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All About Me: Queer Women of Colour in the Music Industry

When Syd performs, there’s sly confidence in her body language as she knowingly grins and moves to the smooth soul and alternative R&B which permeates over the room like honey. The 25-year-old openly gay African-American musician (she has credits as a singer, songwriter, record producer, and audio engineer), currently fronts the Internet and has a solo music project. She initially entered the wider music scene as a member of Odd Future, an infamously irreverent and subversive hip-hop collective (members included Tyler the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, and Frank Ocean).The paradoxical nature of the group was commented on by many critics; Odd Future routinely released music with homophobic and misogynistic lyrics, and yet their DJ/engineer was Syd (at the time going under the name Syd thaKyd), an open lesbian. Syd herself felt neutral about their use of gay slurs, stating that she doesn’tview the group as homophobic. She eventually left the group in 2016, due to her ongoing struggle with depression and the loneliness of life on tour. She left on bad terms and later reflected that: “I was their get-out-of-jail-freecard. It’seasy to say they aren’thomophobic because Syd is there”.

Kelela, another alternative R&B musician, stated that: “living in between being queer, being second-generation, being a person of colour, and a woman- all of these things cross and overlap in some tricky-ass ways”. It was especially apparent in a Grammy season which stirred a lot of controversy due to only one female artist winning a solo artist award (Alessia Cara). The only female nominee for Album of the Year, Lorde, was not offered a performance slot, and these events reignited conversations about how male-dominated the music industry is.A study conducted by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California, which analysed data from various aspects of the music industry, found that in terms of the Billboard 100 listings between 2012 and 2017; 78 per cent of 1,239 credited artists were men. Regarding the Grammys, between 2014 and 2018, of the 899 people nominated only 9 per cent were women. Recording Academy president Ken Ehrlich in response to criticism of the 2018 Grammys argued that “women need to step up”, and it’spretty hilarious and telling that he chose to pin the music industry’s structural gender inequality on women themselves. An industry where women frequently experience harassment and hostility, as highlighted by the #Menomore open letter (Which was signed by 400+ Australian female musicians) and countless other female artists, notably Grimes, Björk and Camp Cope. But sure, it’swomen’s fault we struggle to muscle our way into a boy’s club.

So, what does it mean when a woman is also a member of other marginalisedgroups? How does a queer woman of colour (QWOC) carve out space in a predominately white, male, and heterosexual industry? And what does this look like?

“Basically, I’m an extreme minority”, Hayley Kiyoko, a lesbian Japanese-American synthpop artist,mused in an interview with Billboard. Though Kiyoko is joined by other QWOC, including Syd, Princess Nokia and Kehlani, their narratives are rare in the contemporary musical landscape.

Syd and Kiyoko’s music, though both explore queerness and romantic entanglements with other women, are markedly different in their approach and lyrical decisions.

Syd’s use of female pronouns and nouns in reference to love interests in her music “I say she’s my only but got you on my mind” (‘All About Me’- Syd), “Let me call you my girl, my girlfriend” (‘Girl’- The Internet) is almost revolutionary in its blasé-ness and lack of political overtones; Syd doesn’t need to give you an explanation as to why she’s singing about women, as to why she’s gay, or as to what it means to be gay. She’s just going to sing about loving women on her terms. She’s going to be herself in a world which isn’t particularly nurturing of her. She’sgoing to eye you down while singing soulful R&B and the self-assurance is almost palpable. You can understand Syd, or you cannot understand Syd; it’sirrelevant to her because she understands herself.

Kiyoko’s music explores themes of loneliness and marginalisation, which are laced throughout the carefully chosen language and emotionally wrought synth chords. Tracks like ‘Girls like Girls’ and ‘Sleepover’, include lines such as: “Girls like girls like boys do; nothing new” and “You wanna be friends forever? I can think of something better,” respectively. Queerness and Kiyoko’s struggles with her identity are overtly addressed, and her music is extremely self-conscious and vulnerable. She articulates underrepresented feelings and identities, giving young queer people invaluable language and tools they otherwise may have struggled to come across.

Yet Syd and Kiyoko’s work don’tfeel antagonistic or in opposition despite their differences. They feel symbiotic and reflective of how diverse queer narratives are, and it’s extremely exciting to see how queer expression is evolving in the contemporary music scene.

 

Michelle Delvin

The author Michelle Delvin

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