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Article by J Matthew Cobb
If you’ve been keeping up with the latest radio trends lately, you’ve probably heard a popular song or two anchored by a LGBTQ artist: Sam Smith, Panic at the Disco’s Brendon Urie, Janelle Monáe, Calum Scott; the list goes on and on.
This year, the music industry was absorbed with headlines regarding the rapidly expanding field of LGBTQ musicians. Billboard Magazine even created a new division, Billboard Pride, which focuses daily on this broad swell of queer talent. No, this is not just some simple uprising from the underground. Queer talent is literally penetrating (yeah, I said it) the upper ranks of pop life. And this is very good news. This display of diversity means more visibility, more representation and more storytelling from people like us. And as 2018 draws to its close, I’ve compiled a neat list of eleven talented LGBTQ artists worth following, if you aren’t doing so already. Some are underrated, overlooked and may even be underrepresented, but they are emerging, gradually climbing to the top with hopes of breaking through the glass ceiling.
This might be the year of Troye Sivan. The breakout artist, once confined to being a YouTube personality, is making Hollywood moves in the highly-acclaimed film Boy Erased, which is already getting Oscar buzz and nabbing positive headlines as one of the year’s best pictures. But music is where Sivan shines the brightest so far. On Bloom, Sivan’s sophomore album and second with Capitol, the tunes are ripe with sensation, exhibited strongly on the freedom anthem “My My My!,” the lustful indie pop ballad “Animal” and the sexy Ariana Grande-featured jam “Dance to This.” Inside the disc, the blonde 23-year old twink explores virtually every corner of his sexuality, even thrusting his bottom-ness into the fray on the Katy Perry-styled title cut (“Baby, I’ve been saving this for you”). And the world is now thankfully embracing all of this, aided by such career highs as performing on SNL and appearing alongside Taylor Swift on her Reputation tour. Get on board; Sivan is a yummy ride on the ears.
Identifying as queer and pansexual, Kehlani Parrish (going as Kehlani, for short) has made some serious money moves in the last two years. With former ties to girl group Poplyfe (seen on America’s Got Talent), the 23-year old Oakland-bred singer has served as opening acts for Demi Lovato and Halsey and even guest starred with the “money moves” queen Cardi B on the glowing Top 40 hit single, “Ring.” Thanks to the drop of her debut album, SweetSexySavage, in 2017 and a row of satisfying singles (“Crzy,” “Distraction,” the Suicide Squad soundtrack-supported “Gangsta”), her come up became apparent, leaving Rolling Stone and Pitchfork hailing the album as one of the best albums of 2017. Despite making inroads to the top and being a critics’ darling, the climb to notoriety has never seemed so exhausting. In August, NPR profiled just how tough it has been for the contemporary R&B singer and those making music like her to break into pop. But it is happening, bit by bit.
You may know her from big screen appearances in the Scooby-Doo live-action series or on in recurring roles on television like CSI: Cyber, plus plenty appearances as a child actress on the Disney Channel, but the 27-year old LA-bred talent is now making major strides as a dream pop singer-songwriter. After tolling as the leader of the short-lived girl group The Stunners, Kiyoko is now proving that music is a definite part of her destiny. Her debut solo album, Expectations, broke into the top twenty on multiple charts, including the US, Canada and Australia. She’s also open about being a lesbian, witnessed in music videos for “Gravel to Tempo” and the delicious summer jam “What I Need,” which finds her taking off cross-country from a non-supportive rural home with duet partner and fellow queer singer Kehlani. Devout fans and critics alike have already coined her “lesbian Jesus.” It won’t be too long until Kiyoko becomes a household name; she just served as one of the supporting acts on the first leg of Panic! At the Disco’s Pray for the Wicked tour.
Phoenix native David Hernandez might have walked away from season 12 of American Idol as a bruised semi-finalist, scorned by gossipy headlines uncovering his past as a stripper at a hometown gay bar during an era when coming out was still career suicide for younger artists, but as Greek mythology goes, Hernandez is rising like a phoenix from the ashes and showing off huge career gains. He’s been a beacon at Pride celebrations and HRC fundraisers across America. He also dropped a colossal mega album, Kingdom: The Mixtape, which stretches one hour and thirty minutes wide. Inside the set he takes on some of the best songs of his career on tracks like the heartfelt “Battle Cry,” the inspirational synthpop of “Beautiful,” the R&B-heavy “Break” and the soaring title cut. He even takes the blinders off the subject of sex, exploring bedroom magic on “Animal” and “Half of My Soul.” It also helps to know he’s definitely easy on the eyes, gorgeous to the core. It’s another reason to make that thirsty follow.
Music producer Justin Tranter, who has worked with talents like Britney Spears, Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, summed up the raw talent of Shea Diamond best: “Her voice is sent down from heaven.” And that heavenly voice, dipped in gospel-inspired soul and the grit of inner city blues, is opening up amazing doors for the transgender singer-songwriter. Although she’s constantly fighting through thick layers of stigma and transphobia inside the entertainment industry and even ageism, Diamond, 40, is valiantly pressing on. Earlier this year, she dropped a five-song EP on Asylum Records containing powerful standouts like “American Pie,” the Memphis soul-stirred “I Am Her” and the personal anthem “Seen It All.” And she’s even appeared in the pilot for Ryan Murphy’s breakthrough television series, FX’s Pose. Expect a full-length from this rising talent in the near future.
With a striking voice and unbounded range, Brian Justin Crum mesmerized the public using towering interpretations of Queen’s “Somebody to Love” and Radiohead’s Creep” on America’s Got Talent back in 2016. He came up short in the finals, but all eyes remained glued on him thanks to countless viral re-shares of his auditions on social media. Since the show, the hunky Cali guy followed the strategy of yet another TV talent search alum (Calum Scott, from Britian’s Got Talent) by covering a Robyn throwback (“Show Me Love”) as a calm piano ballad. Thanks to a club remix of it, Crum’s track dented the dance charts at number 33. And he’s just getting started. His itinerary has included loads of LGBTQ pride celebrations and crowded smoky lounges across the country. And he’ll be re-appearing on television next January for America’s Got Talent: The Champions, a new all-star style competition on NBC. He’s destined for a mighty career breakthrough any day now.
One thing that one shouldn’t do with rising rapper/singer-songwriter Michael Blume: Don’t box him in. Don’t even try to put him in a category. His latest EP, cynicism & sincerity, explores Drake-tinged hip-hop (“Lifting You”), retro soul (“Maybe Love Is True”) and feelgood hooky pop (“Blunder”). On the back of the set, he pairs up with Drag Race stars Shea Coulee and Peppermint for a wuzzy electropop mix of “R U Mad.” And throughout all of this, the sexuality of this New Jersey-bred Jewish queer dominates the conversation inside the lyrics. Although he’s out and proud, Blume doesn’t want you to box him in with other gay artists just because of their sameness of sexuality. In April while discussing with Gay Star News the prospects of touring alongside fellow gay artists, Blume put on the breaks of performing with…you guessed it…the “Bloom” singer. “I don’t make that kind of music,” he told. “I probably wouldn’t be a good match to go on tour with Troye.”
For years, MNEK (born Uzo Emnike) worked tirelessly behind the scenes as a formidable songwriter and producer for a long list of pop stars like Zara Larsson, Madonna, Christina Aguilera, BTS, Kylie Minogue, DJ Jax Jones even Queen Bey. But in the second half of this year, he stepped out and dropped his very first solo album, Language, a chunky debut that flourished in experimental R&B, glowing dance-pop and ballsy production. Although the 24-year old singer was lavished with rounds of critical praise (Billboard called his debut album “one of the year’s most ambitious pop albums”), he isn’t get the airplay he deserves. The disc hardly charted in the US and only his duet with Hailee Steinfeld on “Colour,” a glowing feelgood ditty, managed to penetrate the UK charts. Is it because he’s freaking talent and out? Or is it because he’s doing black, doing R&B and is shrouded in queer flamboyance? Or maybe because dance-pop isn’t as hot as it once was? Could be one, could be all. But damn, MNEK is a mighty force worth checking out. Don’t sleep on him.
LA-based Bronze Avery made headlines this year for his tender reimagining of Rick Astley’s evergreen “Never Gonna Give You Up.” He gave it a relaxed, sleek layout, coated in 808 beats, and the Internet went abuzz, even getting Billboard’s attention. And he’s still at it, putting out new content: “Want 2,” a visual video featuring a single entrapped in airy synths, crooner coos and slick reggaeton beats, just dropped this November. As an independent artist with several singles on digital platforms, Avery has yet to drop a solo album. Let’s hope that day will come in the New Year.
Sexy R&B swag and bilingual lyrics dominates the sultry reggaeton grooves of “Over You.” It’s the latest offering from San Diego native Solomon Ray, an openly Afro-Latinx gay singer and rapper, and for those looking for a little Dua Lipa in their “Despacito,” this is the way to go. Earlier this year in May, Billboard profiled “Asi Asi,” a summer bop detailing his own sexual freedom also surrounded by reggaeton vibes. At this pace, Solomon Ray is definitely on his way to taking the throne as queer king of the summer pool parties.
It’s possible with all the music being released now to be unfamiliar with the music coming from indie synthpop band Years & Years. The UK trio hit big with “King” back in 2015 and has been making a steady incline ever since. This year saw the drop of their second album, Palo Santo, which yielded two sensational hit singles in the UK (“Sanctify,” “If You’re Over Me”). Despite failing to make a dent on the pop charts in the US, their music has found a comfy home in the clubs, where their last three singles have all climbed the Top 40 dance charts. And their music videos are always lighting up the gay blogs for their engaging subject matter and cinematic flair. Olly Alexander, the band’s 28-year old openly gay front man, not only sings of his sexuality in his songwriting, but has become an advocate on a number of advocacy platforms including anti-LGBT bullying, safer sex and mental health.
Could Years & Years gain an even larger audience in the years to come? After making reworking “Come Alive” with Jess Glynne on The Greatest Showman: Reimagined, the motion picture re-recording containing some of pop music’s all-stars, they could very well be on their way.
And here they are. Loud and proud, and awaiting your follow.
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