Queering the Mic

"The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House"
-- Audre Lorde

"My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge
That'll stab you in the head
Whether you're a fag or lez"
-- Eminem

The Lorde quote has always haunted me for both the way it sears open an entire realm of truth to power and the ways in which it's clearly too pat; particularly when the master's tools are the only things lying around. In hip-hop, this quote seems to run on a loop in my head as I watch video after video of consumer gluttony gone bling with women just one more thing to accumulate.

Don't get me wrong, I love hip-hop. For someone enamored with language the way I am, there's nothing like the pleasure of listening to a genre where words are minted by the minute and meaning gets telegraphed to your booty through lexical stunts of brilliant rhythm. But I got issues. Even the margins of hip-hop are plagued with Promise Keeper views of women and tedious dependence on the crutch of homophobia. (e.g., Not two minutes into the latest MC Jean Grae, we're treated to diss all of the "faggots" who don't tremble in her path.) It's worse listening to the mangling explanations which come forth, that usually end by illuminating the fact that they're not just really calling someone a homosexual, but doing so with a back handed gesture of sexism. I guess this means that the categories of gay and lesbian has become a toxic waste dump for leftover bigotries that can no longer be expressed in polite company.

The energies of prejudice can be impacted into gays because there are still several socially acceptable rationalizations for the hatred. Still debating our existential validity, just recently given legal permission (at least partially) to be who we are, queer folk still operate as frighteners in public debates where religious psychotics still reign over a major political party and forge their selves and sense of mission from the number of freedom pyres under their belts.

Talking to gay artists about their sexuality and art can be a tricky task. Every time I do it, I'm confronted with the low-grade hostility that emanates from a human who feels caged and constrained by a label. Nobody wants to drag around such an oppression nametag as a point of entry for recognition. It's the same burden African-American artists struggled with and, in many cases, have largely overcome through ubiquity. Saying "gay" rapper, comes with an undercurrent of stooping as if to say "Oh, look dear" or "My, my, what a surprise."

Having wound my way through the house of a thousand caveats, I still set out to find out whether or not Lorde's axiom holds true for queers, and whether or not GLBT people could make countercurrent inroads in a genre deeply invested in keeping them as a place holder on the bottom of the totem -- just below "yo mamma" slams.

Some cry "racist" when hip-hop's homophobia gets nicked because, they retort, rock 'n' roll is just as predisposed to hate queer folk. It's total bullshit, of course, because while Steven Tyler might privately pass fag jokes amongst his friends to stabilize the currency of his masculinity, rock 'n roll's lyrical content has never been rife with the denigration of gays and lesbians that hip-hop has. To the contrary, recurring currents of androgyny and sexual deviancy checker rock's history. Sociologists might point out that hip-hop at least partially emerged from the practice of "doing the dozens", a cadenced dialogue of insults designed to rhythmically axe an opponent's ego. But that just begs the question. Tradition hardly excuses bigotry.

Part of the aura of untouchability when it comes to criticizing a genre so heavily peopled with minorities comes from an excess of liberalism's success. People mistakenly assume that humans who've suffered culturally get some sort of pass for their intellectual shittiness. This privilege of those who have suffered can lead to the most egregious forms of exploitation: Think of neo-conservatives who accuse every critic of Israel as being a closet Holocaust sympathizer. It is breathtakingly stupid for someone who has experienced oppression to pass it along to someone else without, for a second, recognizing the irony. But it's wrong to assume that people learn from being oppressed. For some, the lesson is simply that it's better to give than receive.

Moreover, the "master's tools" frequently pit one trammeled group against another, as if freedom and equality are a small tray of finger sandwiches in a starved stadium. Many African-Americans bristle at the comparison of civil rights to gay liberation (though many don't as well), because it's believed that homosexuality is a choice whereas race is not. That, of course, has the inadvertent moral effect of arguing that if it were possible to scientifically alter skin color, black people should just combat racism by choosing to be white. This inability to see homophobia and racism as parallel practices makes it all the easier for people in hip-hop to elide the implications of slandering the out group du jour. No one's status as a minority should magically ward off criticism. The achievement of equality should never be about the assumption of untouchable virtue. The psychology of quite a bit of hip-hop is royally skull fucked and there's really no nice way to put it.

New York City's Cazwell has the kind of swaggering style that belongs on billboards. He talks to me from the ass end of a brutal hangover (it's Tuesday) and speaks with refreshing candor, punctuating long riffs with a dismissive "and whatevah". His sound makes promiscuous use of other genres; a rowdy skim of club music, electro, and hip-hop, with lyrics that celebrate sex with the kind of horny abandon where no one gets hurt and everyone only wants to touch themselves a little bit more.

Cazwell sees one of the main obstacles to a successful queer rapper is the desire to meld into the hip-hop canon, a fantasy he dismisses as "I can't wait until they invite me to the Source awards." He doesn't believe that the music industry has an intrinsic homophobia as much as they have a fear of not making money. He takes it further, adding, "One thing you learn as a gay artist is that you have to create your own space with your own thing going on and invite people to come to you. You want revenge? Make a hit record!" Cazwell believes that hip-hop's homophobia comes from its predominance of straight men who hang with straight men whose only contact with gays might be the occasional stylist.

Of course, ignorance doesn't quite adequately explain why people would need to trade in the degradation of people they know nothing about. Cazwell clearly does what he does without apology; rhyming about how to give a good blowjob and doing a pair of brothers, in an off-handed way and with a casualness that puts the ball in your court. If you have a problem with it, it's your problem. He eschews the gay label, and not just for its limitations or its inaccuracy when applied to his sound. "The problem is if you become the gay anything people start saying you do gay rap. Does that mean Rupert Everet does gay acting?" he says.

Listening to transgendered rapper Katastrophe is like listening to Eminem without the Oedipal casualties: Katastrophe has a fresh, combative sense of politics. Taking on the gay community's own closet, Katastrophe, explores the sticky thicket of being transgendered in a world where categorical ambiguity invariably freaks out even the outlanders. His flow has a sinister edge, a liquid quick bitterness that gives his rhymes the heaviness of a potential threat. Katastrophe sees the gay bashing in hip-hop as a simple case of a braggart's fallback, since the worst thing to lose in a war of machismo is your stereotypical manhood.

At this point, I can't help but wonder aloud how funny it is that aggressive masculinity needs to prefaced on this sort of fearful policing -- a united front against individuality. But then I've always believed it takes more courage to be a drag queen in our culture than it does to be a typical man any day, in any way. Katastrophe definitely sees his music as a response to the hostile terrain of hip-hop, noting that "I think it is impossible to be a queer creating hip-hop and not somehow reflect on the fact that as of yet we have no place in hip-hop. Just the act of me being openly queer and rapping about it is absolutely, directly going to respond to the blatant homophobia that goes along with hip-hop and its culture." Far from coming off as a victim amongst victims, Katastrophe carves out a ferocious space of critique with a morbid sense of humor and a bulls-eyed rage.

When I began trying to set up an interview with queer hip-hop goddesses, Scream Club, I knew they were gonna be rowdy fun. Their answering machine sounds like a slumber party in the wee hours of the morning when all everyone can do is roll around on the floor and laugh at absolutely nothing. Bridging the missing link between Salt n Pepa and Peaches, Cindy Wonderful and Sarah Adorable rip through tracks about girl on girl love and sexual politickin'. If you can't have fun listening to Scream Club, you're probably Mel Gibson, and that's sad.

"We're down with queers!" Cindy shouts and both of them start laughing. They seem to have given much thought to the questions of genre and bigotry, to an even broader extent than I had. When I asked them about being "lesbian" rappers, Sarah piped in with "I prefer queer because lesbian is too rigid. It doesn't leave room for including trans people and it doesn't question categories like 'girl' and 'boy. Basically, it doesn't leave much room for many different kinds of gender expression." Cindy definitely wants to counter what she sees is wrong with hip-hop, "I'm really aware of it (homophobia). Not only is hip-hop homophobic, it's also very sexist. I didn't use to think of what I was doing as a response to that. I was doing what I liked. But recently I've really wanted to make music that directly responds to that."

The idea that they might be pigeonholed doesn't faze them. Sarah replies, "We're definitely queer, that's who we are, so if we're described that way, that's awesome to me." To be frank, this was the most heartening gesture of solidarity I heard. While I fully understand the desire to steer clear of the queer artist box, the effect of that avoidance can sometimes be premature gentrification; like queer people moving too quickly to the deluxe apartment in the sky without acknowledging a debt to a struggle. I'm not accusing anyone I've interviewed of that, but I do believe that there has to be a more nuanced, halfway mark for gay artists making their way in the world. There has to be a way to identify to the civil rights of gays and lesbians while simultaneously asserting the autonomy of their creativity.

It's too early to test the hypothesis that it's queers that are going to take hip-hop to some next level shit, since none of these artists have garnered the ink they deserve, though all of them are more than capable of that "hit record" vengeance Cazwell mentioned. I've never supported censorship, even when it comes to hate speech, because I don't believe anyone has the right to be pampered out of the beautiful and ugly reality of difference. But I fully acknowledge that on an unleveled playing field, the speech battle can be a bit like trying to flood the world by taking a piss.

When all is said and done, I came away from these conversations with a huge sense of hope about the evolution of hip-hop as well as a greater commitment to calling out people who traffic in homophobic, king-of-the-hill cheap shots. These are just a few of the people out there mapping out a wholly new and innovative artistic homeland. It's a shame that hip-hop's cultural ascendance has come with such short-changed introspection. Perhaps it's just a phase that will soon be superseded by people with mad skillz and no baggage -- people who won't need the dubious prop of an underfoot Other. People who will make incredible music without becoming the master's tools.

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