From Dembow to Opera, Meet Six of Music’s Queer Game-Changers

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Whether they’re spitting bars, singing an aria or rocking out with a guitar, these fearless creators are proving that when it comes to both identity and art, there are no boundaries.

Anthony Roth Constanzo Is Pushing Opera Outside The Box

When opera star Anthony Roth Costanzo began plotting the follow-up to his Grammy Award-nominated 2018 album, ARC, the Durham, N.C.-born countertenor was sure of one thing: “I really didn’t want it to be one of these boring classical music albums,” he says with a laugh.

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So, like any self-respecting member of the LGBTQ+ community, Costanzo looked to trailblazing women for inspiration. During a chat with New York cabaret iconoclast Justin Vivian Bond about their opposites-attract friendship, Costanzo was reminded of a 1976 TV special that paired two stage legends — soprano Beverly Sills and comedienne Carol Burnett — to “hilarious and bizarre” effect.

Drawing on “that high-low dichotomy, but also high and low culture,” Costanzo and Bond began developing a live show that morphed into January’s Only an Octave Apart, a duets album melding pop hits with classical arias in ways that are both puckish and poignant — think Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” juxtaposed with “Deh placatevi” from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, about pounding on the gates of hell to bring a lover back to life. “When we sat in the studio and listened to it, both of us started to tear up, thinking about what it could mean to a community of people who are sometimes othered and struggling with their own identity,” Costanzo says.

Costanzo has built a singular career with his distinctive vocal range (countertenors possess the highest adult male singing voice) on gorgeous display in what has become a signature role: the titular young pharaoh in Philip Glass’ Akhnaten, currently playing at the Metropolitan Opera; its recording won Costanzo a 2022 Grammy. But he is also a formidable presence outside opera’s hallowed halls, where he has sought out like-minded artists — from painter George Condo to filmmaker James Ivory — for diverse interdisciplinary projects.

Only an Octave Apart, he says, is one that pushed him to weave an even bolder queerness into his art. The opera world “can seem like a foreboding environment,” says Costanzo. (As we speak, he’s about to get all his body hair waxed as prep for Akhnaten.) “You don’t always get to express that queerness and identity in the work you’re doing in classical music. All of a sudden [with ­Octave], even though I was singing classical music, I felt like I was expressing the essence of who I was. That felt powerful to me.”

While Costanzo says that opera — with its history steeped in queens, divas and camp — is in some ways “even more queer than Broadway,” that connection isn’t necessarily apparent to everyone. When Bond and Costanzo set their sights on a collaborative concert with the New York Philharmonic, “there were a lot of roadblocks to get through — it was totally different from what they normally do,” Costanzo explains. He credits the organization’s president/CEO, Deborah Borda, with championing his vision; when the concert series wrapped in January, he received “some really moving emails from the orchestra, about how they never could have imagined doing this, but it felt absolutely necessary.”

The mere existence of the Octave album, Costanzo adds, feels like a small miracle. “It’s not cheap to make those things,” he bluntly says. “It was a crazy concept, and I’m thrilled Universal [Music, specifically Decca Records] let me do it.” He’s hopeful that it — along with his own ever-evolving career path — will inspire other artists.

“I am definitely in search of all kinds of friends and people. I want to understand other worlds and generations,” says the singer, who just turned 40. “What’s key is collaboration. Think intentionally about how to creatively produce and grow your project and reach more people. It adds up.”    —JOE LYNCH

Doechii Is Bringing Femme-Forward Rhymes To TDE

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, most artists went into survival mode. Doechii, on the other hand, saw opportunity.

“I was in this place where I was so focused on money, and I was like, ‘You know what? I’m getting unemployment. Now I don’t have to worry about money,’ ” recalls the 23-year-old rapper. “So I started focusing on me.” She left her mother’s Atlanta home and, from her father’s couch in Tampa, Fla., began a spiritual quest of sorts — unpacking trauma and getting to know herself better, reading books on quantum physics, the human spirit and the universe. “I had gone through a transformative point in my life,” Doechii continues, “so I was very trusting of God. Then everything happened exactly how I planned it.”

In the past year, she has set that master plan into motion: With her radically femme-focused rhymes and theatrical style, she’s determined to shatter limiting tropes surrounding Black women in rap while doing what she loves most. “If there was nobody on this whole Earth — no cars, no planes, no animals — if it was just me, I would be making music,” she says. “That’s what the f–k makes me happy.”

A landmark deal as Top Dawg Entertainment’s first female rapper, and her subsequent signing with Capitol Records, set her well on her way toward achieving that goal. “When I would talk to other labels, I could tell they admired my talent, but they were already [set] on a formula that they felt works and didn’t want to budge on,” Doechii explains. When her breakthrough single, “Yucky Blucky Fruitcake,” dropped in 2020, major labels like Warner and Universal came knocking; still, she stayed independent. Then TDE arrived: “I was sold. They flew me out in January, I got signed by February.”

“She’s like a hybrid of all of the women who’ve come before her,” says TDE president Moosa Tiffith. “She knows what she wants and is going to push the bar even further.”

In one of her first TDE recording sessions, Doechii wrote what would become her jaw-dropping first major-label single, “Crazy,” an appropriately chaotic track reclaiming the power of a word often weaponized against women. “As soon as I heard [“Crazy”], I knew she wasn’t going home,” says Tiffith. “We went and got her an apartment, made an offer to her and here we are today.”

“I knew my formula was different and risky, but TDE was willing to support it,” Doechii recalls. When the “Crazy” music video debuted in April, starring a gun-toting Doechii and an entirely nude crew of women, it sparked a mix of shock and awe across social media — exactly what she had hoped for.

“I feel a really big responsibility to make an influence on pop culture,” she says, referring to a time when artists like Aretha Franklin released raw, soul-baring music before “things got a bit more superficial. I want to switch that narrative. We don’t have to be afraid of real.”

For Doechii, that also means allowing queer artists like herself to define themselves in myriad ways. “I would like to get in a space where being queer could be so normalized that I don’t have to highlight it,” she says. “I’m proud of it, but I don’t like feeling othered all the time.” She thinks back to her childhood, when she couldn’t choose just one creative pursuit among glass-making, sculpting, drawing, volleyball, gymnastics, ballet, tap, dancerettes, swimming, track and basketball. “I couldn’t pick just one way to be or to show up” — and that, she realized, was her greatest strength. Today, whether it comes to her sexuality or her music, it still is. “My entire identity goes back to this fluidness. I’ve always just been everything.”    —NEENA ROUHANI

Dove Cameron Is Making A Pop — And Personal — Breakthrough

Dove Cameron realizes you might not believe her when she says “Boyfriend” — her seductive, overtly queer and currently inescapable pop anthem — was a “total f–king accident.” But, she promises, it really was.

“It took on a life of its own,” she says. “We’ve basically been on a three-and-a-half-month train that just has not stopped. It’s the song that kind of took over my whole universe.”

Happy accident or not, “Boyfriend” has redefined Cameron’s career. It’s her highest-charting single yet on the Billboard Hot 100 (peaking at No. 31 in May), a commercial breakthrough driven by TikTok — where, on the advice of her label, Disruptor Records, Cameron posted various demo clips and watched “Boyfriend” blow up, accumulating over 700,000 videos to date using its sound.

It’s also a breakthrough for Cameron personally. The 26-year-old rose to fame acting in Disney franchises like Liv and Maddie and Descendants. And though she rejects the “Disney girl-gone-bad” narrative, Cameron says she’s experiencing a transformation all the same, coming into her own as a queer pop star.

“Going from being this performatively feminine, blond girl next door who started out on a children’s network, [I’m often asked], ‘What happened to the blond girl who used to wear pink?’ ” she says. “And I’m like, ‘That was never it. That was never who I actually was.’ ”

Even so, watching a song “so intrinsically linked to my sexuality” become a hit (the lyric “I could be a better boyfriend than him” is directed at a female love interest) has felt “a little confusing,” Cameron admits. Though she has openly identified as queer for the last few years, she says she still struggles with the “dysphoria” of owning her status as a publicly queer person.

“There’s suddenly this big, capital Q on my chest,” she explains. “It’s massively encouraging and wonderfully moving and I’m so privileged that I am in a space where I can be who I am publicly, but there’s also suddenly a lot of expectations publicly. It is weird to navigate all of these intricacies before you even really know where your own lines between personal and public are.”

Figuring that out has meant shedding elements of her past. Shortly after releasing “Boyfriend,” Cameron deleted her previous, non-Disney work from all digital service providers, including singles like “Waste,” “Bloodshot” and “LazyBaby.” Its removal disappointed many fans, but Cameron is clear about her intentions. “It’s important to me that everybody understands that this was not a business decision,” she says with a sigh. “My old stuff was so not representative of the person that I am inside. It was kind of disruptive to what I’m trying to do now.”

That means looking forward: prepping her debut studio album — a set of jazz-infused, dance-ready pop songs much like “Boyfriend” — while defining queer stardom on her own terms. “I do not have to make myself ‘queerer’ or use some kind of preapproved LGBTQ ‘lens.’ My lens is queer. Period,” she says — a stance she hopes more queer artists will take up, too. “Nobody knows better than you, even if they’ve been in the industry 10 times as long. Listen to other people when they offer you advice on branding and distribution. But educate yourself so that you can make those choices yourself.”    —STEPHEN DAW

Tokischa Is Taking Filter-Free Dembow Far And Wide

Ever since I was a little girl, if I felt the need to say something, I had a pressure in my chest,” says Tokischa. “My heart would start beating fast, my blood pressure would rise. I felt obligated to say something, [and] I would get in trouble for it a lot of times.” The 26-year-old Dominican rapper giggles, then adds: “They’re not punishing me for it anymore.”

With her racy rhymes dripping with local lingo, dembow drums and rhythmic moans, Tokischa has amassed enough fans (plus plenty of can’t-look-away haters) to sell out shows from Queens to Rome. Those crowds may come in part to witness her onstage antics (licking milk out of a cat’s bowl; locking lips with Rosalía at the Billboard Latin Music Awards), but they’re also responding to the DGAF energy Tokischa radiates — creating a radically liberal space that feels like a Dominican teteo (street party) where her heavily female audiences can drink, smoke, throw the occasional punch and always move their hips.

Not so long ago, Tokischa was in a very different place: head in her hands, daydreaming about acting classes while miserably answering phones for a FedEx call center. “I would be so high, place the customers on hold and totally forget why they called,” she says with a chuckle. “I had a moment of depression. The call center sucked the dreams out of me.” When she eventually quit, she was swept into the turbulent world of sex work, taking on a few “gringo” sugar daddies, all the while creating content for her locally popular Instagram. “That’s how I met my manager, Raymi [Paulus],” she says.

Tokischa was always creative, but had never planned to become a dembow sensation, and Paulus helped bring her focus as she began playing shows and kicking substance addictions. As her horizons broadened beyond the Dominican Republic, so did her ideas about sexuality. “Am I queer?” she asks half-jokingly, strolling around Brooklyn’s Domino Park, where she occasionally interrupts our conversation to coo at puppies.

In the Santo Domingo barrio where Tokischa grew up, sexual expression was fluid by default but queer subcommunities were less visible. “I’m a sexual person. I grew up seeing that in my hood,” she says. “The queer [labels] are new for me.” But since she started spending more time in the United States, her sense of identity has blossomed. She has found a second home in drag culture and the ballroom scene. “It’s so inspiring seeing the drag queens, all the effort they put into their looks — they’re so empowered. It makes me want to cry sometimes,” she says. “Now that I’m here in [the United States], I want to hang out within the queer community and learn more. It’s something new for me.”

She’s more familiar with other labels. As a fiercely unapologetic woman of color causing mayhem in a predominantly male genre, she’s often lauded on social media as a sex-positive activist paving the way for oppressed communities — a characterization she never intended and one that’s sometimes far from the truth. (She has defended a rapper charged with sexual assault and came under fire as part of the music video for J Balvin’s “Perra,” which many called out as racially insensitive and misogynistic.) “I’m only being myself. I say what I feel, and I have fun with it,” she says. “I’m being honest, but whoever is honest becomes a rebel.”

In fact, she would rather contemplate heavy topics like how she’ll live out her final days, which she has already decided: “I want to live on a mountain, disconnected, and make peace with God. I pray every day, like, ‘God, I’m here doing my thing, but I can’t wait to be out there with you!’ ” She has had an innate faith and love of prayer since childhood — and if that seems contradictory, well, that’s just Tokischa. “I held on to faith because I dreamed of a future,” she says. “And to have attained that is magic.”    —N.R.

Joy Oladokun Is Writing Her Own Story

Joy Oladokun has spent over five years in the music industry; still, she’s not exactly sure which genre her music fits into.

Sometimes, she’s lumped into folk, likened to her hero Tracy Chapman; maybe, she figures, because she’ll dedicate a portion of every live set to just playing guitar, baring her soul in the dark. Sometimes, she’s called an Americana or country artist, based on her close ties to Maren Morris (whom she’ll join on tour in August) and Brandi Carlile, or because she’s based in Nashville, where she’s signed to Prescription Songs as a writer. As a queer Black woman, “it would be fun to start calling myself a country artist,” Oladokun says with a laugh. “I’ve got to get a cowboy hat first. I’m really going to lean into this.”

If audience is any indicator of genre, Oladokun’s only muddles the answer further. On her first cross-country tour, she says she saw Black and queer folks at every show, but her demographic is “super wide. There’s always one really sweet white lady in the back of the venue looking at me like I’m her daughter and I’m making her proud,” she says with a smile. There’s also always a tall white guy “who looks like he could be a Trump supporter, but really likes Bruce Springsteen and can hear that in what I do.”

So Oladokun (who is signed to Amigo Records/Verve Forecast/Republic Records in a joint partnership) prefers to simply call herself a singer-songwriter — because “I sing ’em, I write ’em,” and she tries to be as inclusive as possible. She never shies away from mentioning her queerness or obscures her Blackness, but tends to broaden her choruses so anyone can relate. “I make music that humanizes me to people that may not know someone like me,” she says.

Her talent as a lyricist has allowed Oladokun to easily collaborate with others, too. She happily writes for straight artists (“I pretended to be straight for a long time,” she jokes) and sees putting herself in someone else’s shoes as simply part of the job description. “In nature, we see how species take care of each other,” she says. “The more we remind each other of our shared humanity, the better we’ll be to each other.”

Oladokun’s kindness and hearty laugh belie an inner steeliness. She always remembers a story Jason Isbell told her: When he played guitar on an album by his wife, Amanda Shires, he noticed the way men in the studio deferred to him, not her. “He was like, ‘Never forget your name is on the sign,’ ” Oladokun says. “If someone does something I feel mars the integrity of what I’m trying to accomplish, I’m pretty quick to stand up for it.”

She encourages other queer and Black artists to do the same and to find teams that don’t just tout diversity and inclusion but actually check their own prejudices. “I just know that all of us are hearing crazy microaggressions and having to advocate twice as hard to get half as much as our boring white counterparts,” she says. And if there’s any time for queer and underrepresented artists to finally, truly be heard, Oladokun is confident it is now. “There are people out there who will take your ideas and help you communicate them,” she says. “Even if what you’re doing is too out there, there is a space — there is a market.”    —TAYLOR MIMS

MUNA Is Embracing Indie Empowerment

“It feels like a rejection,” Katie Gavin says. “It feels like a failure.” The lead vocalist of alt-pop trio MUNA is recalling the day in 2020 when she and bandmates Naomi McPherson and Josette Maskin learned that RCA Records had dropped them. “When you have that type of relationship, for me personally, you use that as a way of getting validation,” continues Gavin, 29. “You think, ‘Oh, I must be good. I’m signed to a major label.’ ”

But after some mental regrouping, she realized something crucial: “A label is not what makes you valuable at the end of the day,” she says. “It’s the skill set you have as a songwriter and the ability to create with people you respect. So it did, in fact, end up being really good for us.”

Two years later — with a new self-titled album (out June 24), a new label (Saddest Factory) and a new outlook on the industry — MUNA is “doing better than ever,” says McPherson, 29. They add that the album’s lead single, the buoyant ode to queer intimacy “Silk Chiffon,” is the perfect expression of a band that’s “sick of being depressed” and embracing optimism anew. “It’s so nice that this is ‘the song’ for us because there are a lot of movements right now to put queer people down,” says Maskin, 28. “We want queer joy to be represented in pop music, and it’s just as valid as any other form of queer art.”

“Silk Chiffon” also marks a milestone for MUNA: its first entry on Billboard’s alternative airplay charts. That’s thanks in part to a featured verse from Phoebe Bridgers, who signed the band to her label, Saddest Factory (an imprint of Dead Oceans, a subsidiary of Secretly Group), in May 2021. “Phoebe is a marketing genius,” says Maskin. “She is so good at branding herself and what she does, so we were all very keen to have a chance to work with her and have a playful relationship with how we could present ourselves to the world in a more creative, kitschy kind of way. It’s nice to have another person in the room who, frankly, we think is cool but who also really gets the business side of things.” (Recently, Gavin says, the trio has started investing its album advances.)

As queer and nonbinary artists (Gavin and Maskin use she/they pronouns, while McPherson uses they/them), the members of MUNA also have a rare champion in Bridgers: a label head who, like them, is a queer artist. “There is something so nice about not having to do the extra labor of explaining yourself,” Gavin says. “It feels f–king good to know that the person running our label has values that they’re going to stick up for.”

Bridgers also understands ­MUNA’s priorities on a fundamental level. Recently, that meant the band played the Saddest Factory “corporate retreat” (a label showcase at South by Southwest) alongside a Texas U.S. congressional candidate defending trans rights. It means that, while others around the act were skeptical about releasing the clever kiss-off “Anything But Me” as the album drop single, Bridgers told MUNA to follow its instincts and go for it (and that she was “jealous” of it, too). Above all, it means that MUNA is finally getting encouragement to “play the game of empowering [itself],” as Gavin puts it — and treating the band like a business it can run just fine on its own.    —S.D.

This story originally appeared in the June 4, 2022, issue of Billboard.

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