The Indonesian pop critic and poet Fajar Zakhri (one of my favorite wordsmiths), is celebrating a recent wave of brilliant queer music.
But who’s with him?
by: fajar zakhri
This, last year’s incessant proclamation wasn’t just trending internet speak (“It’s 2018 but for gays only. Leave that hetero bullshit in 2017.”) It was an incontestable, stone-cold fact.
The phrase, coined by singer-songwriter Hayley Kiyoko at the start of that year, became a prophecy of sorts. An openly gay Asian-American woman (lovingly referred to by fans as Lesbian Jesus), she released her first full-length effort, Expectations, in late March. The rest of the year saw a wave of major releases from other queer artists: the UK synth-pop outfit Years & Years’ Palo Santo in July, Australian dreamboat Troye Sivan’s Bloom in August, British of Nigerian descent wunderkind MNEK’s Language as well as French gender-bender Christine & The Queens’ Chris in September.
I’m a life-long fan and observer of pop music and culture: this was nothing short of unprecedented. Even five years ago, I couldn’t have imagined, let alone witnessed, a slew of queer pop artists pull off this trick. Never mind within the span of one year. That these records were well-received by critics and consumers alike goes to show that as a culture, we’re past gay female artists being relegated to the butch, singer-songwriter stereotype (à la kd lang, Melissa Etheridge or Indigo Girls) or gay male artists having to either play coy about their sexuality (Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant) or be forced out of the closet (the late great George Michael).
With traction over the past few decades in LGBTQ rights and visibility, queer artists are no longer shying away from using same-sex pronouns. “An ode to the boy I love / Boy, I’ll die to care for you,” Sivan croons on the spine-tingling Bloom closer “Animal.” And they’re displaying same-sex love and affection on screen (Kiyoko and fellow queer songstress Kehlani get touchy-feely in the gritty “What I Need” visuals, above).
These up-and-coming pop auteurs have been out since the start of their careers. They’re people around my age or even younger, thriving in their art, proudly, unabashedly wearing queerness on their sleeves. It’s a ridiculously exciting time on a personal level.
But I’m concerned that actual queer people, by and large, remain reluctant to embrace and support queer art and artists.
At the end of 2018, I curated a Spotify playlist with 50 songs released over the year by queer performers - a soundtrack for a New Year’s Eve gathering with friends. It wasn’t halfway through the playlist before a queer comrade interrupted: “Can we listen to something more familiar?”
I love my share of fierce, fabulous (mostly white and exclusively heterosexual) pop divas, with their many jams and bangers (I recognize their importance in the grand scheme of queer existence). But it’s time to flip the script and start supporting actual queer art made by actual queer artists. And not out of mere sense of obligation or solidarity, but because these are genuinely amazing works of art brimming with honesty and accuracy in their depiction of the queer life. Why keep living vicariously through the heterosexual and cisgender narrative, when its queer counterpart is thriving?
As the decade draws to a close and queer visibility is at an all-time high, it’s time to champion the importance of supporting queer art and artists, and to challenge our perception and mindset along the way. Queer people have been bombarded with heterosexuality and gender binary our whole lives: we end up operating on autopilot in regards to how we see the world, in how we consume art and culture. We’re not used to queer art being at the forefront of the scene. This art so often reflects our very own truths - so much less convenient and less appealing to wrangle with. And this in opposition to so many fantasy and escapism-fueled mainstream mainstays, the bulk of which are actually created by - you guessed it - white, heterosexual men.
It took me a while myself to unlearn a long-standing habit of putting aside queer art made by queer people. I too spent the bulk of my life under the impression that queer art made by queer people was inferior, or of lesser prestige. But tell you what: it’s never too late to unlearn, to not constantly give in to what the mainstream, or even sidestream, media tells you who or what to like, think, wear, watch or listen to.
Who else will root for us, if not us? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: queer people need NOT constantly hide behind or live vicariously through heterosexual/cisgender people’s stories and experiences. We are more than capable of telling our own stories and experiences, thank you very much. Please: encourage this amongst us AND in the larger system. Stay curious. Listen up. Be inspired. Above all, be proud. Queer people are beautiful, strong, resilient, passionate and creative. The floodgate has opened, and there’s no stopping us now. From here on out, queer people and queer art are thriving. Tell your story. Live an unabashedly queer life. Own it and embrace it.
Fajar Zakhri is a Jakarta-based wordsmith dabbling in a wide range of linguistic and media works by day, and cultivating a life-long dream of rockstardom by night (when he is not busy kicking it with the queer squad at a coffee shop...or a certain karaoke parlor). Writing has always served as an outlet and catharsis for the self-described intense feeler and deep thinker: in particular, poetry - which ties in strongly with his songwriting. An aficionado of female singer-songwriters of the 90s, he's largely inspired by the words and sounds of Alanis Morissette, Fiona Apple, Jewel and Ani DiFranco, amongst others. Don't hesitate to get in touch: he appreciates long-winded musings and ramblings.