Queer Black Music

Churches have produced numerous queer black musicians. I am going to talk about three in particular that have been occupying my mind and paved the way for today’s queer artists. I thank you for letting me share my thoughts about them.

Before I get into it, you might ask what is queer? My sister Rita asked me that question two weeks ago. I struggled to answer it, because I don’t use it to describe myself and none of my close friends use it either. I don’t think there is one easy answer. I recently heard someone describe a queer as a person who is different from the norm. The Gay Center on 13th Street defines it as “people whose sexual orientation is not exclusively heterosexual or straight. This umbrella term includes people who have nonbinary, gender-fluid, or gender nonconforming identities.”

If you use YouTube at all, you may notice that it suggests videos you might want to watch based on your past viewing habits. Recently, I have enjoyed watching compilation clips from David Letterman’s various shows. And because I was a teen in the 80’s, I sometimes watch YouTube videos of Prince and Janet Jackson from that era. So it’s not too surprising that YouTube suggested that I watch David Letterman interview Little Richard.

The interview shocked me. I felt like I was watching a forced confession. Mr. Richard Penman looked uncomfortable at times. He told Letterman that he was no longer gay. It is one of only a few videos that I’ve seen of him where he is not ecstatic and flamboyant. Well, not too flamboyant. He appears repressed in this video. It was sad to see him keep it in. In a PBS documentary, he said that he had to get right with God. “God changed me from being a homosexual and made me a man.” He did not know that homosexuality was wrong until he read the Bible. He didn’t want to be gay anymore. He said he did not love himself. But when you see him being gay, he seems to really love himself.

Richard was the third in a family of twelve who admits that he was not religious as a teen. If Little Richard went to church, sometimes Baptist, sometimes Methodist, the goal was to get permission to go to the movies in the evening. He was not obedient to his father. He was gay. His father would say to him, “I’m going to kill you tonight.” He had to leave the home at age 17. His best friend eventually killed his father; the result of an argument.

In May 1982, when Letterman interviewed him, he was not gay anymore. David Letterman asks him about not being gay anymore, and he responds that he is a man now. And he also explains that he is an evangelist. It’s hard to believe him as he speaks about not being gay. During the interview, a little bit of the the enthusiastic flamboyant Little Richard pops out. He then sings One Day at a Time Sweet Jesus. It’s a lackluster performance of a slow song, the type of music he despised in his early years. It ends with a literal high note, as he imitates the female gospel singers that inspired him.

The fascinating thing about his life is that his church and his community did not want him when he was honest about his sexuality and identity. Then when he needed the church to help him move away from self-destructive and excessive behavior, such as orgies and a wide variety of drugs, he had to be straight, a man, and conform to the gender stereotypes.

His mother, however, loved him. In the documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything, Sir Lady Java, a transgender entertainer and activist of color, talks about meeting Richard’s mother. “She knew who Richard was and what he was, and she loved him in spite of it.”

His music career on the radio lasted from 1956 to 1958, but he continued touring and appearing on TV well into this century. Before he became famous he was performing in Louisiana with drag queens or as they were known then, female impersonators. Little Richard even performed in drag for a short time. He was one of the first successful musicians to wear flamboyant clothing. He was allowed to sing for the white girls when he came out with makeup, including eye makeup, but not when he looked masculine. You can learn a lot about racism in the United States listening to him describe his life.

After a bad flight, he rejected rock music and earned a theology degree at Oakwood College in 1961, where they accepted him as a “normal” student. He became a gospel singer. Richard wanted to do God’s will, but he needed money. So he went to England in 1962 to perform, with the then-unknown Beatles opening up for him, and he returned to rock and roll.

His audiences were integrated to some extent. There sometimes would have to be a concert for white audiences and a separate concert for African Americans. At at least one concert there was a rope separating the black audience from the white audience. Sometimes the white kids would show up for the African American concerts. At the end of 60’s, however, rock and roll became primarily white, as British musicians became successful imitating black rock from more than a decade prior, and so did his audiences.

At one point in the PBS documentary, Richard states that God loves us all and he condemned the segregation of gays. He also stated that he preferred the term gay to the term homosexuality. He knows that he inspired Prince and Michael Jackson with his queer black impact on music.

Another queer artist made an impact on music in the 70’s and 80’s but is lesser known. The artist is Sylvester. Sylvester James grew up singing in a Pentecostal church in Los Angeles. Their mother was a devout member of the church and could not accept the early signs of her son’s sexuality.

One of Sylvester’s friends described Sylvester’s Pentecostal church as oppressive. She is quoted as saying: “They just didn’t tolerate gayness. They didn’t tolerate a lot of things. They didn’t allow you to wear makeup. You couldn’t wear toeless shoes or sleeveless dresses. It was just real … controlled.”

Sylvester, at age 13, left the church. Two years later, they left home. Sylvester lived with friends and a grandmother, who accepted Sylvester as they were.

One night when Joan Rivers was hosting the Tonight Show, she referred to Sylvester as a drag queen, which resulted in a fierce objection. I don’t know how Sylvester would describe themselves, but Sylvester talked about how they wanted to dress up as a child.

Here’s what Sylvester said to Joan Rivers when they appeared on The Tonight Show in 1986: “When I was little, I used to dress up, right? And my mother said, ‘You can’t dress up. You gotta wear these pants and these shoes. And you have to, like, drink beer and play football.’ And I said, ‘No I don’t!’ And she said, ‘You’re very strange.’ And I said, ‘That’s OK!’”

Sylvester became the first queen of disco in the 70’s, eventually got played on MTV in the 80’s by performing a song that was more rock and less R&B. I only learned of that video recently and the performance is queer, which was tolerable at that time as androgyny was infiltrating pop music via MTV. Sadly, Sylvester’s “husband” died and so did Sylvester from AIDS way too early in 1988. Sylvester left the rights to their music to fund AIDS programs. Unlike Little Richard, Sylvester did not have to stop being gay during their career. Unlike Sylvester, Little Richard lived until 2020.

Would it get any better in the 90’s. No, not really. I recently saw Billy Porter in concert at the Beacon Theater. He grew up singing in a Pentecostal church, was labeled “little preacher man” when he was 6 years old, preached his first and only sermon at age 11. He described himself as a church sissy. Just like Little Richard and Sylvester, he was put out of the black community and church. 

His church condemned him because it was clear he was gay, too effeminate, an abomination, but his family was so attached to the church. Sadly, he was bullied and beaten at school for being gay. Musical theater eventually brought him from Pittsburgh to NYC.

In 1997, he put out an album, but had to hide away his queerness. He had to be butch Billy, shake all the sissy out, and perform a version of masculinity. Unlike Little Richard, he was never not gay. He just had to hide it away from consumers. Like Little Richard, he has abundant enthusiastic confidence in himself.

At the Beacon Theater he was preaching again, and to me, that was the best part of the show. He promoted persistence in your goals, human rights, and democracy. He was sharing his experiences, his low points, his triumphs, and promoting his movies, new and old. He praised his mother for loving what she did not understand, even though her church was anti-gay. Billy was happy that she was in the audience, visiting from her New Jersey home. 

According to Billy, she went through a lot when he came out as queer and wouldn’t acquiesce to the church’s demands that he be straight. At one point, his mom sent him to a psychologist to be more of a man during his early years. 

Billy Porter now calls his queerness his superpower. He has been set free because he is living his truth. His truth was less popular when he was young. And of course, today we see people and politicians who are getting angry because gays, drag queens, and transgender citizens want to live their truth publicly. Billy Porter preaches that we must be vigilant, not get tired, and that democracy is at stake. He is very vocal about gay rights, women’s rights, blacks’ rights, and how they are at risk. At a commencement speech in 2022, Billy “preached” and quoted from a speech delivered years before he was born by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that” (www.nps.gov/mlkm/learn/quotations.htm). The church is still in him.

Little Richard in 1997 talked about how white his audience became, maybe because rock became white at the end of the 60’s, but he used to have integrated audiences. Billy Porter had a very integrated audience at his concert, which is not always common at concerts. Sylvester, too, excited the mostly white kids on American Bandstand, which was not typical for any performer on that show. Although these performers may have been rejected by their churches, they used their church experience and their queerness to become famous and share their stories with a much larger diverse audience who needed to learn that being gay or queer is not a sin.

They are admirable people. Deserving of love and respect, not condemnation or discrimination. They did not conform to the pattern of this world, with its gender stereotypes, and they transformed the world, or a portion of it, and renewed other peoples’ minds. I believe they acted according to God’s will. As someone who was closeted for my first three decades, gay celebrities have been very important to me. Watching them gives closeted people the courage to come out, even when their churches condemn certain sexual orientations or gender identities and expressions. I believe that their stories are just as important as some of the stories in the Bible; maybe more important.