Openly Gay East Harlem Rapper Aims For Hip-Hop Success
HARLEM— Everyone else in Richard Ruperto's East Harlem neighborhood seemed to know that he was gay before he did. In the macho atmosphere of Spanish Harlem, some people didn't take well to the idea.
"I was spit on, stabbed and jumped by eight to 10 people by the time I got to high school, all because I was gay," said Ruperto, 22, who grew up near Madison Avenue and East 109th Street.
"I didn't even have a label for it. No one in my community was out. Other people knew before I knew."
To stave off the abuse he took at school and on his block, Ruperto turned to hip-hop and artists like Salt-n-Pepa, Afrika Bambaataa, Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.
"Music was an outlet, it was a safe haven. I always had something to say and I would lash out through my music," he said.
Now, Ruperto is working on an EP to be released later this month and a full length album for 2012, with the goal of being the first openly gay rapper to break through to the mainstream.
The journey to this point has not been easy.
At 14, Ruperto's cousin came out and he did too. That same year, a boy at school had been verbally pummeling him with gay slurs until Ruperto reached his boiling point. After an intense argument, Ruperto went to the bathroom to calm down, proud that he had stood up for himself.
"I turned around and a guy struck me in the head with a screwdriver. I blacked out. My blood was on the floor when I woke up," Ruperto said holding up his over-sized baseball hat up to reveal a scar the gash left on his forehead.
His attacker was never arrested or charged, he said.
But Ruperto continued writing rhymes and poetry, eventually taking the stage name Loco Ninja a few years later.
The name was an extension of his personality. Loco, or crazy in Spanish, came because he had a reputation for randomly saying what was on his mind. The name Ninja came from his days on the LGBT vogue dance scene and the name of the head of that group, Benny Ninja.
But the name also invokes his ability to "chop up" other rappers in head-to-head competition.
In 2009, he self-produced his first mixtape, 2009's "No Shade" using GarageBand. This June came a second mixtape, "Flame On" with a song titled "I'm in Love" with established artist Lumidee.
Ruperto, who has Italian and Latino heritage, has come a long way since the days when he didn't know how to explain what he was feeling. He's appeared on the Tyra Banks Show, and PBS' "Out in America" and MTV's "Sex...With Mom and Dad" with Dr. Drew to discuss being a gay man.
Those appearances made some of the people in his neighborhood who bullied him come and ask for his forgiveness.
"Some of those people came back years later and apologized. They didn't know what it was like for me and what they were doing to me," Ruperto said.
Those appearances have also sparked an interest in acting, but Ruperto said he is focused on music.
"My heart is in hip-hop," said Ruperto. "I use it as an outlet to speak for my community, for the people who can't speak. I want to uplift my community."
The use of derogatory slurs in hip-hop songs is not uncommon. Ruperto also uses some of those same words.
"I'm taking those words back," he said.
A few well-known artists he has reached out to collaborate with on his mixtapes have bluntly told Ruperto that they like his flow but can't be associated with him because he is gay. Other artists' managers have cursed him out just for inquiring about collaborating.
"I consider myself the abandoned child of hip-hop. I belong to hip-hop but everyone is pushing me away. No one wants to hear my story," he said.
Fatman Scoop, a hip-hop artist and radio and television host, said it's only a matter of time before someone like Ruperto gains acceptance from the hip-hop community.
"Do I think the hip hop world will ever accept an openly gay rapper? I hope so. People are people. It's not about your sexuality, it should be about your talents," Scoop said in an e-mail interview.
"And there has to be a rapper that's gay. There's no way that there isn't one. I think at this point, people would be more accepting than they have ever been," Scoop added.
Ruperto said he will keep pushing because he is no longer willing to compromise his identity.
"I talk about everything a regular rapper would talk about but with a little sass because I'm gay. If it's a love song, people know it's about a guy," said Ruperto.
The gay community has been supportive, he said. Drag queen and entertainer RuPaul highlighted Ruperto on Twitter. At the same time, he's trying to break down the stereotype of what a gay rapper should look and sound like.
"When people hear 'gay rapper' they think I'm trying to be like Nicki Minaj and come out in pink boots," he said.
But he's from East Harlem and has what he calls "natural swag."
Perhaps that's what fellow East Harlem singer and rapper Lumidee Cedeno noticed when she heard Ruperto on the radio.
Cedeno had a top ten hit with 2003's "Never Leave You (Uh Oooh, Uh Oooh)." Since then she has worked with artists like Pitbull and has had success overseas.
"Lumidee gave me a chance. She heard my stuff on the radio and thought I should be heard," he said of the woman he considers a mentor.
The video for their collaboration "I'm in Love" features the pair in East Harlem. Ruperto raps about a guy he's interested in. "It's a story about falling in love with someone on the block, in the 'hood," he said.
Another single is the remix of "Whiplash" by Lisa D'Amato from "America's Top Model." He has also collaborated with an artist from Great Britain.
Next up is an EP called "Locophobic" on Oct. 27. The way Ruperto sees it, the industry is still fearful of a gay man breaking through to the mainstream, hence the title.
"I embrace the hip-hop community but this is who I am," he said. "I want to sell out Madison Square Garden one day."