Writing Music About Being Black, Muslim, and Gay Helped Me Believe It Was Possible
I was told that the three parts of my identity were mutually exclusive. Here's how I learned that was wrong.
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From an early age I was aware that my queerness directly conflicted with other parts of my identity. Being Black and Muslim come with their own sets of challenges in this world. Being a gay member of both of these communities is uniquely challenging, however, because they both have a complex relationship with homosexuality. I was raised in an African-Muslim household that was both strongly religious and committed (like many African American families) to very traditional ideas about what it means to be “a man.” I was told through constant direct and indirect messaging that being gay was the absolute worst sin a human being could possibly commit—and, even outside my religious household, my peers implied that being gay was unmasculine or just plain gross. This made me extremely skeptical about any future I might have as an openly gay man. For most of my childhood and adolescence, and even as a young man, I believed I’d spend the rest of my life in the closet.
Instead, I mustered the courage to come out to my family and friends. What gave me this courage was becoming a musician—and realizing that self-expression was more important than the approval of my family or friends. The response to my lyrics online makes it clear there are plenty of people who still believe being Muslim, Black, and openly gay are antithetical to one another. But I know they’re wrong, because I’m all three.
The idea that someone like me is betraying his religious and cultural communities existed long before I started making and releasing music. It would have been naive of me to assume that I wouldn’t have received disparaging comments from those closest to my existence. It’s often the ones who think that they know what the trajectory of our lives should look like who are the most outraged when we take a detour from those expectations. I was prepared for accusations of “sinful behavior,” and my “Westernization.” I wasn’t prepared, however, for the familial mass exodus that would ensue in my personal life. Surely there was a differentiation between the attitudes homophobic strangers hold online, and the reactions from people who have known me my entire life? Wrong. I learned that talks about the future, “I love you’s,” and any genuine concern for my well-being, were quickly nullified by my homosexuality. Those closest to me treated my sexual orientation like a late stage cancer that had to be cut out before it metastasized.
There aren’t many things more sobering than realizing you’ve built almost every essential relationship in your life off of shaky ground. As soon as that foundation gives way, you watch each building block you’ve carefully laid over the years, trying your hardest not to upset the balance, crumble anyway. We don’t just build our identities by gauging how we feel about ourselves, but by also gauging how our family members and friends feel about us. I can read comments all day about how “shameful” I am and not believe a single word. But when someone I love expresses those same exact sentiments, they weaponize the ability they have to cut me deeper than any stranger possibly could. Part of me thinks that these individuals are aware of the pain they’re able to cause their homosexual family members. The other part of me thinks that these individuals are in so much pain themselves; any opportunity they have to “fix” what they think is wrong with the world, they’ll take. Even at their loved ones’ expense.
I moved to Los Angeles when I was 18 years old to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. I came to this city wide-eyed, excited, and thankful for the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s best artists and teachers. I didn’t know that only four years later I’d find myself feeling abandoned by those I’d loved and respected the most because I was becoming a more authentic version of myself. Throughout all of the gaslighting, name-calling, and emotional blackmail, one thing remained true: my desire to write music that is both truthful to my existence, and challenging to make. I didn’t know when I was growing up that I was using music as a way to escape my immediate surroundings, and to create a world where it was acceptable to be myself. Ask any gay man my age who his favorite musicians were growing up and you’ll more than likely hear; Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Beyonce, and Nicki Minaj. These women are all undoubtedly LGBTQ icons, but it’s not just because they’re supportive of the LGBTQ movement. It’s because they present themselves and their artistry to the world in a way that is unapologetically themselves. LGBTQ youth can and do recognize the unique strength it takes to do that, because it’s the kind of strength we’ve all been searching for our entire lives.
Right before I uploaded my first video and song, “Gnarly,” I was really nervous about what it would mean for me going forward as an artist and as a person. Would I now become some token Black-Muslim gay rapper just because of the lack of representation? Would people even listen to my music before claiming that my existence was a signal of some upcoming armageddon? Would I have any family members left, or would they all cave under cultural and societal pressures? I’m pleased that a year later none of that actually matters to me. Hitting “upload” was akin to me taking off two decades’ worth of shame and embarrassment for nothing other than being who I am. It didn’t matter to me if two people, or two thousand people watched my video. Anyone who watched knew that by the very nature of this video existing, there was nothing that could be said or done to me anymore that would block my authentic self from being at the forefront of my life. I had unknowingly been giving people the permission to write my life’s story for me, down to who I was allowed to love. I was now not only taking that power back, but also letting it be known that I, a gay man, deserved a seat at the table in the world of hip-hop.
Over the past few months I’ve been recording my first mixtape, and a few things have happened recently that have made me recognize the difference in myself from just a year ago. I was given the opportunity to be photographed and featured in a gay men’s magazine, and I remember a time when that would have been the last thing I’d ever want to do! I would have been scared, ashamed, and too judgmental of myself to participate in something of that nature. Now I find that I’m legitimately excited to attach myself to anything that uplifts and empowers the LGBTQ community. On the rare occasions that I receive DM’s from young, LGBTQ identifying, Black-Muslims, asking me how they should come out to their families… I feel like I can actually help them. Not too long ago I too was reaching out to the few members of our community asking for their advice on how I should come out. To be in a place mentally where I now feel I have the knowledge and sensitivity to answer a question like that; makes me feel really humbled and proud of my journey thus far.
It’s now become even more imperative for me to write openly and freely about myself and my life experiences in my music. I refuse to believe that there isn’t space for people like me because we do exist. We always have, and we always will. My lyrics aren’t intended to just be heard by queer members of these communities like myself, but especially for those who are resistant to an openly gay Black-Muslim rapper. People fear what they do not understand, and this in turn leads them to confirm the false realities that have been painted for them by the people they respect. I know all too well how convincing these realities can be, because for a long time I too believed the world was that narrow and simple. Before I started releasing music I could only dream about a world in which I could proudly live my truth as a writer and musician. I now know that the world has always “allowed” to me do that. In fact, I didn’t need anyone’s permission but my own. All it took for me to start unapologetically standing in my truth was some courage, and a pen.