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'You're supposed to be somewhere doing hair and makeup'

Miami rapper and social media icon Saucy Santana is redefining presentation standards for femme gay men in hip-hop, but the industry would rather keep his energy confined to TikTok.
Dia Dipasupil
Miami rapper and social media icon Saucy Santana is redefining presentation standards for femme gay men in hip-hop, but the industry would rather keep his energy confined to TikTok.

This story was adapted from reporting for Episode 7 of Louder Than A Riot, Season 2. For more about virality in hip-hop, including the queer breakthrough and attempted containment of the Material Girl, Saucy Santana, stream the full episode or subscribe to the Louder Than A Riot podcast.

There's a long lineage of hip-hop artists being punished within the culture for coming out. But in the wake of acts like iLoveMakonnen facing backlash, stars like Kevin Abstract, Young M.A. and Lil Nas X have emerged, breaking down the homophobic barriers that used to keep them from taking center stage. Saucy Santana is a big part of that wave. The Florida-hailing makeup-artist-turned-rapper has been a prominent presence in recent years, thanks to a series of breakout viral bops online that smash through conventional rap expectations. But if breaking through old barriers means going into overdrive, how far can you really go without a roadmap?

Old-school queerphobia still reigns in rap — from Isaiah Rashad being outed via leaked sex tape in 2022 to DaBaby's homophobic rant at Rolling Loud Festival in 2021 — but that hasn't prevented more queer rappers from taking up space and making noise, even despite a lack of infrastructural support. After picking up rapping on the fly in 2019, and releasing his debut single, "Walk 'Em Like a Dog," the glam City Girls associate was spreading across TikTok by 2021 with songs like "Walk," "Here We Go" and "Material Girl." While hip-hop could see the value in cashing in on Santana's social capital, there was clear hostility to his unabashedly feminine presentation.

With a dominating presence in the most popular new social space, Santana hoped to parlay that virality into more traditional success within the music industry — i.e. a major label deal. But as he headed into label meetings with a full-face beat, lavishly long acrylics and a shaped-up beard, he found that the qualities that had been setting him apart were now being used against him to hold him back. Major labels didn't know what to 'do' with Santana.

This double standard Santana faces rings similar to what Black women in rap also deal with. But where Black women have been allowed to exist only in very specific spaces, in very specific ways, openly gay, openly femme Black men like Santana haven't been to exist in hip-hop at all.

The common ground that women and queer rappers share is that both are getting bigger looks than ever due to the power of virality, yet both have virality used against them like they're only good enough for 15 minutes of fame. For queer artists, there's another rule at play: keeping gayness at a distance by staying in your lane. And for Santana, that manifests as being treated like a joke or a trend, being told to switch up the things that make him unique — or stay backstage as hired help.

In the era of social media stardom, going viral can be a direct pipeline to overnight celebrity. But traditionally, the word "virality" comes with a very specific connotation, one used for contagions. It is saved for something powerful but also considered dangerous, something that needs containing. Quarantining queerness to "virality" can keep it from spreading and limit its reach, allowing those who would suppress it to pretend it's not already the foundation of the culture.

Louder Than A Riot host Sidney Madden spoke with Saucy Santana about the double-edged sword of being dubbed a viral sensation, conjuring the magic of "Material Girl" to make it last and his vision for the future of rap.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sidney Madden: What gave you the motivation to start rapping?

Saucy Santana: I had started a podcast with some of my friends and we would go live on Facebook every Wednesday. And I was just like, "We need a theme song. We need to just make our own song and let it play as an intro." Once we released the song, it started going viral in the city. Everybody was like, "Oh, Santana, I didn't know that you knew how to rap." I was like, "I ain't know either." I was just, you know, putting something to the pad.

A lot of people, when I first started rapping, didn't really see the vision yet, because this is new. So, you know, often that's just our nature. You kind of turn your back to things that's foreign or things that we don't understand. It was naysayers that was like, will he make it being how he is, even though he's talented, or do we need to take his talents and change him?

You work hard being such a game-changer. As this person who is an anomaly in hip-hop and setting new standards for beauty, new standards for representation, what are some of the challenges and sacrifices that you think people don't understand?

For me, some of the challenges, sacrifices, I have is being a leader to my community. I have to watch what I say. I have to watch everything I do, 'cause you don't wanna offend people. You don't want people to feel like you're not for them. And you just have to lead by example. So I gotta always be my best self to all the people, especially to my community.

Did you ever wanna be a leader?

No, I was cool just doing my own thing. I don't get caught up in being the king and the queen and I'm the best and all that. I just be chilling.

You've achieved so many dreams. I feel like you've lived like three lives. What has being a makeup artist taught you about the rap game?

Angles. When I'm getting glam and stuff, I'm able to tell the people like, "Hey, do it like this. Make me look like this. I wanna look like this." I know how it's gonna come up on camera. I know how it's gonna come up with flash. So it helped me in the beauty area of being a rapper. 'Cause, you know, being a rapper, you do a lot of glam — award shows, music videos — you always in glam. So if I ever have a makeup artist that don't know what they doing, I could save myself because I know how to do makeup.

Do you remember the first time you saw yourself with a full face of makeup? How it made you feel?

Back then it was a lot of pink lipstick. It was pink lipstick, pink hair, Nicki Minaj. I was fighting to learn my nude... I just kept giving powdered doughnut.

Even though I knew it was the wrong color, I felt good. It made me feel like a bad b****. When I was growing up, I used to watch mom. My mom used to always go to the club. So I used to watch my mama — new wigs, all the time in the bathroom, come out with her makeup, slay, all that. So I used to be like, oh mom, you cold, like mom about to go out. She look good. You just feel good. When you got your face beat, your hair did, like, you ready. So that's just what it gave me.

Talk to me about being the gay boy on the block. What was the feeling?

Underestimated. The same feeling I felt coming into rap. Having to gain respect from other boys that was out there cause they felt like this is not what you're supposed to do. This is not what you're supposed to be doing. You're supposed to be somewhere doing hair and makeup. You're not supposed to be out here with us. Same way coming in the rap game. You're not supposed to be a rapper. You're supposed to be doing one of the female rappers' hair. You not supposed to be the one that's rapping.

I remember before you got signed, there was so much chatter about the numbers you was doing, how if you were female, you would've already been signed. Did you peep any of that?

I had seen so many people come behind me. People was getting deals left and right. Boom. Especially girls. And I was like, OK, I did it already a few times. What's the holdup?

Talk about that double standard.

I definitely had to work harder to prove myself because this is something that hasn't been done before. So people had to know, Hey, he ain't just go viral or Hey, that's not just Yung Miami best friend or, Hey, he's funny or whatever. I had to let them know, like, no, I got my own career and my own entity. I'm talented and I'm gonna make this work. And that's what I did.

I had to work twice as hard, just as far as I had to keep making songs. I had to keep being relevant. I had to keep, you know, being in certain spaces. I just had to do a lot.

I seen people come out with like one song — it go viral and they get a deal and they label back them up and all that. I had "Walk 'Em Like a Dog." I had "Material Girl." I had "Here We Go." I had "Back it Up." I had "Up and Down." I had several songs that was hits before I got a deal when I had seen people just come out with one song and they'd be like, "Okay, come over here. We finna give you a record deal." And I was like, dang, I did that like five times already.

You think a lot of it had to do with, like, fear?

Yes, of course. People not knowing what it is. People not knowing how long I would last. Because you know, rap is so fast nowadays. I only been rapping since 2019. So, people was like, first of all, can we sell him? He's feminine. He's dark-skinned, he's thick, he's gay, he's loud. Can we sell that? Will people buy into it? Did he just have a viral song?

'Cause virality, sometimes it robs you of actually investing in the artist as a fan. If you like someone for a viral song, that doesn't mean you're gonna like them for everything.

Exactly, it's up for the moment. So, I had to give people a lot of moments to let it know like, oh, OK. Like, you know, he's legit.

What do you think the special Saucy sauce is?

Florida gworl accent. Cause we say GOWERRL, So it's like "material gworl." And everybody just fell in love with it.

How do you feel about being dubbed a viral sensation?

I don't like it. I don't wanna be known as viral, 'cause I'm being myself. When I'm in the studio, I'm not thinking, like, how could I go viral? Or when I post things, I'm not thinking, how could I go viral? I'm being myself. I know people that do things to go viral; I'm not one of them kind of people. So I don't like to be a viral sensation. To me, viral is for the moment, and I'm here to stay.

You don't consider Nicki Minaj a viral rapper. You don't consider Gucci Mane a viral rapper. You don't consider Cardi B a viral rapper. I had people have to take that out of my intros. Like, I'm not no viral rapper. I'm a rapper like everybody else. I made several songs. I made several hits. I made several impacts on people all over the world. That's not viral. I am who I am. It's not calculated.

Did you ever encounter people in hip-hop who made you feel like you had to renegotiate who you are and change your presentation?

My team never made me feel like I needed to change. It was just people on the outside looking in. Like somebody suggested that I acted as if I was bisexual. I was like, no. I got a big fanbase really fast. People had already fell in love with Santana. ... I don't like corny s***, and to me that was corny. I'm gay. And I'm Santana. I'm gonna still get my nails done. My face still gonna be beat. I don't have to play like I'm bisexual, like I have a girlfriend, to impress nobody.

What else are you excited about?

Just where I'm gonna go now that I'm signed to a major label, my next project, collabing with different people. The elevation always excites me. I feel like every year I elevate more.

I'm trying to make my space wider. I don't wanna be the only gay boy that's a rapper. I want it to be a space for all us. That's the point of me doing this.

SM: What do you want the future of hip-hop to be?

Gay as f***.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gabby Bulgarelli
Sidney Madden is a reporter and editor for NPR Music. As someone who always gravitated towards the artforms of music, prose and dance to communicate, Madden entered the world of music journalism as a means to authentically marry her passions and platform marginalized voices who do the same.
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