In the past few years, queer representation in the music industry has skyrocketed, allowing for the pop music scene to feel increasingly diverse. However, Features writer Joel Calfee argues that while LGBTQ+ artists have become more visible, there is an underlying glorification of white artists, and the media, as well as consumers, must strive to elevate the work of queer artists of color.
Many people in 2014 considered the endless spins of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” to be a milestone for queer representation in the music industry. Others found it to be merely a cloying ballad that got lost in the deluge of Adele wannabes. One thing for certain was that, as a gay man, Smith was changing the face of mainstream music. But, was this face really all that remarkable?
Sure, Smith had come out as a gay man, but outwardly, he appeared like your typical cisgender, white man. Meanwhile, Smith was criticized for avoiding the use of the pronoun “he” in his early hits, even removing the word “boy” from his 2014 cover of Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know,” and replacing it with an anonymous “you.” Smith crafted cookie-cutter love songs that could have originated from anybody — gay or straight. Yet, he was heralded as a queer icon and his music was repeatedly played on the radio.
Yet, one can’t help but wonder whether Smith uses his marginalization as a gay man to disguise the fact that he is taking space from artists of color.
It is even more interesting to note how Smith has been recognized by institutions that traditionally honor black artists. He is currently the only Caucasian to have won the BET Award for “Best New Artist” in the history of the ceremony, and he has been honored with six Music of Black Origin Awards in the UK. A large portion of Smith’s music is influenced by soul — a genre that originated in the African-American community — so this might explain why these organizations often recognize him. Yet, one can’t help but wonder whether Smith uses his marginalization as a gay man to disguise the fact that he is taking space from artists of color. Furthermore, while Smith has been celebrated by these diverse organizations, he does not strive to present the LGBTQ+ community as diverse. All of his music videos are whitewashed, in that they rarely feature people of color, and when they do, they are never Smith’s romantic interests.
Sam Smith functions as the pinnacle of privilege because he borrows from artists of color and receives recognition that would not be equally granted to him if he were not white. It is revealing when we consider the work of Sam Smith compared to a queer contemporary like Frank Ocean, because Smith’s dissection of life as a queer man is innocuous and uninventive compared to Ocean. Consider Smith’s “Not In That Way” and Ocean’s “Bad Religion.” These are both tales of unrequited love, where Ocean delves into themes of love, obsession, and shame with greater nuance and precision. In Smith’s song, he sings: “I’d never ask you cause deep down / I’m certain I know what you’d say / You’d say I’m sorry, believe me, I love you / But not in that way.” Yet, these words seem to have far less substance compared to Ocean’s angle, where he cries: “If it brings me to my knees / It’s a bad religion / This unrequited love / To me it’s nothing but a one-man cult.”
Within Frank Ocean’s body of work, he has poetically explored how his sexuality intersects with other elements of identity, as well, including gender. His song “Chanel” was notable for its opening line, where he proudly proclaims, “My guy pretty like a girl.” Meanwhile, his visuals have challenged gender norms, whether it was his 360-page Boys Don’t Cry magazine, or the video for “Nikes,” where he wears heavy eyeliner, androgynous clothing, and a face covered in glitter.
Nevertheless, Ocean is not alone in these feats. Many artists of color are tackling their experiences as queer individuals, while also demonstrating the pliability of gender in their art. Take Janelle Monáe, who sports colorful pantsuits and chopped hair in the music video for “Make Me Feel,” which delightfully incorporates “bisexual lighting” and a set inspired by the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror. Consider Venezuelan music producer Arca, who released videos last year where he donned fishnet stockings, corsets, and even bondage suits. Note how Young Thug posed in a frilly, periwinkle dress for the cover of his 2016 mixtape Jeffery, while Jaden Smith has been rocking dresses and told fans at the 2018 Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival that rapper Tyler, the Creator is his boyfriend.
These trailblazers stand among a cohort of artists who are changing the musical game. Figures such as Kehlani, Syd, Hayley Kiyoko, Kevin Abstract, Mykki Blanco, and more demonstrate that queer musicians are abundant in our current musical landscape, and the majority of this representation is achieved by artists of color.
Thus, it seems shocking that Sam Smith is the only LGBTQ+ lead artist from the last ten years to be awarded one of the top four awards at the Grammys. It is strange that Halsey and Frank Ocean are the only two people of color to have won the award for Outstanding Music Artist from GLAAD Media in the last fourteen years. OUT magazine even published an article this year titled “13 Queer Singers You Might Not Know About,” and the majority of these artists were people of color. So, where are the public accolades for these artists?
Unfortunately, racist institutions like the Grammys choose to award artists like Sam Smith over more talented artists of color. Yet, we as consumers are culpable as well. While many denounce the racism prevalent in award ceremonies, it is often countered with the argument of commercial success. Sam Smith sells millions of albums and receives over 33 million monthly listeners on Spotify. Yet, talented artists like Ocean and Monáe sell much less and receive only 7 and 2 million monthly listeners, respectively. Meanwhile, Smith’s top listeners stem from cities across the world, while these artists of color get the majority of their listeners solely from the US.
This limited perspective will allow a white man to be the principal voice for the queer experience… it is the loudest voice, and right now, the least compelling.
Thus, as the consumers of music, we need to do better. Queer/trans artists of color are creating powerful music and challenging perceptions of queer people. We need to spin their songs on Spotify and barrage radio stations with requests for their songs. Instead of buying a Sam Smith concert ticket, we should buy one to see Kehlani or Hayley Kiyoko. In an era where racists are feeling empowered, it is vital that artists of color feel championed. The LGBTQ+ community is overflowing with diversity and that variety of perspective needs to be highlighted. Otherwise, this limited perspective will allow a white man to be the principal voice for the queer experience. This voice has been the loudest for too long, and right now, it is the least compelling.
Photos by Andrew Uhrig. Originally published in ROCKET Volume IX, Issue 1.