LGBTQ representations in hip hop music
|LGBTQ hip hop|
|Stylistic origins||West Coast hip hop, queer theory, third wave feminism, pop-rap, bounce music|
|Cultural origins||1990s in the United States|
LGBTQ representations in hip hop music have been historically low. Hip hop has long been portrayed as one of the least LGBTQ-friendly genres of music, with a significant body of the genre containing homophobic views and anti-gay lyrics. Attitudes towards homosexuality in hip hop culture have historically been negative. Gay slurs like "sus", "no homo", and "pause" can be heard in hip hop lyrics from the industry’s biggest stars. According to the LA Times, these slurs were used to put "queerness as a punchline". However, since the early 2000s there has been a flourishing community of LGBTQ hip hop artists, activists and performers breaking barriers in the mainstream music industry.
Labels such as homo hop or queer hip hop group all artists identifying as members of the LGBTQ community into a subgenre of hip hop based solely on their sexuality. These subgenre labels are not marked by any specific production style, as artists within it may simultaneously be associated with virtually any other subgenre of hip hop, or may also make music that falls outside the subgenre entirely. Rather, the terms are defined by a direct engagement with LGBTQ culture in elements such as the lyrical themes or the artist's visual identity and presentation.
Artists who have been labelled as part of the genre have, however, varied in their acceptance of the terminology. Some have supported the identification of a distinct phenomenon of "LGBTQ hip hop" as an important tool for promoting LGBTQ visibility in popular music, while others have criticized it for essentially ghettoizing their music as a "niche" interest that circumscribed their appeal to mainstream music fans.
Many artists have contributed to the increased visibility and social acceptance of the LGBTQ community's presence in hip hop music, most notably Frank Ocean, who penned an open letter addressing his sexuality in 2012. Artists such as Mykki Blanco, Big Freedia, Le1f, Tyler, the Creator and Cakes da Killa are also at the forefront of creating a more inclusive representation of bodies in the hip hop genre.[original research?] There has also been an increased presence of LGBTQ allies in the mainstream hip hop community, such as Jay-Z, Murs, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.
In 1979, the Sugarhill Gang released "Rapper’s Delight", the first hip hop record to become a top 40 hit. "Rapper's Delight" referred to fictional character Superman as a "fairy" for wearing a skin-tight garment.
In 1986, the hip hop trio Beastie Boys originally wanted to name their debut album Don't Be A Faggot, but their record label Columbia Records refused to release it under that title, so it changed the title to Licensed to Ill. Years later, the Beastie Boys formally apologized to the LGBT community for the "shitty and ignorant" things they said on their first record.
Kanye West denounced homophobia in hip-hop in an August, 2005 interview with MTV News' Sway Calloway. He discussed how his environment led him to be homophobic, and how finding out his cousin was gay changed his perspective. This statement was radical at the time - the first major statement against homophobia in hip-hop by a popular artist.
The homo hop movement first emerged in the 1990s as an underground movement, particularly in California, in part as a reaction to the widespread acceptance of homophobia in the lyrics of mainstream hip hop performers such as Eminem. Lyrics in songs such as "Criminal" on The Marshal Mathers LP demonstrate this homophobia. Initially coined by Tim'm T. West of Deep Dickollective, the term "homo hop" was not meant to signify a distinct genre of music, but simply to serve as a community building tool and promotional hook for LGBT artists. According to West:
It reflected an effort to give credence to a subgenre of hip hop that the mainstream was ignoring. It's not a different kind of hip hop, but places identity at the center of production, which is a blessing and curse. I'm a hip hop artist, ultimately, who happens to be queer. Homo Hop, as a mobilizing medium for queer artists, did, in fact, serve a purpose, initially.
West's bandmate Juba Kalamka offered a similar assessment:
Should there be a separate term for female emcees like femcee? Or ones like gangsta? Crunk? Trap music? Snap? Africentrist? Conscious? Whatever. In many cases the terms get created or reappropriated by people because they need something to make them stand out, or to validate their cultural or social space. 'Homohop,' like any other subcultural subgenre designation, gave and still gives a listener or fan something to grab onto. The first person I heard say 'homohop' was my former bandmate Tim'm West in the context of an interview in 2001...and even then it was a big joke, totally tongue-in-cheek. If you called it 'Fruit Rollup,' people would be saying that now.
In a 2001 interview with SFGate.com, West elaborated on the movement's goals:
Ideally, queer hip-hop can create changes. It can be the critical check for all the negative aspects that have come out of the culture in the last few years. You won't be able to assume there isn't a faggot in the room; you won't be able to assume there isn't a feminist in the room. Hip-hop will be different because we decided to participate in it openly and with honor.
The genre received a mainstream publicity boost in 2002 and 2003 when Caushun was widely reported as the first openly LGBT rapper to be signed to a major label, although Caushun was later revealed to have been a publicity stunt engineered by heterosexual musician Ivan Matias.
Notable events in the 2000s included the PeaceOUT World Homo Hop Festival, which was founded in 2001 and mounted annually until 2008, and the 2006 documentary film Pick Up the Mic. However, some music critics in this era dismissed the genre as too often sacrificing musical quality in favour of a "didactic" political agenda.
The most commercially successful LGBTQ rapper in the 2000s was Cazwell, who emerged as a popular artist in gay dance clubs, and has scored at least six top 40 hits on Billboard's Hot Dance Club Songs chart, with a hybrid pop-rap style which he has described as "if Biggie Smalls ate Donna Summer for breakfast". Cazwell described his philosophy of music as "create your own space, your own music and have people come to you," and has noted in interviews that he achieved much greater success by "breaking" the rules of the hip hop industry than he ever did in his earlier attempts to pursue mainstream success with the 1990s hip hop duo Morplay.
One of the first mainstream artists to speak out publicly against anti-gay discrimination in hip hop was Kanye West in a 2004 interview with Sway Calloway on MTV News. In the interview Kanye says, "Hip-hop does discriminate against gay people. I want to just come on TV and tell my rappers, my friends, just stop it, fam. Seriously, that's really discrimination". Kanye criticized the hip-hop community, saying, "Hip-hop seemed like it was about fighting for your rights in the beginning, about speaking your mind, and breaking down barriers or whatever, but everybody in hip-hop discriminates against gay people. To me, that's one of the standards in hip-hop is to be like, 'You fag, you gay'".
Later negative representations
In Byron Hurt's 2006 documentary Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, Hurt explores the nuanced relationships between hip-hop, masculinity, misogyny, and homophobia. Recognizing the presence of these issues in hip-hop, a genre he loves, Hurt felt a sense of hypocrisy and began working on the film. In the documentary Hurt travels around the country and interviews rap and hip hop artists, academics, and fans about their perceptions on these issues in the culture. After conducting dozens of interviews, Hurt sees a continued pattern of homophobia linked to the need to prove one's masculinity.
Through the objectification of women and domination of other men to assert another person’s masculinity, a pattern of homophobia occurs in the hip hop and rap community. Rapper Busta Rhymes walks out of his interview when he is asked a question about homophobia in the rap community. Rhymes says, "I can't partake in that conversation," followed by, "With all due respect, I ain't trying to offend nobody. . . What I represent culturally doesn't condone [homosexuality] whatsoever." This reaction from Rhymes exemplifies part of the negative perception of homosexuality in the hip-hop community.
Ice-T stated on his autobiography that record-label executive Seymour Stein took exception to a line in his song "409": "Guys grab a girl, girls grab a guy / If a guy wants a guy, please take it outside". Ice-T later became one of the first rappers to condemn homophobia on raps such as Straight Up Nigga and The Tower in his album O.G. Original Gangster (1991).
Many songs by rapper Eminem have been considered homophobic for his frequent use of anti-gay slurs, especially the song "Criminal" from his third album The Marshall Mathers LP (2000), which containing lines like: "My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge, That'll stab you in the head, whether you're a fag or les', Or a homosex, hermaph or a trans-a-vest, Pants or dress, hate fags? The answer's 'yes'". In an interview with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes, Eminem denied being homophobic and explained the frequent use of the term "faggot" in his lyrics, that this word was "thrown around constantly" in battle rap, and that he does not use it to refer to gay people.
The album The Marshall Mathers LP was nominated for Album of the Year by the Grammy Awards 2001, which led to protests due to the album's controversial content. At the show, Eminem performed "Stan" with openly gay musician Elton John in response. Eminem experienced more backlash in 2018, after he released his surprise album Kamikaze. On December 11, 2017, rapper Tyler, The Creator tweeted “dear god this song is horrible sheesh how the fuck”, which fans quickly realised was directed at Eminem’s new single at the time, “Walk On Water”. On the track “Fall” from Kamikaze, Eminem responded to Tyler, The Creator’s criticisms, where he raps “Tyler create nothin’, I see why you call yourself a faggot, bitch / It’s not because you lack attention, it’s because you worship D12’s balls, you’re sacreligeous”.
This is most likely in relation to Tyler’s sexuality being a major spectacle within his fanbase, with a lot of his lyrics hinting at homosexuality. Before the album was released, however, the slur was censored. Eminem joined Sway Calloway in a series of interviews after Kamikaze’s release, where he explained that he regretted using the slur against Tyler. “In my quest to hurt him, I realised that I was hurting a lot of other people by saying it. At the time, I was so mad, it was just whatever...”, “...it was one of the things I kept going back to, going ‘I don’t feel right with this.’” Justin Vernon, who provided the chorus for “Fall”, publicly condemned Eminem’s language on the song, tweeting “Was not in the studio for the Eminem track... came from a session with BJ Burton and Mike Will. Not a fan of the message, it’s tired. Asked them to change the track, wouldn’t do it...”.
In 2020, Eminem released his album Music To Be Murdered By, in which he collaborated on a song with New York rapper Young M.A. In 2010, while being interviewed by Anderson Cooper for 60 Minutes, Eminem was challenged about his homophobic lyrics, to which he said: “The scene that I came up in, that word was thrown around so much. You know? ‘Faggot’, it was thrown around constantly to each other, like, in battling.” When Anderson Cooper asked Eminem if he ‘didn’t like gay people’, Eminem replied: “I don’t have any problem with nobody [sic].”
In the lyrics of one song on rapper Trick-Trick's 2008 album The Villain, he refers to Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O'Donnell as "dyke bitches" and says that he will send a "scud missile right through their fucking cruise ship". Trick-Trick expressed his dislike towards homosexuals in an interview with music site AllHipHop: “Faggots hate me and I don’t give a fuck. I don’t want your faggot money any goddam way.”
The phrase "No Homo" is often used in today's hip hop lyrics and Black culture. It means "no gay things" or "nothing gay". One example of the term's usage is in the Jay-Z song, "Run This Town". Kanye West, one of the featured artists on the song, stated, "It's crazy how you can go from being Joe Blow / to everybody on your dick...no homo."
By the early 2010s, a new wave of openly LGBT hip hop musicians began to emerge, spurred in part by the increased visibility and social acceptance of LGBT people, the coming out of mainstream hip hop stars such as Azealia Banks and Frank Ocean, and the release of LGBT-positive songs by heterosexual artists such as Murs, Macklemore, and Ryan Lewis.
Although inspired and empowered by the homo hop movement, this newer generation of artists garnered more mainstream media coverage and were able to make greater use of social media tools to build their audience, and thus did not need to rely on the old homo hop model of community building. Many of these artists were also strongly influenced by the LGBT African American ball culture, an influence not widely seen in the first wave of homo hop, and many began as performance art projects and incorporated the use of drag. Accordingly, many of the newer artists were identified in media coverage with the newer "queer hip hop" label instead of "homo hop".
In 2008, Jipsta released the single "Middle of the Dancefloor" which spent a total of 14 weeks (peaking at #6 for two consecutive weeks) on the Billboard Dance Club Play chart. This achievement was noteworthy for LGBT hip-hop as it marked the first time an openly gay white rapper earned a Top 10 single on the Billboard Club Play chart. The following year, Jipsta released a cover of the George Michael song "I Want Your Sex", which rose to the #4 position on the Billboard Dance Club Play chart in only 4 weeks time, resulting in the first Top 5 Billboard charting record by an LGBT hip-hop artist.
In March 2012, Carrie Battan of Pitchfork profiled Mykki Blanco, Le1f, Zebra Katz and House of Ladosha in an article titled "We Invented Swag: NYC Queer Rap" about "a group of NYC artists [who] are breaking down ideas of hip-hop identity".
In March 2014 the online magazine Norient.com published a first overview of queer hip hop videos worldwide. The article talks about topics, aesthetics and challenges of LGBT hip hop in Angola, Argentina, Cuba, Germany, Israel, Serbia, South Africa and the USA."
Increasingly, focus on the development of Queer voices in the international hip-hop community has gained more precedent with articles published looking at how Queer rappers use the art-form as a type of therapy. A Winter 2016 article from Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education looked at how utilizing the art-form helped challenge traditional notions of hip hop and sexual identity.
In December 2016, Los Angeles-based rapper Thed Jewel, who raps "My skin is black, sexuality is Fuchsia" said: "There are a lot of rappers that are homosexuals and their day to be open with it will come one way or another".
In August 2018, openly gay member of Brockhampton, Kevin Abstract voiced his efforts to change hip hop's issue with homophobia in an interview with the BBC by stating: "I have to exist in a homophobic space in order to make change and that homophobic space would be the hip hop community. So me just existing and being myself is making change and making things easier for other young queer kids".
In June 2019 Lil Nas X, who performed the hit song "Old Town Road", took the opportunity to publicly come out during Pride Month, making him one of the most visible Black queer male singers to do so, especially in country or hip hop genres, which emphasize machismo and "historically snubbed queer artists". Black queer male artists in hip hop gaining mainstream acceptance is relatively new—preceding Nas X by less than a decade—including: Frank Ocean’s 2012 Channel Orange, Tyler, the Creator, ILoveMakonnen, Brockhampton frontman Kevin Abstract and Steve Lacy. Black queer female artists have been accepted more readily; while the underground queer hip hop movement goes back to the 1990s.
Some artists, however, have criticized the genre as an arbitrary label that can potentially limit the artist's audience and may not actually correspond to their artistic goals or career aspirations. In 2013, Brooke Candy told The Guardian:
What is so bothersome to me, with these emerging gay rappers, is that they've created a new genre called 'queer hip-hop'. Why the fuck is there a new genre for the same-sounding music? Half of the people rapping up there are gay and people don't even know it.
One unspecified artist declined to be interviewed for the Guardian feature at all, stating that he preferred to be known as a rapper rather than as a "gay rapper". Eric Shorey, author of “Queer Rap is Not Queer Rap,” contests “queer rap” labeling, arguing that “comparisons between gay and straight rap (as if they were two distinct genres) simply doesn’t make sense without implied bigotry”. As Shorey writes, this subversive genre is steeped in racism and homophobia in and of itself, and merely serves to further marginalize the identities and narratives it allegedly gives a voice to.
Though Western society has a predisposition to impose socially construed labels and binaries, Shorey dismisses the notion of heteronormative categorical identification, insisting that listeners ignore these sexuality-based hip hop classifications and listen more closely to the quality of music being produced. He also suggests that queer artists should be booked alongside straight artists, showing that they are equally talented, and deserve the same amount of recognition.
Despite criticism, others have been more circumspect about the dichotomy. British rapper RoxXxan told the Guardian that "I want to be perceived as 'RoxXxan,' but if people label me as 'gay rapper RoxXxan' I'm not offended." Nicky Da B told Austinist that "Basically, I perform for a LGBT crowd but also for everyone. A lot of the bounce rappers that are rapping and touring at the moment are all gay. The LGBT community just capitalizes on that I guess, from us being gay, and they support us on it, so that's how it goes I guess."
Another criticism arises from the perceived commercialization of LGBTQ representation by hip hop artists. A good example of this is with Nicki Minaj and her approach to presenting sexuality and sexual orientation. She often presents queerness in her music videos and lyrics. A notable moment was during her Vladtv interview where Nicki was asked how a man should approach her. She deflects and diverts to her love for women, saying "I like girls to approach me". At the same time Nicki has never explicitly confirmed queerness and has only publicly been associated with male significant others, lending her sexual orientation further ambiguity. This approach has been analyzed by critics of Nicki as strategic queerness and is often rejected by queer advocates as a performance, and is controversial because it may appear to be appropriative for commercial gain.
- 070 Shake
- Abdu Ali
- Angel Haze
- Anye Elite
- Azealia Banks
- Bali Baby
- Big Dipper
- Big Freedia
- Big Momma
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- Cakes da Killa
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- Young M.A.
- Yves Tumor
- Zebra Katz
- African-American culture and sexual orientation
- Homophobia in ethnic minority communities
- Misogyny in rap music
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