Karine Jean-Pierre
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It's not easy
being a gay pop star

It's not easy
            being a gay pop star

I’m having
a blast being a full time "Homofessional Gaylebrity."
When I first started, everyone told me I couldn’t do
it. Gay people, straight people, friends, family,
music industry professionals, all said to me,
“Why do you have to make being gay an issue? It
should be about the music.” But its not just
about the music. All the great music I can think of
has been inspired by political and social issues. The great
artists write to change the world. So I set out to do just

Growing up an
Orthodox Jew in the Bronx, N.Y., I learned in yeshiva about
the way Jews throughout history were forced to hide
their beliefs, rituals, and practices for fear of
being killed. I learned this on the days that I wasn't
taken out of class to sing jingles on TV for Toys 'R'
Us or My Buddy (the “butch” doll for boys.) I
was the only yeshiva boy in show business. I did my
own share of hiding during this time by taking off my
yarmulke and tucking in my tzitzit while I sang backup for
Diana Ross when she needed a children's choir. While I
was considered “too ethnic” to be on
camera, off camera I was a huge success. I particularly
enjoyed doing girls' voices for the cartoon series Jem
and the Holograms
and for Cabbage Patch
Kids—you could dial me up on the Cabbage Patch Kid
talking telephone and hear me say,“Hi,
I’m Sybil Sadie, want to come play with
me?” Playing girls' voices was not something I
wanted to brag about in gym class, though, so the
hiding continued in grade school as well.

By age 12 I
recorded my first demo, and by 14 I had started writing
my own songs, inspired by the popular music of the day
One of the first songs I wrote was called "Experienced
Girl" about my older girlfriend Dahlia, who more
recently asked me to sing my song "Bashert/Meant to
Be" at her Orthodox Jewish lesbian wedding. As now
made famous by a Logo promo spot and the VH1 My Coolest
special, I came out to my family in an
18-page letter that I read to them the year after I left
yeshiva high school. In college I quickly became a
politicized gay man studying queer theory at New York
University and Yale. At this point I knew that if
I was to continue to write and sing, I was going to be the
kind of artist I never saw growing up—an out
and proud pop singer, singing about living as a gay

When I came out
with my first album in 2000, there was no other openly
gay R&B or pop singer who was out from the beginning of
his career like I was. Certainly no one else was
singing about being gay. With the help of a publicist
friend I got myself on the cover of every gay rag. I
tried to see if any of the mainstream record labels were
interested in the album, but they wouldn't touch
it. When I played "Write Me a Love Song," which
included male pronouns in the lyrics, one exec said,
"I won't even go there." Ironically, the exec was a gay

The album
received positive attention from the gay media and music
industry trade papers, and it garnered the attention of
a very well-known music producer. As he was out
himself, I thought this producer would embrace my
gayness—but he wanted me to go back in the closet and
come out later, something I felt would be disrespectful to
all those great artists who came out in the '90s. When
I played him my song “He’s On My
Team” about the time my friend Kendra and
I were fighting over the same man, he asked me,
“Why would you waste your time writing about
this?” In the same breath he told me to write from a
place of truth.

I refused to take
his advice, and in 2004 I came out with my sophomore
album, Space Under Sun, on my own label, Gold18
Records. This album proved to be even more successful than
the first, selling enough copies to be considered a
success for an independent artist. I toured the world,
put out a coffee-table book and remix CD distributed
in 25 countries, got heavy play of my video “Wave of
You” on Logo, and bumped Madonna out of the number 1
spot with my second video, “Love Will Take
Over.” I became the first out artist to debut on
their video charts, and I proved that there was in fact a
market for an artist like myself.. And for a few
years, I stopped going to any label meetings,
figuring I would have a great career as the gay male
pop version of Ani DiFranco.

Now it's almost
2007. Gay people are finally starting to show up in music
like they've been showing up in film and television for
years. The music industry is taking notice, and we are
seeing the birth of new gay record labels. I figured I
should at least meet with some of these labels and see
what opportunities I might have to expand my audience with a
bigger company behind me.

At the first gay
label meeting, the record exec said to me that he
thought I didn't need a label since I was already doing
everything on my own. He told me about all the
resources for marketing and promotion his label
provides, while I told him that I hadn't been able to do
half those things because I'd never had the budget. I
pointed out that a label marketing gay artists would
be a great place for me, and that if I had done all
this on my own, just think how much more could be done with
a bigger team. His response was, “Just because
an artist is gay doesn't mean we are going to sign
them.” Guess it wasn't bashert.

At the next
meeting, with another gay label, the exec told me that while
I was “a pioneer” and I should be
“really proud” of myself, he thought I
was too niche for their label. Too niche for a gay label?
Kind of ironic, since I had just been told by an indie
label that my music was too mainstream for their indie
sensibilities. So…how could this be? Too niche
for the gays, and too mainstream for the straights? The
execs at this label told me they would rather have an
artist that “just happens to be gay” or
was “willing to say they are gay” than one who
emphasizes his sexuality to the press and in the
content of his music.

So the gay labels
didn't sign the gay pop star. Big deal, right? I’m
still fabulous! But with these experiences come larger
questions. What’s the point of having a gay
record label if the gayness of the artists needs
to be downplayed? Isn’t that what straight record
labels are for? With gay people reportedly having $641
billion in disposable income, I figure that I should
not have to erase the gay content of my music or
soften my sexuality. We have the power to support our own
without having to worry about whether we are
acceptable to straight audiences. And further, we
don’t need to compromise who we are in order to
cross-over to the mainstream. Samantha on Sex and
the City
said it best: “First the gays,
then the girls, and then the world.”

Or maybe some of
us feel as though it easier for us to accept ourselves
when we don’t emphasize our gayness too much. Lately
gay celebs have been prone to saying things to the
press like, “My gayness is the least
interesting thing about me.” The few gay musicians
that are actually out say, “We don't like to
use male pronouns 'cause we don't want to alienate our
straight audience,” or, “We are
artists—not gay artists.”

Labels don't have
to define us. They simply describe us—they shouldn't
confine us. I for one am proud to be known as a gay artist
when too many artists on the music scene don't want to
be. I’m done with hiding and done with shame in
any form. As long as my friends are being beaten on
the streets, as long as there are still kids killing
themselves because of shame, and as long as we are
still fighting for our basic civil rights, I will
continue to shout from the queer rooftops. Aren’t we
ready to express the fullness of who we are and what
it means to be gay in all of our sexuality and
complexity? The personal is political. And in art, it
is the specificity of our experience that is universal.

Is being gay all
of who I am? Of course not. But at this particular
moment, while our rights are still being contested and while
we are still learning to accept ourselves, I will
continue to emphasize that part of me… even if
it means having to do it on my own.

Tags: Voices, Voices

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