As with any music genre, hip-hop is constantly evolving to keep up with the values of its audience. The current struggle is how to incorporate more diverse and inclusive stories and themes in a culture that is infused with sexist and oftentimes homophobic lyrics.
In the last two years, Frank Ocean, Angel Haze and Macklemore have brought a positive LGBTQ presence to hip-hop music. In fact, even though hip-hop is notorious for being one of the most homophobic genres in music, doors are beginning to open for up and coming queer artists like San Francisco-based rapper MicahTron.
MicahTron (pronounced "Meekah"), whose real name is Tramicah Dempsey, proudly wears her sexuality on stage and in the studio. She'd rather call herself a 'lesbian hip-hop artist' than a 'hip-hop artist who happens to be a lesbian.'
"I'm fearless about being open," she said. "I hid it for years until I said 'F—k it.' I love women and nothing's gonna change that. Yeah, it was scary but the hard part was coming out to my family. Once I did that I was okay. Everyone else just had to deal. I just gotta be me."
That "take it or leave it" attitude is evident in the music video for her club banger, "Bumper," released in 2013, which was shot during performances at Pride festivals in San Francisco, Oakland and Santa Cruz and during the San Francisco Dyke March. The video captures queer people having fun and feeling sexy in their own skin, unapologetic about who they are and who they love. That's not the image we're accustomed to in mainstream culture, especially hip-hop.
"I've gotten an amazing response from the 'Bumper' video," MicahTron, 26, said. "A lot of people have said that they love the fact that it was shot at pride. I've even gotten companies to book me [just from watching] the video."
If it's true that the word "'gay' is synonymous with the lesser," as Macklamore asserts in his hit song, "Same Love," MicahTron is reclaiming it. Songs like "Bumper" are, first and foremost, for the LGBTQ community – one that is responsible for the success of the industry as a whole, according to MicahTron.
"Most of these artist are styled, photographed or even working with people who are queer," said MicahTron. "Most of the brilliant eyes behind the scenes in the industry belong to gay people. It's just taken time for people to deal with it when it's in their face."
MicahTron hopes to be a positive figure in her community by blazing a trail for future queer artists. "I'd love to go mainstream and win Grammys and other awards, travel the world and make music [for a community] that needs to be heard and accepted," she said. "People need role models who aren't afraid to be themselves in all aspects of their lives."
Perhaps that's why "Bumper" is like an anthem for LGBTQ people – that straight people alike can twerk to.
"My music tells the story of being queer for people to see, but I'm just like anyone else," she said. "I've made plenty of songs that don't have anything to do with sexuality or gender identity."
The success of other gender-bending and queer artists like Mykki Blanco and Big Freedia give her confidence that she can make it in mainstream music. Seeing their careers take off means artists like her can be recognized for their talent and not discredited due to their sexual orientation or gender expression.
"I gain hope everyday knowing that the world is slowly coming to accept the gay community and everyday I'm earning new accomplishments."
Music critics and hip-hop heads alike are noticing this shift.
"Hip-hop is changing rapidly in regards to the friendliness towards LGBTQ artists and allies," said Brittany Spanos, a contributor for the Village Voice who has also written for Rookie Magazine and SPIN. "As much hate as Macklemore's 'Same Love' gets…at least the popularity of that song has put into context what we want and need to see in the genre, which is more voices from artists who identify under the LGBTQ binary. This could open a lot of doors for artists like MicahTron who aren't straight males (the most dominant voice in the genre)."
Others point out that homophobia doesn't exist solely within the hip-hop genre, but other popular genres as well.
"I don't like how hip-hop is the only genre that gets asked [when it will become less homophobic]," said Mychal Denzel Smith, The Nation Institute fellow and contributor to Feministing.com. "Pop music across the board is about reveling in the fantasies of heterosexual men. If we're asking hip-hop to open more space for queer expressions, as we should, we should also do the same for country and rock and everything else."
But, the music industry, and hip-hop in particular, has come a long way, as noted by LGBTQ rights organization, the Human Rights Campaign.
"Indeed there's a growing trend of high profile rap and hip-hop superstars who have publicly stood up in support of the LGBT community, perhaps marking the beginning of a major shift in tone from just a few years ago," said Maureen McCarty, HRC Senior Strategist, in a blog post.
The challenges of being a triple minority (being a 1. queer, 2. woman, 3. of color) don't intimidate MicahTron, who began rapping in 2000 when she was only 13-years old. "I started rapping before I started chasing girls," she said. "So it was never in my mind that I couldn't be a rapper. Even when I came out I never had a feeling I couldn't rap or write because I'm gay."
She wrote lyrics about "coming from nothing and being okay with it," she said. "I used a karaoke machine that recorded onto a cassette tape. I sent a tape into an agency I'd found in Word Up! Magazine and they loved it! I got a perfect mixtape review at 13 years old. That inspired me to really do it."
The first time she performed in front of an audience was during her freshman orientation at Dillard University, a historically black liberal arts college in New Orleans. She had plans to major in communications and eventually become a journalist. But, a week after freshman orientation, Hurricane Katrina hit. The dorms were evacuated and she had no choice but to stay in a shelter. After things calmed down, she finally began her first semester, but her heart wasn't in it and she want back to California to pursue music.
As soon as she got back, she immediately familiarized herself with the local music scene, gathering with dancer friends and performing.
MicahTron has now earned respect of local media and artists, such as fashion designer James Zormeir who considers MicahTron a muse for his silicone fashion clothing line, Company Cubed (C3). She also has fans at The San Francisco Bay Guardian. She was featured on their December 2013cover.
"When we first encountered MicahTron, in 2009, it was her image that really stood out – here was an unabashedly queer female rapper with style for miles," said Marke Bieschke, publisher of the San Francisco Bay Guardian. "But then we heard her and were completely blown away. She's a ball of fire and always gets a party going, which is why we try to book her at our events as much as possible. But, she keeps at it, always with quality, which is what truly makes her stand out."
MicahTron is currently working with 12 time multi-platinum producer, Anthony "Ajax" Resta, arranging an EP to be released before this summer. She's raising the funds to finish the EP independently through a crowdfunding campaign, but hopes to get the chance for commercial film or TV licensing or an offer to sign with a label. To afford studio time in the evenings, she works 9-to-5 at a school for deaf toddlers and infants in Berkeley as a teacher's aide and as a maintenance supervisor.
"There's nothing I've ever wanted to do more," she said. "I want to share my music with the world…especially in places where gay, lesbian and transgender people don't have a voice."