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WPGM Commentary: Who Do You Love? Sexuality And Prejudice In Hip Hop

I’ve been a fan of Hip-Hop since I can remember and I loved the escapism it provided. Who doesn’t enjoy listening about how the other half lives? For a young boy growing up, the tales of money, ladies and fast cars were enough to keep me wide-eyed and engrossed. It built a foundation of what ‘success’ could be and what you could achieve with that success.

As I grew up, the wild story telling still appealed to me but there was something lacking, there was a void inside that it failed to reach. I started to look for more conscious, emotional based story telling within Rap and R&B, and like most, I discovered Drake, The Weeknd, Kendrick Lamar and artists of that caliber. The more and more I became engrossed in the world and culture of Hip-Hop, the more I started to see how one-sided it is and if anything, how exclusive it really was.

From certain artists saying it’s not a ‘White’ person’s genre to derogatory terms for women and sexuality, it became hard to distinguish the fact from fiction. Some of it became a real turn off and I got bored with a lot of the bravado. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a mindless banger and I can appreciate bars on bars, alongside smooth silky singing about ‘all’a dem swallow’ A la The Weeknd.

The idea of being gay in hip-hop/R&B is alien, it isn’t a ‘thing’ and that bothers me. I’ve always known this genre in particular isn’t necessarily welcoming of ‘colourful’ individuals and after the tragedy in Orlando, it only reaffirmed the large fault-line that separates it. Very few artists from the hip-hop community responded to the cruel actions, there was no offering of condolences or support, only a deafening silence. Kid Cudi highlighted that, with Ty Dolla $ign agreeing.

Despite two prominent figures in the current scene speaking out, no others followed suit and it simmered down. This drove me to write about this issue once and for all. Hip-Hop’s relationship with homosexuality (or sexuality in general) is a rocky one. Never has there been a prominent, successful gay figure in Hip-Hop.

Any rumours of sexuality are shot down with disgust. It’s because of these reasons and more, that I want to bring it to light. I may not be the best person for it and my opinions may get washed aside because my voice doesn’t matter, but this issue matters. People matter and music is about bringing people together. I am going to explore why hip-hop is still in the dark ages.

Women, Drugs & Money

You know how it goes, listen to any of your favourite rappers or R&B singers and see how many times they mention women, drugs, and money. It’s commonplace and that’s perfectly ok but where is the diversity? In this big wide world we live in, there are many people, all embracing different sexual preferences. Hip-Hop is one of the biggest genres in the world, so where is the acceptance of diversity? What isn’t ok, is the fact that Hip-Hop is so against (it seems) and unsupportive of any other lifestyle except one that revolves around a straight man’s carnal desires.

Why is it this way? Where along the way did this musical organism decide what’s right and what’s wrong in the world of hip-hop? If you look back from ‘Pac to the late 90’s ‘White boy’ poster child, Eminem, the lack of gay successful hip-hop artists is alarming. In fact, what’s more alarming is the use and demonisation of words such as ‘faggot’, ‘c*ck sucker’ and much more.

One of the ultimate insults in hip-hop has been taking a shot at a man’s masculinity, which in today’s world is still linked to sexuality. It’s seen as a weakness, and it’s downright wrong. You can say it’s bravado, that it isn’t serious and you can have a dozen Marshall Mathers performing with Elton John to ‘prove’ they aren’t homophobic. Great, real great. However, where is the actual support?

Why is it easier to attack an individual rather than support a community? I’ll tell you why, dogmatism and fear. The world of hip-hop is so set in its ways, it’s fearful of change. There’s also a factor of what’s marketable, I mean, people would much rather hear about the sexualisation of women in a song instead of a man, right? Therein lies the problem, it isn’t acceptable either way but the simple fact it’s a complete ‘no go’ to express affection towards the same-sex is ridiculous.

When is the world of hip-hop going to expand out of its small bubble, a bubble that’s surely going to burst one day. The world has shifted, we live in a progressive era and acceptance is growing (and it’s a shame I even have to write that). Right now, in hip-hop and outside the confines of music, Black empowerment is taking charge, and rightfully so. However, where is the empowerment of sexuality?

Where is the gay, bisexual, transgender version of Kendrick Lamar or Kanye West, why don’t they exist and if they do, why aren’t they speaking out? What about the Kendrick Lamar this world has been given, where is his support in the position of power he has? I’m using him as an example and nothing more, it applies to hip-hop as a whole. The saddening answer is there is no voice, no empowerment for sexuality in hip-hop and that’s a damn shame.

It’s far easier to sell, to peddle and to share about how ‘my homie nearly OD’d’ rather than ‘hey, I like men’ or ‘hey, it’s ok to be who you are’ (they’re very basic examples, obviously). We, as an audience are partially to blame too. If something changes and we don’t know how to handle it, we react, we kick up a storm, humanity isn’t always accepting and sometimes, just sometimes we’d rather stick to listening to our favourites spit bars about models, Adderall and the new Maybach they’ve bought.

Moreover, all these questions and thoughts lead to another rabbit hole, is it bigger than the artists? is it industry led too? You’d think a successful rapper or R&B singer coming out, would be a publicist and PR’s heaven…oh wait…isn’t Frank Ocean a great example of acceptance and ‘sexuality’ being marketable? So, record labels, management companies, where’s the support?

However, big business won’t answer that question due to the simple fact that they don’t have to and that’s the world we live in. As long as their artists sell and they make a profit, who cares about expression of ones self? It isn’t their job, it isn’t their cause and most importantly, it’s not their fight. On some levels, that’s respectable and even understandable but at the same time, it’s perplexing and dare I say, frustrating.

Image Matters!

Lets dive deeper, why does sexuality matter and why are artists concerned? Well, an image of someone in the spotlight is important, anyone in marketing will tell you that. If they don’t sell, they’re just no good. Plenty of rappers, singers, producers come from communities that aren’t necessarily accepting of any behaviour considered out of ‘the norm’, whether that’s due to religion or some misconstrued idea of what a man or woman should and shouldn’t be, thanks to society and culture.

I can appreciate wholeheartedly that ‘coming out’ for everyday people, let alone artists is difficult, even vocally supporting a movement can be both threatening and terrifying. Their career, their family, their lives are on the line and as we all know, the fall from grace is hard. It’s even harder when they probably don’t have a support network, or if they do, there’s always someone willing to stab them in the back to climb the ladder of stardom.

I come back to Frank Ocean, and the community’s acceptance of him. Was there an uproar? No. Was there support? Yes. Was there confusion and anger? There was. Despite all the reactions, did it impact his career? Yes and no. Firstly, talent should outweigh who you are (in my opinion, within reason, although some don’t subscribe to that) and secondly, some would argue his ‘coming out’ boosted his career.

I’m sure Channel Orange would’ve been just as successful regardless of his sexuality. People might claim otherwise and they have every right to. However, it’s hard to refute that he’s a success story. What I’ve been surprised by since then, is the lack of people with notoriety ‘coming out’ or supporting the LGBT community, in fact, it’s been fairly quiet. The only red herring or question mark, has been Young Thug with his questionable and provocative lyricism coupled with his feminine, quirky dress sense. That’s it.

Throughout the years, people have speculated because that’s what people do. One of the oldest theories is that Birdman (the one not featuring Michael Keaton) and Lil Wayne are, as gossip sites like to say ‘Gay lovers’ *gasp*. Another theory is supposedly about Kanye West, and how he leads a double life. More recently, there’s been speculation about A$AP Rocky, LL Cool J, The Weeknd and even Drake in the past.

It all gets a bit vile and morally grey in the end though, these are human beings, these are people. While I’m saying there’s a lack of support and a lack of identifiable role models in the public eye to associate with, I’m not saying it’s their duty to share such personal information, more if that’s what they want to do, then do it.

On the surface it may sound like I’m making it seem a lot easier than it actually is, believe me, I understand. It’s much, much more complex than that. Everyone has a right to privacy too. What I’m saying is nothing will change unless the ones with the power, the platform don’t overcome whatever prejudices they face.

Sexuality or Success?

If I bring it back to a previous point, about ‘out’ artists within the genre and the lack of them, there are those who are out but aren’t really in a position of success compared to most who have a impactful voice. Two artists I can think of, are Le1f and Mykki Blanco. Both are brash and fearless about their sexuality (as it should be), incorporating its nature in their music.

They’re both transparent with themselves and their listeners and guess what? They’re both talented. While I personally don’t listen to too much Blanco, Le1f’s debut album was great, albeit inconsistent in the latter half. If the problem isn’t the question of talent or how good their musical output is, then what is it? It’s the level of exposure.

They’re both underground artists to a degree and there’s a lack of publicity compared to other talent. Le1f arguably has the potential to go far within the industry, he has an ear for sound. His experimental nature enables his music to be a cataclysmic, vibrant sea of sounds. Despite this, there’s been a deafening silence with label support, promotion and ‘hype’ prior to the release as well as after release.

If you compare it to another rapper who shows any hint of potential or releases a catchy single, publications swarm like Bee’s to honey. Of course, there’s big labels behind some artists and sometimes it’s fairly barebones, even independent. However, if there’s a talented individual, then isn’t it the media’s duty, if you will, to help propel an artist? Critics, journalists have the power to make or break an artist, and some of the most power hungry liken themselves as self-crowned A&Rs.

The fact is, Le1f didn’t get the support or promotion he deserved, and am I saying it’s because of his sexuality? Not necessarily, no. Am I saying it could be a factor? Quite possibly. People can be prejudice without even realising it, it’s in human nature to freeze out people we don’t quite understand. It’s a grey area and it’ll take a lot of conversation to really get to the root of it.

It appears that in hip-hop, there’s a low-ceiling of success for gay artists, if any at all. The previous two artists I mentioned are examples of that, especially Blanco who has been around since 2012. There isn’t going to be room for success in this genre until there’s acknowledgement, acceptance and support. Music is supposed to be inclusive of all people, not just select minorities or those who could be successful.

The scary thing is, I couldn’t tell you when a successful gay artist will appear, and I can’t tell you when the hip-hop artist community will finally click that we’re all humans, who should be equal. That’s a blanket statement, there are obviously those who keep their support or beliefs close to their chest but unfortunately, they have no positive cultural impact there, only negative.

Perhaps sexuality isn’t as easy to ‘market’ for men as it is for women. Bisexuality or lesbianism is considered ‘hot’ and a ‘turn on’ to consumers, and even then, there’s a lack of it within hip-hop. Although, there’s more of an open conversation about it than with the opposite sex.

You look at Pop music, “I Kissed A Girl” was a rip-roaring success, and it had all sorts of people singing the undeniably bombastic chorus. More recently, Demi Lovato’s “Cool for The Summer” explores the nature of ‘fooling’ around and experimenting and it went down a storm. It became last years summer anthem.

However, neither of those songs are in-depth or soul-stirring. In pop, a ‘camp’ nature is expected and people barely bat an eyelid, if a pop star is gay, either a man or woman, well, it’s ‘expected really’. An example of female sexual empowerment in hip-hop would be Azealia Banks’ anthem “212”.

The song is all about a sexual experience with a woman, and Banks confidently states “she wanna lick my plum in the evenin“. Furthermore, Dej Loaf has also played the bisexuality card, and so has R&B singer, Kehlani. The reaction? Minimal, if any at all. It’s generally positive too. There’s no huge discussions nor shock or horror, just acceptance. So when will that be the case for men? And when is that going to be happen?

The more and more I write and think about this subject, the same questions and problems are arising. Men are at an disadvantage with their sexuality in the hip-hop world, and it isn’t any easier when it’s at times, a misogynist genre. It’s hard for one man to break free from the chains that music has created.

Social norms have blurred what’s right and what’s wrong, dictating people’s image and creative content. Of course there are things that are morally acceptable and unacceptable (I shouldn’t have to say them out loud) but sexuality isn’t anything immoral, it’s human nature. Music should reflect human nature in all its forms, the good, the bad and the ugly. Sadly, it’s selective and there’s no doubt that this has an impact on the industry and the fans as a whole.

It Takes Two…

The industry will never truly move forward until it becomes supportive and forward-thinking towards sexuality. It’ll continue to go back and forth and sideways, remaining in a circle of conformity and comfort. Big business are notoriously scared of change, take a look at the reluctance and confusion on dealing with illegal downloads and the era of streaming. Record labels lose their humanity the further you go up the food chain, they’re reliant on profits, not humanitarian concerns.

It’s what benefits them, and what’s sustainable. I’m sure sexuality and other topics rarely enter their heads. If businesses aren’t promoting and supporting diversity in music, and artists are struggling to, then whats the impact on the fans? Hip-Hop fans especially, can be volatile towards anyone who isn’t straight.

All it takes is a look on some forums on the internet (though it’s very much an ‘internet thing’) and you’ll see ‘gay’ ‘f*ggot’ and much more used as insults against people’s character. Many discussions about an artist’s sexuality can become heated, and downright nasty. The lack of open conversation about it breeds contempt from top to bottom, how are things going to change that way? They’re not. It’s a vicious cycle and someone out there has to try to break it.

It clearly isn’t enough that Frank Ocean led the charge, it isn’t enough that Blanco and Le1f (there are many, many more artists who are proud of who they are, from sexuality to gender) are open and happy with who they are. There’s a constant resistance and it seems like theres no end in sight.

The other day, Vic Mensa released a song and wrote a short message about love and sexuality, hopefully that’s a sign of things to come, though I’m not very optimistic. A fiercely tight and closeted community such as Hip-Hop is going to be a difficult beast to tame. What artists have to realise, is whether they like it or not, they’re role models.

Successful artists have large audiences and their restraint to move forward, to show support has a negative effect on the community. There should be a bigger push, everyone has an opinion and belief on sexuality and it needs to be respected but music is about self-expression; certain ways of life shouldn’t be shot-down or excluded because it doesn’t fit into the world-view.

Modern Hip-Hop needs to be conscious moving forward, it has to grow with the world otherwise it’ll be stuck in this constant cycle of alpha male, dog-eat-dog hierarchy, reinforcing the ideal of what is masculine, what is right and what is wrong. It doesn’t just apply to sexuality too, Hip-Hop as a whole is starting to open up and change more, even becoming a movement with some aspects, yet there’s a long way to go.

I’m not suggesting tearing down the fundamentals of what makes Hip-Hop what it is, I’m saying there needs to be change and acceptance within a highly visible and loved genre on a world-wide scale. The day a gay, lesbian or trans artist can stand on a stage in front of thousands of people representing the world of rap, hip-hop, R&B or any urban genre, will be a triumph.

So, finally, I have a question for the Hip-Hop community, from artists to fans, who do you love?

Words by Jake Gould

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