Openly gay NYC rapper talks ‘Tyra’ appearance, new mixtape and growing up gay in Spanish Harlem
When Richard Ruperto appeared on The Tyra Banks Show in 2008 for their “Gays In The Hood” special he was a broken 19-y
ear-old. The pain and torture of being gay while growing up in rough and unaccepting Spanish Harlem in New York City had definitely taken a toll. The segment shows Banks rescuing “Richie” from his oppressive surroundings and dropping him into a open and accepting house of gays and allies from the ball scene. Though it may seem like a cliché or manufactured moment of reality television, it was a major turning point for Ruperto.
Just three years later the shy, tortured “Richie” has transformed into Loco Ninja, an outspoken activist and budding gay rap star.
“I had completely forgotten about that and now that I look back on it, I didn’t even realize when they asked me to be on the show that it was going to be that emotional,” said Loco, now 22, of his Tyra moment. “I feel like I’m a totally different person now…I’ve definitely built my confidence up a lot.”
Loco has always wanted to be a performer. As a kid he would put on shows for anyone who would come to visit him and his single-mother at their Harlem apartment. Soon he and his friends were recording “fake CDs” with a cheap camera. And he was also a member of Project Valentine, a famous NYC dance troupe that’s appeared in movies like Step Up 3D and performed alongside big names like Beyonce.
“I was listening to a lot of Lil’ Kim and I was obsessed with Salt-n-Pepa and Queen Latifah,” said Loco, graciously taking a break from working on his new mixtape to chat with me by phone from NYC. “I started writing, mostly poetry, when I was 14, I loved to write rhymes…but then I started to question my sexuality and deal with all of that, and I didn’t know any other people that were doing this that were gay so I stopped.”
Soon after his appearance on Tyra he regained his confidence. He put together his first mixtape, 2009’s No Shade, completely on his own using only his words and Garage Band. The mixtape ended up producing the popular track “The Loco,” that was later accompanied by an equally popular video. He was also getting lots of offers for other TV appearances and soon he was everywhere. Reality television wasn’t where he wanted to make his name, but for a gay Latina/Italian boy growing up in Spanish Harlem the money was something he couldn’t say no too.
The exposure did help strengthen his voice and passion for activism and it helped him decide the focus of his career. He’s now working diligently on his second mixtape, Flame On, which is set for a June 14 release. The CD features all new songs written completely by himself (“I have to write all my own stuff. For some odd reason, I can’t pick up on anyone else’s flow. I’m just weird that way. I don’t think people can understand what it’s like to be in my mind.”), but this time with a host of talented producers and featured artists.
“This new project is a whole new sound for me,” Loco said. “I had to break away from what people were trying to make me. ‘The Loco’ was a fun video, but there were a lot of people trying to make me sound different, like Nicki Minaj, or someone that I wasn’t. But with this new CD I’ve really found myself.” (Showcased below in his new single “I’m In Love,” featuring Lumidee and Carmen Beretta.)
Even his stage name has new meaning.
“People have been calling me ‘loco’ since I was a kid because sometimes I’d say out of the ordinary, crazy stuff that people wouldn’t expect me to say,” he said “But ‘ninja’ is from my living in the House of Ninja from the ball scene. My house dad’s name was Benny Ninja and I’ve just carried that with me. But now it has another meaning because I have a lot of the characteristics of a ninja. I love wearing the color black and I’m constantly chopping these other artists up with my talent.”
And even though his plan is to hopefully be the first mainstream openly gay rapper, he’s treading the waters lightly. He plans to put out two more mixtapes before attempting to break through to “the other side” knowing fully that mainstream out gay rappers aren’t a current reality.
“I want to let people get to know me first,” he said. “Unfortunately, because I’m openly gay, the American audience isn’t going to accept me right away as a gay rapper, so right now I’m giving away all my music for free so that they people can get to know me and my music before I try to go mainstream. How do you sell your music to the mainstream, without them knowing you, if you’re gay?”
He’s also putting appearances on reality shows like MTV’s “Sex…with Mom & Dad” behind him and is planning to only go on programs that feature his life as an artist and activist. Like the new documentary “Out in America” premiering on PBS Wednesday, June 8. The film offers a deeper look into the lives of openly gay Americans. Loco’s story will appear alongside the stories of Andy Cohen (Bravo’s executive director of programming) and country music star Cheryl Wright.
“I want to become something way bigger than just an artist that raps and rhymes…I want people to love my community,” he said. “If you could put someone like me on the same side as Nicki Minaj, Lil’ Wayne, Birdman and Kanye West then people would start to think, if this can happen in rap music then this can happen on the streets, then this can happen in schools, we can start accepting people for who they are. I want to make that kind of an impact on the world.”
As for his advice for the young men of color coming after him? He doesn’t necessarily agree with the “it gets better” mantra that’s pervaded the gay conversation lately. He’s been asked several times to make an It Gets Better video from the campaign but refuses to do so.
“It’s hard for me to say what everyone else says, that it’s going to get better,” he said. “As a kid, if I’d seen a celebrity telling me ‘it gets better,’ I’d just respond with, ‘but they don’t know my situation.’ …My advice is, use every bit of strength you have in your body to come out and tell someone what you’re going through and stand up for yourself, which is really hard. I got to the point where I had to do that, I had to learn to love yourself. It does in a way get better, but you have to make yourself better. Build yourself up to be a better person and surround yourself with people that will help make you strong.”