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London rapper Karnage on coming out and dating app racism

Regulars at South London club night Duckie are used to attention grabbing performances. Even they were jolted by an energetic, booty-twerking performance from a new, young, gay rapper last month.

Karnage (he keeps his real name to himself) heralds from north London. The 20-year-old has only been seriously rapping since last year but has already got himself a manager and is working with producers on his debut mixtape (due later this year).

Last weekend he entertained the crowds at Birmingham Pride in the Midlands. He is quietly excited that his performances seem to be striking a chord with a wider range of audiences.

‘When I did Duckie the first time it was amazing – so much better than I expected. I think women perceive me better but the crowd was predominantly men and everyone just got it.’

So well did Karnage go down that he will be among the acts headlining a special Duckie Family event this Saturday at Rich Mix in Hackney.

‘Coming back to Tottenham kinda feels weird’

One of the reasons Karnage grabs attention is his appearance. It’s surprisingly feminine for a male rap artist, and it’s not just for stage shock value.

He meets me to be interviewed, with manager and producer in tow, at the café at Tottenham’s Bernie Grants Arts Centre. Karnage tells me he grew up in Tottenham but has been living in neighboring Enfield since 2009.

‘This place has a lot of memories for me,’ he says, looking around Tottenham Green. ‘Memories of being young. Not being out. Kind of just hiding who I was and being a different person altogether, so coming back, and being myself, it kinda feels weird.’

A post shared by Karnage (@karnagekills) on Apr 16, 2017 at 7:34am PDT

I live in Tottenham myself. With an over-abundance of evangelical churches, it is not known for being one of London’s most LGBTI-friendly areas. Karnage says that he always felt supported by his family. Raised by his mom, he is the oldest of five siblings.

‘There were five of us kids, in a small house, but I never went without anything as a child. My mom, she managed to keep up with what everyone was doing, even though she was a single mother and had to support us on her own. We got Blackberries when everyone else did and stuff like that.’

Coming out

He came out as gay the year after he left school.

‘I came out to my mum first and she was extremely supportive of me. She’s like my best friend. I tell everything to my mum.

‘My relationship with my family, I feel it has been more strained recently because obviously I look different and dress differently and I’m not sure they understand fully, but other than that, there’s been support all the way.

‘I think it’s just about understanding who I am and what I stand for.’

He says he started experimenting with a more feminine appearance to perform but it soon crossed over into every day life.

‘It used to be just a stage thing. I would push things further for my music, but then I found out that I enjoy doing this and having my hair done and all that. So, I just do what makes me happy.

He refutes labels like ‘gender queer’.

‘My gender has never changed, just my appearance. I’m a gay man. I use “he”, “him”.’

Off to steal your man. 👋🏾🔥#gayrapper #gayuk #videoshoot #hoediaries #karnagekills

A post shared by Karnage (@karnagekills) on Apr 5, 2017 at 3:52am PDT

Sat before me today, wearing shades, many might mistake him for a woman. Has he been subjected to hassle for his appearance?

‘Not really, but I’ve not really put myself into a position to be hassled. You know what I mean? Being back here, this is the first time I’ve sat in Tottenham as I am, so it could happen.

‘Yeah, I do get hit on by straight guys all the time. They assume I’m a girl. I just say “sorry – I’m not what you think.” But that’s all that happens.’

He says he has received some hateful messages on YouTube, but ‘it’s not really something I pay attention to. I feel like it just represents how far I’m getting and how random people are starting to come across my music.’

‘As gay people, we should be united’

He also doesn’t take notice of people of dating apps who are not interested in him.

‘People say no blacks, no femmes, no Asians, but for me, those people are not even worth your time. As gay people, we should be united. You should be trying to pull everyone together, but instead, you’re trying to tear up people from your own community.

‘We have things like gay pride, we’re trying to project to people that we’re all equal and we’re showing love not hate. You’re hating on people in your own community. It’s a contradiction.

‘I’ve experienced things like people saying, “Oh, you know, I’m not into black guys.” Or whatever, but I’ve learned not to approach anybody first, which is sad but it works for me.

‘If you like what you see, then you approach me, which most people do, if they like me then they approach me, and it filters out the whole, “no this, no that”.

‘If you like what you see then you can message me and I will reply, because I don’t believe in shutting people out or being disrespectful to other people. It’s just not in my character.’

Stay safe

He knows that, to an extent, he’s been lucky – both in the support he receives from loved ones and not experiencing any particular hassle by putting himself in the public eye; besides those online gay slurs.

‘Thank God it’s never been anything worse, because there are people who experience much worse every day. All I can see is keep safe. Don’t put yourself in a position where you feel someone may harm you. There are still people out there who want to harm gay people.’

Karnage will be among the performers at Duckie Family on Saturday (3 June), a night aiming to reclaim ‘carnival’s hidden queer roots’. Also appearing will be Boy Blue, Deanz, D’relle Khan, Azara Meghie, Jay-Jay Revlon, Victoria Sin, Sadie Sinner, FKA, Harold Offeh and the Samba Boys, MCs Mzz Kimberley and Mr Black Branson, and DJs Speech Debelle, Kartel Brown and Pandemic. It runs from 8pm-3am at Rich Mix in Hackney.