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The LGBTQ+ community and hip hop

How the world’s most popular music genre’s attitude to LGBTQ+ identities has shifted over time
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JESSICA LAM/THE VARSITY
JESSICA LAM/THE VARSITY

I love hip hop. I believe it’s currently the most versatile, politically conscious, and multi-faceted genre of music, with subgenres present for everyone, no matter what their tastes are. From the mainstream to the underground, hip hop is constantly evolving as new regional sounds bubble up and artists take more and more daring risks. 

The genre has always been socially aware, producing songs like “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, which touches on the trauma of growing up in impoverished conditions; and “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, which protests abuse of power by government forces such as the police. Both songs came out in the 80s, the inception period of new school hip hop. 

Since then, politically conscious rappers such as Jay Electronica, Noname, Rapsody, Lupe Fiasco, Blackstar, Black Thought, and Elzhi have been speaking out against topics such as police brutality, discrimination, and the systemic racism present in our society today. 

However, this socially conscious attitude is conspicuously absent when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues. Though the relationship between the LGBTQ+ community and hip hop has evolved over time, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. 

Indeed, one of the most politically aware and socially conscious rappers of this generation, Kendrick Lamar, came under fire for his usage of the f-slur on a track from his recently released album, Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers. On the track, he speaks about his uncle and cousin — both of whom have transitioned — through a heteronormative, cis-gendered lens that critics have claimed puts a focus on his own struggles with transphobia rather than those of his relatives.

Other popular mainstream rappers such as DaBaby, Quavo, Lil Boosie, Nicki Minaj, and, of course, Eminem have used homophobic language on record before, using the f-slur and queer as insulting terms for their detractors. While they have faced some pushback for such language, homophobia is still pervasive throughout hip-hop culture to this day.

A fraught relationship

Hip hop’s relationship with LGBTQ+ identities is unique compared to other genres. For example, authenticity is a big part of hip hop, and it centers around the image of a rapper as a hypermasculine, heteronormative figure who overcomes adversity to reach a position of prosperity. 

Attributes most associated with LGBTQ+ culture are in direct opposition to those associated with hip-hop culture, with hypermasculinity embedded into the DNA of hip-hop. Gangsta rap gained mainstream attention in the 90s, the main components of which include aggressive lyrics often centered around gun violence accompanied by hard hitting beats. Gangsta rappers were often afraid of appearing as ‘soft’ or less than the image they were attempting to portray, which emphasized a greater trend toward hypermasculine rappers.

Identifying as LGBTQ+ was seen as a soft characteristic that contradicted the street personas that rappers were trying to portray. Indeed, in the very first mainstream hit rap song, “Rapper’s Delight,” which came out in 1979, rapper Big Bank Hank refers to Superman as a “fairy,” a derogatory term for gay men. Gay rappers of the time felt as if they had to remain hidden and were unable to be open about their identities for fear of violence and losing their career. 

Moreover, even though hip hop originated in Black communities as a form of Black expression, it has since evolved to become a worldwide genre, with artists across the globe engaging with and contributing to the culture. As such, it is reductive to treat homophobia in hip hop as a solely ‘Black issue.’ This is a close-minded and discriminatory view, as it ignores popular white hip-hop artists such as Eminem and Action Bronson who have expressed homophobic and transphobic viewpoints in songs for decades. Eminem used the f-slur against popular hip-hop artist Tyler, the Creator as recently as in 2018. 

The implicit acceptance of homophobia in hip-hop culture can make non-Black rappers comfortable with expressing homophobic views, which they may not have been as comfortable expressing in other genres. Black artists usually put forward an image of themselves as hypermasculine individuals that contrast with LGBTQ+ culture, and white artists are constantly searching for validation as authentic hip-hop artists. Due to this, the latter frequently put forward the same values and mindsets as their peers do in order to be validated. 

The LGBTQ+ community in hip-hop

In a surprising move drenched in dramatic irony, Kanye West was also one of the earliest hip-hop artists to speak out against homophobia in the genre, all the way back in 2005. He claimed that it was wrong to use “gay” as an insult, and admitted that he had also expressed homophobic sentiments and had always felt that if he defended gay people, he would be labelled as a gay person himself.

Although Kanye declared “hip hop” and “gay” to be opposite terms, a sentiment that has been echoed numerous times in both cultures and by the media, gay artists in the hip-hop sphere claim hip hop is an integral part of their identity. 

Age of Consent, the first openly gay hip-hop group, debuted in 1981 and consisted was made up of two gay white men and a straight white woman. On its song “Fight Back,” rapper Night of the Night raps, “From the streets of LA town / f** rap is spreadin’ around / You might say, what’s this shit? / Rappin’ white f**s, just don’t fit.” While the group was never particularly successful, they were a landmark act in the 80s, and provided historical precedent for LGBTQ+ hip hop. 

Other hip-hop artists such as Cyrus, Rainbow Flava, Deep Dickcollective (D/DC), and Hanifah Walidah were all Black LGBTQ+ hip-hop acts performing in the 1990s and early 2000s. While none of them achieved mainstream commercial success, they paved the way for greater acceptance of LGBTQ+ identities in hip hop.

Despite the presence of LGBTQ+ hip-hop artists, the genre’s more implicit conflicts with the LGBTQ+ community, such as its focus on hypermasculinity, wouldn’t be challenged until later. Kanye historically threw open the doors for rappers to be able to better express their emotional side with his groundbreaking 2008 record 808s and Heartbreak, which further influenced rappers such as Drake and Kid Cudi to do so on their own records. 

Up until that point, gangsta rap was the norm and expressing emotional turmoil on wax was seen as soft. Kanye admitted that his mindset was altered once he found out that his cousin was gay, which is similar to how Kendrick Lamar’s uncle and cousin influenced how he approached LGBTQ+ topics in his music.

The acceptance of more emotional nuance on hip-hop tracks has led to more explicit support for the LGBTQ+ community. Frank Ocean, a member of Tyler, the Creator’s Off Future label, came out as gay in 2012, a move that sent shockwaves through the hip-hop industry. 

That same year, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis released “Same Love” featuring Mary Lambert, which was groundbreaking, as it was the first rap song about gay rights to be played on the radio and earn a Grammy nomination for song of the year. 

The song had a powerful but simple message and, at the time, was radical by mainstream standards. It also showed the best possible route for cis-gendered heteronormative individuals to lend their voices to the struggle: by using their platforms to amplify the challenges faced by the less privileged without making themselves the center of attention. 

Other gay hip-hop acts, including Tyler, the Creator; Young M.A; Mykki Blanco; Azealia Banks; Jaden Smith; and Lil Nas X, have all helped push the acceptance of gender and sexual fluidity in the genre, as well as break down existing heteronormative boundaries about what is acceptable to discuss on wax. 

While there is a long way to go, we can see clear evidence of progress through these artists’ mainstream careers. The Isaiah Rashad incident serves as another example, where Top Dawg Entertainment rapper Isaiah Rashad was forcibly outed through the release of a same-sex sex tape and was met with overwhelming support by his community and audience. 

When we talk about the nuanced relationship between LGBTQ+ and hip-hop cultures, we must be mindful of their history, be sensitive to the reasons why boundaries exist between them, and do our best to erode such boundaries by continuing to support LGBTQ+ hip-hop artists and ensuring that cisgender artists are aware of how hurtful their language may be to their audiences. 

I love hip hop because of how powerful and personal it can be and I look forward to seeing how the genre flourishes in the future with the advent of new LGBTQ+ hip hop artists who can share their own stories. I hope that the genre can expand to include LGBTQ+ issues in the list of the social ills it speaks out against, and finally put to rest its antagonistic tendencies towards the LGBTQ+ community.