Recently, two artists with large followings opened up about their sexual orientation. On his birthday, 21-year-old rapper Taylor Bennett, brother of Grammy winner Chance the Rapper, revealed on Twitter that he is bisexual. Taylor tweeted, “I have always openly supported the gay community & will keep doing so in 2017.” Days later, ILoveMakonnen, singer of the hit song “Tuesday,” took to Twitter, “As a fashion icon, I can’t tell u about everybody else’s closet, I can only tell u about mine, and it’s time I’ve come out.” He continued, “Since y’all love breaking news, here’s some old news to break, I’m gay. And now I’ve told u about my life, maybe u can go live yours.”
When these artists “came out”, a small, yet familiar jolt of fear passed through my heart. This fear is not just reserved for them, but even for artists such as Cakes Da Killa or Mykki Blanco, who are unapologetically carving a queer space for themselves within hip-hop, using gender fluid and genre-pushing artistry. I carry the fear of an overprotective sibling, still knowledgeable of the homophobia and queer antagonism these rappers are vulnerable to.
Part of my fear was proven right when the rap group, Migos, responded to ILoveMakonnen in Rolling Stone. Quavo is quoted as saying, “Damn, Makonnen!” and “They supported him?” when online support for ILoveMakonnen was mentioned. Offset replied, “That’s because the world is fucked up.” Takeoff added, “This world is not right.” They even insinuated they felt betrayed by ILoveMakonnen’s revelation, since they solely understood him as someone who talked about “trapping and selling Molly”—as if he couldn’t possibly be gay and sell Molly.
After backlash, Migos tritely clarified their statements via Twitter by saying, “We feel the world is fucked up that people feel like they have to hide and we’re asked to comment on someone’s sexuality. We have no problem with anyone’s sexual preference. We love all people, gay or straight and we apologize if we offended anyone.” I questioned whether their words were genuine. Did they really love all gay people, or was this damage control for a statement that could negatively impact their career? What limitations did they put on gender and sexuality if they only saw ILoveMakonnen solely as the guy who rapped and sold drugs? Sadly, within the hypermasculine circles of hip-hop, you can be “hard” but you can’t be gay. You can love women, but only when they’re your mama or when you’re the one in control of the relationship. Femininity or “softness” is something to be policed and not explored. Imagining oneself outside of these binaries requires rigorous work—work that even I continue to do till this day.
As a Black gay-queer boy who was the farthest from hypermasculine, I struggled to find a space for myself in hip-hop. My introduction to hip-hop began with the first three albums I bought, which were Will Smith’s Greatest Hits, 2Pac’s Greatest Hits, and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I played the songs constantly, memorized every lyric and danced to the infectious beats. Each artist spoke to me in various ways and when I shared my musical passion with family and friends, the responses served as warning to the complex world I was about to enter. A world that’s beautiful, yet traumatic, relatable, yet ostracizing, progressive, yet stagnant: the world of hip-hop.
I began to silence my appreciation for Will Smith because I didn’t want to be associated with so-called “soft” rappers. I refrained from praising Ms. Lauryn Hill as one of the greatest rappers of all time because rarely did women or femcees occupy this rank. I proudly demonstrated my 2Pac knowledge because most men could agree he was the “hardest,” yet the “realest” of rappers. 2Pac helped to prove my masculinity, he was my entryway to rappers like Nas and Common who were genius wordsmiths, but still embedded a layer of homophobia within me because of their lyrics. In 2017, times have clearly changed and the young people who were once like me now have the gender bending style of Young Thug, openly lesbian Young M.A and the groundbreaking Frank Ocean. Nonetheless, I still see the complexity in hip-hop and the work is clearly not over.
As of now, I can’t believe Migos’ apology is sincere, even in light of their Twitter post and a recent appearance on Ellen. Unpacking homophobia is more than a photo-op or a “we love all people” statement. I want rappers to be honest about their fears. Covering it up with a PR move can be just as dangerous, especially if those words aren’t real actions that can protect and liberate queer communities. You can claim homophobia, but still have a desire to change. In the words of the Outkast song “Ya’ll Scared,” “If you scared, say you scared.”
Homophobia, femmephobia, transphobia, and patriarchy hasn’t just infiltrated hip-hop, but the many communities and political institutions that inform hip-hop. Let’s identify these problems so we can find ways to move forward and rebuild ourselves whole. The future of young queer hip-hop lovers, like me, depends on it.