Stop! Don't even think of reading on until you've read Part One.

Disco-Era Provocateurs

“A gay record had to come out of the disco,” Valentino, the original singer of “I Was Born This Way,” told the U.K.’s Black Music in 1975. “Because that is the scene for gays.” Indeed, many gay records, including “Ain’t Nobody Straight in L.A.” by The Miracles (sans Smokey Robinson), were released during this era.

And the ’70s allowed more freedom of expression than the chastened ‘50s and ‘60s. Standouts included theatrical, gender-fluid talents such as Sylvester, whose frisky “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” is included in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry— recognizing work “of enduring importance to Amrican culture”—and Tony Washington of The Dynamic Superiors. Washington, who used his powerful falsetto to declare “Nobody’s Gonna Change Me,” often performed in drag. He appeared on the cover of the group’s 1975 album Pure Pleasure with his soapy bare legs in a bathtub and his fingers with red-painted nails resting on his knees. “I was trying to push the clock ahead,” Washington told The Advocate in 1977.

Keith Barrow was another Black gay artist whose talent and style dazzled audiences in the ‘70s. The son of civil rights activist Rev. Willie Barrow, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, he debuted with a gospel album at age 15. Family friend Rev. Jesse Jackson contributed to the liner notes, “Keith sings… with his total being.”

His pulsating 1978 single “Turn Me Up” became a staple in New York City nightclubs like The Loft and the Paradise Garage, where gay Black DJ Larry Levan reigned. But as much success as Barrow’s dance numbers brought him, his ballads—”Overnight Success,” “You Know You Want to Be Loved” and “Free to Be Me”—take on a special poignancy for the way they speak to the haunting questions gay men asked themselves during this age of gay liberation, inquiries that in some way date back to the blues: What does freedom really mean? And what are the costs? Like the songs of Valentino, Sylvester and The Dynamic Superiors, they serve as both historical records and templates for subsequent queer expression.

Keepers of the Flame

In 1983, gay Black singer Marc Sadane–a protege of jazzy R&B chanteuse Phyllis Hyman—went with Larry Levan to the hospital when they heard Keith Barrow was ill. As they were leaving, Sadane said to Levan, “I wonder why he’s sick.” Levan answered, “It’s that new disease he got.”

They were talking about AIDS. Barrow told his mother, Willie, “Momma, don’t hide it. I have to live with it and you have to live with it.” One of the earliest music-industry casualties of AIDS, he died on 10/22/83, at age 29. There was such stigma associated with the disease that journalists didn’t even ask Willie Barrow how her son had died. “I feel such an urge to speak,” she told Jet several years later, “because we are killing too many people with our short-sightedness.”

AIDS would soon take the lives of more of Sadane’s friends, including Sylvester. They spoke on the phone days before the latter slipped away, on 9/16/88. Though he was only 41, he’d told Sadane, “I’m ready.”

In 1992, Levan died from complications of endocarditis, an enlargement of the heart. “It was a very sad time,” Sadane remembered.

Amid the communal tide of grief, many Black gay men continued making songs in the spirit of the music loved by their fallen friends. David Cole, with production partner Robert Clivillés, took the sounds of underground dance music to unprecedented levels of international success working with superstars Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.

Carey had received a world-class education in dance music, growing up listening to DJs like Frankie Crocker. While recording her second album, Emotions, she bonded with Cole. “He was a church kid who loved dance music,” she wrote in her memoir, The Meaning of Mariah Carey. “He pushed me as a singer.”

Together, they crafted songs like the #1 “Emotions” and Top 5 “Make It Happen,” both from 1991, musical nods to the garage-house classic “Got to Be Real” by Cheryl Lynn, among other such disco gems. Cole also got Carey to re-record her vocals for club remixes. Their reworking of the ballad “Anytime You Need a Friend” references the gospel soul of the underground.

Cole took a similar approach with Houston on her 1992 cover of Chaka Khan’s club standard, “I’m Every Woman.” When Cole and Clivillés initially heard Houston’s take on the song, it had a dated, New Jack Swing feel. Cole knew it would never be accepted by the clubheads who loved the Khan original. He had to convince a then-very-pregnant Houston to come back to the studio and redo her vocals. One of his best friends, Brinsley Evans of the duo Uncanny Alliance, remembers the conversation with Houston, “She was, like, ‘I gotta do what?’” Cole was persistent, despite Houston’s star status: “Come on—you got to!”

He added the ballad-like intro and laid her new vocals over the type of house beats that were banging in clubs like New York’s Sound Factory. Houston’s “I’m Every Woman” soon topped the Dance charts and hit the Top 5 at Pop.

Cole is also remembered, of course, for the multiplatinum group he formed with Clivillés, C+C Music Factory, perhaps best known for the 1990 #1 hit “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now).”

These triumphs should have set him down a long career path as a super-producer. But that’s not how fate played out. In 1994 he was stricken by the same disease that had taken the lives of so many other promising Black gay men. “The end was rough,” said Evans. “I’m not gonna lie. People started disappearing. I saw the reality of how somebody could have so much and then when it gets down to the wire, you know, nothing.” Cole died of AIDS on 1/25/95.

Hip-Hop Iconoclasts

“All the homeboys that got AIDS be quiet; all the girls out there that don’t like guys, be quiet,” instructed 17-year-old Will Smith on “Live at Union Square, November 1986,” from his 3 million-selling album with DJ Jazzy Jeff, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. His words characterized the homophobia rampant in hip-hop, which persists to this day. As recently as 7/25/21, DaBaby played a taped montage at Miami’s Rolling Loud requesting that fans hoist their phone flashlights if they “didn’t show up today with HIV/AIDS,” later remarking that his gay fans “don’t have HIV/AIDS” because they’re not “nasty” or “junkies.”

After Lil Nas X came out as gay in 2019 and was subsequently rewarded with numerous industry accolades, Emil Wilbelin, the Black, gay former editor-in-chief of VIBE, said, “I never thought in my lifetime that I’d actually see a Black gay or queer person receive two Grammy Awards.”

Lil Nas’ acceptance has been remarkable but is also specific to his circumstances; he was already widely beloved thanks to “Old Town Road.” Embracing him after he announced he was gay felt, for many, like supporting a family member or friend.

Far more surprising has been the rapid rise of Tallahassee, Fla., rapper Rashad Spain, known professionally as Saucy Santana. When he began crafting his social-media persona, he went by “Sissy Santana.” As he told The Breakfast Club, the name meant he was celebrating being gay.

But one day a woman approached him yelling, “Hey, Sissy!” He looked at her incredulously and said “What?” She explained that she knew him from Facebook. That did not ease Santana’s discomfort. He told her, “Look… you gotta say the whole name.”

He’d wanted to pay tribute to the “sissies” who’ve been a vital part of Black communities for centuries. But he didn’t want to give people an easy way to dismiss or deride him. So he became Saucy Santana, based on a suggestion by his sister.

Though he adopted a new stage name, he did not alter his image, which includes twerking, switching (a side-to-side wiggle walk) and wearing full makeup with a trim beard, long painted nails and, on some occasions, a ball gown and pearls. His look succeeds in linking him to some of the self-proclaimed “sissies” who paved the musical roads of gospel and the blues. It also conveys a stylistic affinity with Sylvester and Tony Washington, who grew up being called “sissies.”

Santana’s eye-popping success has once again proved the commercial viability of Black gay men who toy with gender, even in the straight-male-dominated world of hip-hop. Strip-club anthems like “Walk Em Like a Dog,” “Material Girl” and “Shisha,” the latter featuring City Girls, have earned Santana more than 88 million views on YouTube.

Per many of his fans on Twitter, he represents something different from Lil Nas X, whose conventionally attractive, hard-body appearance has made him a favorite of the publishing industry; he’s appeared on the cover of mainstream magazines like Time, GQ and Entertainment Weekly. Said @_GirlFromAtl, “There [are] a lot of reasons Santana ain’t getting the shine Lil Nas X is. He’s super-feminine, his songs are overtly gay,... he’s big, he’s dark skin. But most importantly he’s always been gay whereas LNX came out.” (7/5/21)

Santana is countering the lesson learned by Black boys who grow up being bullied for displaying femininity, which you can see on the smiling Black faces of the teens who dance to his songs on TikTok, where he has nearly 3m followers and has received more than 500 million views.

Santana may not be getting the attention he deserves at the moment, but he may yet help shatter another barrier preventing Black gay artists, especially those embraced by largely Black audiences, from receiving credit for their influence. In fact, he is part of a long tradition of Black gay artists who’ve transformed pop music simply by rejoicing in who they are.

Special thanks to Valerie Boyd, Bill Coleman, Tim Dillinger, Brinsley Evans, Anthony Heilbut, Butch Ingram, Danielle A. Jackson, and Marc Sadane.

Fire up the grill. (5/29a)
Ladies' choice (5/24a)
Each worth a thousand words (5/27a)
A game of Monopoly on Capitol Hill (5/24a)
Redrawing the Mason-Dixon Line (5/24a)
Gosh, we hope there are more press releases.
Unless the Senate manages to make this whole thing go away, that is.
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