This much is not up for debate: lines are being drawn in this country. Divides that have always existed are growing or becoming more obvious, new points of conflict seem to sprout up every week, and the United States under President Donald J. Trump is in a more tumultuous place than it has ever been before in my lifetime. Right now, shit is crazy.
In general, the hip-hop community has reacted to the insanity of Trump’s America in an inspiring manner. A growing number of voices are speaking on major issues, with star artists like Chance The Rapper, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar and Joey Bada$$ more focused than ever on activism. But there is also a stable of ugly elephants in our communal closet.
While hip-hop has long embraced its responsibility to speak on the injustices that affect minorities, we’ve made very little progress in confronting hip-hop’s nasty and problematic relationship with domestic violence, drug addiction, sexual assault, cultural appropriation, and a slew of other issues.
Each of these dark skeletons is disturbing, but there’s one ugly truth in the hip-hop community that’s particularly close to my own heart: hip-hop’s lingering, undeniable struggle with homophobia.
Gone are the days where this issue is merely a matter of personal morality. The often tacit and occasionally explicit anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment in every corner of rap is not only jeopardizing hip-hop’s alignment with the progressive movement but is also pushing away potential allies. If you believe, as I do, that hip-hop culture and its extended community can be a force for good in the world, in Trump’s America, homophobia is anti hip-hop.
Before I continue, I’d like to politely acknowledge the skeptics reading this article and rolling their eyes like homophobia in rap isn’t a problem anymore. I can hear it now: “Tyler came out of the closet and still sold albums!” “But we love Frank Ocean!” Unfortunately, Tyler receiving props for his first-week album sales and Frank being shown love for his wondrous talents doesn’t mean hip-hop’s homophobic tendencies have disappeared.
As recently as 2012, EPMD’s Erick Sermon famously denied that gays exist in hip-hop. In 2013, J. Cole thought it would be kosher to drop the cringy lines “My verbal AK slay faggots / And I don't mean no disrespect / Whenever I say faggot, okay faggot?” Just this year, Snoop’s eye-roll inducing caricature of Young Thug in the bloated “Moment I Feared” video made up for what it lacked in taste with a heaping portion of tried-and-true anti-gay rhetoric.
Rap’s worship of Frank Ocean is an exception, not the rule; almost everywhere you look, if you dig deep enough, there are instances of homophobia still permeating hip-hop.
Even the rightfully praised, community minded, current king Kendrick Lamar is guilty. His hard hitting, Black Power tinted “DNA” has plenty of great lines about the liberation of oppressed brown peoples, but it also includes a few rhymes that are downright unacceptable from a leader of Kendrick’s pedigree. He raps, “Bitch, your hormones prolly switch inside your DNA / Problem is, all that sucker shit inside your DNA.”
For those unfamiliar, the word “switch” has long been used as a homophobic slur in the African American community, which refers to a man perceived as homosexual—and therefore “weak” in the anti-gay logic of rap—based on a stereotyped feminine walk. When Kendrick invokes the term here, tying it to a “hormone switch,” it can easily be interpreted as a slight to those who identify as trans, buying into hip-hop’s age old association between homosexuality and “sucker shit.” Despite all of his enlightened thinking, my favorite rapper alive still propagated hate even while embracing a racially progressive message.
To understand why this is such a major issue politically, and a huge hindrance to the goals of Kendrick’s largely activist-leaning catalog, look no further than the organizing efforts of Cole, one of the most vocal Black leaders alive with one of the largest platforms in hip-hop.
When I first saw his performance of “Be Free” on Letterman, I fell in love with Cole—the activist. That admiration continued to deepen as Cole hit the ground in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown; here was a leader not only speaking out against the atrocities of racist police shootings but actually getting involved and doing the damn work necessary to provoke real change. To his credit, none of that was just posturing or branding; Cole has consistently spoken up in defense of the Black community, with his unwavering support of Kaep being the most recent example.
In June 2016, 49 people were killed and 58 wounded when a gunman opened fire inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. In the aftermath of the massacre, J. Cole was not seen on the ground, nor on social media, supporting his LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters. And he wasn’t alone in his silence. Not one of the aforementioned artists sent out a single social media post.
Given hip-hop’s ugly anti-gay history, contemporary leaders are already associated with a culture that the queer community sees as hateful. Like it or not, silence at a time when loud voices are needed reads as tacit homophobia. If every rapper who has spoken out about police brutality also addressed the violent byproducts of homophobia still running rampant in the U.S., that would be a monumental change of course. It would indicate that hip-hop was ready to reach across the aisle and build real, meaningful alliances with other oppressed communities.
From the American Revolution right up to the Civil Rights movement and beyond, real change has always required alliance. The more people marching in Ferguson and publically supporting Orlando, the more likely it is that both Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ movements are able to accomplish their respective goals. Every voice matters, we’re louder together.
As it stands now, we’re all guilty. If you clicked on any of those atrocious “Is Tyler Really Gay???” click-bait headlines, you’re also part of the problem because, really, who gives a shit and why does it matter?
For me, acceptance is one of the most important moral truths; I love my LGBTQ+ friends and family because they are people—just like me and you. Even if you don’t feel the same, broader tolerance within hip-hop of LGBTQ+ culture is now a political necessity; advocates for organizations like Black Lives Matter need all the help we can get.
The more we work as one, the faster the arc of the moral universe will bend towards justice.