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To The Nines & Beyond: Gender Expression Among Black Artists

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I’m not a woman. I’m not a man. I am something that you’ll never understand.

Prince – “I Would Die 4 U”

I type this as I finish my late night skincare routine. I type this after preparing my Halloween costume. I type this coming off a week of watching the music video for “Bloom” by Troye Sivan about a couple dozen times. I type this in the midst of a tumultuous week for transgender rights in the United States.

This really should not have to be said; yet here we are. Gender is a spectrum, perhaps even a myth. Enforcing societal norms for gender inhibit full, authentic expression. And laws that erase, inadvertently or otherwise, an entire group of people are complete and utter garbage.

I’ve definitely spent my fair share of late nights thinking about how I express myself and how I want to express myself. That includes, but not limited to, my music, my dancing, my writing, my photography, and the people in my life. Especially with the inspiration of my friends, culture, and city, it wouldn’t exactly be farfetched if I were on the spectrum of gender nonconformity. My dear friends are full of rainbow life: they dress how they want to dress, date who they want to date, and express themselves with wild abandon. My culture include hundreds of Black artists who have encouraged people from all walks of life to be themselves with wild abandon, whatever that means. And as for my city? My city is the epicenter for the LGBTQ+ community; look no further than Stonewall Inn. Twenty-four years deep into this thing called life, these late night soliloquies probably won’t stop anytime soon. Answers may have more clarity, but that’s the only guarantee I can predict. Yet as I become more comfortable in my own skin, I welcome any change and growth that is bound to come my way!

Now that I’m off my soapbox, allow me to relate this to music.

As Pop music progresses into more avant-garde, experimental, and personal territory, detractors come out in droves to discredit the changing landscape for a multitude of reasons. As it pertains to gender expression, anything that deviates from what society has deemed normal almost instantly receives backlash. And God forbid if a person of color chooses to express gender outside the binary. From Little Richard to Frank Ocean, this is a tale as old as time, with no happy ending in sight. Even with movements that encourage us to lower our inhibitions about gender, I can’t help but feel that there’s always going to be roadblocks that enforce those same inhibitions.

Throughout his life, not just his career, Prince Rogers Nelson defied the lines of sexuality and gender expression. Not even getting into what he did for the word androgyny (or the color purple), he wore panties, high heels and a trench coat on stage even if audiences pelted trash and half consumed alcohol at him. In the Kiss video, he sang and danced in a crop top, more high heels, and quasi bell-bottoms next to his bandmate Wendy Melovin. At the 1991 VMAs, he performed in front a TV-14 orgy and a ravenous Universal Amphitheatre, in a high wasted knitted suit that has his ass hang out…and even more high heels. Despite questionable personal views, he is without a doubt a pioneer when it comes to queer icons; even if it took a while, he died a legend in the eyes of millions because he wasn’t afraid to be himself.

Yet in 2018, Lil Wayne decides to wear a hooded shawl, leg warmers, and knee high boots at a concert, only to be met with endless derision and complaints that he’s ruining Hip Hop. This is less about going to bat for a multimillionaire rapper who has made bold fashion choices before (lime green Ugg boots still haunt me to this day) and more about what the online derision means for anyone who wants to express themselves this way without have Lil Wayne’s clout/wealth. From reading the Facebook comments (not my brightest idea), I feel preemptive pity for any potential children.

I would be quite remiss to mention that a lot of this mockery does come from my fellow black men/men of color. In a culture too dominated by hyper masculinity, entitlement, and aggression, it can feel quite intimidating to even think about any type of expression outside that norm. Frank Ocean dared to write an open letter confessing his love and adoration for one of his male best friends, only for Chris Brown to tweet “no homo” and apparently call him a f**got while jumping him months later. Among his fair share of controversies, Michael Jackson had to fend off dozens of rumors about his gender/sexual expression throughout his life, including a nefarious one about a sex change to marry Clifton Davis. Then when it comes to the women, girls groups such as TLC, SWV, and Xscape were encouraged to switch up to a sultrier style after starting their careers wearing baggy clothes from head to toe.

I could go on and on for pages. As evident with Lil Wayne, this is still a problem that needs further addressing. Halloween means a lot to many people for many reasons. Yet in terms of dressing up and trying something new, people spend major chunks of their lives limiting those parts of themselves in order to fit in to society. As we all prepare for Halloween festivities, let’s not simply limit our inclinations to dress up and express ourselves to this one day. If you want to keep wearing a dress come November, then rock that dress. Wanna keep wearing baggy jeans and oversized sports jerseys? Go back to 2005 Then wear them with wild abandon. Especially considering all of the controversy caused by The White House, the most rebellious action to really irritate them is to be yourself.