Although I have not yet finished Music is History, by Questlove, I know a lot about this book. I’ve read bits and pieces, listened to radio interviews, read reviews, and had countless discussions with colleagues about Questlove’s title as a part of Rogue Reads. In Music is History, the author journeys through one song for each of the last fifty years, discussing the impact of the song on the music industry, but also on his own life and relationship with music. Drawing inspiration and lyrics from artists that range from The Temptations to Public Enemy to Mariah Carey, Questlove discusses how, like all art, music can both shape and be shaped by the world around us, can be a political protest or rallying cry, and can be an opportunity to find the community we are struggling to connect with otherwise. But today, I’m not going to be talking about Questlove’s Music is History. Instead, I want to talk about the idea of music as an art form that brings people together, particularly people that are marginalized and might have trouble finding community elsewhere. There is way too wide a variety of both genres and marginalized groups to talk about all of them in one post, so today I’m going to be sharing a few specific genres and musical arts that have impacted different queer communities throughout recent history.
Music has been an opportunity to express a sense of outrage over unjust treatment, connect over shared values, and celebrate personal stories, both through underground communities and in the mainstream, for centuries, if not longer. In many cases, these underground music scenes grew out of a need for spaces of acceptance and opportunity, like that of Ballroom culture. The Ballroom scene evolved from Drag balls, competitions held by drag queens and trans women in New York that began as early as the mid to late 1800s, but grew into large, competitive events in the early to mid 1900s. Despite Drag competitions allowing contestants of all races and genders, judges often passed over talented Black and Latino/a/x performers. As a result, in the late 1960s Black contestants decided to create their own Drag competitions, called Ball competitions or simply Ballroom, intended solely for Black and Latino/a/x communities. Performers were often members of a specific house, a sort of chosen family usually led by a house mother, which would compete against other houses in a variety of categories centered around music and dancing. Ballroom and Drag competitions were more than just a hobby- they were a creation of family, a competition for status and respect, and an opportunity to tell one’s story through music and dance, most famously voguing. For more information about Ballroom culture and voguing, check out this article by History.com, or this one by Time Magazine.
Ballroom evolved out of Drag ball competitions as an exploration of Black and Latino/a/x queer culture, but came into the mainstream when Madonna released the song “Vogue,” and the Ballroom documentary Paris is Burning was released in 1990 and 1991, respectively. Other communities have always skirted music mainstreams, like much of queer pop and rock music throughout the second half of the twentieth century, from Little Richard to George Michael. In some cases, queer communities found music that represented their community from openly queer performers like that of Elton John, who came out in the 1970s, or from popular queer songs, like “Lola,” by The Kinks. But for much of the latter half of the 20th century, queer listeners found community in music with messaging that slipped under the radar of recording studios and radio producers, and sometimes even the musicians themselves. Perhaps most famously, Diana Ross’s 1980 hit “I’m Coming Out” served as an LGBTQ+ anthem, despite Ross being unaware of the double meaning of the lyrics that songwriter Niles Rodgers created. Since the late 1990s and early 2000s, LGBTQ+ listeners have more easily found representation and community in openly queer mainstream music, from Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” to Lil Nas X’s “Montero.” The ability of music to not only reflect a community, but also create change within a community, was even more obvious in 2017, when a study showed that Logic’s song “1-800-273-8255,” written about a gay teenager struggling with bullying and suicidal thoughts, actually led to a decrease in LGBTQ+ suicides during the height of the song’s popularity. For a more in-depth look at LGBTQ+ music communities, check out this article.
There are far too many artists and musical genres to dive into today that have uplifted or created communities for all different types of marginalized groups. One day soon we’ll dive further into important music communities such as disability protest musicians, ranchera music in Mexican American culture, and more, but for now if you’d like to learn more about how marginalized communities have connected through music throughout history, check out this list.