Words by LT Williams
Since the beginning of 2016, we’ve witnessed the loss of two rock legends that challenged and changed society’s narrow definition of masculinity. David Bowie and Prince didn’t just walk the fine line of sexuality, they strutted all over it in high-heeled shoes and championed gender-fluid alter egos, both on and off the stage. Their artistic influence has rippled through popular music for decades, touching rock, dance, R&B and hip-hop. Hip-Hop, the youngest of these genres, has always tussled with homosexuality and what it’s viewed as the standard of masculinity.
At its core, hip-hop is the voice of those most marginalized. A mouthpiece for the unseen, unheard and least powerful. It’s only natural that it has continued to serve as the megaphone for the overlooked communities of present day. Luckily, as the country’s social mores become more accepting of the LGBTQIA community and their rights, hip-hop itself has seen a rise in advocates for the LGBT+ community. We’ve also witnessed artists push the envelope as far as what hip-hop has to look and sound like in order to be deemed reputable.
Two weeks ago, Kid Cudi’s tweets immediately following the tragedy in Orlando showed solidarity for the victims and Americans who identify as LGBT+. Cudi also wasted no time calling out hip-hop for its staunch homophobia and lack of support.
My heart and prayers go out to the LGBT community and everyone affected by this tragedy. Really upset today.— The Chosen One (@KidCudi) June 12, 2016
I wish there was more I could do than tweet, build awareness and donate money. Thats not enough. Not for me.— The Chosen One (@KidCudi) June 12, 2016
The Hip Hop community is the least outspoken about gay rights and Ima go out my way to change that.— The Chosen One (@KidCudi) June 12, 2016
Cudi was applauded for his bold statements, which may not have happened a decade ago.
Kanye West, who has evolved to become just as synonymous with fashion as he is with music, made similar statements earlier on in his career and was immediately tagged “gay” for his stance. Similarly, Cam’Ron was pushed to start consistently dodging gay speculations with an obnoxious “no homo!” after sporting pink throwback jerseys and fur coats, even though hip-hop had not always been threaded in urban wear. The flamboyance of disco and R&B groups of the 1970s heavily birthed the look and sound of hip-hop’s early period. Even a touch of the glam-rock R&B era rubbed on break dancers and rap posse looks. It wasn’t until the Golden Era – around 1987-89 – that a stricter code on hip-hop aesthetics emerged.
The hardcore aesthetic of hip-hop was intensified with the popularization of gangsta rap in the 1990s. Everything from one’s gait, to dress and vocabulary was carefully mined to present an archetype of black heterosexual manhood, virtually vacant of any emotion that wasn’t fueled by aggression. These standards were firmly paved in the culture throughout the East Coast/West Coast beef and further sealed with the emergence of artists like DMX and 50 Cent. These standards are mostly a reflection of the homophobia within the black community and are a product, even more-so, of the hyper-masculinity perpetrated amongst black men.
The fear of emasculation stunts black men emotionally and mentally, which in turn begets a sense of hatred and even violence toward anything prompting that fear. That brings us to the present climate of hip-hop, where we not only have artists speaking out against homophobia, but breaking rules and barriers of black manhood, as a whole.
A recent stream of fresh voices has gone against the grain defying these heteronormative traits. Artists such as Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan twist gender roles by sporting women’s attire and pronouncing their love for one another in ways many, in the black community, have never witnessed. New York’s own A$AP Rocky embraces his “Pretty Flacko” moniker, recently becoming a fashion icon for labels from Dior to Calvin Klein.
Hip-hop and film legend Will Smith’s son, Jaden, embodies a sense of security in his manhood that allows him to be the face of Prada’s female line. Blood brothers of southern duo Rae Sremmurd don a carefree blackness that they recently displayed on the cover of Fader magazine. Shirtless, they leaned intimately against each other never compromising their masculinity.
We’ve also seen an emergence of LGBT+ artists bubbling to the surface from the black gay subculture. On the wings of gay culture being normalized, acts like Big Freedia have entered mainstream. Beyoncé’s “Formation,” which is just as hip-hop as it is pop, shines a light on these creators. Detroit’s Angel Haze has received praise, as well as Dej Loaf…who may…or may not dabble in bisexuality. On the outer fringes of rap, artists like Le1f and Cakes prove they aren’t just gay rappers, but rappers who happen to be gay.
No one else has quite challenged the status quo more than Frank Ocean. Not a rapper per say, the Alt&B savant with the pen of gold admitted to being bisexual early in his career. His songs touched on love for both men and women and he even fearlessly dated another man. He was not only a black pop star, but an associate of an emerging hip-hop conglomerate headed by Tyler the Creator, a force of carefree blackness in its own right. Even VH1’s Love & Hip-Hop called itself addressing the issue with a torrid storyline of DL men, messy queens and the women who love them. However absurd it’s a break in the mold set years ago.
This increase of advocates and allies can directly aid the queer community, especially when LGBT+ youth of color suffer the most within society. Black and Latino youth who identify within the LGBT+ community are at higher risks of homelessness, domestic abuse and, sadly, HIV/AIDS infection. The hate that permeates against these individuals–usually from within their own homes–can only be combatted with the teaching and preaching of tolerance and eventually acceptance. It has a long way to go, but hip-hop, now in its mid-30s, is finally maturing in the right direction.