Hip-hop and R&B have been viewed as some of the least LGBTQ-friendly genres in music. Homophobic slurs can be heard frequently in rap rhymes, and rhythm and blues hasn’t had many out and proud queer stars – especially not of Latin American descent. An oft-forgotten early exception: Amanda Perez.
Hailing from Fort Wayne, Indiana, the mexicana caught the world’s attention in 2003, when she dropped the mega hit “Angel.” That year, the single about the death of a loved one climbed up to the top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100.
For queer Latinas growing up in the early 2000s, Perez was one of the first mainstream representations of themselves. A favorite on MTV’s Total Request Live, “Angel” showed a tatted brown woman donning baggy pants, a loose-fitting hoodie and an eyebrow piercing. She displayed an edgy masculine swag that stood apart from Jennifer Lopez and Christina Milian, Latina artists who were also beginning to blow up in the R&B scene at the time.
While Perez, now 37, didn’t come out as lesbian for a few more years, her unapologetic aesthetic, refusal to play into the male gaze for the industry and later music about female lovers paved the way for others to do the same, making Perez herself an “angel sent from the heavens above” for current queer Latina singers and emcees like dominicana 070 Shake, mexicana Vicci Martinez and puertorriqueñas Nitty Scott, MC, Siya and Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Lee Segarra to do the same.
We chatted with Perez about being one of the earlier representations of queer brown females, navigating her career as an LGBTQ artist, new music and advice for other talented bi, lesbian and trans Latinas hoping to make hits.
You came out as lesbian much later in your career, and as an independent artist. Did you feel like you couldn't disclose your sexual orientation previously?
Well, me coming into the game around 2002 (I was signed in 2001), I pretty much knew at that moment that being lesbian wasn’t going to happen in this industry, unless I was a woman who showed a lot of skin. When I got signed to Universal, they never had a problem with me being myself. It was a decision I made because I wanted everyone to listen to me. I knew that once I put my foot through the door that I could be anything I wanted to be.
At the time, there were a lot of questions about your sexual orientation. What was that like for you? Were you kind of like, why the hell is this such a big deal?
No. I didn’t really give a shit. I knew what I had to do and wasn’t going to be taken advantage of. I never let it bother me at all.
R&B has a particularly feminine aesthetic. Do you think it was easier for women in other genres to be frank about their sexual orientation or do you think the issue was industry-wide?
It’s industry-wide. You have female rappers who are lesbians and are good and don’t get exposure. To make it, lesbian artists have to be made sexy. I didn’t have to go through that, and I wasn’t going to. Either people took me how I was or didn’t take me at all. When I finally decided to show the world who I really was, I was with a different record label. I was like, “I’m going to donate 22 inches of my hair,” and they were down. So I cut it off. I came out at an event in West Virginia, where there were 12,000 people. It was crazy. But they didn’t care. It was about the music
How do you think it is now for urban LGBTQ artists?
Let me tell you something: there are some very talented lesbian artists, particularly one girl named Ziggy – she’s really good. But it’s a lot harder because people don’t take us seriously, unless you’re already established. I was blessed to make my name known as a mainstream, pop artist, so it’s easier for me now to book shows. For them, it’s harder because people don’t’ take the LGBT community seriously. We’re a joke and always stereotyped. But we have talent. My talent is a gift from God, and no one can change that. You couldn’t even beat that out of me.
You were one of the first mainstream artists or celebs that queer Latina girls in the 'hood could look at and see themselves in. What is that like for you, being able to be that representation?
I never expected it. I always had a dream, but I never expected it to turn out like this. When I started singing, females even began to dress like me. It was crazy. I couldn’t believe it. I just feel so blessed.
You're still doing music. Tell us, what are you currently working on.
We put out a greatest hits project, which is limited and can only be picked up at events. But I do have a new album that I’m working on and trying to be done with this year. There’s an artist on there from my hometown, so it will be great to show young people how and where this came from. But they’re going to have to listen to it. It’s going to be a crazy album.
You are currently on tour. How is your music being received around the world?
Oh my God. It’s unheard of for an artist to take more than three years off, come back and still have that fan base, but for me it happened. I took off time to care for my dying mother, but when I got back on that stage, the fans were with me, whether it was new music or old music. I dropped a song called “F**k Your Feelings.” The song doesn’t even have a music video, but it has 1 million view on a lyric video a fan made. And when I perform it, people go crazy, just singing at the top of their lungs like it was another “Angel.”
What changes can folks who were fans of Amanda Perez in the early 2000s expect from her new sound?
Expect the unexpected with me, but, no matter what, know that I’ll also be a person to speak my truth, and that’s why my fans are so drawn to me.
Do you have any advice for queer Latinas hoping to make it in music but fear their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender presentation might hold them back?
Be themselves. Give it their all. Show people what kind of talent they have and don’t give up. There’s going to be a time for us. It just takes that one hit. Be smart.