Historically, hip hop has been unapologetically homophobic. From the genre’s inception, rap lyrics have used slurs to emasculate and feminization to belittle foes and rivals while threatening and celebrating violence against LGBTQ people. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five mention an incarcerated man who became an “undercover fag” in “The Message.” Will Smith, who became popularly due to his squeaky-clean image, rapped, “All the homeboys that got AIDS be quiet. All the girls out there that don’t like guys be quiet” in “Live from Union Square.” Ice Cube labeled a woman who turned down his advances a “dyke” on NWA’s “Gangsta, Gangsta” before dissing his former group on the equally problematic “No Vaseline.” Eazy-E threatens (more) violence upon realizing the woman he is preparing to rape is transgender on “Nobody Move,” and The Beastie Boys wanted to entitle their first album “Don’t Be a Faggot.”
Rap lyrics of today are no longer filled the blatant homophobia of the 80s and 90s. More recently, hip hop music has become more receptive to same sex relationships…but only when they are lesbian in nature and performed for the sexual gratification of a heterosexual man. Young Dro lets us know his girl has a girlfriend on “Shoulder Lean.” T.I.’s girl picks up some many girls that he ends up in bed with six girls on “Freak Though.” And Future is such a fan of girl-on-girl action, not even incest can stop his enjoyment on “Real Sisters.”
So the overt violence has morphed into hypersexualization, but has hip hop ever embraced LGBTQ relationships? Outside of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Same Love,” the answer is “barely” at best. Enter hip hop elder Jay-Z. With the release of his 13th album, 4:44, Jay-Z moves to push hip hop further into acceptance and explores LGBTQ love and relationships. On the album’s 3rd track, “Smile,” Jay, who has publicly supported gay rights in the past, reveals that his mother is in a same sex relationship and expresses joy over the fact that she has found love. His mother, Gloria Carter, closes the track with a “love who you love” spoken word piece that encourages queer people to live and love freely. This theme of same sex love is relatively new territory for hip hop lyrics
While Jay is one of the few hip hop artists who is using lyrics to push the dialogue towards acceptance, he’s not the first person in hip hop culture to facilitate a discussion. Common, T-Pain, Fat Joe, A$AP Rocky, Snoop Dogg and Childish Gambino are all among the hip hop artists who have publicly supported LGBTQ rights with statements ranging from tolerance to acceptance. In 2015, VH1’s ‘Love and Hip Hop’ franchise produced “Out in Hip Hop,” a one-hour special that offered a candid discussion on homophobia in hip hop. Also rousing conversation is the increased visibility of openly queer hip hop artists, particular on the underground and festival circuits with a few artists making mainstream appearances.
Hip hop is growing. Unfortunately, its growth is slow and imperfect. For every two steps the culture takes forward it moves back one. Despite her homophobic, pulpit rant last year, Jay-Z features Kim Burrell on the track “4:44.” A$AP Rocky was visibly uncomfortable when MTV had him stand by Jason Collins, a retired, openly gay basketball player, during a tribute to the queer community at the 2013 VMAs. And Snoop Dogg has said a gay rapper would not be accepted because “rap is so masculine.” Each of these individuals have supported LGBTQ rights, but even when one has good intentions, the flawed beliefs that patriarchy has engrained in us often pose roadblocks that prevent us from accepting and properly advocating for our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. And if hip hop is ever going to outgrow its homophobia, we have to commit to unlearning beliefs and behaviors that support homophobia.
Watching hip hop slowly outgrow homophobia is frustrating, painful and draining for many of us; however, we have to keep holding our artists accountable. We have to keep participating in honest and difficult dialogue. And we have to keep pushing the culture forward. We can’t settle for unspoken bigotry or tolerance with a smile. We have to make sure acceptance is our end goal. Our LGBTQ brothers and sisters deserve this. And hip hop culture deserves this too.