Le1f and the Transformative Power of Hip-Hop

PHOTO: Francis Ray

PHOTO: Francis Ray

Whenever feeling completely claustrophobic while working in tiny kitchens, I would blast Le1f on high. His music would cut through the air and make room for me, sometimes literally, as it made certain individuals uncomfortable.

He mixes a heavy beat, radio cool, windows down, driving with Hot 107 and then bam, you get flamboyance, twirl, and more confidence than fight night with lyrics like “I’m a butterfly, bitch.”

Seeing him live is all voodoo and transformative power. He comes on stage dressed in what looks to be a cute, cut-off, high fashion jumper, which is quickly stripped off, to frame his self-love with sweat and bright orange, Adidas striped sweats. His music speaks and aligns for him just as his identity swirls from aggressive to femme to bump and sex like a ritualistic vibe.

I am initially surprised that this small, queer-claimed bar in the grass-rooted Bull City is not packed to its brim, flowing out to the street, but then again, I am also surprised why I haven’t heard “Wut” on the god damn radio.

There is a lot of talk going on about representation of queer and black artists in TV and film, yet we are still dealing with sometimes blatant, other times quiet, homophobia in hip-hop.

It is time to start seeing this continuously revolutionary genre as a matriarch.

“I don’t know what queer is, is it even a thing anymore? If it is, I hope that it can be inclusive for someone like me…”

While Cardi B and Nicki fight, can we just take a second and realize that if hip-hop/rap has always been about owning you, respect, telling it like it is, loving on your story and your presence and not afraid of battle, then you gotta make room for Mama, you gotta make room for sissies and fairies, high low medium femmes of all shades and shapes, but even more stressing- black men who cross their legs, hold their dick, gloss and shine, throw shade and sometimes wear it. You have to make room for the lyrics, “they want me to blend in like real tree, but I can’t, I gosta do me.”

Le1f should never have to conform to a queer audience either because black straight men can’t love on a song, and white gays are doing whatever they are doing, going to pride. It makes no sense that feminine men are put down in gay circles or not as desired, and masc identities are celebrated but then this aggressive, very masculine sound mixed with explosive, empowered, fag loving lyrics is taboo.

“I’m a man’s man, literally.”

Le1f is a conversation, multiple conversations, stacks of Ivy league thesis papers on feminism and hip-hop. A dialogue that we keep bringing up but can’t quite seem to break through on.  

The opening act, Tennis Rodman, a young, black man, openly identifying as straight, ends on the words, “I don’t know what queer is, is it even a thing anymore? If it is, I hope that it can be inclusive for someone like me..”

I literally felt the crowd gag a bit when he said is it even a thing anymore. It had me thinking though, like where are we going?


Where am I going?

I am in this bar, no genders on the bathroom doors cause we don’t play that, high platform shoes and smiles.

I am sober.

I am sober in a bar.

That’s a decade and a half of communicating in these beautiful spaces with these beautiful people, intoxicated. That’s a decade and a half of being touched when intoxicated, nevermind saying, “hello, how are you, my name is Francis.”

That’s years of creating, cultivating, and defining family and then waking up to a smoldering forest. Walking through the char pretending it ain’t gone, looking for relics in the smoke.

Is it gone?

Its moments of complete loss, it’s a baseline of infinite strength, flashes of doubt, sadness pounding like a headache, driving around with Sade and a candle.

Is this grief? Is this textbook?

I close my eyes and his music is drawing in my head. Khalif is on a clay dragon, surfing, spitting fire. He is in a tree made of yarn adorned by little birds. I open them- he is on the floor, the crowd surrounding him as he lay there, mic to his lips, legs crossed.

Then he performs Umami/Water. His presence elevated in love. The song slows for a second, into a trance of awareness, other worldly and sitar, heavy.  He leans all the way back and lets the light glisten and shimmer on his sweat. His arms slither, intertwining like a deity.

“You were born to do it,” then the beat hits back, “I hate bottled water but I love the way bottle water taste.”

Afterwards he laughs and asks for bottle water to wash his asshole.

It’s 2am, I am sitting in my car, staring at downtown Durham and the selfie of Khalif and I. I don’t know where to go, but I need gas. Head to a spot that is packed, crawling out onto the street and into the gas station parking lot. Strange, that this is what I had pictured for the show or at least the amount of people, and the sense of celebration. I also notice though while the numbers on the gas meter are scrolling, everybody is pretty drunk.

Seems like the m.i.a in our community are at home. Whether they are sober or not, they’re hurting, they’re tired.

Heard Raquel Willis say something like, after the election, sure we weren’t that surprised but we got to it, working overtime.

We’re so strong, we radiate.

So strong, even when we rest, you can hear our melodic breathing.

Francis Ray (Mangogna) also lovingly referred to as Light Bulb is a trans-masculine identified, mixed media artist and writer.