There is a tendency, particularly on the part of people who say things like “real hip hop”, to place hip hop on a pedestal, to think that it exists somehow outside or beyond the rest of popular culture. These are the same people who seek to make a division between a Tupac and a Young Thug without seeing the irony in that. The fact is that the issues that are pervasive in popular culture extend to hip hop as well. In this article we’ll be focusing on homophobia and transphobia.
If one must think of a homophobic rapper, Eminem may be the first to come to mind. Sure, he might be friends with Elton John now, but few other rappers have as many lines about gay anal sex (in a negative way) as Em. It’s easy to write that behavior off as his trademark edginess, and its the same for a lot of other ‘problematic’ rappers like Suga Free or Lil Wayne. But for me that prejudice has always been most difficult to ignore when it comes from the people that oldheads love most: conscious rappers.
A Tribe Called Quest is one of the most well-respected hip hop groups there’s ever been, conscious or otherwise. They’re known for their jazzy beats, fun vibe, and love-based philosophy. Their second project, The Low End Theory, is probably the perfect jazz rap album. It could have been much less than that. Initially the album contained a track called Georgie Porgie, which I invite you to listen to (as well as several other both pro and anti-LGBT+ hip hop songs) below. Georgie Porgie is probably within the top five most horrifying songs I have ever heard. Featuring Brand Nubian, because of course it does, Georgie Porgie is just bar after bar, verse after verse, of how gay men are unnatural, filthy, and less than men.
Fucked up right? And this is no isolated incident. Mos Def calls out rappers as ‘mad fags’ in Re: Definition. Immortal Technique, Goodie Mob, KRS-ONE (yes I will talk shit about the person we quoted in the tagline, anybody can get it), Grandmaster Flash, and even Common have been guilty of similar acts. Do I really need to explain this? There’s nothing conscious about hating people for an intrinsic part of their identity that has nothing to do with you. The only one of these people I have ever seen make a serious apology and about-face is Common who apologized for his remarks and wrote a song (not one of his best) called Me, You, and Liberation for his Electric Circus album.
Others will say things like, that’s not what gay or faggot means to me, it’s more like “calling someone a bitch or a punk or asshole,” which of course begs the question of why the word gay even has a negative connotation, or why one would decide that their ability to use a certain word as an insult outweighs what they know it means to people. Another explanation could be that capitalism is a corrupting influence; rappers might think one thing or another about queer issues, or have no thoughts at all, but make use of slurs against queer people ultimately because it’s good for their image, for their sales. We can’t ignore the issues with an audience that looks more favorably upon artists who present hateful beliefs. The rest, I suppose, just hope people forget. Or maybe they have their conscious heads so far up their asses that it never crosses their minds. And that’s why people who try to put artists like KRS on a moral pedestal over someone like Young ‘there’s no such thing as gender’ Thug are just straight up wrong. Oppression is oppression and they engaged in it.
But fast forward 25 years. Phife Dawg is dead (dead? passed away? how much respect is appropriate to show in the context of me writing this right now), and the remaining Tribe members are performing two singles from their upcoming album We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, presented by no less than Dave Chappelle on Saturday Night Live. I could not be more excited. And then, in the first song, We the People…, the Tribe speaks, if briefly, on prejudice against gay folks.
It is hard to react to that. I guess it’s good. Is it sincere? I don’t know. In the United States, the tide is turning with the legalization of gay marriage and general growing acceptance of homosexuality, so a very large part of me thinks that that’s all it is. Selfish adaption to the new normal; anything not to lose sales. Political correctness steps in, outright slurs seem to come less and less, and more and more hip hop is becoming what it always should be: a place where people can be confident in themselves.
It is truly only now that queer people of color are gaining a space in which they can express themselves. I know that this is the third time I’ve brought this up, but Young Thug doesn’t believe in gender. He wore a dress for the cover of his first mixtape. This isn’t just Kanye West saying gay people are okay even though it’s not his thing, Young Thug, one of the most popular and far-reaching hip hop artists of our time, is inarguably queer. That is significant. And there are equally talented, far more experimental artists on the rise as well, such as Mykki Blanco, Cakes da Killa, and Le1f. And, of course, there are many more working below the mainstream or outside the lens of public view.
These changes in the hip hop community are what made me want to interview Sai, a self-described fashion designer, model, and writer from Portsmouth, VA. Sai considers themself to be agender, outside of the traditionary binary of male or female. We did an unplanned photoshoot and talked about the intersections of race and sexuality, LGBT people in hip hop, and the clash between religion and identity. Although you may find people like them are underrepresented in the mainstream, Sai is one of the most hip hop persons I’ve ever met. Please enjoy the interview.