In modern battle rap, nothing is off limits. Marriages break down as affairs are brought to light, and relationships are destroyed as rappers are blamed for the deaths of their friends. No insult is too offensive, and the merest suggestion that a rapper is anything other than a cis-gendered, heterosexual, gang-affiliated stud is often enough to lose a battle. This is what makes transgender battle rapper Noshame so remarkable. In a scene where compromising information about an opponent's private life is an invaluable commodity, she is uniquely and defiantly open about her queer identity.
The major battle leagues in Britain and North America regularly sell out thousand-strong venues, and command an audience of millions online. But although the wider queer hip-hop scene has been getting a lot of shine recently, queer representation within battle rap remains marginal at best. (The only real exception is all-female league Queen Of The Ring, whose roster boasts a number of talented bisexual and lesbian MCs.) Noshame is the only transgender battler in the world.
Noshame came to prominence in a battle against gibbering tool (and fellow Texan) Michael White, but her recent clash with Joe Cutter is a better showcase of her aggressive, subversive style. I spoke to her to find out why she keeps returning to the ring to subject herself to onslaughts of transphobic abuse.
VICE: Tell me about how you got into battling.
Noshame: I battled as a male, in the [now unfashionable] freestyle genre, but after I transitioned I decided that I wouldn't battle any more. But [Dallas radio DJ] Headkrack told me that I was wasting my talent, and an opportunity to shine a light on my situation. It wasn't "go chase your dreams," it was "you owe this to your community."
When people think of battle rap, they think of 8 Mile and freestyle on beats. How would you describe the modern era of pre-written, a cappella battle rap?
It's a more intricate form. It's a more intelligent, well-thought-out process. I can prep, I can study you, I can find out your weaknesses, and you can find out mine.
People in the queer community might find it strange that you actively want your trans identity to be exposed as a "weakness."
It's the culture. If I go into hip-hop, I have to have thick skin. I know that people aren't fully educated. One of the things I found most therapeutic about my transition was that if I wanted people to accept me for who I was, I had to accept their viewpoints, no matter how disgusting. Some of the most redneck, right-wing people have come around to accepting me.
So nothing's off limits?
If your mother has a disability, it's gonna get used in a battle. So for me to be like "I'm trans, don't bring that up because it might be offensive to my community" would be asking for special treatment. And that's the last thing that I want.
The only exception was Kidd K in my debut for AHAT. If I could, I would've punched him in his face, because he started with hate speech even before the battle. I wanted to kick that guy's ass. I got in his face like "please, dude, swing on me, and get your ass kicked by a tranny."
Battle rappers often talk about people struggling to separate battles from reality, and thinking they can insult battlers online or in the street.
Definitely. But I don't want the [LGBT] community to be upset because someone calls me a tranny, or even a faggot, in a battle. Joe Cutter went pretty hard too. He said some hurtful things. Then afterward I bought him a hot-dog from Wienerschnitzel. That's exactly what I like about battling.
When I was a kid, I don't know how many times being good with words kept me out of a fight. It's that way in battle rap. [Cutter] is now one of my best friends in battling. We still talk to this day. He had trouble, and I told him I'd find him a job if he wanted to move to Dallas. He's a wonderful person. Of everything he said, he meant nothing.
Does the LGBT community need to understand that attitude before battling can continue its expansion into the mainstream?
[Battling] has to target the right audience. The LGBT community might be a small audience, but in America there is a lot of support for LGBT rights so [queerphobic battlers are] actually shutting out a portion of the population. We looked to African American culture [in the past] to show us what was cool. But recently, it's been the LGBT community that's been the trendsetter.
You can see that tension in the way your writing moves between subverting trans stereotypes and straightforward gun bars.
In my debut, I played it up more. _"You know I don't play, I already told you that I pack / I just keep it tucked away"—_everyone said that was cheesy. In a cypher last week, Eminem said he "keeps it tucked like Caitlyn Jenner's dick." It's so cheesy that one of the greatest lyricists of all time said it.
If I rap about being trans, it's a gimmick. If I rap gun bars, I don't know about it because I'm trans. If I rap about my actual life, growing up on the west side in Phoenix, people don't believe it. They can't see that 13-year-old kid who beat people up just to prove that he was tough, so that no one would pick on him, and no one found out his deep, dark secret.
Whereas when a guy's shouting transphobic abuse at you in a battle you can scream back "fuck you, I'm trans" in his face.
It's definitely a relief. There's that other side of me that did protect me for so long and did keep me safe for all those years, and it's good to let that person come out. If I [get aggressive] in battle rap, it's over when it's over.
I know that I've changed hundreds of peoples' minds, and made them think differently, positively, of my community. And for that I'm blessed. I just wish someone else would step up to battle me.
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