them to sign, it’s clear that maintaining their independence and right to be themselves is of the utmost importance to these four artists.
“Because at the end of the day,” JenRo says, “how can you be a truly great artist when you’re uncomfortable the whole time and not being yourself?”
The answer: You can’t.
BACK TO PLANET Z
Back at Chabot Space and Science Center, the women are now in another room, one that was recreated to look like the interior of a space shuttle. They’re filming a party scene, dancing around as “Planet Z” plays in the background through an iPhone. Standing in the front is JenRo, who gesticulates and nods her head as she mouths the chorus to the upbeat party song:
I like girls that like girls (x2) /
Girls in the front, girls in the back (x2) /
North to the East, to the West to the South /
Women on women!
The tinkly electronic melody fades to a single synth chord as JenRo pivots on her heels and heads to the space shuttle’s door for a dramatic exit. With her back perfectly straight and her arms pinned to her sides, she struts through the revolving door like a woman on a mission.
The cameraman yells, “Cut!” The extras stop dancing, and JenRo pushes her way back into the room.
“Was that too hard of a walk?” she asks the others, self-consciously.
They shake their heads in unison, as if to say, “No. It was perfect just as it was.”