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From Bessie Smith to Frank Ocean: 8 LGBTQ artists who have shaped R&B

Amanda Parris

In this week’s episode of Marvin’s Room, we are exploring some of the rich and bold history of the LGBTQ community's presence in R&B.

From the anthems played at every Pride parade to music created by LGBTQ artists, we're diving deep. Listen to the episode below and check out the playlist at the end of the article.

Listen to Marvin's Room, June 23rd 2017

Marvin's Room with Amanda Parris on CBC Radio


For decades, R&B artists have been singing sweet love songs and almost all of them have been dedicated to the opposite sex. But contrary to popular belief, there is a rich and bold history of LGBTQ presence in R&B. Below is a list of some of the openly out artists who have helped shape and elevate the genre.

Bessie Smith

Blues is the sonic foundation for numerous musical styles including — but not limited to — R&B. Bessie Smith, nicknamed the Empress of the Blues, became the highest-paid Black entertainer of the day and is considered one of the greatest blues singers of her time. Her influence on vocalists in blues, jazz and R&B is immeasurable.

Smith was a woman of passion and presence. She reportedly loved home-cooked Southern food and moonshine, and never backed down from a fight. Stories abound of Smith decking men in barroom brawls and facing down the KKK when they threatened to shut down her shows. Although she was married twice (to men), it was public knowledge that Smith had numerous affairs with women and sang songs with explicit lesbian content such as “It’s Dirty But Good” and “The Boy in the Boat.” Smith joins a long line of Black women blues singers who, in the early 20th century, openly engaged in and sang about their same-sex affairs, including Ma Rainey, Gladys Bentley and Lucille Bogan.

Jackie Shane

In the 1960s, transgender artist Jackie Shane was popularly credited with bringing soul to Canada. Her look onstage: an immaculately fitted sequined tuxedo; a freshly pressed and curled conk piled high on her head; shoes shined so well you can see your face in them; face is adorned in eyeliner, rouge and red lipstick. Racism, transphobia and homophobia may have been the norm of the day, but Shane defied all odds and sparked a musical movement with her presence. A protégé of Little Richard, she grew up in the music-filled city of Nashville and fell in love with Montreal and Toronto. Shane reportedly had a talent and charisma that made conservative, white and closed-off spaces forget their politics — they all became groupies for Jackie Shane.

Word on the street is that, after decades of a mysterious absence and now debunked rumours of her death, Shane has been found, and she may be on board for a new album slated to arrive in the fall.

Little Richard

Many children love trying on their parents' clothes and Little Richard was no exception. He would reportedly don his mother's dresses, slip his little feet into her high heels and dab his face with her foundation before strutting across the room admiring his new look in the mirror. But when his father discovered his son adorned in rouge, he did not hesitate to impart brutal punishments. Little Richard’s family had deep, evangelical Christian roots and the battle between his sexuality and his religion became a lifelong struggle.

His history is complex and complicated: In the early '50s Little Richard appeared as a drag performer in vaudeville groups. In the late '50s he became a born-again Christian. In the '60s he returned to the music industry and became a star. In the ‘70s he became an ordained minister. In the '80s he called homosexuality “unnatural" and "contagious.” And then in the '90s he identified as gay. As Little Richard demonstrates, the path to self-definition is never easy.

Meshell Ndegeocello

Meshell Ndegeocello is considered one of the instigators of the neo-soul movement, but her music defies categorization. Influenced by funk, soul, jazz, hip-hop, reggae and rock, no two records in her discography sound the same. Emerging on the music scene in the early '90s with a shaved head, provocatively political songs and skills as a vocalist, rapper and bassist, Ndegeocello defied the mainstream protocols of a pop or R&B star.

She has stated in interviews that she never had a coming-out story because she has always been openly queer. However, Ndegeocello has resisted the way the media attempts to define her primarily through her sexuality rather than her music, so we’ll turn it over to the music.

Frank Ocean

Next week marks the five-year anniversary of Frank Ocean’s debut album. Days before its release, Ocean also publicly shared his liner notes and in doing so made headlines around the world. Liner notes are generally not newsworthy releases, but in this case, Frank Ocean told the story of his first love. It was unrequited, as many are, and he detailed the ups and downs of that emotional journey. And this love was with a young man.

In his last lines Ocean wrote, “I feel like a free man.” With that post and the subsequent release of his critically acclaimed album Channel Orange, Ocean became one of the first mainstream hip-hop/R&B artists to openly identify as gay.

Witch Prophet

Before she became Witch Prophet, Toronto singer Ayo Leilani was known around the city as the visionary behind 88 Days of Fortune, an artistic collective that shook up the underground music scene of Toronto with its boundary-breaking perspectives, aesthetics and sound. The music the collective's members created had hints of punk, trap, rap, electronic and neo-soul. With it, 88 Days of Fortune carved out an alternative space of creativity with futuristic aesthetics in its content, presentation and performance styles that reimagined what urban/hip-hop culture could look and sound like. 88 Days of Culture also curated spaces that were unapologetically political in their inclusion and celebration of queer culture.

As Witch Prophet, Leilani is now producing a sound that is just as experimental and unapologetic.


Syd the Kid is an R&B singer putting an even fresher twist on the Black skater weirdos movement. The lead singer of the retro-futuristic R&B band the Internet is captivating audiences with her confident solo sound. Syd is openly queer, sings about her love for women and has swag for days. Her casual, effortless charisma alongside her undeniable swag is setting Syd up to be the next big R&B star on the scene.


Last year Kaytranada became the first hip-hop artist, the first Black artist and the first Haitian-Canadian to be awarded the Polaris Music Prize. His debut album, 99.9%, was so experimental and explorative, it could honestly make the top 10 list in a few genres: hip-hop, electronic, R&B, funk and dance. It was named one of the best albums of 2016 by CBC Music, the Guardian, the Independent and NME.

Kaytranada is one of the most exciting new artists in Canada and, with his newfound fame, he’s been open about his sexuality as a gay man, and expressed that he does not want to be put in a box. Kaytranada wants his music to reach everyone, which is what's happening.

The Marvin's Room Playlist for June 23, 2017

  1. Diana Ross, "I’m Coming Out"
  2. Sister Sledge, "We Are Family"
  3. Frank Ocean, "Thinkin' Bout You"
  4. Witch Prophet f/ Stas THEE Boss, "Architect of Heartbreak"
  5. Syd, "Got Her Own"
  6. Charlotte Day Wilson, "Work"
  7. Little Richard, "Long Tall Sally"
  8. Jackie Shane, "Don’t Play That Song"
  9. Kaytranada f/ River Tiber, "Vivid Dreams"
  10. Blood Orange, "Best to You"
  11. Gloria Gaynor, "I Will Survive"
  12. Lido Pimienta, "La Capacidad"