I was raised in a traditional black church, so I was often exposed to jokes about sissy boys and butch women. In fact, they were told almost daily—despite the truth that every black family has at least one aunt and/or uncle whose partner-less asexual nature was probably a cover for their homosexuality. At that time, we continued treating and seeing people who were same gender loving as inferior because no one challenged our bigoted assumptions and called us out on our shit. But it was not just the church that taught me that kind of intolerance, the music I listened to did as well.
From Jay’s line ‘Cause faggots hate when you gettin’ money like athletes” on the Blueprint’s otherwise great song “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)” to Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” line “On some faggot bullshit: call ’em Dennis Rodman,” Hip Hop has historically been riddled with homophobic language and behavior—and it makes sense why.
Hip Hop is an art form that was conceived and matured on the streets of America. And the same current of antagonism toward LGBTQIA+ folks that is present in the church in found in urban centers as well. While the hood is far from the ethical mores of religious circles, there remains something similar about how both institutions (if one can call the streets an institution) treat people who are marginalized. The same toxic masculinity that pervades urban cultures is present in the church because, despite the latter’s metaphysical commitments, men have historically been in positions of leadership. The same is true of Hip Hop. Men continue to be the dominant voice of the music, and with that comes the moral failings of the people who give voice to the music. In the 70s, 80s, and 90s, there were no queer artists who talked openly about their sexual identity and had mainstream success. It is this open homophobia that set the stage for a 2005 interview given by a controversial hip hop artist that changed my thinking on the matter, and started me on a path to accepting people no mater who they love.
Kanye West ‘s music (yes including Ye) is always interesting—and at times brilliant. I made peace with his liaisons with Donald Trump by chalking it up to a man who is off his meds and often times depressed…partly because he gave an interview to Sway on MTV in 2005 that, quite honestly, changed my life.
In a wide-ranging discussion, he devotes 3 minutes to talking about his battles with homophobia. “You could say that hip hop is the opposite of gay….” He says mournfully. “”If it’s whack, we say: yo that’s gay. If it’s dope, we say: yo, that’s that real hip hop.”He reflected on how, as a kid because he was different, he was viewed as gay, and how those comments developed within him a deep sense of homophobia. He concluded by pleading with the hip-hop community: “Stop it, Fam. That’s discrimination…To me, that’s what they used to do with black people.”
That statement hit me. I had to sit with it.
I was not, then, as educated about the struggles of black people in America as I am now. (Then, I was merely a college student. Now, I am a African-American studies professor.) Yet, I knew that there were white people who believed that black people were inferior to them—and many used the Bible to justify it. I was struck by how similar it is to the way that there are people who believe that homosexuality is wrong and use the Bible to justify it. I was taken aback by how Kanye truly did not believe that homosexuality was a choice, and how discriminating against people for who they are (dare I say: for how God made them) was just as bad as the people who tried to marginalize our ancestors.
Since then, hip hop has been enriched by LGBTQIA+ artists. Artists like Brockhampton, Janelle Monáe and The Internet have made music that I’ve put in heavy rotation. And though I don’t really listen to her, I cannot help but admit that Azealia Banks has made music that impacted the culture. What is undeniable is that Frank Ocean’s contribution to black music has been indelible and has taken it to places I never knew was possible. What’s more, after the release of 4:44, Jay-Z has come to terms with his past homophobia. Little did he know that he had a person in his family that was a lesbian: his mom. And his change of heart was so complete that he and Beyonce were given the Vanguard Award for their allyship at GLAAD’s 30th Annual media awards.
The church has a long way to go with accepting people for who they are. I still find ministers and clergy who are unwilling to openly accept the same gender loving people within their own congregations. I find it ironic that black music was the way I learned to love people no matter who they love.