The Hip-Hop Community and Homosexuality: An Open Secret

By: Eli Duah-Mensah

Alternative hip-hop. Gangsta rap. Horrorcore. Latin hip-hop. Trap music. There exist a myriad of genres in hip-hop, each with its own overt or subtle idiosyncrasies. Yet, whether comical, almost comically ghoulish, or gritty and realistic, it’s no secret that hip-hop has infiltrated the airwaves and a plethora of people’s minds. Historically, in Black and Brown communities, hip-hop music is ubiquitous in the culture. Hip-hop root’s were founded in the borough of New York City — the Bronx — at a time of economic decline due in large part to the decline of the manufacturing industry. As time went on, the white middle-class migrated to suburbs for a better socioeconomic climate — a phenomenon known as “white flight.” From this, there existed a dichotomy between the wealthier population and the lower class, with the racial component to this struggle becoming all too unignorable. Black, Puerto Rican, and Caribbean immigrants combatted the decline of their communities, to seemingly no avail. From the decaying communities came a rise of crime and poverty; additionally, with this decline came a rise in businesses shutting down, and entertainment venues withering away. From this, the youth turned to self-expression to pass the time–music included.

 Emerging artists such as DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa, — often grouped together as the “Holy Trinity” –paved the way for this ascending genre, with some DJing experimentation on party nights. Through this, they developed instrumental skills in the music form: turntable techniques, breakbeats, and freestyling. In tandem, hip-hop drew from Jamaican culture, assembling a quintessential collection of sounds that defined a decade. From this, the genesis of old-school hip-hop’s success culminated in the 1979 release of an iconic, Billboard Top-40 hit by the Sugarhill Gang: “Rapper’s Delight.” From this, hip-hop music catapulted its way onto the scene, with newer artists adding layers upon layers to the musicality, such as drum kits. Lyrically, old-school hip-hop — generally the hip-hop released from 1979 through 1983 — is characterized by simpler lyrics and rapping techniques. Much of the focus this time was centered around having fun, a stark contrast from the lives that many of the youth were living. Immortal Technique, author of How to Rap weighed in on his analysis of the time: “hip-hop was born in an era of social turmoil… in the same way that slaves used to sing songs on a plantation… that’s the party songs that we used to have”. In tandem, battle rap grew exponentially throughout this time. Battle rap is a rap duel between artists where the two spit insults, witty wordplay against the opponent, and braggadocious demeanors. Of course, these battles are meant to impress the audience with their technically inventive rapping, foreshadowing the lyrical metamorphosis that rap would soon undergo.

Through 1984, new school hip-hop emerged with artists such as LL Cool J, Run-DMC, and the Beastie Boys. New school hip-hop emphasized minimalism, drum machine beats, shorter songs, and socio-political commentary. Throughout this era, rappers presented themselves with a tough, aggressive exterior. Although, some of their art also drew from rock, as well as the funk and party rhymes of “old school hip-hop.” From this, the Golden Age was ushered in throughout the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. The golden age of rap is characterized by rap entering the mainstream, both in diversification and innovation; each record entreated the artist into a new, groundbreaking step for the genre, with radios no longer flirting with putting it on air. New school artists’ work such as LL Cool J and Run DMC were expanded upon by the Beastie Boys and Juice Crew. Artists such as Public Enemy, the Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, and Boogie Down Productions became celebrated for their experimentality and successful sampling; artists such as Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One, and Rakim were known for their lyricism and rapping techniques. Sampling became huge throughout the golden age, with many DJs ear for detecting different beats and patterns becoming a significant asset for a myriad of artists.

By the mid-1990s, rap had cemented itself in music culture. Artists such as Jay-Z, DMX, Eminem, and 50 Cent had millions of listeners. But throughout the 2000s, artists began pulling from a plethora of genres, from punk to indie rock. Artists such as MF DOOM, Kendrick Lamar, Outkast, and Juicy J became iconic names throughout this time. Fast forward to modern day, where the internet has been instrumental in the commercialization of music. Through this, artists like Megan Thee Stallion, Migos, Lil Uzi Vert, and Wacka Flocka Flame rose to prominence.

 Though hip-hop music may be the most iconic of the culture, many state that there are four pillars to hip-hop: MCing/rapping, DJing/turntablism, b-boying or b-girling/breaking, and visual/graffiti art. Indeed, each form of expression was key in the entertainment scene through the latter half of the 20th century in a myriad of black  and brown communities. Yet, for the case of hip-hop music, what happens when the lyrics are too controversial? 

Rap Music and Violence

From the rise of gangsta rap throughout the new school and golden eras came a divided group of fans from the start. Indeed, gangsta rappers’ style of flaunting gang association caused a stir. Around the new-school era, gangsta rap slowly brewed up in the hip-hop scene through Schoolly D and Ice-T. Ice-T’s 1986 song “6 in the Morning” was regarded as one of the first gangsta rap songs. Two years later, N.W.A released the first gangsta-rap album “Straight Outta Compton,” where their song “F– Tha Police” drew the ire of the FBI. Throughout the early 1990s, artists such as Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G were also making waves–Tupac for his poetic lyricism and Biggie for mashing together traditional hip-hop and gangsta rap ideals. Left-wing, right wing, and religious commentators swiftly followed suit, accusing gangsta rappers of a myriad of lyrical crimes. Indeed, this discussion has carried over to the present day.

The discussion of the role that rap plays in violence has skyrocketed since the death of the Migos rapper Takeoff. And before him, PNB Rock. And before him, Pop Smoke. And before him, Nipsey Hussle and  XXXTentacion. Each time an artist is taken, social media is flooded by tweets, posts and comments about if rap is to blame.  Some actors, such as LaKieth Stanfield have gone on to say, “If you are for gangster rap[,] you can’t also be for Black [lives].” Some researchers have come to the conclusion that there is a link between rap and violence; though, others see no such thing. The argument from many researchers is that the link between rap music and violence draws from the messages, which have an undeniable effect on youth, specifically youth without positive role models. The discussion about musical association with violence and substance use, particularly among youth, has been had all the way back to rock and roll’s roots. Throughout the 70s, researchers and parents were sifting out the psychopathology of rock fans (suicidal ideation, aggression, depression, and the like,) to fans dismay. Yet, when looking at the case of rap and violence, this discussion takes on a new skin of violence and substance-use problems among black youth, particularly in inner cities, being primarily caused by gangsta rap, drill, trap music and the like. From this, one can almost see some cyclicality in the genre; rappers discuss the inner city violence, more violence occurs, and rap is blamed for it. But many people believe this is not the way to go — perhaps rap is not the perpetrator of violence in the black community. 

Many see the problematic behavior as a systemic problem. For instance, old school hip-hop was born at a time of violence and poverty, yet the music encouraged none of the sort. In fact, these earlier artists denounced violent acts throughout their cities. Through this era, the goal was to have a good time, not necessarily to promote a message. New school hip-hop was more or less the same, though artists such as Ice-T did pioneer the gangsta-rap subgenre. Throughout these times, violence continued to wreak havoc on communities. By contrast, issues such as poverty, poor educational systems, mass incarceration, poor community resources, and the war on drugs were being messaged by the same people receiving shade. Poor educational systems for instance, can lead to both poverty and a struggle for resources leading to increased gang violence and crime. These poor educational systems, combined with a lack of community resources, aidi black families and/or allowing an outlet for youth lead to greater violence in the community. Some point to the systemic removal of black people through mass incarceration, and with the American incarceration system being primarily focused on punitive measures rather than rehabilitation, the majority of those who re-enter society following incarceration, particularly when they have already come from a poor background where crime was rampant in the case of many juveniles, return to a life of crime. This punitive system is a factor as to why the United States has one of the highest recidivism rates in the world with 44% of criminals returning before their first year out of prison. Mass incarceration overlaps with the war on drugs’ lop-sided penalization of Black people as opposed to White people, despite them using some substances at similar rates, if not higher for White people. The disproportionality of Black people as opposed to White people is mirrored with the amount of trauma counseling that Black people receive, which, if left unchecked, can also lead to self-destructive or violent behaviors. 

In tandem, the purpose of gangsta rap– and increasingly, drill rap — was to be utilized for escapism from the violence these communities were going through. Many people use art as a reflection of the issues that they are going through in their lives. Without this outlet, people can be left to stew in their feelings, which could cause more aggressive or self-destructive behavior. It can be difficult for artists, musicians, or otherwise, to view violence in their community, and proceed to talk about something else. As well as that, many people have begun to take up rapping as a way to make it out of their impoverished communities. In both cases, particularly when one is successful, it is difficult to make changes, unless the artist wants to. From this, many artists are calling for countries that are thinking of restricting drill and gangsta rap to explore the communities which are discussing this topic most. In an interview with the BBC, producer SK says “Those higher governments and MPs, what they need to do, they need to come down to communities like this. You’re not talking to them, how are you able to say ‘you’re doing this because of this?’ You don’t even know what’s going on.” The discussion on whether or not rap music is to blame, to some extent, for violence is nuanced, yet to some extent unproductive. To me, what should be most focused on is what the communities need to grow and best move forward. From that, we can perhaps move on to a larger discussion on violence, most prominently gun violence in America. To continue to deliberate on whether or not a specific genre of music brings about more violence is cyclical.

Hip-Hop and Homosexuality 

In conjuction with examining the outward violence that is going on in their communities, artists often intertwine this with their personal beliefs or feelings. Though many argue these personal beliefs and feelings can often be brought about by the environment they are in, this explanation is difficult to rationalize in the case of homophobia in rap music. Lines such as “no homo,” the use of the f-slur, and other disparaging terms have been utilized against the LGBTQ+ community in hip-hop for a while. Though discussions of violence in rap music can be conversations to be had inside and outside of the community, what is to be said for existence of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments in hip-hop?

Of course, this is not to say that all hip-hop artists are homophobic. In fact, artists such as Russell Simmons, Kid Cudi, Jay-Z, XXXTentacion, and Kendrick Lamar have expressed their support for LGBTQ+ people. Increasingly, hip-hop artists have embraced their sexuality, with Lil Nas X, Frank Ocean, Tyler, the Creator, and iLoveMakonnen coming out as queer. However, this does not necessarily mean that anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments have completely gone away in the community. One of the biggest factors as to why homophobia may be continuing in hip-hop is toxic masculinity and the macho culture in hip-hop. Macho culture in hip-hop can be partly to blame. Dating back to rap’s inception, MCs/rappers utilize braggadocio and masculinity in their music. Thus, this belief that one cannot embrace“feminine” qualities without compromising  their masculinity continues to be big in the community, despite their not being mutually exclusive To many people in the rap community, behaving like a “sissy” is synonymous with being gay, as rapped on Nicki Minaj’s track “Majesty:” “They switchin’ like sissies now/You n— is iffy now.” In recent memory, an artist who has been caught saying significantly homophobic comments is Eminem, with his frequent use of the f-slur. Though, not too long after, Offset was also caught in some controversy with the line “I cannot vibe with queers.” In both of these scenarios, the hip-hop community was significantly silent about these lines, with Cardi B defending Offset by claiming that he wasn’t aware of the difference between queer in an LGBTQ+ connotation, and queer in a “strange” or “odd” connotation. Reportedly, he meant the latter. As well as that, Eminem has not formally apologized for the use of the f-slur in his music, even when he aggressively used it against Tyler, the Creator. 

Historically, masculinity in hip-hop was utilized as a form of social and political power. To have a high amount of masculinity was to have a high amount of social power and style. Artists throughout the 90s and 00s diminished the power of displaying their emotions or the softer aspects of their personalities to appear tough or impenetrable. In recent years, however, artists have increasingly become more comfortable with their emotions. Kid Cudi, for instance, is credited for pioneering an emotional awakening in hip-hop. Today, the emo hip-hop scene is more popular than ever. Artists such as Drake are singing about their emotions. And, increasingly, artists are becoming more comfortable with discussing stereotypically “feminine” things. Through this, the macho exterior in hip-hop is melting off, and with it, some of the homophobia in hip-hop. Thus, we enter a period where Frank Ocean comes out in 2012. We enter a period where Kevin Abstract comes out as gay in 2016. We enter a period in 2017, with Tyler, the Creator’s U-Turn from deploying the f-slur and disparaging remarks to sexuality to releasing an entire album about a love triangle where a man is attracted to another man who is attracted to a woman. In the words of Kevin Abstract in an interview, “To change what it means to be a man, and be manly and masculine. That’s why I said it’s OK to get your feelings hurt, it’s okay to admit that, and it’s okay to cry because men can do that too.”  

Unfortunately, even with the genre changing, there are still many instances of homophobia in rap music. In a response to a tweet saying “Lil Nas X’s album has no black male guest lol. Just women & white men. No agenda tho,” Lil Nas X responded with, “Maybe a lot of them just don’t wanna work with me.” In tandem, in an interview with XXL Magazine, Lil Nas X came out and said “Honestly, I don’t feel as respected in hip-hop or many music places in general.” Lil Nas X’s feelings are to some extent backed up by commentators such as Boosie, who in a spat with Lil Nas X, tweeted lines such as #uhateyourself, I would too if I was you,” (Though, there is another discussion to be had about why the community isn’t as accepting for Lil Nas X as they have been for Tyler and Frank Ocean. Many believe the reason for this is that Tyler, the Creator and Frank Ocean had sizable fan bases prior to coming out.) Although, one interesting point that is being brought up is the more subtle forms of homophobia brought up in the hip-hop community. For instance, terms such as “no homo” bear striking similarity to the use of the term, “gay” as a means of saying “bad” or “stupid.” Tying back to our earlier discussion of masculinity, some artists may not necessarily mean to be homophobic so much as they mean to defend a point of masculinity. Although, in both of these cases, the person is still covertly saying that being LGBTQ+ is not a good thing. In both cases as well, we should try to phase out our use of the terms, as it can be difficult to rationalize why we use them when there are a myriad of replacements.

For me, I love hip-hop. I hop around from genre to genre, but I’ll always take some hip-hop songs with me. One of the things I hope we can do is approach discussions about internal problems in the hip-hop community with nuance and a growth mindset. Without that, we can hardly make progress.

Some other notable queer artists include Lil Peep, Princess Nokia, Steve Lacy, Willow, Abdu Ali, Young M.A, Yves Tumor, Mykki Blanco, House of LaDosha, and Zebra Katz.

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