The Media's Problem With Gay Rappers
A few months ago the influential music site Pitchfork posted an article focusing on emerging rappers in New York—Mykki Blanco, Le1f, Zebra Katz, House of LaDosha, Cakes da Killa. It was essentially a gay rapper trend piece. Those profiled had tenuous threads—most knew each other, but musically speaking, their art really didn't have anything in common. The reason they were featured together is because they are all gay.
Imagine a prominent music publication writing a straight rapper trend piece? It’s important that these artists were exposed to a larger audience, because they are all talented. But it’s unfortunate that they were presented as "other.” Rather than being a straightforward artist profile, the writer contextualized the piece by admitting that in an earlier interview for the same site, she had whitewashed a quote from straight rapper A$AP Rocky. In that interview, the publication pushed—and garnered much attention from—a quote with A$AP Rocky that he was not homophobic, running with it as a tagline: "I used to be homophobic," he said, "but that's fucked up. All the designers I'm wearing are gay."
In the Web site's later piece, the writer admitted that she had actually omitted the part of a sentence that showed he was perhaps more homophobic than she wanted readers to know. His quote, about attending an underground gay-friendly dance called Ghe20 Goth1k: "I went downstairs and a bitch was dancing on the floor and these gay guys were around her doing some cult-chant shit... I was scared. I guess that's what happens when square motherfuckers hear my music and shit." By omitting that part of the quote, Pitchfork pushed a confounding narrative that A$AP Rocky is more open-minded than he actually is, while burying it in a piece that invited readers to ogle a new crop of rappers who were gay as curious. Meanwhile, the A$AP Rocky-isn't-homophobic meme continues to circulate, most recently in the Daily Beast's own gay rapper trend piece, "Is Le1f Too Gay for Hip-Hop?"
I couldn't speculate why tailoring a narrative would be part of the site's agenda, other than headline-making and click-baiting, but it was troubling, particularly presented in a piece about homosexuality within the larger framework of hip-hop. Regardless, when Mykki Blanco dropped her gender-fucking video for "Join My Militia (Nas Gave Me a Perm)," one of the best and hardest rap songs of the year, the clip was posted to Pitchfork without comment.
Unfortunately, that Pitchfork piece set the tone for coverage to come. Last month, when Manhattan rapper Le1f's "Wut" video began making a splash, some media outlets like Vibe and Bullett, wrote about the artist without boxing him into the gay rapper corner—recognizing that his gayness is a crucial aspect of his identity but not all there is to it. (Full disclosure: Le1f is a good friend of mine, but I did not tell him I was writing this piece.) Other outlets, however, peppered their narratives with the qualifier "gay rapper” Le1f, as was similar in reportage of "gay rapper Mykki Blanco" and "gay rapper Zebra Katz." The problem is that many “gay rappers” don’t want the qualifier. From the previously mentioned Pitchfork story:
"Let's not make gay NYC rap a 'thing,'" Le1f wrote me in an email after our interview. "I'm not trying to be competing with my friends based on their race and sexuality. The whole 'room for one' mentality is homophobic... if the world is ready for a gay rapper, then they're ready for multiple gay rappers. If we were straight, no one would be comparing us."
Since soulful songwriter Frank Ocean's admission that he once loved a man, all eyes have been on same-sex love in the hip-hop space, where until now, it had always been a contentious, hot-button issue. Rampant homophobia on wax and whispers of prominent heads living gay lives on the low were all delivered with a healthy dose of close-minded gossip and disdain. We are talking about a subculture that gave us the vile phrase “no homo,” courtesy popular misanthropic rapper Cam'ron. But as America wakes up and opens up—and after Obama, the hip-hop president, finally cosigned gay marriage—wide mainstream acceptance of gay love seems ever more imminent. So, too, with hip-hop.
As the larger tide turns, smaller ones ripple too. In the past few years, a number of underground rappers who proudly identify as gay or transgendered have garnered increasing visibility in the mainstream. A few years ago, New Orleans bounce rapper Big Freedia began rising to become the most famous out gay/trans rapper ever, touring the country to packed venues psyched to shake it to her homegrown booty music. Last summer, Loco Ninja, a spunky rapper from Spanish Harlem, gained popularity through "Imma Homo," a track and a viral video with Rainbow Noise (and appearances on Tyra's talk show). During A/W 2012 fashion week, the infectious single "Ima Read," by art school mavens Zebra Katz and Njena Redd Foxxx, soundtracked a grip of runways with a threat pulled straight from vogue culture. The phenomenally talented Mykki Blanco released an incredible EP, a PSA for teens, and was photographed by star-shooter Terry Richardson. Odd Future's Syd the Kyd is nonchalantly out as a lesbian, and made out with a pretty girl in the first video from her group the Internet. And Le1f's "Wut" video is ever popular, showcasing his unique deep-voiced style and accomplished dance moves.
All of this is wonderful. These artists are talented and deserve to be heard, and not just for how they express their sexual orientation or gender identity. But that's the problem: as their stars rise, they're increasingly being boxed in rather than celebrated as out, and not by choice. They're being further marginalized by being tenuously lumped together.
The visibility of figures like Le1f and Mykki Blanco is a great boon to hip-hop and for rap fans who are also progressives, it's like a weight being lifted to see an increasing multiplicity of figures in a culture we grew up with. But the way the topic is being approached, revered, otherized, and sometimes even stereotyped in the media has become more and more troubling, a reminder of how long even allies and advocates have left to go. These rappers grew up on Foxy Brown and Ma$e and Juelz and OutKast, just like the rest of us, yet some outlets seem perplexed by the existence of rappers who are out and gay, and can actually rap. The music media clearly has very little idea how to deal with expressive homosexuality in hip-hop, even when it's not all that in-your-face.
Additionally, the history of hip-hop homophobia certainly comes into play, and while there have been plenty of out gay rappers for decades—including Katey Redd, Big Freedia's best friend, who's been releasing music since the 1990s; Katastrophe, a transgendered Bay Area rapper who's had a steady fanbase for 15 years; and '90s icon Queen Pen, who has rapped openly about lesbian relationships but is ambiguous about her orientation—this is the first time any rappers who are out and living by hip-hop tenets have been given mainstream coverage.
Reasons that some of these artists are being treated like unicorns are not outlandish. These are all excellent artists who are shining in a subculture that has historically said it does not want them. Still, as Le1f and Mykki Bianco are referred to in the media as "gay rappers," you'd be hard-pressed to find many examples of journalists writing about "gay guitarist Bob Mould" or "gay singer Michael Stipe."
I don't advocate whitewashing their identities, because they should be able to incorporate their identities to varying degrees, in whatever they please. But it would be nice if writers would write about rappers' sexual identities as nonchalantly as they do rappers who are, say, weed smokers. It’s one aspect of complex identities being played out in a far more complicated structure than monolithic qualifiers. As Mykki Blanco tweeted Friday, "I wish music writers would look at [what] I've accomplished before they continue to decide my future on their own terms."