Queer rap? Don’t label the blouse
Depending on who you ask, and their profession, there either was or wasn’t an influential art scene in New York in the 1960s called minimalism. Much has been written about the movement — but the only problem is few of the artists linked to the New York Minimalists ever associated with the term.
When asked to submit work to a group showing of “minimal art”, Dan Flavin, one of its luminaries (if you asked anyone but him), responded that he did not “enjoy the designation of [his] proposal as that of some dubious, facetious, protohistoric ‘movement’ ”.
Labels such as minimalism can group tenuously linked work, preventing people from seeing the more genuine connections such work may have. This is especially true when commentators and not coevals see similarities between works. Nevertheless, it’s still useful to think of Flavin and his conscripted allies in terms of minimalism, even if only to understand his oppositional relationship to the term.
It’s no wonder then that MxBlouse, a Johannesburg-based rapper with gender nonconformity at the heart of their ascent, rejects being boxed as a queer rapper, preferring to describe themself as “best for blouse”. Expanding on this, they say: “I’m not out to be niche. I’m making music, not queer music.”
So-called queer rap is another tenuous grouping that’s emerged in the past decade, to describe rap music made by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and intersex (LGBTQI+) artists. Although many rappers such as MxBlouse distance themselves from the term, others recognise the merit and benefits of creating a loose label around otherwise diverse artists in a genre.
Contessa Stuto, a New York-based queer artist and nightlife maven, highlights visibility as one of these benefits, saying that “labelling something [for it] to be found is sometimes for the betterment of society when it can allow outsiders to gain the ability of looking in”.
This is especially true in the context of South Africa, where deeply divisive issues around gender and sexuality persist, and where a lack of diversity in the boys’ club of rap stubbornly refuses to change.
In this context, MxBlouse is part of a revolutionary class. Their debut EP, Believe the Bloom, was accompanied by curated images of MxBlouse, produced collaboratively with creative director Bee Diamondhead and photographer Aart Verrips, with grooming by Orla Meiri.
The images are intimate and defiant, with the styling taking whichever damn cues it pleases. There’s an intensity of intent and personality in the images and the post-gender styling that it wouldn’t hurt to see more of locally.
As for the music, MxBlouse’s defiance and nonconformity carry through into the project. The production hints at influences outside of rap, with subtle arpeggios, filtered synths and spaghetti western guitars. The music is collaborative in spirit, but imparts MxBlouse’s vision in every track.
The most obvious precedent for the music is the type of Lyricism with a capital L that dominated Bush-era New York hip hop. Brag raps, admonishments of the lack of substance in today’s music and track-long extended metaphors pop up like landmarks in your hometown. On the edges, though, subtle changes to the landscape reveal deviations from what we remember.
MxBlouse’s performance does well in drawing on its influences, creating an intentionally jarring juxtaposition between the content and the presentation. It cleverly takes an old school (and hypermasculine) era of rap and subverts it. But the music sometimes strays too close to the source material to differentiate from it, especially when the production doesn’t quite catch the subtleties of the style by applying enough polish.
Tellingly, MxBlouse has said that “one should judge by the lyrics whether one deserves respect. Sexual preference or gender shouldn’t have anything to do with that.”
Lyricism and personality are elements the artist doesn’t lack. It’s what marks them as distinct. It’s when personality filters into the music that an artist has access to the bulk of their power.
When (not if) this happens, MxBlouse will stand out as an exemplary peer in a class to be reckoned with. Reflecting on this, MxBlouse says: “I’m trying to create a sound that is both fresh and unique to me ... and to challenge myself so as to not become comfortable in a single style.”
Queer rap may or may not exist, but with artists such as MxBlouse challenging its boundaries, its immense influence is inevitable.