In the decades since its birth in the late 1970s, hip-hop has been almost synonymous with hyper-sexualized lyrics laced with misogyny and homophobia. Masculinity is currency in a high-stakes game that places a premium on bravado and bling. When the genre hit its own social justice era in the mid-’80s, with the rise of iconic groups like Public Enemy and N.W.A, human rights for gay and lesbian people was not on the table, especially if you were black.
Thirty years later, that is changing.
VH1’s Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood is breaking new ground by showcasing a same-sex relationship between two young black rap artists. This season, nearly 4 million people watched as producers Milan Christopher and Miles Brock navigated new territory—on and off the screen—and went public for the first time with their relationship. In some of the most compelling moments, cameras followed Miles as he delivered the news to an ex-girlfriend with the help of a therapist, and later to his two older sisters.
“We’ve had same-sex relationships happening around us since the beginning of time,” executive producer Mona Scott-Young, who is also CEO of Monami Entertainment, told the Los Angeles Times. “But somehow we tiptoe around the subject and we never want to give it the same prominence and visibility as we do heterosexual relationships. Here was an opportunity to do something that was reflective of our time.”
Even so, the decision to air the story line was a risky proposition. Although anti-gay attitudes have begun to recede in the black community, significant resistance remains. Few existing cast members wanted their story lines intertwined with Miles and Milan’s, according to reports. And the mood on social media has ranged from supportive to mocking.
VH1 followed Monday night’s episode with an hour-long roundtable discussion, “LHH: Out in Hip Hop,” hosted by veteran journalist and ABC News correspondent T.J. Holmes. Branded as a panel of “artists and cultural experts speaking candidly on homophobia within the hip-hop community,” it featured Baltimore pastor Jamal Bryant, opinion writer Michael Arceneaux, and singer/songwriter Ray J, among others.
“It’s rappers right now that’s on top of their game that’s gay,” Ray J, who is a featured cast member, told the post-show panel. He later said, “Everybody ain’t straight in the business.”
Industry veteran and legendary MC Darryl “DMC” McDaniels echoed Ray J but noted the stigma for recording artists. “In hip-hop, you can be gay but you can’t be the rapper,” he said. “In hip-hop we disrespect the hell out of our women, so what do you think we’re going to do to a gay man?”
“Hip-hop is still very much a boys’ club,” said former BET/MTV host and music executive Buttah Man. It was clear, he said, that coming out changed the way he was accepted in the business. There was a time when he was no longer invited to certain parties or to work with some artists.
Ray J, who is the brother of R&B artist Brandy Norwood, was adamant in his support for LGBT performers and producers. “I think that we need to get past that... I’m 100 with everybody. But some of my friends don’t get it… I’m not tripping.”
The panel included several African-American pastors, including Bryant. The Baltimore preacher, a social justice activist who often appears alongside Al Sharpton, compared being gay to “gambling,” “adultery,” and “robbery.” He said he believes gay and lesbian people can be “transformed.”
It is unlikely that one night of candid conversation will change attitudes prevalent in hip-hop or the black church. But that makes the discussion no less critical. If only for a few episodes, reality television gave its viewers a dose of substance that is typically missing.
“This was difficult to watch, and it’s what a lot of people go through,” Holmes tweeted Monday evening.
What happens next, how much change we can expect, depends on our ability as a community to continue that conversation.