Tune in and turn up

What do industry legends like Snoop Dogg and JAY-Z have in common with the likes of young contenders such as J. Cole and Chance the Rapper? At some stage in their careers, each of these rappers and countless more have used the word “fag” or “faggot” in their lyrics as a weapon, one that’s designed to attack and wound their rivals with an intensity that few other curse words can match.

Since then though, each has also turned a corner and begun supporting queer rights to varying degrees of success. While both Snoop Dogg and JAY-Z now reportedly back gay marriage, J. Cole attempted to challenge use of the word “faggot” in his rhymes, and Chance the Rapper chimed in with support after his younger brother Taylor Bennett came out as bisexual.

So does this mean that hip-hop is no longer homophobic? Well, it’s no secret that the two remain intertwined, feeding off each other in increasingly absurd ways. Just this week, Migos member Offset offended listeners with a guest spot on YFN Lucci’s track “Boss Life,” rapping the indefensible phrase “I cannot vibe with queers.” The LGBTQ community were quick to fire back at Offset’s hypocrisy, pointing out that he regularly sports designer clothes that have been created by “queers.” Still though, it’s a sorry state of affairs when platinum-selling artists feel no shame openly including hate speech in their rhymes.

Time and time again, words such as “homo” and “faggot” are used by hip-hop artists to denote weakness of some kind, and it’s hard to imagine a diss track or rap battle without them. While stars like Waka Flocka Flame continue to openly share their prejudices out loud, claiming even that transgender people are “marketing evil,” other rappers such as Eminem argue that use of this language is just part of their rap persona, and doesn’t reflect their own personal views. Either way, the effect is still the same.

What’s particularly devastating about this lack of tolerance is that it contradicts the very essence of hip-hop and why it resonated with listeners in the first place. Whether you were an underground rapper, battling street dancer or aspiring DJ, the aim of hip-hop has always been to unite those who were marginalized and oppressed, exploring personal identity through freedom of expression. It’s easy to see the parallels between this and queer discourse, yet the two have rarely converged in positive, meaningful ways… at least, in the mainstream.

Gayngsters On The Fringe

In the same year that millions heard the line “Hate fags? The answer’s ‘yes’” on Eminem’s third album The Marshall Mathers LP, Tim’m T West formed a hip-hop collective called Deep Dickollective that would change the scene forever. Together, this daring rap trio became pioneers of ‘homo hop’ and ushered in a brand new scene that redefined what the genre was capable of. LGBTQ fans who felt ostracized by the music that they loved could now find solace in albums such as BourgieBohoPostPomoAfroHomo, which in turn helped inspire other queer rap artists to discover their own voice and no longer hide on the fringes of the hip-hop community.

Progress was slow at first, but today, there is a thriving community of queer rappers out there who are standing on the precipice of mainstream success. From Cakes Da Killa’s confessional verses and Le1f‘s experimental soundscapes to Mykki Blanco‘s performance art and the bounce of Big Freedia’s flow, queer rap has never been more popular.

Of course, the very notion of “queer rap” is problematic in that it further marginalizes these artists to a degree, obscuring their own personal identities in favor of an umbrella term that homogenizes the collective as a whole. Prominent queer rapper Zebra Katz actively resists this label, arguing “against the whole coinage [of the term queer hip-hop] since it happened.” The suggestion here is that while yes, rappers who identify as queer do often share influences and even some specific slang words, the same is also true of heterosexual rappers in the mainstream, yet we don’t label them according to their sexuality and would never feel the need to.

Whether other queer identifying artists subscribe to this view or not, what does bind them together is a fierce desire to resist heteronormativity in music and redefine what hip-hop can be. Unfortunately, acclaim in queer circles hasn’t yet translated to commercial success by and large, aside from a few popular rap challenges on Rupaul’s Drag Race and the occasional cameo in a Beyoncé video. The sad fact of it is that few mainstream rappers in the charts right now can match the fearless artistry of these performers, yet for the most part, their music is still seen as separate and distinct from the hip-hop industry as a whole.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, But It Will Be Spotify’d

So why haven’t Angel Haze or Big Freedia crossed over in the same way that queer musicians from other genres have? Roman Zolanski aside, when will hip-hop have its very own Beth Ditto or George Michael? Well, in some ways, the queer hip-hop revolution has already begun.

As society continues to evolve and become more accepting of people from all walks of life, hip-hop has finally begun to reflect this change too. Kanye West was one of the first industry giants to question the prevalence of homophobia in rap, arguing back in 2005 that “Hip-hop seemed like it was about fighting for your rights in the beginning… But everybody in hip-hop discriminates against gay people.” Surprisingly, West himself also faced this kind of discrimination on a personal level, finding his own sexuality questioned simply for wearing a pink polo shirt and expressing an interest in fashion. Now though, it has become far more normal for artists such as A$AP Rocky and Jaden Smith to embrace gender-fluid clothing without being forced to fend off challenges to their masculinity.

West’s frequent collaborator Kid Cudi also made huge strides for hip-hop following the Orlando Pulse shooting in 2016, actively voicing his support for the victims while denouncing the homophobes wallowing in his mentions.

While few other rap stars consoled the Pulse survivors in such a direct and honest way, other developments since continue to hint at a more inclusive future for the hip-hop community. In 2017 alone, rapper iLoveMakonnen and Chance the Rapper’s brother Taylor Bennett both came out in the week of Trump’s inauguration, making a powerful statement against a president who has aligned himself with outspoken queer opponents. As if that wasn’t progressive enough, rapper Lil Yachty also brought some much needed diversity to the hip-hop mainstream in 2017 with his album cover for Teenage Emotions, which featured two young men making out.

Swim Good Against the Tide of Oppression

While these were small but important strides to take, none matched the sheer bravery of Frank Ocean’s Tumblr admission back in 2012, where he became a figurehead for acceptance after revealing the love he had previously felt for a man. The honest, heartbreaking letter shed a light on bisexuality that remains unprecedented in pop culture as a whole, let alone hip-hop, and yes, while Ocean may only work on the fringes of this genre, his affiliation with Odd Future and numerous other rappers ensured that the hip-hop community would sit up and take notice.

Together with underground artists such as Mykki Blanco and Cakes Da Killa who continue to find new fans every day, Frank Ocean has sown seeds of enlightenment in a whole new generation, capturing the potential of a queer hip-hop revolution in one grainy and yet surprisingly powerful screengrab. Unfortunately though, this still isn’t enough. It’s still far too easy for hip-hop stalwarts such as Snoop Dogg to dismiss Ocean as a singer and therefore not relevant to the world of rap.

It seems then that while the combination of queer rappers fighting on the fringes and mainstream stars publicly denouncing homophobia is a strong start, something more is needed in the wake of Ocean’s honesty. What the hip-hop community truly needs moving forward is a full-blown chart success to remind the industry that queer rap and straight rap is really one and the same. As rapper Dai Burger once said, “Straight or gay it’s all sexually driven. So long as you got the bars, I’m all ears for it.”

The closest thing we have to this right now is Ocean’s frequent collaborator Tyler, The Creator, who recently played around with allusions to his queerness on the album Flower Boy. Unfortunately, the extreme anti-gay sentiment of his previous records holds Tyler back from becoming a true figurehead for queer hip-hop, causing as much conflict within the gay community as he once did against it.

And therein lies the problem. Until queer hip-hops fans can look up to a mainstream rapper who can “vibe with queers,” one who holds the power to simultaneously smash both the charts and the walls of prejudice that remain entrenched in the rap community, then we still have a long way to go, no matter how “queer-friendly” hip-hop has become. Frank Ocean and other queer artists like him may have laid some of the groundwork, but it’s going to take more before LGBTQ fans of hip-hop can finally reach that “Sweet Life” which Ocean alludes to so promisingly on his classic Channel Orange.

For more like this, revisit what Frank Ocean’s recent drag-themed birthday teaches us about queerness.

  • Words: David Opie
Words by Contributor
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