Cakes Da Killa was born to be a queen. This becomes abundantly clear as soon as he arrives backstage at Afropunk—a two-day festival in Brooklyn that jubilantly promotes non-conformist black music and culture. (A sampling of the lineup: D'Angelo, Bad Brains, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, DJ Sliink and Mike Q.)
"All my bitches in the baaack," he drawls, arms outstretched towards two dancers doing stretches behind the stage. He envelops them both in hugs, then spins around and announces to no one in particular, "I need a drink!" What kind of drink? "Vodka Red Bull, I'm a Red Bull artist, baby." He waves his rattan fan in a display of mock-coquettishness, before exploding into a deafening bray of laughter. "Haahaaa!"
Like every diva that has strolled out of underground ballroom culture—Ru Paul, Kevin Aviance, Willi Ninja—nothing Cakes Da Killa does is less than excessive. He vibrates with magnetic energy. This might be his first time taking the stage at Afropunk, but Cakes Da Killa—or just "Cakes," as his friends like to call him—is hardly lacking in confidence. The 23-year-old rapper's meteoric rise over the past year has been propelled by his distinct style—ferociously mischievous and often sexually charged lyrics set to brittle, rapid-fire dance beats—as well as his personal politics: Cakes is young, gay, black and unapologetic about any of it. There's a reason why, on his track "Break 'Em Off," he calls himself "the most clinically insane cunt bitch up in the game."
With the release of his latest mixtape Hunger Pangs in June, the well-received follow-up to his explosive 2013 debut The Eulogy, Cakes is getting booked for gigs in Australia, Canada and Germany, with increased recognition back home, too. "I just did an interview on Hot 97, and that's a big deal, to be an openly gay artist on Hot 97," he tells me. "That's what's making me take this a lot more seriously. Because what I'm doing is something that could be in a history book, maybe."
Cakes is referring to the wave of queer black rappers like Mykki Blanco, Le1f and Zebra Katz, who have carved out their space in the mainstream hip-hop world with manicured fingernails. Understandably, Cakes vehemently insists that his success has less to do with his sexuality, and everything to do with his talent and hard work. "A lot of people think I get this attention because I'm gay, but that's not true. It's cute, and it adds some flavor to the headline." He pulls his sunglasses down to his nose and gives me a look. "But if I was gay and corny, we would not be having this conversation."
Instead, Cakes prefers to identify himself as "cunt"—a once-derogatory term that has been appropriated by ballroom culture to convey fierceness and authenticity. He even appeared on Hercules and Love Affair's recent music video for "My Offence" to elaborate on this point.
Being cunt, with little regard to how other people perceive him, is the prevailing spirit that flows through Cakes' music—a "whatever, bitches" type of drag queen attitude that plays nicely with his aggressive and often menacing style of Miami bass-infused hip-hop. You hear it all over songs like "Truth Tella," where his voice comes low and distorted over a minimal, chiptune-like sample: "Truth tella never lie to a nigga/I will point a bitch out/Who the fuck coming realer, nigga."
Wildkatz, Cakes' baby-faced producer (and the only white guy in his crew), tells me that Cakes' truth-to-power attitude is the real deal. "Nothing is a performance with him. I remember the first time we worked together, he just came into the booth and did everything in one take. I've never seen anything like it."
This message of unapologetic realness is one that Cakes seems intent on spreading to his cohorts. He says he came out in the third grade—"I was like, whatever, mom!"—and that self-assurance carried over to when he decided to make rapping his career. "A lot of gay artists who want to rap get defeated. They write me all the time saying I give them motivation to just be themselves. By me doing me, a lot of people are getting courage to do them."
Back on stage, Mike Q is wrapping up his set—his own crew of vogue dancers doing their last twirls and drops to the bouncing, flamboyant beats. Cakes sashays up there in his custom-made Doc Martens. "Do ya'll like house music?" he asks the crowd before launching into "I Run This Club," a track set to the dark and dirty kick drums of Philly bass producer Siyoung.
In between songs, Cakes keeps up the comedic banter by telling the crowd, "I need a breather. I'm a big bitch!" Other times, he fans himself and declares, "I'm a BBW--a big black booty." He launches into his newest song, "You Ain't Kno?" (check out our premiere, above)—which he says is a testament to his confidence, his declaration that it is "my time to do me now." The cunty attitude doesn't stop until the end of his set, when a marching band intrudes into the periphery of the stage. He looks at them in horror. "Ya'll trying to upstage me?" He searches for a way to clamber down the stage into the pit. "How do I get over there?" The crowd roars in approval, and he accepts their love as enough of a placation, gracefully sashaying back offstage.
MInutes later, I find him sipping another drink in the VIP area surrounded by friends. A girl approaches him and caresses his elbow. "I just want to say that you're amazing." He smiles and thanks her before turning to me. "I can only be me. I've been like this since I was born. I think that attracts people but sometimes it also scares people. Cause a lot of people are used to the façade. And it's like, girl I don't have time for that shit. Life is this short."
Michelle Lhooq is getting real cunty on Twitter - @MichelleLhooq