Hip-Hop vs. Homosexuality: Is the rap game becoming self-aware?

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This piece contains language used by others that some may find offensive and hurtful. These quotes do not reflect the views of the Tribune.

Had the Beastie Boys gotten their way, their iconic 1986 release, License to Ill, would have been called Don’t Be A Faggot.* Big Daddy Kane, widely regarded as one of hip-hop’s most virtuosic MCs, issued a like-minded edict on “Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy” three years later: “the Big Daddy law is anti-faggot. That means no homosexuality.” Twenty years since, against the background of a piecemeal legalization of gay marriage and the abrogation of Clinton’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, hip-hop fans don’t bat an eye at homophobia.

Nonetheless, the times they are a-changin’. The metamorphosis ostensibly began in 2005, when Kanye West spoke out against homophobia after learning that his cousin was gay (incidentally, West later told the New York Daily News that it was the bravest thing he did that year). By 2011, a new generation of rappers had begun to express a laissez-faire attitude to sexual orientation, with the then 21-year-old California rapper Lil B releasing a mixtape titled I’m Gay (I’m Happy). Earlier this year, Frank Ocean’s admission to falling in love with a man met with overwhelming support from industry and fans alike, while Azealia Banks’ confirming her bisexuality was (rightly) treated as a non-event.

In part, the change stems from a growing acceptance of homosexuality in culture at-large. Russell Simmons, co-founder of the infamous Def Jam Records, has frequently stated that hip-hop is a reflection of the events occurring within the wider community. Indeed, a celebrity’s emergence from the closet makes a considerably smaller splash than it previously did—contrast the blasé reaction to Anderson Cooper’s admission with the furor that would have erupted had a news anchor come out in the ‘70s—while support for gay marriage extends as high up as the Oval Office.

In the meantime, the emerging generation of rap artists still reliant on violently homophobic lyrics, such as LA’s breakout Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (OFWGKTA) collective, is adopting a curiously contradictory attitude. While many weaker rappers use homophobia as a lyrical crutch, Tyler the Creator, OFWGKTA’s most visible and arguably most talented member, frequently employs it in his verses. Despite this apparent animosity, which seems to be rooted in Tyler’s desire for attention, he is an outspoken supporter of his fellow OFWGKTA members Frank Ocean and the openly bisexual Syd Tha Kyd. Whereas some older rappers seem genuinely disturbed by homosexuality (in an obnoxious display of atavism, Beanie Sigel told XXL Magazine “You gay, go ahead, do you… Keep that shit all the way in the closet around me. For any people who look into it any other way, go into the Bible and look up the story”), younger artists seem to employ homophobia with the same degree of posturing evident in the violent bravado characterizing ‘90s gangster rap.

Historians believe that the vicious braggadocio permeating much of hip-hop stems from its origins in the Bronx. Between the ‘40s and the ‘60s, the impoverished Bronx experienced the destruction of residential neighbourhoods to make room for the Cross-Bronx Expressway and their replacement with densely crowded housing projects. By the ‘70s, hip-hop emerged as an expression of the borough’s frustrations, reinforced by a dense layer of blunt machismo in response to the threatening environment that shaped it. Rap’s growth into a lucrative business throughout the ‘90s dulled many artists’ emphasis on social injustice, while keeping the lyrical vituperation and materialism—both marketable elements—sharply honed. Thus, commercial rap became the medium of inane and violent bark.

In the meantime, the intellectual bite emerged in the backstreets of  “conscious” hip-hop—a genre eschewing the tripartite model of ostentatiousness, drugs, and sex (exemplified by tracks like Jay-Z’ “Money, Cash, Hoes”), in favour of more reflective rhymes. Not surprisingly, artists under the “conscious” moniker—many rappers oppose the term due to its association with the proselytization of overly-political themes—are also leading the charge against homophobia. This summer, Seattle-based rapper Macklemore released the touchingly honest “Same Love” in support of gay marriage. Meanwhile, Brother Ali—who has been one of rap’s most honest and contemplative MCs for the past decade—has written an eloquent piece in the Huffington Post, denouncing homophobia. Of course, these efforts may be less noticeable than endorsements by Kanye or Obama. Such lyricism, however, articulates the sentiment with more aggressive panache than other forms of music, and does double-duty by working on hip-hop’s home turf.

The current generation of hip-hop artists appears to be on track to accepting homosexuality, as are the rest of their peers. In addition to a growing general repudiation of homophobia, conscious artists are steering hip-hop culture towards the rejection of vacuous asperity. Even Tyler’s frequent penning of homophobic verses, alongside those describing rape, suicide, or drug abuse, seems more like an immature attempt to garner the public eye and demonstrate his belletristic skill rather than a nod to the hate-filled attitudes of the past; as he matures, one hopes he will distance himself from such hateful slurs. For rap fans, this change is nothing if not auspicious – fewer inanities used as filler, tighter rhymes, and wittier verses. Hip-hop can’t wake up soon enough.

*They’ve since issued an embarassed apology.