On June 30, the final day of Pride Month, the young country-rap sensation Lil Nas X came out to his 2.2. million Twitter followers. “Some of y’all already know, some of y’all don’t care, some of y’all not gone fwm no more. but before this month ends i want y’all to listen closely to C7osure, ” he wrote, referring to a track from his debut EP 7 ,” then the No. 1 rap album in the country. “Embracin’ this news I behold unfolding … I know it don’t feel like it’s time,” he raps. “But I look back at this moment, I’ll see that I’m fine.” Overnight, the 20-year-old Atlanta native – born Montero Lamar Hill – became the biggest gay pop star in the world. That he did so in the orbit of hip hop and country, genres that have historically snubbed queer artists, was groundbreaking. “Lil Nas X reimagined an image of the Wrangler-wearing, horseback riding man’s man into a young black representative of youth culture, got the attention of two traditionally macho cultures and then came out on the last day of Pride,” says Roy Kinsey, a Chicago-based librarian and rapper at the forefront of Chicago’s queer rap scene. “It was genius.” Before the viral sensation of Old Town Road turned Hill into a pop star and gay icon, hip hop was already reaching a turning point in its inclusivity, as more young black men exploring sexuality and interrogating masculinity in their work are getting mainstream attention. “I feel like I’m opening the doors for more people,” Hill told the BBC recently. “That they feel more comfortable [being out]. Especially in the … hip hop community. It’s still not accepted.” Hip hop’s refusal to embrace anything queer has been a blemish on the genre for as long as its been around. Rap culture has always been powered by unbridled machismo, and one would be hard pressed to not find a gay slur embedded in the lyrics of any of the genre’s most famous architects. But as the old guard has been replaced with a younger generation unconcerned with rigid labels and unbothered by genre, today’s rap and R&B scene isn’t as exclusively heteronormative as it once was. “We know folks in our community have always been religiously conservative, and being gay is still seen as taboo,” said Ebro Darden, the global editorial head of hip-hop and R&B for Apple Music and host of Ebro in the Morning on New York’s Hot 97 radio station. “But with entertainment becoming more accepting, music is going to be right there. This moment isn’t some blip, because it’s not a blip in society.” In 2012, avant-garde R&B and hip hop singer Frank Ocean broke ground by boldly writing about falling in love with a man on the eve of releasing his breathlessly hyped debut album Channel Orange . “I don’t know what happens now, and that’s alrite. I don’t have any secrets I need kept anymore,” he wrote. Gay Chinese find a place to be themselves on ‘Rainbow Cruise’ to Vietnam Ocean, who sprang from the rowdy, LA-based hip hop collective Odd Future, went on to become a Grammy-winning star and in-demand collaborator for Jay-Z, A$AP Rocky and Travis Scott. Over the past couple of years, Ocean’s former Odd Future collaborator, Tyler, the Creator, has transitioned from a bratty provocateur who hurled gay slurs with reckless abandon into someone who surprisingly and rather matter-of-factly raps about his own attraction to men. His latest effort, Igor , is ostensibly a funky soap opera about a boy who loves a boy who loves a girl. “Take your mask off, I need her out the picture … Stop lyin’ to yourself, I know the real you,” he raps. Igor became the first Billboard No 1 album of his career, and his most acclaimed. While queer female performers such as Janelle Monae, Halsey, Young M.A. and Kehlani have been accepted with little fuss, there’s now a growing surge of queer black male voices that are cutting through a genre built on heteronormative ideals. “[Black] queer women are having a better time than men right now, creatively,” says New York-based DJ, producer and rapper Skype Williams. “But male representation is moving in the right direction,” he continued. “The catalyst for this shift though? I think when people in political power are [threatening] our basic rights, art and music gets more interesting.” It helps that the streaming era has disrupted how stars are created. Artists are no longer beholden to an ecosystem ruled by gatekeepers and pop music has became far less homogenised. No genre of music offers better proof of this than hip hop, where Generation Z rap stars are born on SoundCloud and TikTok and not radio. Old Town Road was a meme on TikTok – a popular lip-synch social media app – well before it was the inescapable radio earworm that reignited old debates about race and genre. Artists are also playing to a generation far more open-minded and permissive when it comes to gender and sexuality than their older millennial counterparts. A report by trend forecasting agency J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group back in 2016 found that only 48 per cent of 13 to 20 year-olds identified as exclusively heterosexual, compared to 65 per cent of the generation before them. This is an audience that shrugs when Tyler, the Creator does an about-face the way he did on 2017’s stellar Flower Boy where he casually rapped about being attracted to men after years of using gay slurs – a topic he still refuses to address outside the music. “Truth is, since a youth kid, thought it was a phase / thought it’d be like the phrase; ‘poof,’ gone / But, it’s still goin’ on,” he rapped. From Justin Bieber to One Direction to Lady Gaga: female super fans and fan girl culture And that’s not to say the rest of the music industry is that much further ahead. Pop music had lacked an openly gay superstar before Adam Lambert and Sam Smith made history with their chart debuts and Grammy victories, respectively. And despite their statuses as legendary rock hit makers and gay icons, there was much hand-wringing over how biopics for Queen and Elton John would handle the queerness of its subjects. But is all this enough to swing the pendulum toward permanent change in R&B and hip-hop? Since the genre’s dawning nearly five decades ago, homophobic attitudes in hip hop have been the norm. N.W.A. and the Beastie Boys boasted about their disdain for gay people in lyrics. 50 Cent once said it wasn’t OK for men to be gay, but women who like women? “That’s cool.” Nicki Minaj incited her sizeable queer fan base by using a gay slur on her latest album. The late XXXTentacion was as famous for his contemplative music as the violent mythology he constructed to sell it – including gleefully boasting about beating a man within an inch of life because he looked at him too long. Just last year, Migos’ Offset notoriously rapped, “I cannot vibe with queers”. And Eminem has yet to retire his usage of “faggot” in the 18 years since he famously performed with Elton John at the Grammys as a PR orchestrated act of goodwill against his viciously homophobic lyrics. A wave of black queer rap artists, including Le1f, Zebra Katz, Cakes Da Killa, Mykki Blanco and House of LaDosha, broke out of New York at the start of the decade with music and visuals that upended the very same gender constructs that have been weaponised against gay men for the last century by pairing hyperfeminine aesthetics – high fashion looks, weaves, manicured fingertips – with braggadocious rhymes. Despite being on the cutting edge of setting trends, queer black folks are still last in line when it comes to representation across a mainstream pop culture zeitgeist heavily informed by black queer creatives. From fashion to music to the English lexicon, black queer people have set the pace even if they don’t always, in turn, see themselves embraced.