since this blog is (hopefully) pretty gay, it should come as no surprise that we now will have a look at queer hip hop – after all that was the incentive to start this et hop! series in the first place.
wow, queer hip hop? that really exists? amazing – isn’t hip hop totally homophobic…bla bla bla. most articles on queer hip hop start like this. so let’s get that first out of our way and then get to the music.
hip hop’s homophobia is every now and then a topic in the mainstream press – lyrical gaybashing is always a good “controversial” attention grabber for some really hard mc (sexism is just not working that well – too common, i guess). as much as i agree that homophobia should be exposed, i usually have a strange taste in my mouth after reading one of these interchangeable articles. somehow they seem to cover up more then to expose anything.
a good starting point to try to uncover a little bit more is an article called if that’s your boyfriend (he wasn’t last night) by paul outlaw (published in 1995 in african american review, volume 29, number 2 – available here).
so hip hop is homophobic? then let me ask: which musical culture isn’t? mainstream music isn’t exactly overflowing with proud & out queers. yeah, there are some in pop, there are quite some in the indie department – and exactly one in heavy metal (hello rob! i so digged you in the 80’s – just had a problem with the music…). heavy metal is anyway a good example: anybody remembers mister axl rose and his controversial lyrics? well, he received his absolution from mister geffen… much in the same way that eminem received his absolution through elton john. don’t ask my opinion on it – i might get controversial myself. we’ll get back to these two examples, anyway. so you made a list of all the mainstream queer artists you know – now please check which of them had explicit man to man, women to women lyrics (i know, jimmy sommerville… and… well, let me know). but then paul outlaw might be just too right:
“A recording with the phrase “I’m in love with him,” when sung by one man about another, could conceivably be subject to a parental advisory sticker because of its “explicit” lyrics. (pp. 349)”
and such a sticker would not look good on an elton john record, would it?
so far from me excusing hip hop artists spewing hate, it just too often seems that accusing hip hop of homophobia has the comforting side effect that “we” can think “we” are not like that: the hip hop people are the homophobes, not we punks / rockers / folkies / etc. …
for an example that homophobia gets discussed also in other musical communities (here: jazz) you can have a look here – there are obviously some parallels and a strange coincidence.
in accusing hip hop as homophobic it sometimes looks like something else very ugly raises its head: racism. homophobia (and sexism and antisemitism) gets “exported” to black americans, french blacks and arabs, german turks and arabs. covering up the fact that neither in the u.s.a., nor in france, nor in germany one has that total liberal society (i might refer you to the post i did about that text by josé gabilondo – and the understanding the concept of heteronormativity might be helpful fo this post, too). but by blaming black / second generation immigrant male youth it suddenly seems that the aforementioned intolerance is a problem of these minorities. and only of them. but this is obviously not the case.
so – after establishing that the world is full of homophobes, let’s have a look at hip hop’s homophobia. true, in hip hop homophobia is very explicit, very aggressivly voiced and happening way too often. to a degree i think being very explicit is part of hip hop – it does not have a lyrical tradition of impersonal lyrics like other musical genres. but there seems to be a consensus in most articles (and it seems also quite logical) that it has to do with a specific way of constructing masculinity. whereas in my personal enviroment i find different ways of constructing masculiniy (if necessary), be it through the look (yeah, that butch look), be it through social status (i.e. high powered job, bmw, designer suit), be it through being fertile, it seems that in (some) hip hop culture masculinity gets not only defined through treating women like shit, having a lot of bling bling, street smartness, but also through distancing oneself very strongly from everything faggoty. and this kind of hypermasculinity usually gets linked to being something specific black american.
this might be true – but the occurence of this way of constructing masculinity seems to me too global – so i suspect that it has not only to do with being black in america, but with being at the bottom of the social ladder. otherwise it would not have been that readily adopted especially by the socially underprivileged (youth) all over the world. when other ways of constructing a satisfactory identity are not possible, then hyper-masculinity seems one of the few options. and youth is certainly a factor, too: in my personal experience it is actually true that uneasyness about ones sexuality provokes homophobic reactions. i do not believe it has much to do with fearing to be gay / lesbian. i guess it has a lot more to do that queers are preceived to be at ease with their sexuality. and this in turn seems to be a provocation for people not at ease with their sexuality. and in the country i live the big chunk of visibly hypermacho youth does to my observation not listen to hip hop – they are more, hm, nationalistic in their musical taste (but then i might be wrong on that one – but it would make for an interesting study). but this crass form of homophobia is also not limited to the youth: there are too many examples where homophobia even in its strongest, life-threathening form is sanctioned by the state.
so similar to homophobia not being limited to occur in hip hop, hypermasculinity is also not limited to young black americans. and to a degree i also do not believe that being macho is the only way for young male black americans to be masculine. but then why do we perceive it that way? why is the media giving us that picture? why does it seem the exemplary way to construct a male black identity in mainstream hip hop in contemporary america?
back to square one: i suppose it is racism. analogue to every minority it seems that the majority only allows for very few ways to portray members of a minority (for gays it’s the sissy, the disco queen, the leatherman – basically the village people – for lesbians it seems it is basically butch and femme – and one could argue that for women its the spice girls). the problem (now it comes in handy if you did read the josé gabilondo post) is that members of a minority are also members of the majority. members of a minority tend to believe that the images about them are images of them. that explains why gays have no problem being mysogynist and racist and homophobic. and it explains why gays that grew up in a hypermasculine culture that sees it as essential for masculinity to despise everything queer will not identify (not be able to identify) as gay – maybe as men having sex with men or as women having sex with women: but they are no fags or dykes – since that would mean they are not men / women (be it in parts of the hip hop culture, be it for example in saudi arabia or iran – being gay is a label reserved for foreigners. so it was only logic that the iranian president talks about not having any gays in iran. although having laws against it kind of contradicts that statement. but then he does not seem to be a man to acknowledge contradictions). and it is no coincidence that the only visible manifestation of queerness in this context seems to be the transsexual – the de-sexualised eunuch there to entertain a straight majority with that freakishness and being a safe (because far away) place for queerness in society. amusing and not threathening. yes, i would even go so far that structurally the hip hop gangsta and the “funny & outrageous” transsexual occupy similar places in bundling certain characteristics that have to be outsourced from society.
hypermasculinity as a specific way to construct masculinity for a minority has another mean drawback. and here we come to the strange coincidence mentioned above: in the comments section of the above linked article jazz and gays is an excerpt from an article i read a while ago by andrew shin titled beneath the black aesthetic: james baldwin’s primer of black american masculinity – african american gay author (originally also from the african american review, summer 1998, available here).
“In the transitional Another Country, Baldwin attempted to evoke the bohemian world through a sequence of riffs and montages, fractured forms that express the brilliance and movement of improvisation. The late-night world of jazz clubs, endless talk, and sexuality – this is the milieu that Baldwin depicts, but he debunks the popular representations of bohemian elan, extending his public argument with Mailer here through the novel form instead of the polemical essay. Baldwin contends that white liberals’ celebration of jazz as a form of oppositional cultural power has in effect robbed black bohemianism of its vanguard potential, holding it hostage to the misguided hero-worship of white consumer culture.
Positions like Mailer’s construct the black musician as stud, making his artistic authority a function of his sexual potency, a rhetorical move that epitomizes unconscious liberal racism. For Baldwin, the black musician is the intellectual, the restless experimenter who takes apart dominant musical forms and recasts them; the sexual lionizing of the black musician merely appropriates him for white consumption, and, Baldwin warns, if black musicians embrace this myth, they will be destroyed by it, as demonstrated by the case of Rufus Scott, the tragic character at the center of Another Country.”
so from jazz we come to hip hop – and it reminds me of a very angry article coming out of detroit (i’ve read it years ago and did not find it yet in my archive) by someone obviously associated to the detroit techno scene, analysing the “failure” of techno in the u.s. being in part due to the unwillingness of mainstream media, but also of the black community to acknowledge the fact that music by black artists could be abstract and intellectual and preferred to stay with the comfortable dumbness of hip hop. and i’m afraid that the person who wrote at the time this polemic essay might have a point.
so we get back (as promised) to the example of axl rose / david geffen and eminem / elton john. i do find it interesting that no other artist had an advocate defending “a homphobic lyrical slip”. hm, common did it for himself. and kanye west. so either all other artists don’t mind having some homophobe lyrics in their backcatalogue or do not find an advocate. and maybe advocating for other artists could only mean patronising? patronising in the way that the advocate actually de-constructs the artists masculinity? how playing the advocate can miserably fail i have seen in a documentary on tv about dancehall / ragga, where some young white woman defended buju banton and his homophic lyrics as due to “his youth” at the time. well, buju banton looked rather pissed off then pleased by her defending him, and i got the feeling that she actually did cross a line of what is appropriate – and after long winding sentences the only statement that he made was “we (i guess he meant “dancehall”) do our thing – they (i guess the glbt community) do their thing and we have nothing to do with each other and leave each other in peace”. funny enough from an organiser of his concerts we hear a little bit later on that he has – when booking dancehall artists – a clause in the contract that if they utter something homophobic on stage they will not receive their pay. hmmm…
so – being quite literally a batty boy (as a little aside: isn’t it fascinating how obsessed especially hip hop is with ass? and if you are into some nice ass (including an interesting comment) go here) i am still pissed off with buju banton. and i am still not accepting people spittin out hateful lyrics – in whichever musical genre. and being part of a culture that endorses such hate is no excuse – especially if it has been pointed out to you. so as much as i think that it is unacceptable for gays to be racist, i find it unacceptable for hip hop artists to be homophobic – being part of a minority does not give you the right to hit on another minority: to the contrary, if you would just think once, you might find something to learn: i do believe that there are strucural similarities in the opression of minorities. as an example i do believe that the “entertaining trassexual” and the “gangsta mc” share something more then the function mentioned above: both are ultimately disposable for society (entertain me and then fuck off) – something michael franti realized rather early on, refraining from a career in sports. that is where the “disposable heroes” in disposable heroes of hiphoprisy comes from.
“I was brought up to be a young, gifted, and black athlete, and that’s really all that I was thinking about when I went to school: just be a basketball player. And when i got to school, I found that the myth of sports, particularly for the black athlete, is a complete fallacy: you’re there for one reason and that’s to generate interest and income for the school. So obviously, the idea of Disposable Heroes comes from my own life personally, as a young black man coming up and being told, “Okay, best thing for you to do, since you’re six foot six and you’re black, is to play basketball.” And I said, “Okay, I’m good at it. I practice at it. I work hard.” And you get to a certain point where you begin to understand that sports are perpetuated by the myth of the sucessfull black athlete who is a millionaire, who is held up to all black people as a role model. On the way up everybody tries to do it, but you become a disposable hero at a certain point. You have your day in the sun, you get to whatever level you can, and then you’re thrown on the scrap heap because you’re disposable, your purpose has been served. That’s what the first part, Disposable Heroes, is about. (pp. 153/154) (Reed Ishmael, Franti Michael, Adler Bill: Hiphoprisy, A conversation with Ishmael Reed and Michael Franti, in: Transition, No.56 (1992), pp. 152-165)”
so acknowledging these structural similarities might would help to learn from our differences, differences that might produce different tactics: learn from each other how to deal with it – to compare notes. and there are things to learn, i am convinced. and then we can might learn – this time from the jewish minority and its history – that first the status of a minority is never secure in society, that minorities always have to understand the majority better then society does itself, and related to that, second that being member of a minority comes with the additional burden of not only having to educate oneself within his community (which everybody in society should – although it might be that it is even more important within minorities), but also having to educate the majority. so instead of writing dumb-ass lyrics, one should rather sit down and get some insight.
but then i am not the first one to point that out and preach it. it just seems that it is sometimes difficult to be heard, that for various reasons it does not want to be heard. so i would like to conclude with a speech by someone else. by someone whose name got dropped in quite some hip hop lyrics by different artists. i just hope they also read this speech and took it to heart. if not: do it now. and yeah, history might be indeed a weapon – source.
The Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation MovementsSpeech given by Huey Newton, founder of the Black Panthers, August 15, 1970
During the past few years strong movements have developed among women and among homosexuals seeking their liberation. There has been some uncertainty about how to relate to these movements.
Whatever your personal opinions and your insecurities about homosexuality and the various liberation movements among homosexuals and women (and I speak of the homosexuals and women as oppressed groups), we should try to unite with them in a revolutionary fashion. I say ” whatever your insecurities are” because as we very well know, sometimes our first instinct is to want to hit a homosexual in the mouth, and want a woman to be quiet. We want to hit a homosexual in the mouth because we are afraid that we might be homosexual; and we want to hit the women or shut her up because we are afraid that she might castrate us, or take the nuts that we might not have to start with.
We must gain security in ourselves and therefore have respect and feelings for all oppressed people. We must not use the racist attitude that the White racists use against our people because they are Black and poor. Many times the poorest White person is the most racist because he is afraid that he might lose something, or discover something that he does not have. So you’re some kind of a threat to him. This kind of psychology is in operation when we view oppressed people and we are angry with them because of their particular kind of behavior, or their particular kind of deviation from the established norm.
Remember, we have not established a revolutionary value system; we are only in the process of establishing it. I do not remember our ever constituting any value that said that a revolutionary must say offensive things towards homosexuals, or that a revolutionary should make sure that women do not speak out about their own particular kind of oppression. As a matter of fact, it is just the opposite: we say that we recognize the women’s right to be free. We have not said much about the homosexual at all, but we must relate to the homosexual movement because it is a real thing. And I know through reading, and through my life experience and observations that homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in the society. They might be the most oppresed people in the society.
And what made them homosexual? Perhaps it’s a phenomenon that I don’t understand entirely. Some people say that it is the decadence of capitalism. I don’t know if that is the case; I rather doubt it. But whatever the case is, we know that homosexuality is a fact that exists, and we must understand it in its purest form: that is, a person should have the freedom to use his body in whatever way he wants.
That is not endorsing things in homosexuality that we wouldn’t view as revolutionary. But there is nothing to say that a homosexual cannot also be a revolutionary. And maybe I’m now injecting some of my prejudice by saying that “even a homosexual can be a revolutionary.” Quite the contrary, maybe a homosexual could be the most revolutionary.
When we have revolutionary conferences, rallies, and demonstrations, there should be full participation of the gay liberation movement and the women’s liberation movement. Some groups might be more revolutionary than others. We should not use the actions of a few to say that they are all reactionary or counterrevolutionary, because they are not.
We should deal with the factions just as we deal with any other group or party that claims to be revolutionary. We should try to judge, somehow, whether they are operating in a sincere revolutionary fashion and from a really oppressed situation. (And we will grant that if they are women they are probably oppressed.) If they do things that are unrevolutionary or counterrevolutionary, then criticize that action. If we feel that the group in spirit means to be revolutionary in practice, but they make mistakes in interpretation of the revolutionary philosophy, or they do not understand the dialectics of the social forces in operation, we should criticize that and not criticize them because they are women trying to be free. And the same is true for homosexuals. We should never say a whole movement is dishonest when in fact they are trying to be honest. They are just making honest mistakes. Friends are allowed to make mistakes. The enemy is not allowed to make mistakes because his whole existence is a mistake, and we suffer from it. But the women’s liberation front and gay liberation front are our friends, they are our potential allies, and we need as many allies as possible.
We should be willing to discuss the insecurities that many people have about homosexuality. When I say “insecurities,” I mean the fear that they are some kind of threat to our manhood. I can understand this fear. Because of the long conditioning process which builds insecurity in the American male, homosexuality might produce certain hang-ups in us. I have hang-ups myself about male homosexuality. But on the other hand, I have no hang-up about female homosexuality. And that is a phenomenon in itself. I think it is probably because male homosexuality is a threat to me and female homosexuality is not.
We should be careful about using those terms that might turn our friends off. The terms “faggot” and “punk” should be deleted from our vocabulary, and especially we should not attach names normally designed for homosexuals to men who are enemies of the people, such as Nixon or Mitchell. Homosexuals are not enemies of the people.
We should try to form a working coalition with the gay liberation and women’s liberation groups. We must always handle social forces in the most appropriate manner.