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Hip-hop's complicated history with homophobia

Country-rap star Lil Nas X is the first openly gay rapper to win big at the Grammys. Have we reached a watershed moment in hip-hop? asks Musa Okwonga

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Pride and prejudice: Lil Nas X with his two Grammys on Sunday

Pride and prejudice: Lil Nas X with his two Grammys on Sunday

REUTERS

Eminem, who has previously included homophobic lyrics in his songs

Eminem, who has previously included homophobic lyrics in his songs

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Pride and prejudice: Lil Nas X with his two Grammys on Sunday

On June 30, 2019, Lil Nas X, creator of the soaring hit and two-time Grammy winner 'Old Town Road', sent out a few tweets and everything changed. The 20-year-old rapper and songwriter, a resident of Atlanta whose breakout single stood atop the Billboard 100 for over two months appeared to reveal via social media that he was gay.

Pointing to the lyrics of 'C7osure' from his 7 EP, he said: "Some of y'all already know, some of y'all don't care, some of y'all not gone fwm no more, but before this month ends i want y'all to listen closely to 'c7osure'."

In doing so, he not only brought extra joy to those celebrating the final day of LGBT Pride, but he also threw fresh focus upon hip-hop's complex and often very difficult relationship with homosexuality.

Since its birth in the 1970s, much of hip-hop has been a bastion of swaggering masculinity. The Sugarhill Gang in their 1979 hit 'Rapper's Delight', referred to a man of effeminate appearance as a "fairy". In 1988, Eazy-E rapped about "one faggot that I had to hurt" while on his 2000 track 'Criminal', Eminem rapped "Hate fags? The answer's yes."

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Eminem, who has previously included homophobic lyrics in his songs

Eminem, who has previously included homophobic lyrics in his songs

In 2005, Kanye West remarked that "everyone in hip-hop discriminates against gays", discussing how his gay cousin had caused him to reconsider his own views. West then faced much speculation about his own sexuality, to which, somewhat nonplussed, he replied: "My whole point is, I wouldn't have spoke on that if I was gay or if I was in the closet. I would have stayed so far away from it."

While homophobia is not unique to hip-hop, homophobia in hip-hop seems to take a particularly vocal form. Why did legendary rapper Erick Sermon, himself the subject of gay rumours for years, comment as recently as 2012 that being gay in hip-hop is "like a curse"?

There are two main reasons. Firstly, a musical genre cannot be divorced from its surrounding society. Many rappers are raised in strong religious traditions, and the doctrines of Christianity and Islam - the two most prominent examples - have for thousands of years regarded same-sex relationships as wholly contrary to human nature.

Secondly, many of these rappers are raised in communities which have long been marginalised for reasons of race, economics, or both, which often serves to give homophobia in these communities an intensifying effect. After all, if you are already regarded as being lower down the social order because you are poor and black, then also being gay is often perceived as an unacceptable burden - one which can carry a lasting stigma.

Things only slowly began to change within hip-hop in 2002, when the Grammy-winning rapper and actor Common produced some of the most groundbreaking lyrics in his industry with his Electric Circus LP. Common talks of a childhood friend's coming out: "How could I judge him? Had to accept him if I truly loved him / No longer he said had he hated himself / Through sexuality he liberated himself." This song was later hailed by Pitchfork as one of 50 tracks that defined the previous 50 years of LGBT pride, challenging the orthodoxy of mainstream rap.

Ten years later Frank Ocean, the R&B superstar and former member of hip-hop group Odd Future, released a letter in which he revealed that he had fallen in love with a fellow 19-year-old boy. Ocean received widespread acceptance from the public and his peers. Less than a year after his revelation, Ocean would win two Grammy Awards for his debut album Channel Orange, would be greeted with a standing ovation, and would go on to collaborate with some of the world's biggest artists, including Calvin Harris and Outkast's Andre 3000.

In 2012, just after announcing herself to the world with the stellar and wickedly profane '212', Azealia Banks had a frank conversation about her sexuality in the New York Times, telling the journalist that though she was bisexual, she didn't want to be defined by it.

Macklemore was catalyst for change soon after, with Dr Abe arguing that, had it not been for the rapper's 2013 hit single 'Same Love' - a famous ode to gay people being themselves against the odds - other artists would not have felt so empowered to discuss this issue in a positive light.

In 2018, Janelle Monáe spoke openly about being "a black queer woman... someone who has been in relationships with both men and women." When Chance the Rapper's brother, himself a hip-hop artist, came out as bisexual, his sibling greeted him with open arm. It does still seem that, despite the huge strides many queer hip-hop artists are making, there is a barrier beyond which bigotry does not allow them to go.

If you go to YouTube and look at the work of most of the musicians discussed in this article, their views remain in the low millions - excellent numbers, but not of the stratospheric levels enjoyed by the superstars of their genre. Though openly gay rappers are now better able to monetise their careers than before, the mainstream still appears to be resistant to overt displays of same-sex affection.

It's for this reason that Young Thug, one of Lil Nas X's greatest inspirations and strongest supporters, questioned the wisdom of his decision to come out; not from a place of prejudice, but rather from one of concern and compassion.

"He shouldn't have told the world because it's like, these days... it's just all judgment", said Young Thug. "It ain't even about the music no more. Once you found out he was gay, everybody, soon as the song come on now... don't even care to listen to the song no more."

Lil Nas X doubtless owes much to many who have come before him, and to the fact that the internet has removed many of the traditional gatekeepers - say, radio DJs and TV producers - who might have stood in the way of openly gay artists.

It is therefore fitting that though Lil Nas X - who, in a symbolic move for the hip-hop community, was joined at the Grammys on stage by a member of rap's old guard, Nas - has pushed through an extraordinary personal boundary by coming out, he is being richly rewarded for pushing the boundaries that all true musicians should respect; that is to say, artistic ones. In so doing, he has crafted a sound which, despite the contempt of anyone who might stand against him, precious few dance floors can deny. And, in so doing, he has pushed himself and others just like him thrillingly forwards.

Indo Review