When it comes to the hip-hop industry, Houston rapper JAPAN is accustomed to being the elephant in the room.
As a queer hip-hop artist, JAPAN, aka Pierre Hill, is part of a burgeoning scene that is largely absent from major record labels and vastly underrepresented in mainstream hip-hop. Fueled by the desire to create a space for LGBTQ hip-hop artists to exchange ideas, share their music and network, Hill began organizing Pink Elephant Festival, which will run March 9-10 at the Historic Victory Grill in East Austin.
“I called it that for a reason,” Hill said. “As LGBTQ artists, we’re big, we’re loud, we’re brash, we’re beautiful, we’re tough. You can’t ignore us anymore. Anytime there’s a demographic of people that don’t get included, they’re gonna start making their own shit.”
Hill said the timing of the festival — just days before industry executives, musicians and fans descend upon Austin for the annual South By Southwest Music Festival — is intended to reflect his aspirations of raising the profile of LGBT hip-hop. Pink Elephant’s lineup includes 25 musicians from around the U.S. and the U.K., as well as a host of producers and activists who will discuss topics from feminism in LGBT hip-hop to combating the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Hill said the festival will showcase the talent often overlooked by the hip-hop industry.
“It’s a boys’ club — a straight boys’ club at that,” Hill said. “I definitely believe that homophobia is real in hip-hop. I don’t really do the victim thing very well, so it’s me just grabbing the knife by the blade and making it happen for myself and for us.”
In organizing the festival, Hill joined with queer hip-hop innovator Tim’m West, founder of the rap group The Deep Dickollective, as well as DJ Ang Garcia and Alex Hinton, director of the 2006 documentary “Pick Up the Mic.” Allgo, a statewide queer people of color organization that supports activists and artists, also partnered with Pink Elephant to put on the festival.
Garcia said the event offers an opportunity for members of the LGBT community to listen to music that presents an alternative to the masculinity and misogyny often emphasized in mainstream hip-hop.
“I think for me, personally, when I hear mainstream hip-hop, it doesn’t speak to me and to my story,” Garcia said. “And with queer hip-hop, of course the dialogue and the message is going to resonate more with me and my personal life.”
In addition to presenting the work of queer hip-hop musicians, Pink Elephant will also host visual artists and local vendors within the LGBT community. Ayana Flewellen, a graduate anthropology student and jewelry designer, curated vendors for the festival in hopes of capturing all aspects of the hip-hop culture.
“It’s just a really nice space where the LGBTQ community takes care of itself, providing exposure for artists that are within this community, whether it be performers or local vendors here,” Flewellen said. “It’s a way for us to get exposure when, in larger society, that isn’t something that people afford us. I like to think of it as community taking care of community.”
Hill said the festival aims to capitalize on a heightened awareness of the LGBTQ community.
“I’m mostly excited to show the world that we bring it, because I think that we have the attention of the world right now,” Hill said. “‘It’s like, ‘Okay, we see you guys, but what can you do?’ And we’re about to show you what we can do.”