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Upon its release last year, JAY-Z’s 4:44 was immediately hailed as a musical masterpiece; a searingly honest confessional which came in the wake of the explosive infidelity rumors sparked by wife Beyoncé’s own opus, Lemonade. Although JAY addresses the rumors on songs like "Family Feud" and the title track, last week saw him open up about another extremely personal track, "Smile", in an interview with David Letterman. In the emotional discussion, the star recalls a conversation in which his mother, Gloria Carter, revealed she had hidden her true sexuality throughout his childhood in order to protect her kids.
Although the rapper said he had known for a while that she was attracted to women, she had only recently confided that she “felt like” she was in love with her new partner. “To have her sit in front of me and tell me, ‘I think I love someone’, I mean, I really cried,” JAY recalls. “That’s a real story. This happened eight months ago, when the album was being made, and I made the song the next day.”
Lyrically, the track sees JAY rap about – amongst other things – his acceptance of his mother’s sexuality, but it’s a spoken-word poem by Carter herself which truly steals the show: “In the shadows people see you as happy and free because that’s what you want them to see / Living two lives, happy, but not free,” she states. “Living in the shadow feels like safe place to be / No harm for them, no harm for me / But life is short, and it’s time to be free / Love who you love, because life isn’t guaranteed.”
It’s a poignant message of strength in the face of discrimination and societal misunderstanding, but Carter revealed last year that her own story was one which she was reluctant to share. Speaking exclusively on a D’USSE podcast, she recounts the conversation in which she told him her truth. “My son started actually tearing [up], because he was like, ‘That had to be a horrible life, Ma’, and I was like, “My life was never horrible, it was just different. So that made him want to do a song about it,” she remembers. Initially Carter disapproved – “I was sharing my story with you, not with the world,” she recalls saying, before eventually deciding to contribute the poem.
The song itself is raw, tender and admirably honest, but its wider cultural importance in the context of hip-hop cannot be understated.
Despite the rise of openly LGBTQ musicians like Young M.A., Mykki Blanco, iLoveMakonnen and Frank Ocean, the music industry – and, depending on who you believe, hip-hop in particular – still has a long way to go in terms of tackling its notorious problem with homophobia. In the last year alone, rappers including Offset, – who later apologized and explained his confusion around the term ‘queer’ – Busta Rhymes and Snoop Dogg have all been accused of homophobia, whereas the use of homophobic insults in rap beefs is still more common than it realistically should be in 2018. Back in 2005, Kanye West even went so far as to claim: “Everybody in hip-hop discriminates against gay people… Matter of fact, the exact opposite word of hip-hop is ‘gay’”.
Things have undeniably changed for the better over the last decade, but there’s still a problem which needs to be addressed. Songwriter Starrah, whose client list includes Young Thug and Nicki Minaj, also pointed to the ironic fact that artists are increasingly happy to be dressed by LGBTQ designers and work with queer talent: “Rappers gotta chill with homophobia,” she tweeted earlier this year. “It’s corny. Their hooks be written by me and I’m LGBT af. Clothes be designed by an LGBT designer. The LGBT fam has the best vibe. Admit it & Respect it. It’s okay.” She followed up with a call for action: “This community has to stop accepting fucked up narratives for our men and women. Everybody should be held to a higher cognitive standard. It’s 2018. Grow your mind, body and spirit.”
Of course, JAY is not alone; other artists have echoed this sentiment in the past year. Chance the Rapper posted a public statement of love for his brother after he came out as bisexual, whereas even Snoop has come out in favor of gay marriage. Tyler, the Creator complicated narratives around his own supposed homophobia by hinting that he might not be heterosexual on his latest album, whereas Kanye has famously praised Frank Ocean for coming out and reiterated that his one-time support for Trump didn’t mean that he doesn’t support LGBTQ rights. Rapper CupcakKe has also become a bona fide queer icon in her own right, releasing a series of LGBTQ anthems (“Fuck out my way when you see me / I’m rolling with the LGBT!), defending the community and even helping gay fans left homeless by homophobic families.
It’s also worth pointing out that hip-hop is often unfairly targeted in conversations around homophobia in the music industry more generally. Terms like ‘faggot’ have been littered throughout rap songs for decades, but just because the slurs are more explicit doesn’t mean that discrimination doesn’t exist in other segments of the industry.
Olly Alexander, of pop outfit Years & Years, has spoken of being asked to hide his sexuality by record execs in the past, whereas even Katy Perry has been accused of homophobia. Country musicians are frequently called out for discriminatory attitudes, several rockstars have made discriminatory comments in the past and star Hayley Kiyokos recently revealed the homophobic industry reaction to her same-sex love songs. The issue isn’t limited to hip-hop, and it’s problematic to insinuate that it is.
Still, JAY’s on-screen display of emotion is important. He may be speaking about his own personal experiences of homosexuality in his own family on "Smile", but his touching reaction to his mother’s own coming-out story is still a powerful statement on what ultimately remains a divisive topic. By spotlighting her years of hiding due to fear of being maligned, misunderstood or discriminated against, he highlights that societal attitudes still force queer people to live sheltered lives ruled by terror. By recounting her declaration of love, he humanizes her same-sex relationship and shows that adoration, affection and intimacy are the commonalities which tie together both heterosexual and homosexual love. And for someone with his platform, and cultural legacy, such a public display of support is among the most important in recent memory. Whether intended or not, his outspoken support will undoubtedly have a positive effect on the music industry more generally; as one of the most respected artists in the game, his words have real influence.
For more of our op-eds, read our take on why so many female pop stars are employing rap now more than ever right here.