The ample praise bestowed upon the likes of Young Thug, Jaden Smith, and other Black male entertainers for their often notably gender fluid style is both deserved and occasionally overblown. The latter has very little to do with them, however. As celebratory as it is to see famous Black men rise above the hypermasculinity often forced upon each of us, it is technically nothing particularly new but nonetheless unnoted.
If you take a gander over at images of artists like The Isley Brothers decades ago, you will see that how some of the members dressed then could easily be described as gender fluid, gender queer, androgynous, and any other term that would denote someone not giving a fuck about whatever rigid gender norms suggests how they should dress. The same goes for the likes of disco artist Sylvester, and of course, the legendary Prince, whose unapologetic aesthetic forever changed the way the world viewed Black men. While in some respects, it’s right to describe these men as “ahead of their time,” it’s important to add that these Black men existed in a time that was more favorable to their styles.
What makes acts like Young Thug seem new to many is that for at least nearly three decades now, a singular version of Black masculinity was largely populated to the masses via a very specific strain of hip hop being the dominant force in popular culture. Now, there are men who have grown up within that culture pushing back on that. What separates Young Thug from both his contemporaries and predecessors, though, is that he is now not only defining what it means to be a Black man on his own terms, but ignoring the concept of gender altogether.
That is a much more powerful statement to make, and given his current stature, a sizable contribution to the culture.
As he explains in a video for Calvin Klein’s Fall 2016 campaign, “In my world, you can be a gangsta with a dress or you can be a gangsta with baggy pants. I feel like there’s no such thing as gender.”
For some artists, style is often a tool of provocation. A man putting on a dress will certainly garner attention—especially if he is Black and especially if he is a rapper. However, whatever folks may find of Young Thug’s intentions, his words in this ad matter more than any dress he’s ever donned.
This is a Black man with the moniker Young Thug saying that he does not believe in gender. For many children and young adults who now have the space to feel somewhat freer in expressing their frustrations with societal norms that don’t speak to them, they now have someone like a straight rapper named Young Thug publicly lending credence to their argument.
It is unprecedented and its importance should not be downplayed.
Moreover, Young Thug is indirectly proving that despite all cries to the contrary, hip hop, much like the society it only serves as a mirror towards, is maturing. Many of the criticisms about homophobia and misogyny in hip hop remind me of similar critics within the Black community itself. They often feel unfair because they are never properly contextualized. That is to say, when young, suburban white men began consume around 80% of hip-hop music in 1991, we were collectively bombarded with one version of what a Black man looked like. A version that would lead to less The Isley Brothers and Prince, and more, baggy pants, fitted caps, and the horribly named “wife beaters.” Likewise, much of the homophobia and women-bashing lyrics found in rap were no less present in other forms of music or any facet of mass media altogether.
In recent years, we have seen rappers speak out against homophobia and in favor of marriage equality. We have born witness to young Black men wearing their crop tops, dresses, and other articles of clothing deemed “feminine” as some of their pop-pops and uncles used to decades ago. These days, Black men are ever increasingly being given the space to perform in something other than the uniform of a perverse version of masculinity.
And in this week, again, there is a rapper named Young Thug disavowing the term “gender.” The culture is not perfect, but nonetheless, more progressive than its been in years past. More needs to be done, but we should rightfully acknowledge what has happened and what is happening.
I’m elated to hear that Young Thug thinks he can be a gangsta in a dress. He can be whatever the hell he wants to be no matter what he’s wearing. And when any Black man believes that, we’re all better for it.