Halifax rap legend Jesse Dangerously is known for using his music to combat sexism, racism, fat-phobia, homophobia, and a whole lot of other toxic stuff that we encounter in our day to day lives. Dangerously, who is now based out of Ottawa, recently released a song called Coming Out Wrong on the Fun Razor Mix Tape (a collaborative album put together by artists participating in and raising funds for the NOFRIENDS tour).
Coming Out Wrong, which was made over the beat from Tribe One’s Different, totally blew me away; it was so unlike any other hip hop song I’d ever heard. In Coming Out Wrong, Dangerously talks about his struggles with gender identity, and the effect those struggles had on him as he made his way through school and out into the hip hop world. These were all issues that I’d never even heard mentioned in a rap song before, let alone discussed in such detail, and listening to this track gave me a lot of FEELINGS.
[YouTube video of Jesse Dangerously singing “Coming Out Wrong.” Transcription at the end of this post.]
I recently had the chance to talk to Jesse Dangerously about this song, and he had some incredibly personal, informative and fascinating things to say – check out our Q&A below!
Q: So this is a really amazing and intense song! Can you talk a bit about what it was like to release a song like this in the hip hop community, which tends to be pretty dominated by heterosexual men?
A: Thank you! To be honest, I don’t think a larger hip-hop community takes much notice of what I release. I used to feel more plugged into something big along those lines, but everything’s so decentralized now for music that most people who ever hear my name probably have a few things in common with me besides just that we both like rap. I think that’s good and bad.
The thing that actually made me feel exposed was the idea that my friends would hear this song. A lot of my male friendships, even close ones, are strained from time to time by me caring a lot more about sex and gender politics than they’d like to. Or at least they don’t want to be bothered with it, or have to examine their own baggage. I can’t stand making art with someone who’s absolutely politically incompatible with me, but some people who I think are basically sympathetic and compassionate still get uncomfortable and defensive when asked to confront anything directly.
Apart from what I say about gender identity and conformity though, this song’s only deviance from normative masculine behaviour is expressing vulnerable emotions, which Drake and Kanye have done in mainstream hip-hop without taking much of a hit. I think there are overtly queer, less normative artists who are confronting hip-hop’s societally ingrained homophobia more audaciously than I am. I think this year saw a breaking point for that coming out of underground scenes, finally.
Q: There are so many people who can identify with the idea that hiding your eccentricities and trying to conform are the easiest way to deal with being bullied. At what point do you think conformity can be helpful to an individual who is being targeted for their differences? At what point does it become harmful to that individual?
It’s a no-brainer, as far as survival tactics go. I think it can be very helpful from circumstance to circumstance, and although it may be sad to have to develop, an instinct and an awareness for how to edit your presentation to make things go smoothly - or safely - in different contexts is invaluable. I think everyone has a (usually milder, and lower-stakes) version of that they rely on sometimes. Everyone who isn’t instinctively and resplendently the most hegemonic personality possible, through and through, has times when they put a different foot forward than the truest version of themselves would like to. It’s not a bad adaptive response to threats and pressures.
I don’t think you want to lose yourself, though, and it seems to me that’s a danger if you’re always operating in a context that requires you to make some certain face - eventually it’s going to stick that way. Writing this song was a way of waking myself up to parts of myself that I’d lost through not only self-preservation and fear, but convenience and laziness. I think I’m a less useful person, the more I adapt to resemble my best understanding of what society wants from a man. Teenage me was too scared to buck very hard, beyond wearing pigtails, but what’s my excuse now? If I don’t present an example of an alternative way to be, then I’m just another brick in the wall other kids gotta bang their heads against. It’s not only bad for my self-actualization, it makes me part of the problem.
Adapting to cultural expectations is like a prescription medication, I guess - I hope people get good results when they rely on it, I’m concerned if too much of a dependency develops, and it can be have permanent effects on you. Also it is not always accessible to the people who could benefit from it the most.
Q: Some of your song seems to be mildly critical of the It Gets Better Project. Am I just reading too much into your lyrics? How do you feel about the whole It Gets Better movement?
Ohhh, it’s not the worst thing in the world. If anyone draws any comfort from it, then it’s worthwhile. I’d rather get lunch with someone who supports it than someone who opposes it, right? But I think it’s simplistic and a bit patronizing at best, and can tend toward being disingenuous.
I think that it puts too much of the onus of improving the lot of marginalized youth on marginalized youths themselves to have a campaign that addresses them alone and just asks them to put up with the crap until it, by the good grace of fortune, it should come to a stop. The idea is that the social pressures of high school aren’t replicated in adult life, and that’s often true but you can’t actually count on it. Many of those social pressures are devastatingly likely to come up in workplaces, living situations, and the radioactive presence of pop culture mores in everyone’s life. You gain some leeway to navigate those circumstances once you’re an adult as long as you have enough agency to do what’s in your best interests. Many adults don’t.
The meaningful part of the sentiment expressed is that it CAN get better. If things are bad in high school, they won’t be quite the same later and that might be better. But it feels gross to just tell kids being treated poorly that the solution is for them to keep a stiff upper lip.
Q: Can we talk about the lyric, “I shut the door on that and acted like I’d never gone there. That’s privilege.”? What do you mean by that? Do you think that hiding confusion about gender and sexuality might have been easier for you than for other people?
Yeah I remember kind of a parabolic arc. I think my feelings of disconnect from masculinity as I understood it were really strong when I was like 14 or 15, and I tried to find ways to push against it for the next ten years, but I was really hard on myself about my appearance and what would be dignified or humiliating and I didn’t really have the determination to just try unconventional things and maybe fail.
I’m fat, and although I’ve been different sizes at different times, my peers started telling me I was fat when I was around eight or nine and that’s all that matters when it comes to being identified. Being fat is not something anyone is allowed to do with total nonchalance in this culture, but if it’s easiest on anyone, it’s easiest on people who have every other type of privilege afforded. It’s easier to be a man and fat, white and fat, masculine and fat, straight-presenting and fat.
I kind of say this in the song - I think that if I had a body type that could even be disguised as resembling that of a girl, who I thought would get as little or LESS shit than I was already getting for my body when I was in my adolescence, I would have scampered into a form of femininity. But I was already a fag for being fat and unassured - that was already dangerous to my actual, physical wellbeing. Getting the least shit I could manage was a priority.
Then for a few years after high school I relaxed a bit - It Got Better, a little? I grew my hair long and wore it in pigtails trying to split the difference between Busta Rhymes and Sailor Moon. I dyed it different colours, I got my eyebrow pierced. I was reading Bruce LaBruce columns and listening to queer community radio and I wrote “A Single Gay Male On His Thirtieth Birthday” [the track referenced at the beginning of Coming Out Wrong - ed.] I confronted my local rap scene with at least hints of a sexuality that wasn’t what they were expecting. Through hip-hop, I made more male friends than I’d ever had in my life.
And then there was a dynamic tension that arose and started to govern how I was comfortable acting around other men. I received approval for normative behaviours, and stress from the confusion that came from less normative behaviours. I wasn’t getting threatened like I did in school - in fact, I was usually more aggressive - but it was even more effectively conditioning.
I cut my hair off when I was 22, I think. There are advantages to being seen as a Regular Guy that I was really exhausted from doing without.
Q: What does it feel like to let yourself be so open and vulnerable in front of a crowd full of strangers? How have audiences reacted to this song?
THIS song I’ve never managed to put in front of a live audience. It’s faster than it sounds and really tongue-twisty, and I wrote it in a feverish 4 AM burst the night before it was released because I had a truth burning inside of me, and didn’t really streamline it for performance.
But I have other vulnerable songs, and it’s hard to do them. It’s gotten harder. When I was younger I felt more entitled to force everyone to witness my experience; now I feel like I’m taking a risk, like I have to offer people something precious and if it doesn’t work for them, it’s a disaster. That goes for sad songs but also anything that’s sexual in content. I used to have this type of confidence where I was sure I could take the room with me wherever I was going and they were going to love hearing a positive sex joint. That comes less easily now, and I have to pull stunts like actually taking my clothes off on stage to push the vulnerability to the limit. It’s like standing on the edge of a cliff and jumping for a high five. It’s reckless but I need it.
If the audience comes with me it’s the best feeling in the world. It’s like a giant naked hug from the whole room, which is terrifying too but I guess I’m a thrill-seeker. If the audience hates it, then I’m a hero for making them deal with it - I get to feel like I’m part of some great dramatic struggle. It’s less preferable, but it’s still something. The worst is indifference though. That’s a killer. The times I’ve been met with indifference have made me feel like never doing anything in public ever again. That’s poison.
Q: Finally, if you had one piece of advice that you could pass on to someone, especially a young person, who is struggling with concepts like gender and sex, what would it be?
You can be anything. Sex and gender are powerful spells we cast on ourselves and one another but magic isn’t real and feelings are. The world is going to be terrible to you about sex and gender no matter what your relationships to those things are, so unless it puts you in danger, just sing it out. You don’t have to be right. You do have to be considerate and kind, and you can demand that from everyone else, too.
My advice is that all binaries are false, but all identities are valid. The queer struggle is for you but not for you alone. Feminism isn’t over yet. I’m not trying to speak from a place of authority on this, I just think we can help one another if we’re as honest and open and possible without being mean.
Transcription of video:
When I was nineteen, I wrote a song; a work of fiction. A childish fantasy I hoped could make a person listen. First person narrative, taking on a certain diction to play a role, but also to engage in circumscription. Everyone that heard the lisp since seventh grade dances asked the same question - I never gave ‘em straight answers.
But I knew I didn’t like boys, ‘cause boys called me a fag so much it blended into white noise. Somehow they sensed I wasn’t measuring up. Turns out they didn’t have to ask me what my preference was. Nothing I could say was ever enough to ward them off me - now I got a war that haunts me like a veteran does.
Okay, I guess it gets better and stuff, I mean you learn to conform: crush eccentricities, return to the norm. As sure as you’re born, certain forms are forced into the light…
…that’s when you give them the performance of your life.
You’re not different, you’re just another victim. You’ll never fit in with other children.
If you can just hold on a little bit more, you’ll get to see the reason they were hitting you for.
“You’re not different, you’re unique, and some day crowds will gather just to listen you speak!”
And if you hold on for just a bit longer, they promised me it gets better. (we’ll see)
When I was fourteen, I didn’t want to be male. I couldn’t tell my best friend that little odd detail. Self preservation prevailed, I kept my feelings private. Everyone believed the lie that I presented, even I did.
Never felt I was a girl, I could only wish I was and feel ashamed about my fat body and homeliness. Ironically, I didn’t know that that’s how girls are supposed to feel from a culture that won’t treat them as though they’re even close to real. I didn’t know the deal, I was a boy with long hair! I shut the door on that and acted like I’d never gone there. That’s privilege. I retreated to a safe distance where I stayed hidden. It was easy to not face difference.
I’m fairly positive that this is all coming out wrong. I’m not closeted, but this is a coming out song. So if this topic ever leaves you troubled, just remember…
…you’re not the only one who struggles with gender.
You’re not different - we’re all doing our best to deal, trying to find zest or zeal, dying for our sex appeal.
If you can just hold on, believe me, you’ll get to see that no-one really finds it all that easy.
“You’re not different, you’re unique and some day, crowds will gather just to listen you speak!”
And if you hold on with me longer, then we’ll see if it really does get better, eventually.