When local hip-hop artist Eli posted a Facebook status this past Pride month coming out as bisexual, his first public declaration of his queer identity, he wasn’t sure what to expect.
His decision, aided by some liquid courage worked up after a night on the town with his cousins, came from a desire to show his solidarity with the local queer scene in Charlotte: “Also being a person of color, I know injustice and I know oppression firsthand, and I just wanted to put myself out as an ally, not only for people I know that are a part of the community but for myself as well.”
Eli received a largely positive reception from his community and the local music scene in Charlotte, a reaction that reflects an increasing acceptance of LGBTQ Charlotteans. Nonetheless, Eli has no illusions about the reality of being a queer black man in the South, stating, “I wake up every day in the skin that I’m in, so I know that you don’t really know what the day’s gonna bring.”
Eli and fellow Charlotte artists Bird and Celeste Moonchild each hold widely differing understandings of how their queer identities influence their music, and these differences also affect how they choose to navigate the sometimes tense world of being an openly queer person in a Southern independent music scene. Bird explains that she does not identify as a “queer rapper” so much as “a rapper who is queer.” She states, “I don’t see my identity as an abnormality. I am who I am. My sexuality doesn’t define how I present to anybody.”
Eli has always striven to write songs that are widely relatable, favoring ambiguous and universal lyrics over hyper-specific mentions of particular relationships and experiences, an outlook that Bird shares. Nonetheless, he has noticed that his queer identity has set him apart in terms of both song structure and lyrical content, even before he had fully realized and publicly claimed his identity.
When he was working with a collective of primarily straight artists, for instance, Eli felt that their songs “would always have a central theme, and it’s kind of like all their stories were written the same way, and they would always notice that mine were different.” One of Eli’s most impactful conversations with a long-term friend and fellow Charlotte artist, who told him, “‘You’re really different from the rest of us; you’re the most creative person I’ve ever met.” Eli explains, “Hearing him say that galvanized me and helped me to better understand that my music and experiences are definitely different from other musicians, as a queer man of color.” Although Eli is careful not to pigeonhole himself, he knows that his newfound outness will positively impact his career: “Performance-wise, I can be more myself. As far as musical content, lyrical content, even when I compose, it feels a little freer.”
Celeste Moonchild has a very different outlook on how her identity has impacted her work. Although Celeste’s early songs were less direct — a quality she attributes to “not fully understanding myself, and kind of sugar-coating myself to be more digestible to people” — her identity as a queer black woman has become increasingly central to her music. At a certain point, Celeste explains, she realized, “Oh no, I’m very queer, and I am very Black…those things won’t go away and I’m not going to shy away from them.” Celeste expresses this not only through her music but through the public image she projects and the choices she makes about how to conduct her career.
The new music video for her single “Science,” for example, is “very queer,” showcasing her identity as well as lyrics boldly calling the systemic racial injustices she’s experienced. Celeste feels that her unapologeticness, queerness and blackness has not been without consequence in Charlotte; although some venues are welcoming to her music, she has also experienced promoters and crowds who attempt to censor and react badly to her lyrical content. As gentrification displaces black and working-class populations and replaces them with a whiter, wealthier crowd, Celeste says, formerly welcoming businesses have sought safer, more digestible acts.
All of the artists have been affected by the recent transformations of the Charlotte hip-hop scene. This year, Knocturnal, one of Charlotte’s most diverse and long-running hip-hop nights, announced that it was transitioning from its weekly events at Snug Harbor to bi-weekly events at SERJ on Central Ave. Common Market, right around the corner from Snug Harbor on Commonwealth Ave., also announced that its weekly hip-hop night, long a fixture of the Plaza Midwood creative scene, would be migrating to Recess on Siegle Ave. While the relocation of Knocturnal and hip-hop night can be a sign of a “good problem” — the increased social interest in hip-hop in the city — it can also be seen as an indicator of the shifting and social and real estate market of Charlotte. Although SERJ and Recess are both located in Plaza Midwood, the fact that they are located off of the popular Commonwealth/Plaza strip also makes a decrease in foot traffic likely. Celeste claims that, in addition to the well-known problems of rent hikes and the shifting tastes of the neighborhood, many venues are increasingly subject to noise complaints for hip-hop shows, an occurrence that accompanies gentrification and displacement in many cities.
Despite these difficulties, Eli, Bird and Celeste all agree that there is potential and momentum in Charlotte’s hip-hop scene. “With Black music in Charlotte, I’m discovering its really a whole subculture. It’s a powerhouse.” Knocturnal, Eli and Celeste list Snug Harbor and NoDa’s Crown Station as some of the most welcoming and consistent venues for queer hip-hop in Charlotte. Su Casa, a recurring dance party hosted by Plaza Midwood bar Petra’s, is also a highlight of the scene. While queer artists like these continue to put in the hard work necessary to build the scene, it is now up to the community to support.