Written for Fault Magazine
‘To be black’s to be different, to be gay is to be hidden
To be both is to go missing, fuck the mass, I’m much different’
(Know Yourself – Taylor Bennett)
Have you ever talked to someone you’ve just met about your sexuality? It’s a scary thing to do at 2pm. Despite the global reach of his music, Taylor Bennett talks to me alone, without intervention from his record label (whose staff includes only his father and his best friend). His older brother – Chance the Rapper – has Chicago on his shoulders, and his father worked as an aide to Obama, but Taylor is carrying a mass of inestimable size. The 22-year-old rapper represents those who resist the repression of categorisation. In 2014 Donald Glover praised Macklemore‘s on-record advocation of gay rights, whilst noting that he was able to do this because of being white. Like its home country, Hip Hop still has many barriers to break.
The title track of your new EP Be Yourself explicitly states ‘I’m an outstanding Afro-American bisexual’? Do you remember where you first performed it?
‘Nashville Tennessee, at a pride festival. I had never even practiced it, but I knew this project was coming out, I knew what I wanted it to stand for. As much as I love the track and you can bounce around to it, it’s a statement, and it’s often easy to leave a show on a turn-up note and forget the one thing you wanted to have said. I always get the show-tracks (which strip the main vocal) made as soon as I get songs, in case I have a moment like that. I remember performing it and it not sounding that good, with the voice control.’
Aside from the sound, physically how did it feel?
Physically it felt great. Like you can go onto the stage and fucking kill it for thirty minutes, and hit everything on the right punch, but sometimes it’s those two minutes where you cut off all the music and talk about what’s going on in your life, why you want to portray this, and then your fans come back and understand it… It’s a crazy feeling, getting an energy that’s reciprocated and sent back to you.
This interview is about you not me, but I want to share where I’m coming from. The first person to play me your music was my brother, he’s three years younger and really benefited from that-
That’s what my brother tells me all the time, we went to the same school, he’d always say to my parents that I know what I shouldn’t do because I’ve seen what he’s done.
I envy you for that! We moved to England when I was eleven, and I was bullied because I sounded gay. I got more confidant, got into music, my brother and best friend both came out, and hip hop has been a big thing between us in a lot of ways. So alongside your music, I really want to explore this stuff, what’s it like to be bisexual within hip hop.
Everybody asks me that question, but that really hit me what you just said. Because in America, I’m black, and we’re all very limited, but to hear about somebody that lives overseas that’s white, that has a younger brother and a best friend that’s gay, and something that keeps you together is hip hop, like man… I won’t say that that’s not something that happens all the time in America, but I’ll tell you that that’s something you won’t hear someone say.
It’s not out in the open.
You’ve gotta ask yourself why people don’t talk about it, and that’s a big part of why I’m doing this, I believe there are people that don’t want us to explore ourselves, who want African Americans to be oppressed based off communication. There are a lot of people who have the same stories as you, but they won’t share them, because it’s not familiar. We all listen to Kanye West, but we don’t talk about how he got bullied and called a gay fish on South Park, and the whole world hated Kanye West. Same with Lil Wayne, he wore skinny jeans and everybody called him gay.
You know I’ve never thought about that aspect of Kanye’s story, it happened before I got into hip hop, when I thought rock bands were where it’s at. Before I saw how clearly human idiosyncrasies are presented in hip hop, where you’ve got all that intensity focussed into one person.
I talk about Young Thug [a cross-dressing rapper who is also featured on Be Yourself] a lot, he’s one of those people that have had to be sacrifices for education. Every time something like that happens in main hip hop culture, the whole world gets affected, and that’s the power of not just music, but like you said, hip hop, having one person who carries the weight. It is hard to be a black artist and not be a rapper, even if the aesthetics of what you do are nowhere near that. It forces people to feel as if they can’t be original, because even their personality has to be what the listener wants it to be. And that’s when things start to be regurgitated.
You recently said that, after coming out on twitter to everyone [including friends and family] on the night you turned 21, there were ten minutes when you could have backed out and claimed you’d been hacked. Did you seriously consider it? Are there certain responses that could have made it very difficult not to back out?
Yeah man. Like yes, yes, yes. I’m not superman. All artists do read their comments, some things that people say do really affect it, there’s a lot of artists that are trying to live with this perception of who people think they are. My whole thing with this project is I’m gonna do the exact opposite, I’m gonna stand up for what I believe in and bring attention to something in the world that is a major topic. Like why, when I talk about this situation, am I always combatting with the fact that hip hop doesn’t identify with gay people?
That’s the funny thing about Young Thug, I know gay people identify with him, my best friend has literally been told ‘you are to Young Thug as Jesus is to God’. We’ve had nights where we get back from a club and put on his track Safe, and we’ve jumped and screamed along to it, and it doesn’t matter that we can’t go through every lyric and say ‘yeah we agree with that’, what matters is the expressive exuberance of his voice and image.
And he’s Young Thug. His name, that’s how America… we are all products of our environment, and that’s how America is made to be. And it’s nothing shy of that. I feel a certain way when I walk down the street, when I have my hoodie on, I don’t feel safe going a lot of places, there’s a lot of things I can’t do. I was talking about cars to one of my friends, and the fact that maybe I shouldn’t get the Porsche that I could afford, because it’s dangerous.
There’s a prison-to-school pipeline, based on the standardised testing we take and what bubbles we fill in when about our ethnicity, that’s how many prisons they build in the next 15 years. Private owned companies own and buy prisons for the government, and most of these people who get locked up, they don’t just fucking make license plates, these guys make big brand clothing, all sorts of things in America, for private owned companies.
It’s difficult to remember with this stuff going on that you can do something, rather than just focussing on achieving the chilliest form of existence possible.
I mean I was raised in a Christian household, I believe I have a relationship with God. I believe that God is just like the internet, he sends little bits of pieces of information to everybody, and that’s why we need to have conversations, because you have a piece of information that I need, and I need to transfer to you. Religion puzzles so many people because it is an unknown power, it has variables of people way older than you claiming to have seen things you haven’t seen.
That’s also a defence for hip hop, that you can’t judge the lyrics if you haven’t walked in those shoes. It’s impressive that you have embraced both Christianity and Hip Hop.
Because I’ve seen the greatness that they can bring in my life, the happiness, and I can’t shy that from my listeners, I just want you to be yourself. I talked with my manager about this, I said I don’t wanna be a leader in this thing, I can feel right now that that’s not my purpose. I very solely believe that my purpose is discussion, I’m not supposed to tell you when and where to have it, I’m just supposed to put out an opportunity to kick the door open and talk.
Is that understanding of your purpose why you’re not making club tracks?
You know that so often, I have ideas of things that could be used, I have had songs that I’m like this is the one, but you know what it wasn’t who I was, the things I was saying weren’t really things I believed in.
Going back to those 5 minutes when you could have taken back your coming out, can you imagine what your music would sound like if you were like Black in Moonlight and repressing it?
I actually hadn’t, but that’s just a scary thought, but you know, I assume frustrated, as a person I would be a lot more frustrated in my life, because then I would have always known I could have been having these conversations, with you.