Frank Ocean’s declaration about his sexual orientation has put the issue of homophobia in rap onto the table. Nevertheless, other events preceding his statement had already started to timidly raise the question of how long hip hop - and other popular genres - were going to keep the taboo of homosexuality intact.
While society progresses with regard to sexual tolerance and equality, there are still certain, traditionally male-dominated circles where outbreaks of homophobia are rather common. And if they're not flagrantly homophobic, there is at least a status quo taboo on homosexuality: the subject is avoided at all cost, and, if it's absolutely necessary to talk about it, it's done with shame and discomfort. Some of those circles, however, are starting to shake off those stigmas, based on incidental events that precipitate a change in attitude, due to the generational changing of the guard of community members and also purely because the rest of society is changing as well. Rap seems to be one of those communities with an underground free from the “don’t ask, don’t tell” doctrine, and some new, openly homosexual figures. But what about the old anti-gay habits? Are they disappearing as the new generations implement their own moral codes? Is the whole of hip hop ready for the new tolerance? We’re going to analyse factors that may indicate that, indeed, the genre is undergoing an ethical overhaul.
1. Frank Ocean, The First Coming Out
Now, Frank Ocean openly confesses his sexual orientation in a letter on his Tumblr page. Dated 11th December, and written in a text file, the message talks about his first heartbreak, through a mixture of feelings and life consequences (like his moving from New Orleans to California). And, with the naturalness and spontaneity that one uses to discuss something in private, Ocean reveals the (male) gender of his first true love. What happened after that? The normal thing: there hasn't been a single negative reaction. Quite the contrary, actually. Many publicly expressed their unconditional support and respect; from his Odd Future band mates (not entirely unexpected) to the founder of Def Jam, Russell Simmons, all showed their love, support and admiration for something that, seen from many viewpoints, took quite a lot of courage. But looking at it coldly, from the viewpoint of our everyday life, Ocean's case shouldn't be headline news for several days in a row. I think I can speak for an immense majority when I say that almost everyone has dealt with a similar situation at some point. A friend, a family member, or we ourselves decide to take a leap of faith and come out of the closet, without the need for fireworks or balloons.
The debate isn't only about Frank Ocean, or about his sexual orientation (he's declared himself bisexual), or about the fact that he made it public. The true question behind all this fuss is, as we asked before, if the rap community has really set its traditional homophobia aside. Quite a few members of the scene have spoken out in favour of the legalisation of same-sex marriages over the past few months, as the debate goes on in the United States, without the need to even refer to their own sexual orientation. I'm talking about Jay-Z backing President Obama in his decision to support same-sex marriages, and T.I. and Kendrick Lamar, who made it quite clear that, as far as they're concerned (“I don’t give a fuck”), each individual should pursue happiness according to his or her own principles.
Another precedent to take into account took place in 2011, when the king of meme-rap Lil B decided to call his album “I’m Gay (I’m Happy)”. The Based God, no matter how “based” he says he is, is no dummy. With that bold move, he not only got some precious publicity for his effort, he also favoured other members of the rap community being asked about the possible existence of a rapper confessing his homosexuality. With the flames of speculation started, and his umpteenth album successfully self-promoted, Lil B ended up generating a public debate that was long overdue: when would hip-hop and associated genres come out of the closet? As a result, the headz could tentatively estimate the amount of acceptance a gay rapper could have among his colleagues. And the vast majority (DMX, Killer Mike, Talib Kweli, among others) beat around the bush by focusing on different interpretations of the title, for instance by getting into the etymology of the term “gay”, which can also mean “happy”, or by talking about controversy as a promotional tool. Conclusion: even in 2011, the subject was a tricky one for the hard core of the rap scene.
"The humanisation of the rap star set 'Ye apart from his guild, but it brought him closer to an audience that embraced seeing their own misery reflected in their idol’s lyrics"
While Frank Ocean's brave act is unprecedented in the history of R&B and hip hop, we can find a change of attitude by going back a few years. In 2008, Kanye West released his album “808s & Heartbreak”. Regardless of the album's artistic value, West set himself apart from the rest of the scene by letting go of the braggadocio pose that had reigned in the genre for eons. The Chicago rapper exposed himself before his hordes of fans and followers (and his critics, who could most benefit from this change of attitude) as a person with not only artistic, but also emotional sensibilities, someone who cries as much as the next person about the leaving of a loved one, the loss of love, the loss of a family member. The humanisation of the rap star set 'Ye apart from his guild, but it brought him closer to an audience that embraced seeing their own misery reflected in their idol’s lyrics.
Drake followed in his footsteps, to great success. Without rejecting the top-selling frivolity of the beautiful women-cocktails-bling trinity, the Canadian managed to earn the respect of both the hip hop and the R&B scene. It's not mandatory any more to grab a gun, threaten another crew, insult other artists, or be a drug dealer to be a man. Not even to be a hip hop star.
The growing success of R&B in 2011, with Frank Ocean himself, and people like The Weeknd as the musical winners of the year (without releasing an official album), also has a thing or two to do with this change of attitude in the audience. Ten or fifteen years ago, these records would have had one sole target audience: girls. However, today, the percentage of listeners, potential buyers and fans is no longer divided by sex, which means the gay or heterosexual variable should also be eliminated from the equation used by the Machiavellian music industry for the past two decades. And we should also add the present success of R&B and rap in the indie community, where sexual prejudice has been gone for ages. Internet, the end of taboos, freedom of expression, love, music itself... what does it matter? The important thing is that music is finally being made by individuals and for individuals.
2. A Brief History Of Urban Homophobia
But it wasn't always like this. To pinpoint the exact moment when rap was openly homophobic would, apart from being risky and difficult, make no sense, if what we want to clear up (the level of acceptance of sexual preferences in today's rap scene) is happening right now. Nevertheless, we can name several conflicts with a homophobic background that help give us an idea to what extent pose, mentality and lyrics went against the gay community. At the end of the 80s, gangsta rap started to prevail, and one of the godfathers of the sound was N.W.A., until the group disappeared as such in the early 90s as a consequence of several disputes. At that moment, Eazy-E dissed Dr. Dre and his past in World Class Wrecking Cru'. The line “damn it’s a trip how a nigga can go so quick from wearing lipstick to smoking on chronic at picnics” is proof of the use of homosexual insinuation as a way to dishonour others. A few years after writing those words, Eazy-E passed away, and Dr. Dre's electro past faded, eclipsed by the totality of his career.
"Ten years ago, and even though they were simply rumours, the spectre of homosexuality eroded what could have been an enormously successful career"
In very different terms, outside the American borders, but in a way similar to Frank Ocean, stylistically speaking, we can see the case of Craig David. Emerging from the scene of the London MCs who came up during the 2step explosion at the start of this century, David rose to fame with his debut album “Born To Do It”. The magnificent mix of R&B with British dance music landed him 8 million copies sold worldwide. More than enough reason for the world to be his oyster. However, and as he himself admitted years later, his star faded due to the insecurities of a boy whose emotional (and not artistic) sensibilities didn't go down well with his peers – the other London MCs, who started to compete against each other in mic battles, the start of grime. In 2008, David gave an interview to a gay magazine, in order to end speculation about his sexual orientation. Craig David declared himself to be heterosexual and attributed the constant rumours about it to his frightened attitude towards women early on in his career. He was inexperienced, that was all. In retrospect, personally, my reaction to that is the same as it is to Frank Ocean: I couldn’t care less who you sleep with, what really matters to me is your music. But nevertheless, ten years ago, and even though they were simply rumours, the spectre of homosexuality eroded what could have been an enormously successful career. This won’t happen to Ocean.
3. The Lesbian Corner
At this point, it’s about time we spoke about the other group hurt by this issue: lesbians. Are lesbians accepted on the scene better? Does coming out of the closet affect a woman in rap less than a man? The answer is yes. And now: the parallel story. At the beginning of the year, another formal member of the Odd Future group came out publicly (although we have to clarify that she had never hidden the fact). I’m talking about Syd The Kyd, a pivotal part of the project The Internet and one of the Los Angeles crew’s producers. There was much less commotion over it than was caused by Frank Ocean coming out; although it has to be noted that Syd is not as widely known as he is. Nevertheless, in her statements to L.A. Weekly, the producer named a series of female artists who presumably keep their true orientation hidden. And she really cut to the chase: “There’s Alicia Keys, who’s married to Swizz Beatz –we all know that shit ain’t real. You got Queen Latifah kissing Common in movies. And Missy Elliott saying that she don’t wanna hang with bitches. You know she loves her some bitches.” In spite of how clearly Syd spoke, nobody made a big deal about it. Why does being a woman make being homosexual less scandalous? Is it traditionally easier to handle yourself in a man’s world as a lesbian than as a gay man? I won’t venture to give an explanation, but one can see many openly lesbian figures in female rap over the last 15 years, from Queen Pen to Yo Majesty! including Syd The Kyd. As far as women go, the trail has been being blazed slowly over the course of more than a decade.
4. Today’s Queer Rap
Enough about the past. What we’re interested in is the present, finding out if the taboo about homosexuality is coming to an end on the rap scene; whether the audience, the artistic scene, and the industry can accept a gay rapper without a fuss. We have already seen that women, although not all of them, are a little ahead of the game. We still have to see whether there is a highly prolific underground scene of openly homosexual MCs, whose success is backed up by the quality of their product and not their sexual orientation. We’re talking about the queer rap scene that Pitchfork outlined a few weeks ago in an in-depth article. Practically all of the relevant names in this batch of artists have three factors in common: the geographical location of New York and the surrounding area, veneration for the ballroom movement and the logistical support of young producers (who belong to a generation less subject to taboos). Many have an interest in branching out into other scenes, practically all of them in clubbing– where the issue of gender was set aside years ago. We could locate the epicentre of these producers around the labels Fade To Mind or Jeffrees (recent branch of Mad Decent), where there are artists of a variety of different ages, backgrounds, sexes, and sexual and musical orientation, like MikeQ, Kingdom, Flosstradamus, Brenmar, Nguzunguzu, Baauer and Zebra Katz himself.
Nowadays, Mykki Blanco, Zebra Katz, Cakes Da Killa and Le1F form a part of the underground circuit, like Frank Ocean did just over a year ago. But one of these names could be the next big thing in rap, like Tyler, The Creator or A$AP Rocky have been. And without their sexual orientation being a handicap for them in their rise to success, just because of the simple fact that they are already out of the closet. They have already done that part; they don’t have to face the bothersome chore of making their sexual orientation public. With this hypothesis, we would be taking the next firm step towards overcoming homophobic prejudice in the genre definitively, albeit gradually. This is something that can only benefit everyone, not just morally, but also financially. If 21st century pop for the masses, the pop accepted by the majority of the market, is openly gay-friendly, with Madonna and Lady Gaga as its main icons, then why can’t other musical genres be that way too?
Let’s imagine for a moment that Method Man, Timbaland, Ice Cube, Lil Wayne were to come out of the closet. Would they still be as appreciated? The answer is a resounding “yes”
Now, as Chuck D said in regards to the statement from Frank Ocean, what would really have been significant for changing attitudes is for an old faithful to come out of the closet, someone who lived through, experienced, and even made money from the outbreaks of homophobia that rap has undergone over the last two decades (the member of Public Enemy said it was important to note that Ocean is a singer and not a rapper). Let’s imagine for a moment that Method Man, Timbaland, Ice Cube, Lil Wayne, or Diddy were to come out of the closet. Would they still be as appreciated, respected, and praised as they have been until now? The answer is a resounding “yes”, especially taking into account that they are artists who have broken down generational barriers; over time, they have added new, younger fans raised in other times, potentially more open-minded. But overcoming the taboo of homosexuality as a group will come when it’s no longer an issue to be broached; true acceptance will arrive when none of us could care less which way anybody else swings.