Featured photograph by Jiro Schneider for Paper Magazine.
I’m in love with someone I’ve only ever laid eyes on once, someone I’ve never spoken to, someone who will never know my name. And chances are good that you are too, or at least were once. Even if you tossed your celebrity-crush phase in the trash along with the posters that decorated the walls of your teenage bedroom, you know what it feels like to spend your every waking moment thinking of someone who literally does not know that you exist.
The first and last time I saw Syd, she was onstage at AfroPunk Brooklyn. Last year’s AfroPunk lineup was phenomenal—Ice Cube, Flying Lotus, Janelle Monáe, Thundercat, Kelela, Earl and Tyler, and a ton of less famous but equally impressive artists—but I wouldn’t have bought my weekend pass if The Internet weren’t gonna be there. Their celestial, hazy soul music had soundtracked my summer, tugging me through an especially malignant bout of depression. It wasn’t the instrumentation, beautiful as it is, that drew me to the band. (I still don’t know shit about soul, and I only recently learned the names of the four members of The Internet who aren’t named Syd.) It was Syd’s sweet, fragile voice and candid lyrics, which addressed her own experiences with depression and her love for women, another big thing we have in common. To say that I related to her would be an understatement so gross it would amount to a lie: I wanted to crawl into her skin. I cried twice during their AfroPunk performance—once because some kind of half-human, half-giraffe creature parked herself in front to me and began a dance that I assume is called the Swaying Palm Tree, and again after the giraffe-woman had left and I’d elbowed my way up to the third row, which is when I realized that I would never be close enough, not even if I threw myself onto the stage.
I’m not one of those fans who’ve been tracking The Internet since it began, as the unloved child of Odd Future. I’d never heard of Syd until sometime in 2015, when a friend of mine who was belatedly obsessed with the collective told me that I had a doppelgänger on the West Coast. I googled “Syd Tha Kyd,” scrolled through some pictures, and told my friend she was wrong. I found the comparison offensive. Syd was skinny and dark. Her limbs often poked out from her torso at awkward angles as if she didn’t know what to do with them. Her clothes looked too big for her. I thought she was ugly.
Syd started her musical career, at 16, as an engineer. She built a small studio in her parents’ guest house and started recording the local rap star wannabes for an hourly fee. When Tyler, the Creator and his many satellites asked to use her studio, she waived the charge because she was a fan. When the group took off (largely thanks to Syd’s ingenuity—she faked a PR website and issued press releases to make it seem like Odd Future had legitimate representation), she joined them on tour as their DJ. But the stress of touring depressed her, performing made her anxious, and none of the boys in the group—aside from Matt Martians, a producer—wanted to hear it. Eventually, she tired of being the “get-out-of-jail-free card” for a group frequently castigated for using homophobic slurs in their music and quit. She formed The Internet with Matt and started churning out fuzzy, formless love songs.
But the flak she’d caught as Odd Future’s human shield didn’t let up. For the joke track “Cocaine,” a sarcastic ode to the drug, The Internet shot a video that shows Syd and a female love interest snorting the stuff at a carnival and ends with Syd shoving her unconscious lover out of her car. The video was pilloried by the queer media for its supposedly irresponsible lyrics and misogynistic imagery. “Syd tha Kid, for all of my hope otherwise, has proved herself just as careless and offensive as the rest of Odd Future,” Courtney Gillette wrote for AfterEllen.com. “Just because Syd’s a girl and queer doesn’t mean she should get away with this.” Recently, Syd has said that the hostility she received from the queer press hurt her feelings, and explained the motivation behind the video’s disturbing ending: “We wanted to show that there’s no, like, happy endings when it comes to hard drugs. And so we couldn’t just put a happy ending at the end of a video about doing coke.”
Six years and three albums later, all ruffled feathers have been smoothed. The Internet’s third album, Ego Death, and Syd’s first solo album, Fin, were heralded with laudatory reviews from all corners of the press. (AfterEllen even gave Syd a softball interview soon after Ego Death was released.) Suddenly Syd is a diamond in the rough in the eyes of the professionally queer community, an uncloseted, unfeminine lesbian thriving in the aggressively heterosexual universe of hip-hop. Anyone else who had achieved the seemingly impossible dream that is her success might be tempted to brag about it. But Syd has steadfastly refused to acknowledge the singular nature of her place in the public sphere since she first assumed it. Excluding one 2012 interview in which she threw shade at a few celebrities she and everyone else suspects of being gay (“There’s Alicia Keys, who’s married to Swizz Beatz—we know that shit ain’t real. You got Queen Latifah kissing Common in movies. Missy Elliott saying she don’t wanna hang with bitches. You know she loves her some bitches.”), Syd’s habitual tactic when faced with questions about her sexual orientation is to swiftly change the subject. “I’ve always tried to not play on my sexuality when it comes to marketing because I personally don’t like it when gay artists call themselves ‘gay artists,’” she explained recently. “I wanted people to like me and like us because the music is fire and not because ‘she’s gay and I can relate!’”
If The Internet were fronted by a straight man, but the songs were otherwise exactly the same, I’d still be a fan. But I probably wouldn’t have cut my hair into a mohawk and bleached it blonde to impersonate that man for Halloween, and I definitely wouldn’t have kept the hairstyle for months afterward. (I only resigned to shaving the mohawk after I caught a few girls giggling and snapping pictures of me at an art gallery. Even borrowed fame can be frightening.) I’m exactly the kind of fan Syd says she doesn’t want to have: someone who loves her because of the fact that she’s gay, not in spite of it. And if the dozens of heart-eye emoji comments each one of her Instagram selfies garners is any indication, I’m certainly not the only one. Syd’s sexual orientation might seem like an incidental facet of her personality to her, but for many of her fans it is a deeply significant commonality. For those people, myself included, Syd’s success glows like a candle in a cave. Regardless of how much she might like to forget it, Syd is the only truly famous masculine Black lesbian in existence right now. That doesn’t mean that she should be saddled with the burden of representing all of us, but I wish she would represent herself as one of us.
Syd will never be a political figure. A key part of her appeal is her willingness to admit that she has no clear politics, no strong affiliations with any group other than her band, no simple answers to the complex questions posed by modern life. During an interview at NYU this March, Syd was asked whether music can have an impact on social justice. “Of course,” she replied. “I think the biggest impact is healing, though. I don’t like to talk about politics…As an artist, you just gotta be honest with yourself and that doesn’t mean that if you support this candidate or this candidate that you have to go rally for it. It just means you have to hold up your responsibility as a citizen and vote for who you want in office—and just be human like everybody else. I think ultimately the best thing we can do as artists is create a sense of healing, a safe place, maybe, for people.”