If Homophobia is Ingrained in Hip-Hop’s History, How Can Hip-Hop Evolve?

BET’s essay series, Uncomfortable Conversations, dives into the ongoing, difficult topics that have dominated and plagued hip-hop for decades. In this week’s essay, we tackle the longstanding issue of homophobia within the culture.

The LGBTQ+ community has never been quite welcome in mainstream hip-hop—within the industry or among fans. It’s the reason DJ Akademiks used gay slurs to disparage Saucy Santana and why Lil Nas X initially didn’t want to come out as gay. Some of the most well-known rap anthems feature blatantly homophobic lyrics—including “The Message,” “Halftime,” “Ten Crack Commandments,” and “Where the Hood At.” And fans are expected to bob their heads in enjoyment.

The problem is that hip-hop’s foundation is unaccepting, propped up on the macho mentality. Braggadocio is baked into the cake of what it means to be a rapper—you’re implored to rhyme about your sexual conquests. But having interest in the same gender has been damning in every decade, from the 1970s to today. Queer rappers have been accused of being a scourge to hip-hop and humanity, forcing them to find sub-communities within the genre. Hip-hop needs queer rappers for the culture to progress, but those same artists shouldn’t feel forced to endure discomfort within their own culture. Will hip-hop ever escape homophobia? 

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Even as an art form founded on rebellion, hip-hop has historically modeled itself after the straight-leaning movements in America. The idea of Black liberation—a world with equal opportunity, free of anti-Blackness—has excluded the LGBTQ+ community for years. In Eldrige Cleaver’s 1968 essay collection Soul on Ice, the Black Panther Party’s Minister of Information lambasted the author James Baldwin, accusing him of hating Black people. Cleaver believed that Baldwin, an openly gay man, was ideologically imprisoned by his sexuality, and he reduced him to being a pawn of white supremacy. He saw Baldwin as an assault on the Black nuclear family. Black radicals routinely informed by the Nation of Islam (as Cleaver was) have echoed those sentiments.

Furthermore, Baynard Rustin, a key figure in organizing the March on Washington (who’s the subject of a new Netflix film), has seen his contributions to the Civil Rights Movement diminished because of his sexuality. “At a given point, there was so much pressure on Dr. King about my being gay and particularly because I would not deny it, that he set up a committee to explore whether it would be dangerous for me to continue working with him,” Rustin told the Washington Blade in a 1986 interview. Rustin’s efforts were minimized for decades, though his know-how proved critical to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Movement—which has overlapped with the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam’s initiatives—has left a significant imprint on hip-hop, down to producers sampling notable speeches. And homophobia has remained one of the legs of those movements’ respective legacies.

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For years, there was no space for queerness in mainstream rap unless it was a reference to women appealing to a man’s pleasure. Some of those same figures (Boosie) have subsequently bashed gay men in rap. But even the response to queer women in hip-hop has been unpredictable. Though Queen Pen didn’t publicly discuss her sexuality at the time, she rapped about sleeping with women in 1997’s “Girlfriend.” The response from Foxy Brown, in particular, was acidic. “Ya confused-ass chick, now is you straight or you gay?” Foxy rapped on “10% Dis,” also aimed at Queen Latifah. That type of vitriol was rampant in the ’90s. During a 2020 conversation with Variety, Da Brat, who broke barriers for women in rap, discussed her choice to remain closeted. “I was always told you want to be f—able to men and women to sell records — you don’t want anybody to discriminate…It was absolutely my decision. I mean, you saw what happened to people like Ellen: Remember when she lost her TV show, and all these horrible things were happening? People were totally against it.” 

Years later, the response remains a toss-up. Yung Miami and Megan Thee Stallion can flirt on Twitter and the former’s talk show and have it be a casual, fleeting moment in cultural conversations. For Young M.A., it’s different. Her love of women is a cornerstone of her music. At the dawn of her career, headlines, and subheadlines couldn’t not mention it. It became so common that she eventually pleaded not to be called a “lesbian rapper.” Azealia Banks’ breakthrough single “212'' referenced a sex act with a woman. Her most popular music blends ballroom slang, house music, and hip-hop. The LGBTQIA+ community is among her most ardent supporters. At the same time, Banks, who is bisexual, has been accused of homophobia and transphobia over the years.

For hip-hop to be the vibrant, honest, and reflective music style it was designed to be, I have to believe that homophobia won’t always infect hip-hop. Hope is the bedrock of inclusive outlooks. At the same time, I’m writing this 50 years after hip-hop began. It’s discouraging to have still to call out myopic attitudes towards sexuality. Sometimes it seems unending—like certain fans and artists don’t have the guts to be open-minded. But if we continue to move ahead despite them, a change just might come.

One of the few male artists who’s risen through the hip-hop ranks while elasticizing the bounds of their sexuality is Tyler, the Creator. (Well, somewhat.) In a 2017 interview, he mentioned having a boyfriend once. And across his albums Flower Boy and IGOR, he’s rapped about same-sex attraction. Given how he operates through personas and vagueness, it’s hard to take his statements at face value. Still, other equally famous rappers wouldn’t even make those proclamations without blowback. Maybe it’s because Tyler has had a cult-like following for over ten years or because he built his career on being provocative. Either way, he’s escaped continuous critique from peers in a way that some of his contemporaries can’t.

Many rap artists are out. Some are more accepted than others, and it’s not always easy for artists to know how they’ll be received. More often than not, hatred will come their way. Queer rappers will continue to make space for themselves in an unsafe space.

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