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‘If it wasn’t for gay men, there would be no hip hop’

‘If it wasn’t for gay men, there would be no hip hop’

Music Bear Tony Banks

New York City’s Music Bear Tony Banks has just dropped his latest track. The percussive-driven hip hop groove Cloud 9 is a taster of his upcoming, sophomore album: Yes Homo.

Banks was raised in Queen, New York City. He spent a few years living in Boston, MA, but is now firmly ensconced back in the Big Apple. He first began recording his own music in his mid-teens. With little more than a drum machine, he had dreams of becoming an R&B star.

However, he says work and life got in the way and those dreams were put on the back burner.

Then, seven years ago, after playing around with Garageband on his Mac, he put out a Christmas-themed rap record for the bear community. To his surprise, it gained interest. Music Bear Tony Banks was born.

Chocolate Cake

He first performed live five years ago. He put out his debut album, Chocolate Cake, in 2015. The explicit collection of tracks holds nothing back in their depiction of same-sex love: from lustful hook-ups to more soulful, romantic encounters. It’s an accomplished set that was criminally overlooked.

Yes Homo finds him shifting his sounds again – diversifying even further, from the political edge of Run! to the loved-up bliss of Cloud 9. The latter is about giving in to love, despite past traumas, mixed feelings and insecurities..

Banks says the song was written a couple of years ago to accompany an abandoned screenplay he wrote.

‘[The screenplay was] about part of my past, where I was dating a man and fell in love with another man. This was a song that I had penned for the soundtrack. I wrote the screenplay and I still have it somewhere. I took that song and just turned it into an actual track.

‘The words are meaningful to me. It’s a very much part of me and my identity. When I write, I write from experience. I don’t write about being in a club all night and partying, because that’s not my life. I like being an honest person in my music.

Singing about sex

Chocolate Cake was very explicit in some of its lyrics. Did he ever worry it might alienate him from some audiences? Did he ever wonder, “Should I be saying this stuff?’

‘Never never never. Cos it’s all true. Nothing in that was fabricated. I’ve had a past. Being a gay male in America gives you certain liberties when it comes to sex that these straight rappers wish they really had.

‘But gay men, we have lots of sex, so I’m just writing about my experiences as a sexual being, in New York City especially. I’m not trying to pretend that part of my life doesn’t exist. But I also wrote about the love stories on Chocolate Cake. I write about being in love and having relationships with people, on top of just being a freak.’

Music Bear Tony Banks
New York’s Music Bear Tony Banks says gay hip hop artists face particular challenges in finding an audience (Photo: Supplied)

Yes Homo 

He says Yes Homo will be different to Chocolate Cake. For now, he’s been there and done that with the porno rapping.

‘Doing the explicit hip hop stuff was fun, but I’ve done it. I don’t like repeating myself too much. I like to explore sounds and music. So on this one you’re getting some more political stuff, some more party stuff. It’s me exploring music in certain ways, talking about LGBT issues on this album.

‘That’s why it’s called Yes Homo. The title track is about living life as a hip hop artist in a world where being a gay rapper is taboo. Although, if it wasn’t for gay men from the 60s and 70s, there would be no hip hop. Because all of the techniques, sounds and systems that created hip hop were created before that, mainly for the gay crowds.

‘The sound systems, the turntables, the 12” records, the way that records were mixed. It was all the way records were made for gay clubs in the 70s and 60s, before hip hop was even thought of.

‘But still, gay hip hop artists remain undercover. Behind the scenes, gay people are everywhere in the industry, and yet ‘no homo’ is a thing.

‘So I’m saying ‘Yes homo’: appreciate the homosexuals who gave you this technology to create your genre of hip hop. I’m celebrating it rather than diminishing it.

Hip hop history and gay erasure

He talks enthusiastically about the TV show The Get Down. ‘It explains how the DJs were the ones who controlled the music that people listened to … and the DJs were all gay.

‘If they didn’t play the records, the music never got heard. So, gays are so much in the creation of hip hop, without gays you wouldn’t have the hop hop genre as you know it today.

Despite the popularity of rap and hip hop globally, there are no mainstream gay hip hop artists.

‘There is a wall when it comes to gay hip hop in America,’ says Banks. ‘We want to be taken seriously, but no-one takes us seriously, which is a shame.

‘It’s so hard in many ways. The gay community as a whole is very much into what’s white when it comes to music and gays. So they’ll support many white artists: Troye [Sivan], Adam [Lambert]… any number who are hitting the charts right now as a white artist. You won’t find many black counterparts hitting the charts. That’s the first problem.

‘And then the black community have their own issues. They want to see you fail more than they want to see you win, so they also don’t want to support something that’s different, new, unique, great even. So, that’s another problem.

‘And then the industry doesn’t see the support from the gay community. Therefore they don’t see a need to be supportive either. So that’s why it’s so hard to be a gay, black artist in America.’

Finding his audience

Banks is considering looking further afield to break through.

‘Artists such as Mykki Blanco, Le1f, Zebra Katz, and others, they’re always on tour in Europe. Every time I look up certain people’s websites, they’re heading overseas. That’s where a lot of the art we create is being accepted. Because they’re not so stigmatized to believe that gay rap shouldn’t exist. Or gay, black artists shouldn’t exist.’

For now, Banks in concentrating on the release of Yes Homo, and performing to as many audiences as possible – both inside and outside the US. The work has been a labor of love, quite literally.

‘I put my partner on Cloud 9. He’s on the very end with an “I’ll always be there” voice. That’s him. I sat him down. Told him “say these words.” And now he is on that track with me, it makes it even more special. He is the reason I’m so happy. He is my Cloud 9.

Cloud 9 is out now. Yes, Home is out soon. Official website: musicbearonline.com

See also

Nine times queer culture went mainstream

Life after Noah’s Arc: Darryl Stephens returns with ‘Head’

Sam Smith celebrates gay ballroom culture in new music video

New rap video doesn’t pull punches showing same-sex love in trouble