With more queer and trans representation in popular culture than ever, the Brooklyn rapper's story is one that the hip-hop world needs to see.
Photo: Elvin Tavarez
Transitions in hip-hop are rare. Clinging to the golden era or the height of your career is common, but particularly in rap music. Rappers can feel perpetually stuck as the person they were introduced to us as until the conclusion of their careers. Some rappers are afforded evolution, but it is a steep climb. For the vast population of hip-hop artists—and in the music business in general—artists are left trying to recreate the stardom that turned them into superstars. The sobering fact is that it will never quite feel the same because we’re living in a different time with a different audience being centered.
Ms. Boogie has evaded this by performing a type of hip-hop miracle. She was introduced to us earlier this decade as one of the few rap artists that proudly stated her LGBT identity under the name Jay Boogie. She gained popularity and critical acclaim from combining gritty street sensibility with a queer camp that created a world that many fans found home in and other fans found fascination inside, even if the world was foreign. At the time of Ms. Boogie’s arrival, “queer rap” (a label given to anyone who was queer and rapped regardless of their sonic sensibilities) was an underground subgenre that was explored for occasional media fodder but wasn’t necessarily taken as seriously as a viable creative and commercial genre.
With projects like her Jesus Loves Me Too, theses of God, religion, shame, sexuality, gender, and hip-hop bravado all lived amongst each other. Ms. Boogie has declared herself a brave artist.
Last month in Paper Magazine , Ms. Boogie wrote an open letter speaking about her transition, sharing that she is a trans woman. In it she writes, “I am currently evolving; I have been evolving since the beginning of my time and I will never stop evolving. In a practical world, I would be a ‘trans woman,’ but in the world that I have built for myself and my loved ones, I am simply myself.” Ms. Boogie shares her name change and her personal journey with gender expression in the letter. In the deeply transphobic and patriarchal space of rap music, it is revolutionary that someone is embracing their transness and refusing to compromise their musical or gender identity. She is forcing us to not grapple with her in segments, but in her enteriety.
The zeitgeist has been primed for a moment like this. With more queer and trans representation in public figures like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock along with hit programs like Viceland’s My House and FX’s POSE, this seems to be the perfect time to experience a kind of queer tipping point in music. Ms. Boogie tells me, “In my past I set out to prove that I, too, can play this sport by my own rules, which was one of the philosophies that hip-hop was founded on.”
This moment has to be contextualized for how important it is: inside of hip-hop, someone who came into the public consciousness as a feminine gay man has revealed their more personal truth as a transgender woman. It’s historic. In a culture that is constantly critiqued for its anti-LGBT sentiments and the resistance of letting artists evolve, Ms. Boogie has defied both realities with grace and a firm hold on her career and the public. This is an artistic miracle in a culture that can treat public figures and artists rigidly, refusing to let them evolve.
“This letter was not for hip-hop,” Boogie told me. “This was for the world, for the world to see another thing a trans woman is capable of doing.” Ms. Boogie’s latest offering, “Morphin’ Time” sonically feels like a deviation from the trap sing-song tracks that are currently dominating radio waves. The song is tastefully chaotic, filled with sharp lyrics and references to the ballroom scene. It’s equally exciting, fun, and undeniably danceable.
Ms. Boogie’s gender identity itself is not as interesting as what the cultural repercussions will be. This announcement will test how far culture—even our most patriarchal spaces like the often sexist and anti-LGBT space of rap music—has come to accepting the queer and trans revolution. The hope is that this evolution will open doors and possibilities for other black LGBT members interested in creating music, and create less binary and claustrophobic options for straight artists in music too. “Today I am more focused on creating my own philosophies for women like me in this genre of music, to be exact for the LGBT community as a whole in the music business,” she said. The most promising and exciting parts of moments like these are the echos of their influence that can’t be seen until years, often generations, after they have taken place. Even now, we’re experiencing a renaissance of female rappers that are gaining more attention and power that is surely an echo of the success of rappers like Roxanne Shante, Missy Elliott, Salt ‘N Peppa, Lil’ Kim, and Foxy Brown.
Even moments where the public might be confused about how to honor Ms. Boogie’s legacy while still respecting her womanhood could be simple moments for pedagogy. There’s always the threat of deadnaming—the practice of using the name a trans person was given at birth as opposed to their chosen one. “It is indeed complicated and certainly violent especially outside of my professional setting, mostly in that day-to-day interaction,” Boogie said. “As far as my archive of work goes, it is all part of my legacy that is still being built. I want people to know that I am not disassociating with my catalogue. I am simply evolving so that point of view will always be subjected to change as I become more aware and live through new life lessons.”
Along with the open letter declaring Ms. Boogie’s gender identity, “Morphin Time” is a celebration of evolution in both the spiritual and physical realms. It also promises an immense amount of confidence to be found when you lean into your true self. Ms. Boogie raps, “Who are they going to compare me to now? I just made my own lane.” This is pure fact. Ms. Boogie has done what very few artists have been able to do: create a lane that is essential and can’t be stolen.
Ms. Boogie’s upcoming Australian Tour:
06/22 Hobart @ Dark Mofo Festival
6/23 Hobart @ Dark Mofo Festival
6/29 Sydney @ ACMI
6/30 Sydney @ Fredas
Myles E. Johnson is a Brooklyn-based writer. Follow him on Twitter.