President Barack Obama gave kind words to his friend Jay-Z. Shawn Carter, the rapper, was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. It was not just a big deal for the rapper turned mogul but it was a big leap for hip-hop. By 2017, hip-hop was undeniably a genre of American music that has shaped the nation’s culture since its inception.
We all know the story of hip hop. We know it started in the gritty streets of the South Bronx. And we know now that it was an art form that celebrated storytelling. It talked about the tragedy of American poverty, police brutality and racial equality. From adidas track jackets, shell tops and hoop earrings the art form became popular for young black and Latinx youth. In the 80’s a drug called crack cocaine infiltrated the streets of New York. Breakdancing crews and rap groups became drug pushers. The youth that listened to hip-hop faced with inner city violence. And with violence came storytelling about these experiences. At some point, the genre went from funky beats and diss tracks to major gangster beef. NWA dropped Straight Outta Compton, the rise of gangsta rap took over the genre. Gone were the days of breakdancers and graffiti artists, two of the four elements of hip hop. DJ’s & emcee’s carried the torches of hip-hop.
Although Latinx artists helped to launch the genre with their Black counterparts, the hyper masculinization of the African American male became the face of hip hop. Therefore anything that wasn’t masculine, tough, or gangsta became not cool. And it’s this chasm that allowed for homophobia to inject itself into the genre. Look at Biggie’s Rap album cover Life After Death. Jay-Z’s The Blueprint and Reasonable Doubt--masculinity reigns.
It’s no surprise when a rap beef happens the word faggot brought in as a diss. It attacks the hyper-masculinity of the person being dissed. It was the MOAB to accuse your rival of being gay. Nas arguably considered an architect of conscious lyrics had one of the biggest rap beefs in hip-hop with Jay-Z. Jay-Z from Brooklyn and Nas from Queens went toe to toe to become king of New York.
Nas said, “Dick sucking lips,” about his rival Jay-Z. He claims his crown as king of New York and says “You a dick-riding faggot, you love the attention.” Even when there aren’t rap beefs the “F” word is dropped consistently. In “Heart Of The City “Jay-Z warns, “Mo, Money, Mo Problems” - gotta move carefully/ ‘Cause faggots hate when you gettin’ money like athletes.”
These improvisations exploit the word faggot as being the worse thing possible for men.
Hyper masculinization has been part of the Black community for generations. While slavery created the idea of a feeble Black man to make enslavement easier to enable, the post-slavery era left us with the concept of aggressive, criminal, hypersexual--all things for white people to fear, and for Black folks to fear each other. Coupled with the conditions brought about by Jim Crow and post-Civil Rights Era neglect and planned inequality, and you have masculinity as a survival mechanism, as a means of coping.
But you also have something else contributing to this. In the late 20th century, Black pride began to come to the surface. With powerful media such as television the revolution for Black equality was televised. Just before the birth of hip-hop in the 1968 Olympic games, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in solidarity to showcase Black power. Rappers in hip-hop to this day celebrate the contributions of Muhammed Ali helped shape the image of the proud, confident and cocky Black male.
After the 70’s and 80’s hip-hop hung up the tight jeans for the baggy look. From Nike’s and baseball caps, throwbacks and baggy gear, hip hop toward the early 90’s to mid 2000’s at the height of its commercial success was about big clothes. Kanye West, a producer for Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records, Kanye West dropped major hits for the label. When the artist dropped the The College Dropout he took hip-hop to a level that a huge swath of young people, especially black youth could connect with. For example in Kanye West’s “School Spirit” the artist pays homage to Black Greek fraternity and sororities.
Pimps gon' talk
Ooh, hecky nah, that boy is raw
S.G. Rho, step
Pimps gon' talk”
The content of The College Dropout discussed the financial realities of attending college, dropping out, or graduations. It was the life of being an average Joe. Kanye wore a backpack, knitted preppy sweater and tighter jeans and to a huge group it was more relatable than the lifestyle depicted by previous generations of rappers.
Backpack rappers took off; Kid Cudi, Charles Hamilton, Lupe Fiasco and others began to carve an entire new era in music and fashion. Of course with this new era came pushback and backlash. A Black male was now talking about college loans and not shooting rival gang members. Did this soften the Black masculinity or open up the genre to realities that were already there? After all, the fraternities and sororities Kanye referenced in “School Spirit” were around since the first decade of the 20th century.
A new tribe of top artists of the mid 2000’s were different, talked different, and dressed different. And with different came gay rumors. Kanye’s name was thrown in the witch-hunt for “gay rappers” and Kanye addressed it in 2005 with MTV host Sway. ““Everybody in hip-hop discriminates against gay people,” Kanye West said, “Matter of fact, the exact opposite word of ’hip-hop,’ I think, is ’gay.’ You play a record and if it’s wack, 'That’s gay, dog!’ And I wanna just come on TV and just tell my rappers, just tell my friends, 'Yo, stop it fam.”
West brought up a point at a time where the terms pause; no homo, Aye-yo, and other homophobic statements dominated the culture. Not to get too simple on you as a reader, but just look at Urban Dictionary:
No Homo: An addendum to a possibly homosexual-sounding statement. Working as a "Get Out of Jail Free" card, it allows the speaker to maintain his or her heterosexual reputation no matter how homosexual the previous or forthcoming statement.
But homophobia is music isn’t just in hip-hop.
Jamaica. The island is known for its carefree and warm lifestyle. Musicians such as Bob Marley encouraged “One Love” to encourage global unity. Like hip-hop, Jamaican Dancehall Reggae or Bashment evolved.
Dancehall was around since the 1970’s but it gained mainstream popularity in the 1990’s and 2000’s. As the Jamaican diaspora infiltrated cities like New York, Miami, London, and Toronto, the genre took off. Today at any party in a major city you may hear a dancehall track or an entire set of the genre. Dancehall is hard not to enjoy. The riddims get you, you dance, and it’s often accompanied by fun and engaging dance moves. Dancehall music is sampled by hip hop artists such as Nicki Minaj, Drake and Jay-Z, making it a mainstream staple.
Dancehall also arguably promotes one of the most dangerous messages of homophobia. In 2001 a song that took over airways was T.O.K.’s Chi Chi Man. The group boasts that,
My Crew (My Crew) my dogs (my dog)
Set rules (set rules)”...
The song opens up with a firm stance on heterosexuality is allowed only rules.
“From dem a par inna chi chi man car,
Blaze di fire mek we bun dem! (Bun dem)!
From dem a drink inna chi chi man bar,
Blaze di fire mek we dun dem! (Dun dem).
Translation: they will shoot gay men if they catch them in a car and they will burn down a gay bar. Considering the Pulse tragedy that occurred a year ago and the forgotten tragedy of The UpStairs, a New Orleans gay bar that burned echoes this bigotry being sung. This is just one example out of many. Buju Banton boasts in “Boom Bye Bye” that shooting gay men is to help save the world. His catchy hook on a traditional reggae melody states "Boom bye bye Inna batty bwoy head / Rude bwoy no promote no nasty man / Dem haffi dead."
Translation: shoot/murder gay men and be proud that you did a just cause because homosexuality is wrong. Jamaica is plagued with buggery laws established during British colonial rule. Many countries such as Canada, Australia and the USA have done away with these. However, Jamaica and other former British colonies in the Caribbean and in Africa such as Rwanda, still have these tough laws in place on the books. Therefore lawmakers in these countries are not doing their best to protect gay men and women in these countries.
The waves of change may come soon to hip-hop and Dancehall. In 2016 a young female lesbian artist named Young M.A boasted in the hit “Oooouuu.” She explores sexual pleasures from females.
"Baby gave me head, that's a low blow (That's a low blow) / And she make me weak when she deep throat”
Although girl and girl action has been fetishized in male rap lyrics, it was refreshing to see a female lesbian artist celebrate her own sexual identity. It also was a hit and Young M.A became a household name after her hit.
In TV and film there has been progress made. The music television hit TV Show Empire features an R&B/hip hop musician Jamal, played by the openly gay Jussie Smollett. Much of the show is centered on Jamal coming to terms as an openly gay urban artist in a homophobic but changing rap music industry.
The Oscar Winning movie Moonlight was not based on rap group or rappers, but rap music provided a backdrop for the main actors. The success off the film broke stereotypes of the hyper masculinization of the black male. Chiron, the protagonist, is vulnerable, sensitive, and emotional in many of the key scenes. Although he’s a hustler, a career that many rappers glorify because of its street codes, he breaks the mold.
And even across seas as the Internet infiltrates perception in places such as Jamaica, there are signs of progress. In an interview the popular Dancehall artist Ninjaman made this statement when it was revealed his son was gay.
"Am I God? Why would you go ask me if he has rights? You're supposed to ask God that... Do I have a right to turn a DJ? I don't know if I have rights to turn a DJ, but I am a big DJ... All I know Jamaica was a homophobic country. Now we learn to accept, but some of us not adopting it... I am one man that will not adopt anybody doing wrong because the bible tell you certain things. But at the end of the day I am not God and if God created this world and the world was left a certain way...Who am I [to judge]?"
Ninjaman’s statement isn’t exactly the endpoint the LGBTQ community would like to exactly hear, but it’s a start. And finally as Jay-Z transitions into a 47-year-old man he discusses “Smile” off his 4:44 album his mother’s experience of being in the closet. Jay-Z advocates for her happiness and anyone who cannot accept it to back off.
Mama had four kids, but she's a lesbian
Had to pretend so long that she's a thespian
Had to hide in the closet, so she medicate
Society shame and the pain was too much to take
Cried tears of joy when you fell in love
Don't matter to me if it's a him or her
I just wanna see you smile through all the hate
Marie Antoinette, baby, let 'em eat cake
From an influential rapper that influences young men and women in hop hop, his open acceptance of homosexuality in lyrics may be another gust of wind that the ship of the LGBTQ movement needs right now, as it sails through another storm, in search for equality.
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