Cowering in the corner of the shower, shivering as ice-cold water beat down on her sandy brown hair, a thirteen-year-old girl slowly dispensed soap into her quivering hand. Her teeth chattered as she raised her hand to her mouth and began licking it. The soap covered her taste buds and she began foaming at the mouth. She sat in solace on the floor, reprimanding herself for actions she performed just moments earlier, for actions shunned by some, yet routine for others.
“I started pushing my sexuality to the furthest corners, where it could only come out in the shower, when I would masturbate. I was shivering in the cold, hoping God would forgive me,” she recalls. “When I felt like I had done my penitence I would get out.”
Now, almost a decade later, that young woman is an explicitly sexual rapper who goes by the stage name Boyfriend. She stripteases, gyrates and makes love to inanimate objects on stages around the country while wearing vintage granny dresses and throwing out rhymes.
Naturally soft-spoken, she transforms into a commanding performer as she rhythmically spits out lyrics like:
“Baby, baby open up, baby open up. Show me, tell me, get to know me, baby show me all your stuff. What you want, what you need, got me down on my knees. Baby be easy, please. Spread ‘em wide, baby please.”
As her musical career starts to take off, Boyfriend, now twenty-five years old and living in New Orleans, insists on using only her stage name in interviews. She shields her identity because of the dual existence she maintains, teaching five- to twelve-year-olds by day and transforming into a pansexual cabaret performer by night. Despite social media, the Internet and word of mouth, none of her coworkers know about the Boyfriend side of her existence, and within her own family only immediate members and select cousins, aunts and uncles know about the persona.
“My grandfather would probably have a heart attack if he found out,” explains her sister Rebekah. “Boyfriend doesn’t want to hurt people with her art, especially people she loves, but it must be frustrating to not be able to share completely who she is and what she’s doing.”
Despite Boyfriend’s straightforward lyrics, even fewer family members know of her sexuality, which she refers to as “pansexuality” — meaning she is attracted to both men and women, regardless of their sexual identity.
“I have not yet encountered a trans person that I’ve been intimate with to support that thesis, but I’m not saying that I wouldn’t,” she says. “Some of the queens in Baton Rouge, they’re hot. They’re fire.”
With a songwriter father and singer-songwriter younger sister, it was perhaps natural that music became her emotional outlet, yet given her conservative Christian upbringing, this particular brand of music is somewhat unexpected.
Boyfriend’s mother comes from rural Alabama, near Birmingham; her dad’s side of the family hails from rural Georgia. Both sides conjoined in Nashville, where they raised their family in the Church of Christ with a steadfast belief in a literal interpretation of the Bible. From kindergarten through her sophomore year of high school, while she attended a private Christian school with the same sixty students for eleven years, Boyfriend shared many of her church’s beliefs.
“In the Church of Christ, you can’t have instruments in worship and women aren’t allowed to speak,” she says. “On more than one occasion I had an elder kindly ask that I not wear that top to church again — I had some tig ol’ bitties in middle school.”
Sexual discrimination and the moral codes taught in school compounded the scrutiny she received at church. “We had true-or-false questions on quizzes that were definitely not true or false,” she explains, remembering one question that simply stated: Accepting Jesus into your heart is the only way into heaven. “I knew if I circled false, I would get a lower grade.”
Once, a teacher led a group prayer against legislation that would require the school to hire a gay teacher if he or she applied. Boyfriend says these beliefs were instilled deep within her mind, and she repressed any ability to recognize her own desires.
“I loved to look at pictures of famous girls and swimsuit editions, but I thought, and kept telling myself, that that was just because I looked at what I wanted to be,” she remembers. “I wouldn’t let myself believe I wanted to touch it. I remember saying to myself, ‘I don’t want to touch it. That’s just not what I’m supposed to do.’”
At church camp, a mystical time of devotion in the rolling hills of Tennessee, she was surrounded by woods, waterfalls and other young Christians. The camp served as the culmination of yearlong weekly youth group meetings, sermons and volunteering. Children there often played Romans and Christians, a game similar to hide-and-seek, but with an added element of intimidation. “It was a way to test resolve, to understand what people who don’t have the luxury of living in a Christian nation might feel,” she explains. If a Roman (seeker) caught a Christian (hider) while running from his or her hiding place to home base, the Roman was entitled to yell at or force the Christian to recite Bible verses.
Once, as Boyfriend covertly ran through the campground trying to evade the team of Romans on her way to the safe spot, an attractive male intern caught her. The Roman forced Boyfriend to the ground and stood over her, straddling her head. He hocked up a loogie and slowly lowered it, dangling it over her face, demanding that she recite verses from the scripture.
It wasn’t until the end of high school and close to the start of college that her ideals began shifting. “At the beginning of senior year, a couple of Christian girls talked about how they were nervous for college because they knew their faith was going to be tested, and I didn’t say, ‘Me too,’” she remembers. “That was a really big moment. I just didn’t agree. I knew things in my head and deep down long before I was able to make my body announce and support them.”
When she enrolled in a course titled “The Bible as Literature” at UCLA, she began to explore the idea of interpreting the Bible more loosely; it was the first time it had occurred to her that a literal interpretation was not the only approach.
While attending college in L.A., she experimented sexually and embraced agnosticism. When remembering the hot intern, the Roman who tortured her with a loogie, she says, “That story now, honestly, turns me on. I like some rough sex and there’s the roots of it right there.”
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At a recent show in New York, Boyfriend commanded the audience’s attention as she threw coffee and peanuts into the crowd. Giving away a double-sided swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated, she first asked the recipient his preference: “Tits or ass?”
She unabashedly flaunts her sexuality in her music, while also referencing her education and former religion. In one song, she raps:
“Paradise Lost my boss is sin, Dante’s inner ring is my circle of friends.”
Yet despite her raunchy lyrics and sexual performances, the members of her family who know of her alternate persona have come along for the ride.
“I do not give a rat’s ass about the content,” Boyfriend’s father, Monty, says. “The job of art is not to tiptoe but to completely obliterate the line. The phrases she says don’t tiptoe. They walk right over.”
When Boyfriend began falling away from strict religious practices, her father says he fell out of suit, too. Her mother, who is no longer married to her father, did so as well. “We sort of came out of conservative religion together,” Monty says. “It was a journey we almost made simultaneously, even though it was a generation apart.”
Her sister, however, found her sister’s teenage actions threatening. “She was the rebellious one — the first one to break away, start asking questions, and lose contact with her religion. There was a period of our relationship that was really strained from that perspective,” Rebekah says.
But by the time Boyfriend announced herself as an artist, Rebekah’s beliefs had also changed. “It was actually really encouraging,” she says. “I already knew those things about her, so the shock factor was that she was taking it public.”
While much of her extended family finds her music difficult to approve of, Monty, Rebekah, Boyfriend’s Aunt Julie and a few other family members have seen her perform live, some of them attending multiple shows. “I know her ability to perform, but it was like seeing a different person on stage,” Rebekah recalled after watching her sister rap earlier this year in New Orleans. “She looked me in the eye and I realized it was Boyfriend looking me in the eye. My sister had gone elsewhere.”
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At the beginning of June, Boyfriend played hooky from her job teaching in New Orleans to perform shows in L.A and New York. At a club called Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn, she silenced the crowd and managed to engender emotional responses from what began as a very distracted, chattering and rather lethargic audience.
While singing “even though I’m always blazin’ never bakin’ like a Raisin in the Sun,” Boyfriend’s delicate hands swiftly undid the long row of buttons adorning the front of her ankle-length magenta dress, revealing a black corset and high-waisted Spanx. She threw herself to the ground and began crawling across the stage.
Yet while she easily sexually entertains both men and women in a crowd, she struggles when seducing a woman in a bar or in the bedroom.
“I’m still developing my set of skills of seduction,” she admits. “I hung out with guys my whole life because that was the easy thing to do. Girls scare me, but that’s the only difference. The desire for intimacy, loyalty, friendship and companionship are the same.”
Her fearlessness when it comes to embracing her true beliefs and conquering her insecurities inspires those around her. “Watching Boyfriend evolve has been very liberating and cathartic because she represents a voice that many of us didn’t feel like we had,” says her Aunt Julie.
“She’s always been a born performer,” Rebekah says. “She could have gone mainstream pretty easily, but taking our history and the anger and rage we felt from being raised in that school and ideology and turning it into an art that can potentially free other people is one of the strongest aspects.”
Onstage, Boyfriend assumes a persona that allows herself to express desires that are hidden when she’s in the classroom with students.
Bright lights illuminated her every step as she stomped around the stage in chunky black platform shoes, and the cowering middle school student soaked in ice-cold water was forgotten. She soon removed her corset to reveal a black-and-purple lace bra, performing the rest of the show nearly nude.
“It’s a little tongue-in-cheek showmanship,” she says. “It’s a little wink and nudge at the end of the day.”
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Emily McDermott is an art, fashion, music and overall culture enthusiast who writes for Interview, T Magazine and Complex, among others. You can follow her work here.