Betty Who, Leland Talk LGBTQ Representation in Pop Music at HBO Pride Concert
The musicians open up to The Hollywood Reporter about the industry's growing embrace of queer songwriters. "Most of the songs you hear on the radio, there's a gay behind it," says Leland.
In celebration of World Pride Week, thousands gathered at New York's Brooklyn Mirage on Tuesday night to take in a concert by queer pop artists Leland and Betty Who, along with headliner and fierce LGBTQ ally Normani.
The show was hosted by HBO and served as a physical extension of the network's "Human by Orientation" initiative that "highlights the universal humanity of all people regardless of ethnicity, orientation or gender identity." Before hitting the stage, Leland, 28, and Betty Who, 27, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about using their platforms to empower the LGBTQ community and the music industry's growing embrace of queer songwriters.
"Most of the songs you hear on the radio, there's a gay behind it," explained Leland, who has written for a slew of mainstream artists, including Selena Gomez and Kelsea Ballerini, among others. "Queer songwriters, producers and musicians — we're really having a moment and I see us only gaining more momentum."
The "Another Lover" crooner called out hip-pop newcomer Lizzo's sleeper hit, "Truth Hurts," which has infiltrated playlists everywhere and recently peaked at No. 14 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart. "That was written by one of my very best friends, Jesse Saint John, who is so unapologetically himself," Leland said of his pal who has also penned tracks for Britney Spears and Camila Cabello, and is working on new material with Lindsay Lohan. "It's a really exciting time when it comes to our representation in pop. I hope that's inspiring for LGBTQ kids, especially those who want to pursue music careers."
Leland, himself, reached a career milestone late last year when he was nominated for a Golden Globe in the best original song category for "Revelation," the Boy Erased anthem he co-wrote with fellow out singer Troye Sivan. Though Leland's star is on a quick ascent, he still manages to clock in creative time with the close-knit group of LGBTQ artists who became his family when the Mississippi native relocated to Los Angeles seven years ago.
"We were all in this group, coming up together. And one by one, people would have their moments," recounted Leland. "And now, we have each finally hit our stride. It's always amazing to reconnect and reflect on how far we've all come. I'm serious, if you go down Billboard's Hot 100 list or the top 10 songs on iTunes, I guarantee a queer person was involved in one way or another."
He added, "Of course, there's always room to grow and I'd like to see even more representation. But we're moving in the right direction and I'm happy to celebrate that tonight and also show up for all the LGBTQ fans — who are, without a doubt, the biggest supporters of pop music."
Betty Who — who wrote her 2018 single "Ignore Me" with Leland — agrees, telling THR that as a "queer, bisexual" woman, she is "basking in the glow of all the gayness going on in pop right now."
"My best friends and a lot of my collaborators are gay. From the very start of my career, the LGBTQ community has taken a liking to my music, and their support has changed my entire life," the "Somebody Loves You" songstress elaborated. "And everyone around me is a much better person because of it. My fiance and roommate, who are the straightest men ever, now hang out exclusively with gay men — and then me. It's not that they weren't open-minded and open-hearted before. They just didn't know the LGBTQ community. But to know us is to love us."
By performing at Pride events like HBO's, Who hopes to continue her mission to increase visibility. "My main goal was to be a pop star and then being a political activist is a subtitle underneath that," she said. "I only have a limited amount of time on this planet and people's attention spans only go so far. So, for me, I really want to bring light to what I think is important and that is LGBTQ equality. And pop music gives me a platform and a voice to do that."