Rapping With A Queer Twist

Gay female rapper Benni E.’s success is imminent.

By Bill Chenevert
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 13 | Posted Sep. 15, 2009

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Photo by Michael Persico

The 941 Theater, a BYO venue on North Front St. in Northern Liberties, is filled with girls looking like boys and boys dancing like girls. Twenty-somethings with beards and decked in plaid dance like sissies. Dykes in tank tops and pompadours rub up against their girlfriends. They’re smiling ear to ear and bumpin’ as Sgt. Sass drop their latest EP, Body Rock , with the help of their girl Benni Emilia.

If Sgt. Sass is the beating heart of Philly’s queer hip-hop scene, then Benni E. is the blood pulsating through it. The 25-year-old rapper is here, she’s queer and she doesn’t give a fuck about the homophobic and mysognistic attitudes that characterize most big money rappers. She’s on a journey to become the first gay rapper to hit big.

“I want mainstream success. I’m talkin’ about breakin’ barriers,” says Benni. 

The South Philly native sees the power in music—just rapping about gay life becomes an act of protest, musical activism—and she won’t let the masculine posturing of the rap game, claims of riches and Cristal-fueled mega club-bangers keep her at arms length.

“Right now, going mainstream and being a queer hip hop artist are exclusive things. I think that’s why we push ourselves and we push our envelope because it shouldn’t be.”

“Gay boys, making hip hop is a revolutionary act,” raps Deep Dickollective. “Gay girls, making hip-hop is a revolutionary act.” Revolutionizing hip-hop is what Benni hopes to accomplish with her latest mixtape, Microphone Influenza. Some of the perfectly produced and studio-polished gems from Influenza were the tracks that floored at 941: “I’m Good,” “Sickest Emcee,” Girlz to Church” and “Fashion Scene” to name a few. 

Like many queer rap artists including Sgt. Sass, Benni is taking the hip-hop’s homophobia and spinning gold out of hate. Consciousness doesn’t have to mean boring. Gay artists intend to take conscious rap where Common and Talib took it, but with more color and fierceness. Benni’s trim head sometimes gets covered in a colorful bob wig or with just a fresh New Era hat, stickers on and everything. Fashion is actually important to the Art Institute alum. “People judge you before they know who you are,” Benni explains. “Fashion is a way to make a statement.” So she rocks jeans, high-tops, and fly printed T-shirts, not the dresses and skirts her Panamanian mom expected her to wear as a kid. That’s just the packaging though; the message from Benni is the real product. 

OutHipHop.com owner and editor Camilo Arenivar is launching his own LGBT indie hip hop label and has his eye on Benni. “Her flow is just incredible. Her stage presence and her delivery, she just got up there like a class act as if rapping and rhyming was like breathing to her,” he commended. “I think she has an appearance, an appeal that will work. She’s fire.” 

Philly could be the home of the first queer rapper to achieve big things and take hip-hop to a new and exciting place. 

Benni’s been proactively affecting change at large and in Philly for years now. She began reciting conscious poems and lyrics, which she first performed at Duiji Mshinda’s Poems Not Prisons in West Philly at the age of 20. She’s marched in rallies for peace and queer rights, and recently completed work with City Year, a non-profit that’s embedding full-time volunteers in schools as tutors and after-school care providers. 

But at the end of the day, says Benni, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and right now she’s focused on the rap game. She recently accompanied the members of Sgt. Sass to San Francisco’s Homo-A-Go-Go, a big gay festival of arts and performance. She met up with Philly’s DJ Bunnystyle, her longtime collaborator and live DJ, and Steven Bloodbath to talk about future tracks they’ll be putting down together. Last week she emceed and performed a short set at local FTM Parker Gard’s ByeBye Boobies Benefit, a queer open mic and performance night to raise money for top surgery. Next week, she embarks on a Boston adventure headlining a queer night at Zuzu, put on by DJ D’hana and Paul Foley, and then joins a roster of performers for Aliza Shapiro’s TraniWreck at the Middle East. She’s busy. 

Right now it’s a collection of songs for a mixtape called The Ninth Oz Child . “I’m breaking away from the party-hearty hip-hop,” she says. It’s a prologue to a future full-length, a testing of the waters to generate press and create more opportunities to get on the mic. It’s going down with the help of Neal Dexter, the RUINIT producer she met through Philly’s Chang Chang, in his Jersey studio. Benni’s not into playing to an audience just looking for the next hot electro beat. She’s going to do it lyrically and not with songs about booze, but injustices. 

She’s following through on a struggle that began in Southern California in the mid-’90s with queer hip-hop legends Rainbow Flava and Deep Dickollective (D/DC). “People made the way for us like D/DC, Deadlee, Tori Fixx. These cats laid the groundwork and it’s time for us to pick up our weight and do what we’re supposed to do,” she says. 

The infiltration of gay rappers in hip-hop is now a multi-city movement with over 100 out LGBT rappers and producers thriving in three primary urban pockets: New York, L.A./San Francisco and Atlanta. “I use hip-hop as my venue as an artist—it’s what I use to get whatever I’m going through in my life out,” says Sgt. Sass’s DaQuan. “I happen to be queer so that’s what I’m gonna talk about.” “Faggot Snappin’” might be the perfect example of Sgt. Sass’ gay ways: “First you gotta limp your wrist with attitude and snap it back,” DaQuan raps. “Flip your hair like you don’t care, roll your back and snap right/ Some don’t like the term I use to label up this brand new dance/ I hear the word everyday, they call me it at every chance.” 

Benni’s battle won’t be easy, she’s got two industry strikes against her: Hip-hop continues to take pride in lyrical gay bashing and misogyny. To be a queer rapper reaching for mainstream exposure you’ve got to be pretty damn amazing and Alex Hinton’s Pick Up The Mic documentary revealed the struggle for gay hip-hop artists across the country. From homo-central New York City to Houston, Texas’ Miss Money, to Madison, Wis., there’s a whole stable of gays, lesbians, trans and bisexual men and women grappling with the crushing truth that they’ll probably never achieve the stardom they hope for. 

It’s the reason most queer rappers are content to just play to their own crowd. “Sissies will go buy a sissy record,” says Juba Kalamka of Body Rock , one of the two masterminds behind Deep Dickollective. With over twenty years of emceeing under his tube dress, he has a firm grasp on what success for a queer rapper means and knows that artists like Benni will be hard-pressed to sell 15-20,000 records, the kind of numbers major labels want to see as proof that you can sell. 

Some homo hip-hoppers may be content to dwell in the success of their respective underground cultures, but Benni wants more. “If you make good music you make good music,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what genre, what your background is. If you’re makin’ good music people are gonna support you.” 

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Comments 1 - 13 of 13
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1. OutHipHop.com said... on Sep 16, 2009 at 09:44AM

“One small correction: " struggle that began in Southern California in the mid-’90s with queer hip-hop legends Rainbow Flava and Deep Dickollective (D/DC)."

That's actually the San Francisco Bay Area, not Southern California.

Great article!”

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2. Anonymous said... on Sep 16, 2009 at 01:31PM

“Philly Stand uP!”

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3. Anonymous said... on Sep 16, 2009 at 01:49PM

“Great to see a queer hip hop artist like Benni E to get recognition. Great things are to come for Benni E and other queer artists!!”

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4. Anonymous said... on Sep 16, 2009 at 01:49PM

“Great to see a queer hip hop artist like Benni E to get recognition. Great things are to come for Benni E and other queer artists!!”

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5. Anonymous said... on Sep 16, 2009 at 03:03PM


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6. kiema said... on Sep 16, 2009 at 03:15PM

“good article, Bill. big ups to Benni!”

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7. cozmic cat said... on Sep 16, 2009 at 04:24PM

“Benni E is the bomb straight up!!!! We loved her in Toronto this past summer. She tore the roof off with 1200 people freaking out over her ridiculous flow!

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8. NZ said... on Sep 16, 2009 at 05:06PM

“Benni E is for real! Genuine and doing her thing for all the right reasons! Take note also, the queer element is part of Benni and her music but there is something for everyone!”

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9. L.W.A said... on Sep 17, 2009 at 11:00AM

“aey whats it the truth got nothing but love benni im a female stud rap artist myself with some of the aspirations the day will come and also yall can check me out at www.williemaetaylor.exploretalent.com to vote for taylor2 and myspace taylor.taffy@yahoo.com and thisis50.com we coming”

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10. bstyle said... on Sep 17, 2009 at 09:20PM

“Wow, thanks to the author for doing a good job on this. I usually read articles like this with my fingers crossed. I'd like to add my hope that Bennie E and other queer artists will succeed not despite the fact that they are queer, or female, or otherwise marginalized but *because* of it. Maybe just maybe people will get sick of hearing misogyny and lyrical gay bashing (in all genres, it's not just hip-hop folks..) and want something better and something more. We are beyond ready. Go Benni!”

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11. Mel said... on Sep 18, 2009 at 04:14PM

“Right on Benni E!!! Lovin' you from San Francisco.”

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12. SONNY LEWIS said... on Sep 21, 2009 at 03:59PM


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13. Big Shay said... on Oct 12, 2009 at 07:32PM

I'm an female openly gay rapper...I mean like whats the big deal about who I choose to sleep with???? Which brings me to the "Big Shay Challenge" listen to a sample of my new CD "Exception to the Rules" and tell me if you can tell I'm girl. I produced the music, recorded the music ,and wrote all my material. Your feed back is welcomed so get at me on any site you choose. I need a chance to be heard and accepted, don't you think???


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