Since debuting in 2011, The Internet has quietly become one of bedroom R&B’s torchbearers, thanks to the plush melodies of singer-songwriter Syd. The quintet scored a surprise Grammy Award nomination for their 2015 album, Ego Death, which hit No. 3 on Billboard’s R&B Albums chart, and is gearing up for the July 20 release of Hive Mind, an assured set of intimate ballads and bops.
Credit that newfound confidence to Syd, 26, who has at long last made peace with her position as one of the few prominent gay black women in music. In 2010, she was the DJ — and the sole female, out member — of hip-hop collective Odd Future, and she didn’t mind staying in the background. “If you ranked Odd Future,” she says, “I was at the very bottom. I didn’t think anybody was paying attention.” But when the group was criticized for homophobic lyrics, she often found herself its token spokesperson. “It’s hilarious,” she reflects. “I went through all of these interviews, and everybody was gay the whole time.” (Frank Ocean in 2012 revealed a past relationship with a man; Tyler, The Creator rapped in 2017 about “kissing white boys,” though he has never confirmed his sexual identity.)
For a while, Syd, who in 2017 released the acclaimed solo album Fin, didn’t feel the need to make her sexuality a statement — “People can usually tell.” But now she’s opening up. “In the beginning of my career, I made it a point to avoid those topics of conversation and just normalize it. Being gay is normal,” she says. “These days I’m not shying away from these kinds of topics. I do want to inspire people — young girls who may like to wear boys’ clothes and who romanticize women and feel nothing wrong with it.”
Today, at her Los Angeles home, Syd smiles as she recalls her first lesbian bar outing, in May: “I’ve always been comfortable with my gayness, but I was intimidated by the social anxiety.” She’s considering putting together an all-women festival. “What I’m focused on these days is stuff that empowers and unites women,” she says. “If you want to be a pioneer, you have to be intentional, at least a little bit.”
This article originally appeared in the June 15 issue of Billboard.