How hip-hop learned to call out homophobia – or at least apologize for it

How hip-hop learned to call out homophobia – or at least apologize for it

In the 2018 song “Boss Life,” the rapper Offset, part of the multiplatinum-selling rap group Migos, rhymed: “I do not vibe with queers.”

Such casual use of a perceived anti-gay slur is not uncommon in the history of hip-hop. But the discussion that Offset’s lyrics provoked gave an insight to how the genre is evolving.

Addressing claims of homophobia, the rapper wrote on Instagram: “I didn’t write the line about gay people. … I got love for all people.” He continued: “To me [by] ‘queer’ I don’t mean someone who’s gay. I mean lame people who film you, post it and stalk you. Lingo that means strange or odd.”

I have no reason to question Offset’s sincerity, although other artists have criticized him for the slur.

But as a scholar of hip-hop and social consciousness, what interests me more is that Offset felt the need to reply at all; many of his rap predecessors have not felt the need after similar incidents.

As rap music approaches its 50th anniversary in August, I believe it is increasingly embracing challenges to – and debates about – homophobia. That is, hip-hop has evolved to the point where anti-gay rhetoric invites condemnation from members of the culture. It is still present in some rap lyrics – as indeed is true of all genres, from pop to country – but hip-hop is changing because of more progressive cultural views and greater LGBTQ+ representation.

The history of homophobia in rap music

Hip-hop has always been a socially conscious genre – but whereas it has historically challenged racial discrimination, it has slowly evolved on issues related to gender and sexuality.

Arguably one of the most poignant social commentaries on institutional racism at the time, “The Message,” released in 1982 by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, included the anti-gay slur “f**” in a disparaging context.

Indeed, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, high-profile rap groups such as N.W.A and artists like DMX similarly used pejorative language against members of the gay and lesbian community.

Perhaps the most famous rapper using homophobic lyrics is Eminem. On “The Marshall Mathers LP,” he rhymed, “Hate f**s?/The answer’s yes.” In the aftermath of this controversy, Eminem performed with famous gay singer Elton John at the 2001 Grammys. Nevertheless, on follow-up albums he continued to use the slur. Throughout this controversy, there was only a muted response from the rap community itself.

A man in a pink jacket holds his hand aloft with that of a man in a white T-shirt and hat.
Eminem and Sir Elton John perform at the 43rd annual Grammy Awards in 2001 in Los Angeles.
Dave Hogan/Getty Images

Advocacy groups such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation have long campaigned against the use of such language, lambasting Eminem’s hateful rhetoric and lyrics alluding to violence against members of the LGBTQ+ community.

And such lyrics have real-world impacts. Indeed, researchers who studied the link between rap music and resistance among young men of color to coming out found that it influenced some gay men’s decision to conduct any same-sex practices on the “down low” to avoid revealing their sexuality.

The start of change in rap community

In the latter 2000s, attitudes began to change. For example, in 2005 Kanye West apologized for his past homophobia and even urged fellow artists to cease using lyrics that degrade the LGBTQ+ community. “I wanna just come on TV and just tell my rappers, just tell my friends, yo, stop it,” he said in reference to derogatory anti-gay slurs. In 2012, Jay-Z decried discrimination against gay people and promoted gay marriage.

These individual actions did not end anti-gay expression in rap, but it does, I believe, show progress among those in the hip-hop community. And others, from Nicki Minaj to Fat Joe, later followed suit as the 2010s progressed.

Furthermore, hip-hop artists and fans have increasingly welcomed what could be described as a queer aesthetic once frowned upon. Some cisgender male lyricists have appropriated parts of queer culture as part of their act.

For instance, popular Atlanta rapper Young Thug often cross-dresses, wearing women’s clothing. In a 2016 MTV interview regarding his wardrobe choice he stated, “In my world, you can be gangsta with a dress, or you can be gangsta with baggy pants.”

This contrasts with earlier rap. Such attire would be unthinkable in the 1990s when the belief was that “real” men “don’t wear tight clothes,” in the words of New York rappers Thug Slaughter Force. This idea was rooted in the belief that “hypermasculine” and “macho” straight guys wore loose-fitting clothing.

However, many present-day male rappers wear tight-fitting clothes – a fashion choice once considered “gay” and therefore demeaned in the rap world. Moreover, such outfits are created by gay fashion designers, a point that Offset acknowledged while defending himself against claims of homophobia.

Out of the closet and onto the mics

Being comfortable with a gay aesthetic is one positive development. Even more telling, I believe, is the growing number of mainstream LGBTQ+ rappers. For many years there were no high-profile gay hip-hop artists. In fact, as late as 2014 Larry King was asking interviewees if they thought there would “ever be … gay rap artists.” There were, of course, but major record labels at that time rejected signing them.

Over the past decade, there has been a rise in the number of successful gay and lesbian emcees. Albeit the music of openly gay Lil Nas X is more pop than rap, it has sold over 1 million copies. Moreover, he has collaborated with other mainstream lyricists like Nas, Jack Harlow, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion – all cisgender straight emcees.

Lesbian rapper Young M.A achieved platinum status and works with industry rappers. Even 50 Cent, no stranger to homophobic lyrics, praised her on Instagram: “Young M.A the hottest s*** out right now. I don’t like a lot of s***, but this is Tuff.”

Perhaps the best example of how hip-hop has evolved on issues of sexuality can be seen in the case of Tyler the Creator. Early in his career, Tyler frequently used anti-gay slurs, such as in the 2011 song “Yonkers” in which he says “I’ll crash that f***ing airplane that that f****t n**** B.o.B. is in.” But in 2018 he “came out,” revealing his attraction to a man in his music. In the song, “I Ain’t Got Time,” he rhymes “I been kissing white boys since 2004.”

Eminem responded by calling him a homophobic slur but later apologized.

Still room for growth in rap music

In a perfect world there would be no slur to apologize for. But it does show that hip-hop has evolved to a point at which self-reflection and conversations are taking place on past and present instances of homophobia.

As the genre hits 50, previously marginalized LGBTQ+ voices are beginning to be heard – along with denouncements of homophobia by straight artists.

That’s not to say that anti-gay beliefs don’t persist in the music of some. In his 2020 song “Pimpin’ Ain’t Eazy,” Kodak Black uses the anti-lesbian slur “d***,” rapping, “Like a d***, man, you n***** can’t f*** with me.”

But hip-hop is not alone. Homophobia, transphobia and other forms of prejudice persist in the United States and across the globe.

And at least for now, rap artists are called on it – increasingly by members of their own community.

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