Hip-hop shifts anti-gay tone as rights issues rise
A shift appears to be on the horizon.
For years, anti-gay epithets and sentiments in rap have largely been accepted, along with its frequent misogyny and violence, as part of the hip-hop culture - a culture that has been slow to change, even as gays enjoy more mainstream acceptance.
"People are learning how to live and get along more, and accept people for who they are and not bash them or hurt them because they're different," Snoop Dogg said in a recent interview.
Frank Ocean may be largely responsible. The rising star, who revealed on his blog last month that his first love was a man, is technically an R&B singer. But he has produced and collaborated with some of music's top hip-hop acts, from Jay-Z to Andre 3000 to Kanye West to Nas. He's also co-written songs for Beyonce, Justin Bieber and John Legend and is a member of the alternative rap group Odd Future.
"When I was growing up, you could never do that and announce that," Snoop said of Ocean's revelation. "There would be so much scrutiny and hate and negativity, and no one would step (forward) to support you because that's what we were brainwashed and trained to know."
When 24-year-old Ocean made his announcement, he received a ton of support from the music world, mainly through Twitter and blogs, including encouraging words from 50 Cent, Nas, Jamie Foxx, Def Jam Records founder Russell Simmons, Beyonce and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Even Ocean's Odd Future band mate, Tyler, the Creator, showed some love, though he's used homophobic slurs in his songs.
"(The support for Frank is) an extension of the overall kind of support we're seeing across the country for LGBT people, and not just in a broad sense, but specifically from iconic members of the black community," said Daryl Hannah, gay rights group GLAAD's director of media and community partnerships, who namedropped President Barack Obama and Jay-Z as those leading the change.
While the support for Ocean is strong, and some rappers - including Nicki Minaj - have said a gay rapper will soon hit the music scene, it's still hard to imagine that the male-dominated, macho rap world could include a gay performer.
Anti-gay sentiments have been entrenched in hip-hop for decades. Darryl "D.M.C." McDaniels of the iconic rap group Run D.M.C., says it was the norm for years.
"You would have had 50 rappers jump on a song, diss the gay people because it's cool," said D.M.C.
That attitude has abated little, even as other parts of the entertainment industry have curtailed what many consider to be anti-gay material. (Last year, Universal Pictures altered a trailer for the movie "Dilemma" because a character called a car "gay.")
Eminem was targeted by groups like GLAAD for his incessant slurs against gays, a role that now seems to be embodied by Tyler, the Creator, in his raps. Lil Wayne recently used a slur on Chris Brown's "Look at Me Now," a Grammy-nominated Top 10 pop hit and No. 1 rap and R&B song.
There are also terms like "no homo" and "pause" used in the hip-hop community after an utterance to acknowledge that what was said does not have any homosexual intent.
In an interview, Wu-Tang's Ghostface Killah recently explained the genre's stance toward gays like this: "For the most part I think that hip-hop is, you know, we always have been open-minded to a lot of things. It's just certain things we just - we don't deal with."
When asked if a gay rapper could make it in hip-hop, Raekwon, another Wu-Tang member, said: "I mean, I don't know. I guess that's a question we all want to know."
When asked the same question, Snoop said with a laugh: "There might be some openly gay rappers in hip-hop that's having success - for real. You never know. There might be some(one) right now that hasn't pulled a Frank Ocean yet, that hasn't jumped out of the closet to the living room to make that announcement."
Ice-T said he could see a gay rapper on the scene - depending on what kind of rap he or she performed.
"I've done hardcore hip-hop in my life where masculinity is at a premium. At this moment right now, we're in the world of pop-rap and it doesn't really matter right now. These guys are singing, it's pop music and being in pop and gay is OK," he said. "It would be difficult to listen to a gay gangster rapper ... If you're a gangster rapper like myself and Ice Cube ... if one of us came out and said something, that would be a big thing. That would be like, 'Whoa! What?'"
But some of hip-hop's key figures have given some kind of support to the gay community. Pharrell recently collaborated with the openly gay pop singer Mika on the song "Celebrate." Jay-Z, like Eminem, has said people of the same sex should be able to love one another. Eminem performed with Elton John at the 2001 Grammy Awards at the height of GLAAD's criticism.
D.M.C. is skeptical about some of hip-hop's recent support of Ocean, since he believes homophobia is still rampant in the culture. Still, he is sure a homosexual hip-hop act will emerge: "Of course there's going to be a gay rapper." He said that a rapper's success would be determined not by his sexuality, but by the quality of his raps.
Shaheem Reid, a veteran hip-hop journalist, said the inroads that gays have made in mainstream culture have made a dent in the rap world: "Hip-hop is just a reflection of what's going on."
He added that gay rappers can gain mainstream exposure, but that will come with challenges.
"I think that if the music is great enough and the topics are great enough, there's a slight chance," said Reid, who is editor-at-large for hip-hop's XXL magazine. "If there was a homosexual emcee, male or female, I don't think that talking about them being gay or lesbian could be the only substance in their music."
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