12.20.11

Why Rappers Are Suddenly Speaking Out in Support of Gay Pride

Hip-hop and homophobic hate speech have long gone hand in hand—but now MCs from Fat Joe to The Game are changing their tune. Chris Lee on rap’s gay-friendly tipping point.

Has hip-hop finally had it with homophobia?

Since the genre’s explosion into the public consciousness in the early ’80s, rap music has stood apart as one of popular culture’s most unregulated forums for anti-gay hate speech. From Ice Cube’s paean to male anal rape, “No Vaseline,” to Big Daddy Kane proclaiming himself “anti-f----t” and Eminem’s scorching repudiation of homosexuality on 2000’s “Criminal”—“Whether you’re a fag or lez / Or the homosex, hermaph or trans-a-vest / Pants or dress / Hate fags? The answer’s yes”—MCs have unleashed homophobic rants and hurled slurs in songs without fear of censorship or reprisal for nearly three decades.

But in the last few months, seemingly unprompted by anything more than some new wellspring of compassion, major hip-hop artists have been speaking out in vehement condemnation of old homophobic tropes, calling for greater tolerance toward gay people, urging closeted gays to come out, and expressing admiration for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community in ways that would have been unimaginable a generation ago.

Hardcore New York rapper Fat Joe, who is straight, summed up the attitude thaw succinctly in a recent interview with Vlad TV. “In 2011 you gotta hide that you gay?” he asked. “Be real! ‘Yo, I’m gay. What the fuck!’ If you gay, you gay. That’s your preference. Fuck it if the people don’t like it.”

Compton gangsta rapper The Game, a former member of the Cedar Block Piru Bloods known for his shoot-first-ask-questions-later fatalism, chimed in on the issue in no less strident terms. “I don’t have a problem with gay people,” he said. “Beyoncé shoulda said, ‘Who should run the world?’ Gays. Because they’re everywhere and rightly so.”

It’s all a far cry from hip-hop’s “no homo” movement, which swept the culture around 2009, in part as a means for rappers to conspicuously distance themselves from the “down low” phenomenon, a widely rumored but little explored subculture of undercover African-American homosexuality.

Nowadays, it’s not just hip-hop veterans with impeccable street cred and catalogs of platinum hits who are speaking out against homophobia. Even up-and-coming artists such as Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky are voicing discontent with anti-gay attitudes. Never mind that back in the day, such a public stance would have been a professional liability.

“I used to be homophobic, but that’s fucked up,” A$AP Rocky told the influential music site Pitchfork in October. “I had to look in the mirror and say, ‘All the designers I’m wearing are gay.’”

As if rappers’ public pronouncements on the matter weren’t enough to signal a watershed moment, cultural signifiers heralding a gender-bending, pro-gay era in hip-hop abound. Exhibit A: The genre’s most prolific hitmaker, Lil Wayne, is showing an unexpected openness to cross-dressing, wearing women’s jeggings during a performance at the MTV Video Music Awards.

Texas rapper Daryll “D Phill Good” Phillips II has taken things even further. In stark contrast to hip-hop’s default fashion setting for much of the ’90s and early ’00s—baggy pants with the waistline sagging precipitously below belt level—he has grabbed headlines by wearing lipstick and flowery tights as well as spearheading something called the XY Movement: a grassroots effort aimed at undercutting established gender constructions by urging straight men to wear women’s clothing.

Given major rappers’ wealth, they seem less compelled to define themselves against others as a means of self-validation than at any other point in hip-hop history.

“A lot of people feel like a lot of colors or tight clothes is homosexual,” D Phill Good said in an interview with Dallas’s CW 33 News. “I feel like it’s more an expression of me.”

And even though he is avowedly heterosexual, the Berkeley, Calif., new school rapper Lil B went so far as to name his June album I’m Gay (I’m Happy), enduring death threats for the somewhat jarring nature of his pro-social message, in hip-hop’s relative terms. “I hope that I can turn some of my fans that might be homophobic or supporters that might be homophobic and say, ‘You know what? We’re all one people. This is love,’” the rapper, also known as the Based God, explained to CNN in May. “It’s just respect. And I did that to bring people together and bring more love and to spark the minds of people and not let words and judgments and stereotypes stop you from loving.”

While rappers have yet to unfurl rainbow flags en masse, and casual homophobia still abounds in videos and on songs, the current groundswell of tolerance reflects not only a wider societal acceptance of homosexuality but also changes in the way many MCs fundamentally view themselves. Where before hip-hop defined itself as a culture of resistance, by now the genre has mostly shed its outlaw status. Having saturated every corner of the mainstream—from fashion to advertising, television, and movies—hip-hop has largely remade the status quo in its own image. And given major rappers’ wealth, they seem less compelled to define themselves against others as a means of self-validation than at any other point in hip-hop history.

If anything, MCs seem to be paying closer attention to how, by dropping homophobia and reaching out to the LBGT community, they can reap financial dividends. Fat Joe cited Lady Gaga as an example.

“I don’t know if she’s gay but she’s running with that gay shit for real,” he said. “And she is winning!”