Eleven years ago, a fresh-faced Kanye West sat with MTV News’ Sway Calloway to talk about a topic that rarely graced the mainstream airwaves: hip-hop’s homophobia. Beginning with his own experience, he reflected on how the pressures to conform to standards of masculinity poisoned his perspective towards gay people. “If you see something and you don’t want to be that because there’s such a negative connotation towards it, you try to separate yourself from it so much that it made me homophobic,” he said.
Kanye himself was no stranger to stereotyping. At the onset of his career, Kanye’s pink Polos raised questions about his sexuality, as did wearing a kilt in 2011 and working closely with designers like Riccardo Tisci. West used the interview with Sway to discuss how his cousin being gay helped him realize that selective discrimination belies the point of being discriminatory in the first place. After all, how can you hate all gays and make exceptions for some?
That shift in perspective led him to criticize the community at large. “Hip-hop seemed like it was about fighting for your rights in the beginning, about speaking your mind, and breaking down barriers or whatever,” he continued. “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.’"
As a matter of fact, he said, “the exact opposite word of hip-hop is gay. Like yo, you play a record and it’s wack? That’s gay, dog. If it’s good? That’s that hip-hop shit right there! It’s the exact opposite. So me speaking for my entire culture, me looking at my rappers out there, 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. To me, that’s what they used to do to black people. I’m trying to tell people to just stop all that,” he concluded.
It was a moment of bold self-awareness and bigger-picture perspective. So it’s ironic that years later, in Oct. 2015, Kanye told SHOWstudio in a video interview that he felt discriminated against in the fashion community because he wasn’t gay. Perhaps Kanye has learned something over the years: By suggesting that the LGBTQ community was shunning him based on his sexuality gives that community the power of authority, something that the LGBTQ community has never had in hip-hop. After all, bullies gain the upper hand by targeting the weaknesses of their enemies, and hip-hop, broadly speaking, has long viewed the members of the LGBTQ community as being inherently weak.
So how much has hip-hop’s homophobia’s changed since Kanye poured his heart out to Sway? Not much. The silence from the mainstream hip-hop community about anything remotely related to events that affect the LGBTQ community—be it mass shootings that target safe spaces or the passing of gay marriage, which went largely unremarked upon by rappers last year—is deafening. In the wake of the tragic events at Pulse nightclub that resulted in 49 innocent LGBTQ deaths during the club’s Latin night, actors and singers encouraged unity and an end to gun violence, the LGBTQ community joined in vigil with straight allies, many politicians offered their meaningless “thoughts and prayers” in contradiction to their prior calls for anti-LGBTQ legislation. The world spoke out from all corners—except hip-hop. Of course, offering or not offering condolences is a personal choice that doesn't necessarily offer a complete view of a person's feelings. But as the LGBTQ community knows all too well, visibility and power go hand-in-hand.
Kid Cudi, who in the past has openly discussed kissing a man for a film he appeared in (the scene was eventually removed from the final cut), was the most outspoken member of the hip-hop community, and one of the few to even acknowledge the shooting, let alone hip-hop’s issues with queer people. In a series of tweets, he swiftly became the most vocal mainstream rapper since West’s 2005 statements to expose hip-hop’s ever-present problems with the LGBTQ community.
“My heart and prayers go out to the LGBT community and everyone affected by this tragedy. Really upset today,” he wrote. “I wish there was more I could do than tweet, build awareness and donate money. That’s not enough. Not for me.” His ferocity intensified. “IF YOU ARE AN INSECURE HOMOPHOBE AND HAVE A ISSUE WITH GAYS AND EQUALITY, UNFOLLOW ME NOW. THANK YOU. The Hip Hop community is the least outspoken about gay rights and Ima go out my way to change that.”
It was a bold step compared to most of his peers. Jay Z, Nas, Eminem, Jadakiss, Nicki Minaj, Future, Tyler, The Creator, Chance the Rapper, Jeezy, J. Cole, Wiz Khalifa, and Earl Sweatshirt are just some of the rappers who have not only used the word “fag,” or “faggot,” in their lyrics, but have also chosen to not publicly address the massacre. Nicki Minaj, who once had a gay alter ego named Roman Zolanski and claimed to be bisexual early on in her career, went so far as to apparently unfollow one user on Twitter for suggesting that she mention the attack instead of promote her new single. (Admittedly, Minaj did not weigh in on the Paris or Sandy Hook attacks, either.)
Of course, the use of epithets in lyrics has diminished in recent years, and to conflate the use of them with actual hatred is a stretch. But silence still speaks volumes. Kanye said nothing. Neither did Wale or A$AP Rocky, who just last year said that "none of that stuff matters" and "I don't think it's cool to discriminate against anybody for their color, their sexual preference, or ethnic background." Drake? Nothing. 50 Cent, who in 2007 proudly defended his use of the word “faggot” and likened it to using the "N" word as a term of endearment (a boldly unjustifiable comparison), kept quiet too. Miami resident Rick Ross, who called 50 a “fag” in 2009, had nothing to offer about the shooting in his home state. Busta Rhymes, who berated a young gay fan at a diner in South Beach in 2013 and reportedly said “I fucking hate faggots,” kept his Twitter fingers silent.
Then came the rappers who have used “fag,” “faggot,” “no homo,” and “pause” in their lyrics at some point, but spoke out against the shooting regardless—without mentioning that the Pulse attack targeted the LGBTQ community. Lil Wayne tweeted, “Prayers for Orlando!” Styles P, who once released a song called “Kill That Faggot,” tweeted, “GOD bless all these folks in Orlando.” Common added, “We must continue to develop love, understanding and respect for each other. #Orlando”—a notable message from someone whose discography is littered with the word “faggot.” T.I. echoed the same sentiment: “Love conquers ALL!!!! If u can't Love it... Just Leave it alone!!!! #PrayForOrlando.” He didn’t seem to think so when letting “faggot” fall from his mouth numerous times on record.
As for the rappers who have used slurs but chose to explicitly mention that this was an attack on LGBTQ persons, the list is shorter: Lil’ Kim, Pharrell Williams, and The Game are of the few commendable, simply for their acknowledgement of the targeted group of victims. On a higher pedestal: 2 Chainz, Missy Elliott, and Vic Mensa, who had something to say about Orlando and never used homophobic slurs on wax. Elsewhere, Macklemore, the self-appointed king of allies, dedicated “Same Love” to the victims in Orlando.
If the aforementioned list of rappers reads tedious and long, that’s because it is. It’s not that hip-hop is homophobic like it overtly once was. Today, hip-hop’s problem with gay people lies within a more slippery conundrum: that you can choose what preexisting words mean and diminish the historical weight they hold. Or, more troublingly, pretend that the LGBTQ community doesn’t even exist.
Rappers are evaluated based on the words they use, how they use them and how they deliver them. It’s part of the competitive nature of rap music, to outdo a peer by spinning the subject at hand into a flex of lexicon. To pioneer a flow is to etch your name in the history books. To introduce new slang and have it catch on is an even greater milestone. To cross over to the pop mainstream, where rap music took years to find its foothold, is one of the greatest honors.
While hip-hop has undoubtedly grown as a culture—business has gotten smarter, gender isn't quite so restricted by constructs, genre lines have softened—what’s perplexing is that its attitudes towards LGBTQ folks, in many ways, haven’t. In the past, there were more pointed verbal asides that attacked queer people—Brand Nubian, Goodie Mob, and A Tribe Called Quest all included rhymes about hating gay people or wanting to kill them—and today, the language is much more toned down. "Faggot," in hip-hop, meant lesser, a more feminine man, stripped of his masculine identity. It's still an insult. That Tyler, The Creator and Azealia Banks, or even Lil B use the words “faggot” or “dyke” in an attempt to redefine them—to extricate the words from what they represent—perpetuates an ignorance perspective. It misunderstands context and history. J. Cole, for example, justifying his use of the line, “My verbal AKs slay faggots,” is an embarrassment. Just in 2013, we were still cataloging hip-hop’s negative attitude towards the LGBTQ community. It’s hard to say that we’ve made vast improvements.
Imagine loving a culture that treats you like you’re invisible. That’s what it’s like for LGBTQ youth who look up to these figures—they never feel included. Or for the more mature sect, that has a deep appreciation for its history, and still doesn’t feel welcome. Or, the rap fan that feels like he or she can’t come out, and suffers a deep loneliness, and only finds solace in rap music, which in turn is just another place to be ostracized.
Hip-hop was established to bring people together; inclusion was part of its foundation. And yet rap music is still dominated by straight men. If you aren't one, you're considered a minority. Nicki Minaj is the only rapper who happens to be a woman consistently scaling the top of the charts. LGBTQ rappers Mykki Blanco, Le1f, and Cakes da Killa are all making some of the most progressive hip-hop today—on the outskirts. There is still debate about whether hip-hop will ever accept a gay rapper. In 2016.
If all we see are rappers ascribing to an outdated masculinity that requires the use of “no homo” or “pause” after saying anything remotely sus, or enables them to sling slang with disregard for who it might affect, then clearly hip-hop is still afraid of its own shadow. And it isn't just hip-hop: it's an issue that affects every LGBTQ person, every day, that straight America clings to an archaic mindset that enables them to hate without sound reason. We see it in politics, sports, even from the institutions intended to make LGBTQ people feel safe.
Celebrities don’t have to speak out on every major event that happens in the world, and this isn’t about shaming. Never mind that Rihanna and Taylor Swift didn’t say anything about the violence inflicted on the patrons at Pulse (until, of course, they were publicly taken to task)—they at least frequently acknowledge their gay fan bases (even if they’re arguably exploiting them). For hip-hop, it’s about confronting the embedded insecurities that are instilled by the culture around you, and absolving them by making just the slightest effort to make the excluded feel otherwise.
“Silence = Death” is a common motto among the LGBTQ community; it was initially tied to the AIDS epidemic. It meant that the more you ignore something, the more that thing will suffer, and yield anger and pain, unless it speaks out. At the least, thoughts and prayers offer nothing. LGBTQ people need visibility and action, allyship and support, from those in places of power and influence where the LGBTQ community doesn’t hold a minority stake—like in the general population. Hip-hop is slow to recognize that, and its greatest figures' silence communicates that they either don't care, or that they don't want their sexuality questioned. An embodiment of masculinity so fragile.
Kanye West borrowed from Kid Cudi to help chisel his style during his mid-career stride, so it's only fitting that Cudi was the one who vehemently echoed West's comments about hip-hop's issues with homophobia last week. I reached out to Cudi's publicist for an interview shortly after the shooting at Pulse, to elaborate on his ideas and see what change he envisioned procuring. I wasn't the only one who reached out, but Cudi is turning down all interviews as of now. I can't wait to see what he plans to do.