Taken from the autumn 2022 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here.
As a child, Saucy Santana and his brother were fixated with wrestling. Beaming as he broaches the subject, the rapper’s eyes flutter – his voluminous false lashes darting back and forth – as he recalls watching the sport and recreating its moves at home: “I used to love wrestling real bad. I used to make my brother lie down and do all sorts of flips and jump from high on top of the house.” Santana’s speed picks up, a marker of excitement, but also of precision as he rattles off a list of each and every childhood idol in his wrestling utopia. “I used to love Trish Stratus, The Hardy Boyz, John Cena, The Rock… there were so many.”
Today, Santana shares plenty in common with the wrestlers he grew up watching: he’s audacious, expert at encouraging crowd participation and favour, and fervent in his outward display of seizing victory. Now 28 years old, Santana is every bit the self-assured juggernaut personality he portrays on social media. We meet on screen over Google Meet, as the rapper prepares for his debut appearance at Rolling Loud festival in Miami. “I’m giving rockstar vibes,” he laughs, flashing his cream-coloured nails back and forth in sync with his speech. “It’s gonna be me. Viral.” Santana, thus far at least, is accurate in his assertions. Today, he is traversing the realms of social media and music with ease. Whether it’s his now iconic line “Caresha, please!” or commanding men and women to “walk”, in and outside of the booth, Santana is a force of nature etching his name on hip-hop history day by day, moment by moment.
If you thought that the bravado felt on screens worldwide was a performance, you were mistaken: Santana’s swagger is something that’s been intrinsically bound to his persona as long as he can remember. “This has always been me,” he explains. “It’s easy waking up being yourself; it’s harder being someone you don’t wanna be. People who knew me before [the] fame, who I went to high school with, will always say that I’m real.” Even as he brings up his corroborators, Santana’s exchange doesn’t feel defensive; it translates as someone comfortable in who he is and assured of his perception of that. But Santana’s ease in his own skin took root in adversity, as his recollections of his teenage years reveal.
“I had to have the mindset of ‘I’m being happy, I’m doing me, fuck what y’all [are] talking about’,” says Santana, the south-easterly drawl of Perry, Florida inscribing itself into his cadence, making him roll his words as he speaks. “Me and my best friend at the time, Malcolm, would go to the mall and get our girl clothes together, strutting across the city with our short shorts. We were on the same type of time. I knew that’s what I wanted to do and I came out to [my parents].” Recalling his mother’s retorts about following her rules while being in her household, Santana moved out. Not because of rejection from her, but because he wanted to live on his own terms, embracing his happiness to the full. “I didn’t want to be trapped, I didn’t wanna be caged internally. Whatever Saucy puts his mind to, he does.”
Santana’s tenacity shines through not only in his personal endeavours but in his newly adopted vocation as a rapper. Prior to the pandemic, he segued into the realm of hip hop by way of “Walk ’Em Like A Dog”, his debut single, in 2019. While there have been plenty of queer rappers in US hip hop – Queen Latifah, Young M.A, Big Freedia, ILoveMakonnen – the sphere has yet to see many queer, outwardly femme rappers traits grace coveted spots among the apex of the genre. (Lil Nas X is an exception: more on him later.) In Latifah’s case, her sexuality was an open secret; Young M.A is often viewed in the realms of fetishism. With men in the space, there is frequent tension when reckoning with identity lines on the grounds of heteronormal identifiers.
Tennessee rapper Isaiah Rashad, who identified as sexually fluid after a series of sex tapes were leaked on the internet this year, was met with questions about faithfulness and sobriety in relation to his queer encounters by Joe Budden, emphasising a lack of understanding and resistance that persists around varying sexual identities. Santana faces similar challenges manoeuvring as a contemporary rapper championing his identity. Existing overtly in his intersections as a femme and plus-sized queer rapper, he is political before he even opens his mouth. His music challenges the status quo and, whether it’s through his performances for Jimmy Kimmel and Rolling Loud, or his magnetic ability to connect with people on and offline, he continues to overcome latent perceptions that success for people like Santana is limited and/or impossible. “I wanna see a future where every other day a new gay rapper is popping up,” he says. But with Santana’s immersion in an arena that still doesn’t accept or propel queer rappers to wider attention, it can be difficult to project or quantify his success.
“I didn’t wanna be caged internally. Whatever Saucy puts his mind to, he does” - Saucy Santana
“It’s like, ‘Woah, a gay boy rapper, we’ve never seen that before,’” he says. “A lot of people didn’t understand the vision.” When pushed, he admits that this inability or unwillingness to engage with his artistry extended to labels – he won’t name names – and figures in hip hop. “People didn’t know if I was going to sell and how to package me as an artist.” One musical peer who gravitated towards the rapper’s oozing charisma was producer Tre Trax, the architect behind a lion’s share of Santana’s rapidly growing discography. Their first musical exchange resulted in the single “Material Girl”, a viral hit in 2019. “Our chemistry was instant; he just understood me, I understood him. [Tre] took a chance on me when no one else did, he didn’t have to do that.”
Over Zoom a few days after our interview, Trax echoes Santana’s comments. “I just felt comfortable enough to take that chance, comfortable enough to do what other people wouldn’t do,” he says, nodding implicitly to his decision to work with a queer rapper. In 2022, the overt support for queer hip-hop musicians is still muted and, in some cases, frowned upon, so much so that Trax details a plethora of experiences he has faced in response to being Santana’s central producer and on-stage DJ. “I had a real big industry friend curse me out for like an hour for working with [Saucy]. I had to go through hell on my side with people calling me for hours, telling me what I’m doing is wrong.” Trax doesn’t see what he was doing as a sociopolitical act, but is cognisant of the fact that new norms still need to be erected within the wider rap field. “[Saucy Santana] being gay was never a thing to me, he was just cool and real and not a lame artist. Realising that this is abnormal to people is when I realised that we were breaking down barriers.”
Trax’s production played a key role in establishing Santana’s sound, a swaggering amalgam of southern bounce and Miami bass topped with flagrant, vociferous flows. The two have established a close friendship that sees them frequently finish each other’s sentences – “I just have to look at [Saucy] to know what he’s thinking,” Trax shares. Santana grew up listening to Jacki-O, Gucci Mane, Mannie Fresh and Trick Daddy, and also credits tracks like Trina’s “All My Ladies” and Crime Mob’s “Knuck If You Buck” as influential on his sound. As for the echoes of New Orleans bounce on deep cuts like “Workin”, Santana acknowledges the link, but says they weren’t there intentionally. “It’s only more recently I started noticing the beats and productions resembling some of that, but I didn’t go in with the idea of, ‘I wanna create New Orleans records’,” he says. “It’s more of what was around me at teen parties in Florida; we even heard dance music back then.”
With the 00s came a flurry of southern women like the aforementioned Trina and Khia, primed with an audacious and abundantly vulgar brand of lyrical prowess. On tracks like “Don’t Trust No N***a” and “Nasty Bitch”, these rappers reflected the hard-bitten realities of the region with fun, provocative flows primed for the free-flowing Miami bounce that steered every party, BBQ or car ride that Santana would take across the city. “It didn’t matter which part of Florida you were from,” he says, while detailing his upbringing in Perry. “Florida as a whole taught me how to pop my shit. Whether it was before school or in my free time, rappers like Trina and Khia gave me my loud, I-don’t-give-a-fuck, ratchet energy. That’s what people love about me.” Like Saucy Santana, contemporary female rappers like City Girls and Tokyo Jetz draw inspiration from these 00s trailblazers, ratifying the importance of southern and Floridian femme infusion in hip hop.
During the pandemic, Trax amplified Santana’s ability to go viral. Chloe Bailey, Kylie Jenner and a plethora of pop-culture mainstays are among the 350k-and-counting TikTokkers to sample “Walk” in their videos. But the ubiquitous cultural phenomenon arguably came with “Material Girl”. As Covid-19 lockdowns eased continent by continent over the past 12 months, the song grew a new life of its own outside the realms of short-form video platforms like TikTok and Instagram and on to the runways of New York’s AW22 fashion week. LaQuan Smith flew the rapper into the city to dress him, and attendees partied to the song as models continued to flaunt the latest collection. “It was like a party,” gushes Santana. “I was telling everyone to be quiet because it was a show, but it was so surreal to me.” After the performance, veteran rapper and bona fide rap icon Lil Kim was introduced to Saucy Santana, by way of surprising her daughter Royal. Together, the pair tributed “Material Girl” and its success, with Royal posing with money – given to her by Santana – reinforcing the single’s cross-generational impact.
Today, hip-hop heavyweights make a thing of citing the gods of the game, their spiritual forebears. At the BET awards in June, Latto presented Mariah Carey with flowers during a performance of “Big Energy” – a nod to Carey’s own “Genius of Love”-sampling “Fantasy” – and Jack Harlow brought Brandy on stage for a rendition of his “First Class”, formally burying the hatchet after an online controversy. For Santana, in the wake of his “Material Girl” success, the inverse happened. Weeks prior to our call, in June, he returned to New York to perform at the city’s Pride weekend launch as a special guest of Madonna, where he performed a remixed version of the song (subsequently released online) with the original material girl. “I found out, like, three weeks prior,” says Santana, who wore a jumpsuit iteration of Madonna’s now-iconic Norma Jean pink dress for the performance. “To have a legend like that ask you to do a rework of a song, that was enough for me.” The track even got an official release in August, renamed as “Material Gworrllllllll!”
“It’s easy waking up being yourself; it’s harder being someone you don’t want to be” - Saucy Santana
Madonna aside, it has mostly been women in rap who have helped enable Santana’s growth as an artist, championing and platforming his talents. He got his first taste of the industry in 2018 as the City Girls’ make-up artist, while long-term friend and RCA-labelmate Latto featured him on her North American tour this year. In her Instagram post announcing the #777 tour, she called Santana ‘gang’. Both appreciative of their friendship and of the business opportunities Latto has brought him on to, he agrees she has been an intimate part of his success. “Recognising that all I needed was an extra push, I can’t not be thankful to her for that,” he says, adding that he was the only opening act invited back on stage to perform their own songs together. As well as the queer community, Santana’s music harnesses the women’s gaze. “I grew up around women, so even ‘Walk ’Em Like A Dog’ referenced men in that context. I feel comfortable around them too, so it’s only natural.”
His latest single with Latto, “Booty”, is a chiselled, more robust take on Santana’s sound to date. Produced by Trax and marinated in the pair’s signature bounce-infused rhythm, it’s also a subtle but cunning flirtation with pop turning on an interpolation of the Chi-Lites’ “Are You My Woman?” “I was inspired by Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Avril Lavigne and Christina Aguilera,” says Santana of the song, which trended on YouTube and garnered 500,000 views within 24 hours of the single’s release. Santana is pleased with the result and with the commitment of his label, RCA. “They understood I would need that development as an artist, that major-label push in the right direction,” he says.
“Booty” is indicative of where Saucy Santana’s road ahead lies. He teases that another single, as well as a new project, is currently in the works. “Of course music is coming this year. Even before the fourth quarter,” he says. “A body of new music is in the works. I don’t like to leave [the people] waiting for too long.” As he readies himself for his next feat – opening for Summer Walker on her new tour – he’s also engaged in what he calls ‘album mode’. “‘Booty’ was a great example of a crossover record. I’m still giving my audience twerk songs, Santana-heavy songs, but I want to reach new audiences and spaces too.”
At this point a corporate Saucy Santana enters from stage-left, switching from fun to deadly serious as he continues to illustrate his creative canvas. “I’m loving being able to elevate the recreation of songs I grew up on, I’m in my bag,” he says. “Now I have a label to help me clear the samples, the possibilities are endless.” He does clarify that he can’t rush the process, however. “Album mode means adjusting, and that’s what I’m trying to do now, get myself ready for this moment.” ‘Mainstream Santana’, as the rapper says of himself in third person, is one that will dabble in singing and explore the outer limits of his songcraft. “Being better is exactly what I’m striving to do, in every sense.” Reaching back to his childhood, he reveals he used to sing as part of the Christian Tabernacle choir during his years in Florida. “Don’t expect no Summer Walker, though!” he jokes, leaning back into his chair.
Of his current peers in rap, Santana cites both himself and Lil Nas X as “top two” in elevating the contemporary visibility of queer men in the genre. “Meeting [Lil Nas X] was cool, it was fun,” he gushes. “We were already following each other and supporting one another online prior to meeting. He’s so funny, he’s a jokester.” True to his own digital persona, Lil Nas X pranked Santana with a lyrically subpar song for them to “collaborate on”. “I said, ‘I like the beat, you know, but the rest…’ and everyone busted out laughing.” Basking in the surreal glow of two Black, hypervisible queer men co-existent in pop culture inspires Santana. “It’s great to show the girls that it’s possible.”
Santana also recognises the need to continue “pushing the door down” in order to see more of himself and other iterations of the LGBTQ+ community in pop and rap. Even in his intersections as, in his own words, “dark skinned” and “fat”, there’s no wavering on the odds of a Santana breakthrough in his eyes. “It’s gonna happen,” he says, simply. “It was always going to happen. When I was looking for a deal, I said to myself ‘it’s gonna happen’ and now, breaking through, it’s [the same]. I have to have this belief in myself, because I always have.” It’s this unshakable self-belief which has, time and again, parlayed what might have been fleeting viral moments into something altogether deeper. The rest, as they say, is immaterial.
Hair JUNYA NAKASHIMA, make-up KUMA at STREETERS, photographic assistants PAIGE LABUDA, FALLOU SECK, styling assistants TAIJA WILLIAMS, TAMIR HORNES, JOHNNY HARRISON, GRACE WAGONER, BRAELYNN BRASWELL, production CAROLINA VOGT, NATALIE O’MOORE at SECOND NAME, production assistants SAJI ABUDE, ANDY MARTINEZ, special thanks PUBLIC HOTEL