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Hip hop and sexuality: Is the culture freeing itself of homophobia?

Hip hop’s attitude towards sexuality has often been divisive (Picture: Getty)

There’s a lot to be said about the language in hip hop when it comes to homophobia. It’s no surprise that, to some, it may feel like an unwelcoming genre where the LGBT+ community is concerned. 

Words have power – rappers know that perhaps more than anyone – but for all their lyrical genius on the mic, many of the culture’s most celebrated rappers have fallen short on this. 

Eminem has been forced to confront his use of the F-word and other gay slurs throughout his career, while others, like Kanye West, have perpetuated the term ‘no homo’ through their lyrics. 

J Cole drew criticism when he used the F-word three times on his 2013 track Villuminati but later said it was used to highlight the issue of homophobia in rap. In 2015, Travis Scott apologised for hurling gay slurs on-stage at a gig when he felt the audience weren’t being enthusiastic enough. 

However, what others aren’t saying offensively through their words, they’re expressing through their fashion in a more positive way. 

If you squint at the genre’s history, you’ll notice that male rappers in particular have gradually blurred the stereotypical lines of what’s deemed to be masculine and ‘straight’ through fashion statements. 

This is what has become the dominating conversation in recent years; rap artists expressing themselves through ‘feminine’ clothing and behaviour typically associated with women. 

Andre 3000 performing on The Jay Leno Show

Andre 3000 is wonderfully one of hip hop’s ‘eccentric characters’ (Picture: Getty Images)
Cam’ron made pink ‘cool’ for men in the early 00s (Picture: WireImage)

Akaash Sharma, assistant editor of Hip Hop N More, told Metro.co.uk: ‘I think that these eccentric characters have always existed in some form during every period of hip hop. 

‘I think there’s something to be said about rappers like A$AP Rocky and Kanye West being into high fashion where some of the lines between “masculine” and “feminine” fashion choices are blurred. 

‘Famously, West wore a kilt for many dates on the Watch The Throne Tour, praising it for its silhouette.’ 

Highlighting some of those other ‘eccentric characters’, human hip hop encyclopedia Kinetik added: ‘25 years ago, Andre 3000 from Outkast was sporting blonde wigs and wearing women’s church hats during his ATLiens run. 

‘At the peak of his success in the mid-2000s, Cam’ron went “all pink everything” and made so many men comfortable to think and wear pink.’ 

Big Freedia is a notable icon for the LGBT+ community. The New Orleans-native is widely credited with transforming bounce music, an off-shoot of hip hop synonymous with twerking that emerged in the 80s/90s. 

The musician has previously described herself as a gay man but embraces her ‘feminine’ side through clothes, hair and make-up. Big Freedia also prefers she/her pronouns. 

The idea that a rapper has to be macho traces back to the origins of hip hop almost 50 years ago. 

Hip hop expert Will Lavin explained: ‘Hip Hop has long been associated with machismo because of where it came from. It was born out of the struggle the Black community had to endure in the 70s, with poverty a real life situation for so many. 

‘Homelessness, drugs, violence, buildings that were literally on fire in the Bronx and other areas of New York, these were all the things the Black community faced, and those pressures formed the diamond that is hip hop. But you had to be tough. It was a fight for survival every day and tough back then was all about being macho, puffing your chest out, flexing your muscles and hustling.’ 

Kany West loved the ‘silhouette’ of the kilt on his and Jay Z’s Watch The Throne tour (Picture: WireImage)
Big Freedia is an LGBT icon (Picture: Getty Images)
Lil Nas X is a queer icon for the new generation (Picture: Getty Images)

However, as much as stereotypical masculinity was part of the early threads of hip hop, that did also clash with the way those within the culture would challenge social norms. 

Sharma said: ‘It’s worth noting that in its infancy, hip hop culture was especially about being rebellious and representing the antithesis of the establishment and that will come in numerous shapes and sizes over the years.’ 

That has evolved until today, where the typical idea of a rapper looks a whole lot different. 

In this new era of hip hop, Lil Nas X has notably found himself at the centre of the conversation after coming out as gay in 2017 and unapologetically owning his sexuality since. 

After all, when was the last time anyone saw a male rapper twerking and lap dancing in a music video? 

Montero (Call Me By Your Name) was groundbreaking for both the LGBT+ community and rap. Scenes of Lil Nas X strutting around in skintight clothing and simulating sexualised acts on another man – albeit the devil – in the music video is something virtually unseen in mainstream hip hop. Until now, of course. 

The controversial visuals held up a mirror to what society looks like now – young men, especially those who are Black, proudly queer and entirely comfortable with not conforming to what is expected of them. 

Sharma continued: ‘Fast forward, we have a generation of rappers who are more empowered to be as expressive as they want to be from the flows to their faith to their fashion.’ 

He continued: ‘Today’s rappers bob and weave between genres and refuse to be boxed in musically. It’s no surprise that this non-conformist attitude underpins their fashion choices more than ever. 

‘Today’s rapper understands their influence as cultural trendsetters. More of them are breaking the “rules” and are supported by fans who love and support them for doing so through their fashion choices.’ 

Unfortunately, it has not always been so easy for rappers to incorporate ‘feminine’ clothing into their persona without feeling the pressure to explain. 

Young Thug’s penchant for wearing dresses has become almost more famous than his hit songs – he has dominated headlines every time he rocked a frock on the red carpet or, memorably, on his Jeffrey mixtape cover. However, rather than own his fashion choices outright, he dressed up his reasoning with ‘over-the-top machismo’ – according to Sharma – once rapping: ‘Had to wear the dress ‘cause I had a stick,’ referring to a rifle. 

He also told No Jumper in 2019 about the mixtape artwork: ‘N***a, I wore this long-ass dress because I had a motherf*****g AK-47 up under it.’ 

The bravado nature of Young Thug’s explanation highlights the contradictions of hip hop, of which there are many according to music expert Lavin. 

He explained: ‘Andre 3000’s look and persona was heavily influenced by Prince, David Bowie, Rick James and Jimi Hendrix, all of who were rocking ladies fashion, or at least clothes deemed feminine, over 40 years ago, and hip hop has long celebrated them for their originality and individualism. They’re all icons. 

‘Yet for the most part, if a rapper did it up until 10 years or so ago they were ridiculed to an extent, or at least the topic of many debates surrounding what is acceptable or not.’ 

Young Thug’s statement harks back to the ‘macho’ perception of rappers from hip hop’s origin and begs the question: Is it easier for a male artist to be openly queer if they only tread the lines of being a hip hop artist? 

Young Thug Jeffrey mixtape cover

Young Thug wore a dress on the cover of his Jeffrey mixtape (Picture: Atlantic)

Lil Nas X’s breakout single, Old Town Road, was marginalised as hip hop by the Billboard charts despite being heavy on the country sound. Lil Nas X himself has said that he considers himself more of a pop star than a rap star – but isn’t hip hop the most popular and dominant music genre? 

Hip hop specifically embodies the wider culture of rap of which the style has evolved over the past decade, so Lil Nas X certainly fits in somewhere within that realm. 

Sharma explained: ‘The distinction between male artists that have worked in the hip hop space being gay/bisexual versus actual MCs being gay/bisexual is interesting. Frank Ocean has rapped on occasion, but is predominantly considered a singer, which seemingly makes his sexuality acceptable for people from a distance. 

‘When Tyler, The Creator made his own sexuality clear on his last effort, he did so on an album where he barely rapped. 

‘Being a rapper still comes with a certain set of clichés, even if subconscious or unspoken, that don’t align with what people wrongly assume homosexuality must be.’ 

Hip hop is undeniably male-dominated but it would be remiss of us if women were to be excluded from this conversation. 

The attitudes towards the sexuality of female rap artists compared to their male counterparts is glaring. There seems to be an element of queer women in rap being glamourised whereas male rappers are often shamed. 

Young MA has previously described herself as gay but now prefers not to use labels. Any time she is pictured with another woman, even if they are straight, many of the social media comments praise her for ‘turning’ a straight woman even if that isn’t the case. It’s difficult to think of a time when a male rap artist who is queer or dresses ‘feminine’ garners the same response. 

Young MA prefers not to define her sexuality with labels (Picture: Getty Images)

Sharing her thoughts on the favouring of queer female rappers, Mimi The Music Blogger said: ‘There’s a fetish about women who are bisexual compared to men. Do we have a long way to go? Yes. 

‘Many men [in rap] are embarrassed, ashamed, or uncomfortable to be around gay, bisexual, and transgender people because of what [others] may think, but they don’t have this energy for girls who are bisexual. 

‘Rappers have multiple lyrics about how they like a girl who goes both ways, etc.’ 

Kinetik agreed that there’s a difference in how the sexuality of female rappers is treated compared to men. 

He explained: ‘For the most part, the music industry is run by men and profits are powered by ideas of hyper-masculinity. Unfortunately, women are often treated as products to sell, including their sexuality being positioned as curious or risqué. 

‘For the most part, many male rappers are still subject to some of the misguided alpha male bravado and outdated ideas about sexual expression. They haven’t reached that same level of openness about their sexuality.’ 

However, he added: ‘There have been positive steps in recent years. In 2017, Taylor Bennett came out as bisexual, and ILoveMakonnen came out as gay. Their timelines mainly were filled with support.

‘So in light of artists like Lil Nas X, Frank Ocean, Kevin Abstract and Skype Williams being transparent about their experiences, hip hop will continue to see more men being free in terms of their sexuality and channelling it through their art.’ 

Lil Nas X’s long-term impact on hip hop remains to be seen but most industry insiders are hopeful (Picture: Getty Images)

It’s clear that we’re in a new dawn of hip hop where being your authentic self sells records too. 

Lavin said: ‘Hip hop runs the world and represents the people, so as the biggest culture with the biggest-selling genre of music under its umbrella, it’s going to reflect the people musically and visually.’ 

At the moment, Lil Nas X is one of the biggest-selling hip hop artists and his influence and represents a large population of young men already living – or trying to – their authentic selves. Wherever you want to place him within the world of hip hop, Lil Nas X’s commercial success is proof that sexuality isn’t such a hindrance in hip hop as it perhaps once was. 

Lil Nas X is undeniably riding the waves of a big moment right now but how influential will that be in years to come? 

Sharma argued: ‘Being a rapper still comes with a certain set of clichés, even if subconscious or unspoken, that don’t align with what people wrongly assume homosexuality must be.

‘I’m sceptical about Montero changing the course of new-age hip-hop, not necessarily because he’ll be shunned or the song will be ignored, but because for any singular event to have such an impact on the scope of the entire culture, it would have to be the perfect moment.’ 

More convinced of the rapper’s impact, Kinetik said: ‘Lil Nas X using the Montero video to channel his sexuality and explore queerness from a historical and religious perspective will definitely help change the course of new-age hip hop. 

‘I expect the most significant change will be rappers and hip hop fans becoming even more fearless in expressing themselves and tackling challenging topics.’ 

Lavin agreed: ‘I also think that because people are calling out prejudice in all forms, whether in public or on social media, and society is holding the perpetrators accountable, it gives those who want to be themselves and wear what they want a sense of security and support. 

‘They now know that there’s a bigger community of people out there happy for them to be themselves, who will have their back if they were to face abuse.’

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