Blimes Brixton started rapping in the seventh grade and learned how to make beats through an after-school program in San Francisco public schools. But she wasn't interested in spending time in the studio or recording tracks — at least not then.
Instead, she started battle rapping, spending lunchtimes and afternoons spitting rhymes and trading insults with other middle school rappers, nearly all of whom were male.
Around this time, Brixton also realized she was attracted to other girls.
At first, she only shared this with her best friend, but she soon started incorporating hints of her newfound sexuality in both her lyrics and poetry.
“Once I figured out who I was, in terms of who I liked, it was easier for me to step out and express myself in creative ways,” she says. “I kind of found my voice and myself at the same time.”
But though the experience was enlightening and cathartic, it had its pitfalls. Battle rapping's goal is to belittle your opponent, and Brixton made for an easy target as an out and proud lesbian.
“Insults were thrown around left and right,” says Brixton, who was used to hearing “dyke” and “faggot.”
“All the negative comments that could have possibly been said about my sexuality were all laid out on the table in front of me right there as a 12-year-old.”
The experience taught her that if she wanted to make it as a lesbian rapper — a rarity in a male-dominated industry full of macho swagger and braggadocio, then as now — she would have to develop a thick skin.
Because while it's hard being female in the hip-hop world — rappers like Nicki Minaj and Iggy Azalea are regularly slammed in other artist's lyrics, dissed in Tweets, objectified as sexual objects, or, in Azalea's case, called “a man” — it's even harder being gay.
“I see the ridicule,” Brixton says. “I see people say, 'Man, we don't want to hear about how often you sleep with women.' “
It's no surprise that queer rappers are a rarity. Those with the most notoriety, like Angel Haze and Dej Loaf, have been able to “make it” by avoiding the subject of their sexuality altogether.
Despite being “out” as pansexual, Haze consistently shies away from overtly queer references in her music, and the short-haired Loaf — who once openly dated a woman — started wearing makeup and dating a man around the time her songs appeared on mainstream radio.
But then there are artists like YSD, a lesbian rapper from Berkeley, who would rather fight than back down. Like Brixton, she has been rapping since she was young, and, over the years, she has learned how to use the insults and slander as fuel for her craft, instead of something to be ashamed about.
“Me just being black alone is hard,” she says. “Then me being a woman? And then me being gay? That's just challenge after challenge after challenge. But with every challenge, I just want to kick the door down and let people know that I'm not afraid of anybody.”
Throughout the 20-odd years that she's been rapping, “DJs have refused to play — and in some cases listen to — YSD's music, and she once lost a role in an independent movie, called A Hundred Blocks, to a man even though the film had already started shooting. She's also not been paid for performances, and has had shows cancelled at the last minute.
YSD can't even count how many times other artists have said they want to collaborate with her, but won't for fear of others thinking they're gay, too.
“I've dealt with a whole lot,” she says. “I've had many times where I was so pissed off and angry.”
Queer rappers experience significant pressure to dress more feminine. San Francisco's JenRo says record labels have tried to change her appearance, and that she regularly receives comments from people like, “You should try rapping while dressing girly,” or “What if you wore girly clothes at least in your photos?” (She is now an independent artist without a label.)
“Automatically, I'm boxed into a category when people first see me,” she says, “like 'thug' or 'tomboy.' But at the end of the day, how can you really be a great artist when you're uncomfortable the whole time and not being yourself?”
In 2014, YSD, who identifies as a stud, released a song with the New York rapper Siya called “Let Me In” about the industry standard for female rappers to “glam up” in exchange for more respect.
In the clap-heavy track, YSD spits lines like, “I've been grinding in the game for a minute / Let me in now” and “You don't want to sign me because I ain't shaking ass / Fuck you / And your momma too / I'm as equal as them, red, white, and blue.”
But the insults and criticism take a toll — and force compromise. All three artists — whether from fear of a backlash, being pigeonholed, or a desire to appeal more to the mainstream — say that their music is less gay-centric than it was when they started out.
“Every now and then it might come out in a line, but it's not really my goal to talk about it,” says JenRo who released her seventh album, Planet Z, earlier this month. “I'm not just walking around with a gay flag talking about, 'Oh, I'm a lesbian. I'm screwing all these girls.' If I'm not talking about falling in love or some other thing that is relevant to my sexuality, I might not even talk about it.”
Not to say that these women aren't proud of who they are; there's just more to them than their sexual orientation.
“As a lesbian who is doing hip-hop, that isn't the only side of me I want people to know,” YSD says. “We're musicians that just so happen to be gay — that's how I look at it.”