A recent book by Eastman graduate Lauron Kehrer ‘11E (MA), ‘17E (PhD) explores queer and trans representation in hip hop and the place of such artists within a longer tradition of Black queer music. The book, Queer Voices in Hip Hop: Cultures, Communities, and Contemporary Performance, pushes back against the common notion that hip hop is primarily an artform constructed by Black, masculine, heterosexual, cisgender men. Additionally, Kehrer considers the artists and music through the places they were created, focusing on specific geographical locations to help draw out the diversity across the artists and the music they create. Kehrer is now an assistant professor of ethnomusicology and musicology at Western Michigan University, where they work with their wife, Eastman graduate Maria Cristina Fava ‘12E (PhD), an assistant professor of musicology.
Senior Writer and Editorial Manager Anna Reguero spoke with Kehrer in more detail about their book, which began stewing as an Eastman master’s student and was developed through their PhD dissertation. (The following interview is lightly edited for length and clarity.)
AR: How would you describe your book?
LK: In my book, I hope to center black queer rappers, who’ve often been considered marginal to hip hop. And I really want to make the argument that they are not new, that they’re not anomalies, that they’re not misfits within hip hop, but that they’re actually part of a longer history of black queer involvement, both in American popular music more generally, but in hip hop, specifically.
We’ve always had queer practitioners and hip hop, but those histories and much of queer history hasn’t been really recorded, for a lot of reasons. But as the social and legal landscape has shifted in the United States for queer and trans people, so too have we seen an increased visibility of queer artists. The other important aspect of this project is thinking about how these queer artists engage in particularly black, queer cultural expressions in their music. It’s situated within hip hop, for sure. But there’s also certain aspects of queer artists’ work that I think are important to draw attention to.
AR: I was surprised to hear about the roots of queer hip hop in disco and ballroom communities.
LK: Hip hop has a global culture. But it’s also always maintained its rootedness in a particular place. Place is very significant for hip hop culture. And so I was also interested in how when media and scholars tend to talk about queer artists, they tend to talk about them just as queer artists and lumped them together. And I really want to draw attention to the diversity of their work. Part of that has to do with their particular locations or geographic locations. And so for example, in New York City, where in ballroom culture—which is a really significant, historically underground black and Latinx, queer cultural practice—a number of hip hop artists coming out of that city had their roots in the ballroom culture, where members had maybe walked among or competed in ballroom competitions. And they were bringing some of the cultural and musical aspects of those practices into their hip hop music. A lot of listeners of hip hop, who maybe aren’t familiar with ballroom culture, were missing some of those connections.
But it’s really important to note that not all queer artists are doing this. Just ones that have a deeper historical connection to ballroom culture, especially in those American urban centers that have strong ballroom networks. I also have a chapter on ways in which New Orleans bounce artists are kind of breaking into the mainstream and the ways that’s complicated, but drawing attention to the fact that bounce has significance for that specific place for New Orleans specifically. I wanted to avoid blanket generalizations about a “queer rap.” And one way to get at that is to think about the particular ways that geographic location plays an important role in how queer artists incorporate aspects of queer culture in their music.
AR: What ignited your interest in queer hip hop artists?
LK: When I was doing my master’s thesis at Eastman, I was interested in changes in women’s music, which is kind of a coded term for largely lesbian music and music for women’s communities. And I did field work at the Michigan Women’s Music Festival. And by the time I was going, there was a dedicated day stage for hip hop performers at that festival. It wasn’t a very musically diverse festival, but I think it’s safe to say that a large number of the performers fell within the sort of folk music or Americana, a little pop type of approach. And so, the first time I went, I was a little surprised to see so many hip hop artists. And that’s partly because like a lot of white people my age, I received a lot of messaging about hip hop being inherently homophobic, inherently misogynistic. And while that’s true of a lot of rap, especially mainstream rap, it’s really not more so than any other genre of music. And there’s just this way in which discourses are inclined to present rap, which is a predominantly black music, as more homophobic than other genres. But I didn’t know better at the time, and I encountered all these queer artists at the festival. And I was like, so how do I reconcile this cognitive dissonance? How do I reconcile the fact that there are all these queer women rapping about queer experiences? And how does that fit into the narratives that I’ve been told about what hip hop is? And so that’s kind of the was the genesis for moving in this direction.
AR: You did a lot of this research while you were a student at Eastman. Can you tell us more about your time at Eastman?
LK: A lot of it comes from my dissertation, which I wrote for the PhD program at Eastman. The fieldwork in New Orleans was supported by a Glenn Watkins traveling grant from Eastman. A number of presentations I did got support from Eastman from the Susan B. Anthony Institute, University of Rochester. So, I was very strongly supported in my pursuit of this particular research path at the university.
My advisor was Lisa Jakelski and I was her first PhD dissertation advisee. She was so wonderful because she provided just incredible feedback but was so supportive and open minded about the project. And the musicology department was very supportive. I was very fortunate to get a dissertation completion fellowship in my last year, that really allowed me to do a lot of things and get kind of a jumpstart on some stuff to prepare me for the tenure track.
Being able to collaborate with the Susan B. Anthony Institute and with the Frederick Douglass Institute, and having those so close, really helped me do the type of interdisciplinary work that I wanted to do. And of course, Eastman was very supportive of that. So I think that was really great. I miss Rochester so much. I think Rochester is maybe my favorite place that I’ve ever lived.
AR: You identify as queer, which you are open about in your book. But how does being white affect your research, viewpoint, and perspectives on these artists?
LK: Yeah, so obviously, as a queer person, queer hip hop speaks to me. I’m really invested in making sure that we give these artists the attention that they deserve, and they warrant an amount of scholarship that I think historically hasn’t been paid attention to. But I’m also very careful as a white scholar to act like a guest in black music studies. I want to you know, I am very acutely aware that these artists have lived experiences that, even if we share a queer identity, are not the same as mine as a white person. And so I don’t want to speak in any way about those experiences or overstep. I privilege frameworks developed by black scholars. Because I think that historically, a lot of scholarship has used white frameworks in ways that’s allowed us to miss some important layers of meaning, particularly in black musics. And I think that it’s important to also acknowledge that black queer understandings are slightly different than, you know, what white queer frameworks would allow us to understand. And so I just tried to be acutely aware of that.
And in my citational practices, who am I in conversation with? I feel that it’s something I need to be really conscious about. But not that it should stop me from having this conversation, because I think it’s problematic when we expect just black scholars and scholars of color to talk about race, that’s too much. That’s too much to ask of people who already have to live through racism and racial oppression. So I just tried to be very aware, acutely aware, and to not shy away, even when it’s kind of scary and uncomfortable when talking about race very explicitly when it’s necessary.
AR: What are your upcoming projects?
LK: I am working on a project on Cardi B and bisexual erasure in hip hop. I am also working on a project on Lil Nas X and queer ludonarrativity in some of his music videos.
AR: Can you explain ludonarrativity?
LK: There’s this idea that in media, like video games, for example, there’s a narrative approach that allows for queer stories to move from the margins and to the centers, especially like the aesthetic narrative practices that are used in video games. And I’m arguing that Lil Nas X, he has this very different generational approach to how he tells stories and how he expresses sort of black queerness in his videos. And I’m trying to make a link between this sort of narrative approach that’s very queer, and also very video game online culture oriented, and how he expresses that in his music videos. It’s very much a work in progress.
Queer Voices in Hip Hop is published by University of Michigan Press and is available to read as an open-source resource. A Spotify playlist is also available to hear the artists referenced in the book.
Maria Cristina Fava ‘12E (PhD) also has a book coming out with University of Illinois Press in 2024: Art Music Activism: Aesthetics and Politics in the 1930s New York City.