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From Freddie Mercury to Janelle Monáe: the Stimulants for Sexual, Gender, and Racial Expression
LGBTQ+ artists were not always as readily accepted in the music industry as they are today and as a result, many early artists did not use their musical platforms to advocate for their beliefs. In the 1890s, artists such as Tony Jackson and Bessie Smith came out as gay musicians, which was a hallmark for breaking the conformity of heterocentrism. A century later, the disco era of the 1980s allowed for sexual liberation and expression. Artists such as Elton John, David Bowie, and Queen did not shy away from their truths and embraced their unique personalities. In particular, Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen, had a flamboyant presence that taught his fans to be authentic to who they are and celebrate their differences. Mercury’s camp theatrics, cross-dressing, and drag performances allowed for an increase in social tolerance towards the LGBTQ+ community, allowing more artists to come out publicly. Freddie Mercury left a lasting impact on an array of artists across decades of music and his self-confidence not only encouraged them to champion their sexuality but also to celebrate who they are. His stamp on the world allowed today’s artists to embrace all parts of their identity in their music and performances.
Freddie Mercury was born into a family that strictly followed Zoroastrianism, a religion that strongly opposes homosexuality. As a result he feared exploring his sexuality and never came out to his parents. The pressure to align with the expectations of his family and his religion, known as compulsory heterosexuality, led him to marry a woman. However, although he never publicly defined his sexuality, his extravagant outfits and performances expressed who he was. He cross-dressed and was not afraid of exploring his femininity on stage. Despite familial and societal pressures, Mercury constantly fought against tradition and expectations in his personal life and in his music. A study of Queen’s albums exemplifies his ambition to not be defined in one particular or expected way. Queen’s fourth musical album, “A Night at the Opera,” was extremely different from the band’s previous albums. It strayed away from being strictly punk and rock. The juxtaposition between the albums highlighted how Mercury was everchanging as an artist and a person. For example, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which was the headline single on the album, abandoned traditional rock and had aspects of poetry and opera. When the song was first released, the band was criticized for this different track, with Rolling Stone calling it a “brazen hodgepodge.” Despite its initial poor reception, Mercury was passionate about the song, and today it is often listed among the greatest songs.
Mercury was an advocate for self-expression and used his lyrics to convey messages. In the number one hit “Innuendo,” he told his fans, “You can be anything you want to be, just turn yourself into anything you think that you could ever be.” He often explained that Queen’s purpose was to serve the marginalized groups in society and fought the idea of always feeling the need to put a label on yourself, as you can just be the authentic you. He urged his fans to “think” so they can be the greatest versions of themselves, and whatever they want to be. Mercury’s gay sensibility was his defining trait that has encouraged others to celebrate their unique identities.
“I Want to Break Free” was an anthem that championed being yourself. The music video broke the stereotype for a typical rock music video as the members of Queen dressed up in drag. However, it was not well received. MTV banned the video for a period and during a performance in Brazil, fans threw rocks at Mercury. Despite the massive backlash, Queen continued to cross-dress in many of their videos to highlight that you can be whoever you want to be and that you shouldn’t let people discourage you. The five-word title “I want to break free” empowers anyone feeling used, dispirited, and abused to break free and be themselves. In the song, Mercury sings,
"I want to break free
I want to break free from your lies
You're so self satisfied I don't need you
I've got to break free
God knows, God knows I want to break free."
This highlights Mercury and Queen’s message to break free from society’s standards and to be authentic. The lies can be interpreted as his awareness of his own sexuality and how he must stop living behind fear. By then saying that “ God knows [he] want[s] to break free,” Mercury is telling the listener that he must break free from society’s norm that defines who he can love in order to be truly free. This is why the music video flows so seamlessly with the message of the song, as drag breaks free from the standard rock music videos. Through this song, Mercury denies heterocentrism that is forced upon him and is able to break free. Not only does this track allow Mercury to break free, but it encourages his fans to accept who they are and break free from the norms in society. By breaking free from society's standards. Mercury was able to empower other artists to do so themselves.
Times have changed for the LGBTQ+ community; recent legislation has allowed for same-sex marriage, and LGBTQ+ people have become more accepted in society than in the 1980s. However, it is because of figures like Freddie Mercury that musicians feel comfortable expressing their sexuality in the mainstream pop industry. Artists such as Frank Ocean, Janelle Monáe, Lil Nas X, and Lady Gaga have been advocates for the gay community through their music. These artists have followed in the footsteps of Mercury by empowering their fans to be themselves as well. Performer Janelle Monáe empowers people to own all the parts of their identity. As a queer Black woman, she is an advocate for the rights of marginalized groups and has used her platform as an established artist to empower her fans to own all parts of their identity. In her most recent album, “Dirty Computer,” she revitalizes what it means to be a queer artist in the 21st century, and the album’s purpose is to act as a voice for a community of marginalized voices. She named the album “Dirty Computer” to highlight that we all have glitches, and no one is perfect. No matter gay or straight, Black or White, we should all be celebrated. "The first four songs are the reckoning; realizing what you mean to this society. The middle half of the album is the celebration; celebrating your dirt, celebrating being a ‘dirty computer,'” Monáe explains in an interview with iHeartRadio. “And then you kind of go through the fear of what that means to stand up for yourself and those who are oftentimes marginalized. And it leads you to the reclamation. Reclaiming what it is to be an American.”
The album features the song “Americans,” in which Monáe protests patriotism as it doesn’t celebrate all Americans, specifically marginalized communities. The song was inspired by Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech, and she states that although she is an American, this is not the America she dreams of; she will keep advocating for marginalized groups until there is equality for all. The song lists injustices that marginalized communities have faced, such as unequal pay, police brutality, and homophobic attacks. Monáe emphasizes that the country she lives in today is not her America. Monáe says, “This is not my America until same-gender loving people can be who they are.” Monáe says this to highlight that the America she dreams of is one with equality and one that doesn’t attack marginalized groups. This also acts as an anecdote to her personal experiences as a queer Black woman. As a kid, Monáe felt restricted by heterocentrism and was afraid of being a proud gay woman. Now, she has conquered her fears and has become an advocate for others in her community.
Monáe does not only protest the prejudice against the LGBTQ+ community - she sings about the inequities Black individuals face in America. Monáe continues the spoken word bridge about the inequities that make the nation “not [her] America” and says, “This is not my America until black people can come home from a police stop without being shot in the head.” Monáe stresses the institutionalized racism that Black people face, as they have to fear being shot by police officers. America is not equal for everyone when the government funds murder of innocent Black men, women, and children. Monáe highlights injustice and prejudice against marginalized communities.
In the chorus of “Americans,” Monáe promotes the idea of equality for all people, rejecting the notion that this very idea of equality is unattainable. Monáe sings, "I'm not crazy baby… Naw, I'm American." She highlights that this is everyone's land, no matter their identity, and she is not crazy for wanting equality for all. Americans, no matter their identity, are given the right to freedom of speech, and Monáe will not stop fighting for equality, even if people call her “crazy.” The insertion of the word “Naw” is Black vernacular English that replaces the word “no.” By using “Naw” to reject the idea that she is not crazy, but simply American, displays her message of accepting all types of people, no matter the way they speak, dress, act, or look. In her spoken catalog of inequalities that marginalized groups must face, she addresses the prejudice that Black individuals face in their daily lives.
Monáe concludes her spoken bridge about the inequities of American society, by telling her listeners that she will keep fighting until equality is met for all. Similarly to Queen, she tells her fans to not deny who they are, and to be unapologetically themselves. At the end of her spoken catalog, she says,
"This is not my America
But I tell you today that the devil is a liar
Because it’s gon’ be my America before it’s all over
Please sign your name on the dotted line"
Monáe’s usage of the idiomatic statement “the devil is a liar” highlights the fact that no matter how much she is oppressed by society due to her identity, she will keep fighting for her community until her nation becomes the America she dreams of. This mirrors Freddie Mercury’s message to break free and be yourself; she doesn’t tell her fans to change themselves, as she urges them to join her in an uphill battle to change the system and unravel the lies. She gives hope that it “gon’ be [her] America before it’s all over,” which is a world with equality for all and equal opportunity. In history, marginalized groups have not had the opportunities to make their voices heard due to cultural hegemony, as white men have signed the dotted line on our constitution and on many other important historical artifacts. These men don’t represent the people in America with diverse identities. This is why she urges her fans to “sign [their] name on the dotted line,” as this is typically a privilege provided to white men. Monáe explains that it will not be her America until everyone, no matter their identity, can sign “the dotted line.” Similar to Freddie Mercury and the Queen band, Janelle Monáe empowers her fans and supporters by telling them that they do not have to curtain their identities, as they should be proud of it.
Freddie Mercury was the catalyst for social tolerance to gender nonconformity and expression. His ability to stand tall against the hate and against those that did not share his beliefs permeated through the decades after his musical reign. Although Janelle Monáe was only five years old when Mercury died, his musical legend and his lust for individuality and standing up for what you believe in is mirrored in Monáe’s 21st-century music. Her songs do not fall into traditional categories and they explore the intersectionality of race, gender, and sexuality. Pop icon Lady Gaga, whose stage name was influenced by the Queen track “Radio Ga Ga,” also uses her platform to express her beliefs, with her hit “Born this Way” becoming an anthem for the LGBTQ+ community. Like Mercury, Gaga and Monáe are empowering performers, as they also use camp theatrics and drag to convey their message. A 2016 poll by Neilson, shared by GLAAD, found that 60% of respondents consider musicians protesting the most effective way to raise awareness around LGBTQ+ issues. Freddie Mercury’s influence was the catalyst for artists to use their stage to speak out and has paved the way for the music industry to become an outlet for individuals to make change in society.