The Reading Room

Sowmya Krishnamurthy says queerness has always been essential to hip-hop and fashion

In her first book, Fashion Killa: How Hip-Hop Revolutionized High Fashion, journalist and hip-hop expert Sowmya Krishnamurthy explores the relationship between luxury fashion and its life within the realm of hip-hop and rap music. Drawing from iconic fashion moments and interviews with some of the biggest style icons in rap, Krishnamurthy provides a vital, tangible oral history detailing how these worlds collided, and why this relationship drove both cultures forward.

In a chapter of Fashion Killa titled “Devil In A New Dress,” Krishnamurthy explores fashion as an expression of gender and sexuality, and recalls a landscape in which some wardrobe choices proved questionable for certain rappers. She revisits the early aughts, during which Cam’ron’s pink, furry jacket and Kanye West’s College Dropout-era polo shirts challenged a hypermasculine narrative, breaking through the boxes of how hip-hop stars could present themselves. 

In the mid-aughts, these rappers’ fashions spawned rumors surrounding their sexualities, however, Krishnamurthy documents a remarkable shift which took place over the course of the past decade. Citing the cultural impact of Young Thug donning a lush, flowing gown on the cover of his 2016 mixtape Jeffery, as well as the reception of Tyler The Creator’s nods to his sexuality on his 2017 album Flower Boy as examples, Krishamurthy has high hopes for the future of hip-hop. 

We catch up with Krishnamurthy shortly before Fashion Killa’s publishing date, as she is mapping out her book rollout strategy to match that of a hip-hop album release.

What was your research process for this book?

I’ve been a journalist for over a decade, and from day one, so many of the interviews that I’ve had ended up leading into where we are with this book. There was a lot of reading other books – there aren’t any other hip hop and fashion anthologies – so it was a lot of reading other memoirs that are tangential or related, other books about women and hip hop, Dapper Dan, and things like that. [I spent time] watching documentaries in the space, and reading magazine articles, newspaper articles and academic journals – so many things that were related to this story as well. And that was just the prep that you get going into the actual interviews. 

When you write a book is that you might interview someone for two hours and end up using two lines from that interview. Or you interview someone thinking, ‘Ok, this is really going to be important to this chapter,’ then they mention another name, and you kind of go down that rabbit hole. So it becomes really comprehensive and all-encompassing.

I really liked the quote from Andre 3000 about how he took inspiration from the 1930s, when men would wear these formal outfits, but played football and were still revered in a masculine image. And I think you do a good job of putting a timeline in perspective where this shifted to large tall tees to express masculinity, especially within the genre. Where do you think the shift began, in terms of how rappers express their masculinity?

With the book, we start with Dapper Dan as being the seminal figure of the modern Harlem dandy. But in order to get into that, we have to look into the history. It was really important for me to go back into the Harlem Renaissance, and why Harlem was this intriguing alchemy, where you had the greatest minds, artists, and thinkers of that time coming together, and this idea of aspirational fashion coming from there. This notion that fashion has pulled from all these other cultural touchpoints has been there since the inception. Sometimes when we talk about hip-hop fashion, it gets distilled into this very sort of archetypal image – the artist with the baggy jeans, maybe the big gold chain, Air Force Ones, or Adidas – and yes, that is definitely one of the iterations, but it’s so much more nuanced and involved and complex.

I also really liked how you said that the generation of rappers who defended Offset and DaBaby were viewed as “antiquated dinosaurs.” Do you feel like homophobia and transphobia within hip-hop is becoming an archaic ideal?

I would love for it to be. I really feel that for hip-hop and the culture to really continue to move forward and to affect people positively, things like homophobia and transphobia have no place. For a lot of people, it’s really just reflective of how they were raised, and as a society, these are things that we’re still grappling with, and we’re trying to embrace and move forward, and not discriminate against people. I think when it comes to artists that speak to Gen Z specifically, it makes absolutely no sense to hold on to these very outdated views of what masculinity is, even what femininity is, and what’s allowed within the spectrum of the genders. You look at some of the most exciting artists now, and it’s people like Lil Nas X, Young Thug, or Cardi B –  people like that, who oftentimes play with these ideas of what you can and can’t do when it comes to gender and sexuality. I think that as a music genre, and as a culture, more and more young people, are on the right side of history when it comes to that. And my hope is that those who came before do see the error of their ways and see that times are changing, and it is important to be more inclusive and not to exclude.

You did a great job of putting this shift into perspective when you mention how Gen Z reacted to Tyler The Creator hinting at his sexuality in 2017.

Yeah, nobody cared. The headline was, there is no headline, and I loved that. 

Because even looking at Tyler’s cohort, with Odd Future and Frank Ocean, I vividly remember on the eve of his album, people in the industry, especially older people were really worried about what was going to happen when he sang “Bad Religion” [from Ocean’s debut album Channel Orange] on live TV, and it’s very clear that he’s singing about a man who’s broken his heart. But at the end of the day, the music is good, so it really doesn’t matter who he loves or how an artist wants to define their gender. In my opinion, that’s something that’s very personal to them. 

I think it’s great when we see someone like Tyler have so much success with this alter ego of the Flower Boy, right? Whereas in previous generations, someone like Kanye, they didn’t question his sexuality. Here’s the guy in the pink polos, he’s not from the streets, he’s kind of nerdy, like, how do we sort of put it in a box? And the whole idea now is that there are no boxes. 

It was really important for me to go back into the Harlem Renaissance, and why Harlem was this intriguing alchemy, where you had the greatest minds, artists, and thinkers of that time coming together, and this idea of aspirational fashion coming from there.

Sowmya Krishnamurthy

I think in the past, certain artists were able to kind of get around these questions by almost overcompensating and by being very hyper masculine or very aggressive. Someone like Cam’Ron or Young Thug – they were able to wear pink, or in the case of Thug, a dress, and no one really questioned it, because it was this idea that they came from the streets and they have that credibility.

Do you feel optimistic about a shift in the landscape, in regards to how hip-hop views queerness and gender expression?

I’m definitely optimistic. I think at the end of the day, hip-hop is a functioning society. And if we take a step back as a culture, my hope is that we are becoming more inclusive, and not defining people by how they want to live their lives, who they choose to love. Those things shouldn’t be a part of it. For an artist, who they choose to love doesn’t have to necessarily be part of their public identity. For some people, if there’s a queer artist, that becomes a whole story, and it’s like, ‘No, that’s just one part of them.’ But we shouldn’t make assumptions that they want to speak about it, that they want to be a public face about it. That’s not for us as fans or as the media to [decide for] people. And I really hope we just get to a place where we really just let people be who they want to be. Whether that be you know, for the LGBTQ community or any other identity, that we just let people be who they want to be, and if that transcends into the music, and they want to talk about it, that’s great. But if not, that’s cool too, just enjoy the music.

I liked your interview with The Cut, especially where you talk about Lil’ Kim and how she’s been a trendsetter in terms of her music, her fashion, her expression of her sexuality on her own terms. Would you consider her a champion for the LGBTQ+ community?

For someone like Lil Kim, the LGBTQ+ community really embraced her early on, and I’m sure a lot of that was just from her music and the confidence in her lyrics. And of course, the fashion. She was the one who popularized things like the colorful wigs and the ostentatious outfits, and using her body almost as like fashion itself, whether it be at the VMAs, or the cover of Interview Magazine, she was really sort of fearless and bold. I had read an interview with Lil Kim not too long ago, where I believe she mentioned she realized that she was an ally to the community with songs like “How Many Licks,” which was on her second album, [The Notorious K.I.M.]. And by this point, she’s performing events for Pride, and she’s really leaned in to being an icon in the community. And I think it’s beautiful, I think, whether it be female artists or male artists, just embracing the fans of all backgrounds, it just makes sense. Even though she may not identify as LGBTQ+, the fact that her music and her identity have resonated with them shows the power of music and culture.

In a lot of the Hip Hop 50 documentaries I watched, there was a lot of talk about radio personalities trying to guess “who is the gay rapper?” I went back to Lil Kim’s interview from a 1999 issue of Out where she mentioned that she was determined to figure out who the quote-unquote “gay rapper” is. Do you remember this particular time in hip-hop?

Absolutely. I remember when Wendy Williams was on the radio, and that catchphrase “How you doing?,”  ended up becoming a bit of a rallying cry for her audience, who probably didn’t realize the undertones. It was really about that feeling in the media of who was on the
“DL” or “down low”, and that there was like the secret cabal in hip-hop of people living double lives.

In 2023, it just seems so barbaric. Let people live their lives. Who are we to judge what people do as consenting adults?

That was rampant and hip hop – this idea of what someone’s sexuality is, what their secret sexuality is, even though they claim that they’re straight, and kind of goading people to come out. I think what I love so much about Gen-Z, specifically, is that they’re just not caught up in all of those things. And to me, as a millennial, I just really admire that it’s about loving somebody, and that can be on a continuum, on a spectrum. And to me, that’s where the future is going. 

It’s really sad, looking back, but I do think we have to, for us to move forward.

What is something you learned about the LGBTQ+’s community’s relationship to hip-hop during the process of putting this book together?

The LGBTQ+ community has been integral in the story of hip-hop and fashion, whether it be directly speaking about designers, stylists, or artists–but also indirectly, and behind the scenes. a lot of people don’t realize the first editor-in-chief of Vibe Magazine was Jonathan Van Meter, who was an openly gay man. At the time, it was kind of controversial that this gay white man is going to run Vibe Magazine, but what he said was coming from his perspective in high fashion, and he wanted to bring that lens, that aesthetic, and that ethos to Vibe, which he did very successfully, making it into this hip-hop version of Vogue.

Someone like Lil Kim really was a muse to people like Marc Jacobs and David LaChappelle and all of these high fashion people, and so much of that love and admiration came from people like gay men. The LGBTQ+ community has been a crucial part of hip-hop and high fashion and I think they will continue to be in all facets. Whether it be in front of the camera or behind.♦

Don't forget to share:

Tags: hip hop
Read More in Culture
The Latest on INTO