Roundtable: Homophobia in Hip-Hop

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Is it free speech or hate speech? The hip-hop series continues with a special roundtable on homophobia in rap music. New York-based writer Staceyann Chin, rapper and satirist Deadlee, and author and educator Mo Beasley weigh in. Note: Some of the language used in this segment may be offensive.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

First, a warning: The following conversation may include language offensive to some listeners. Now picture this: You're driving in your car and then this beat comes on. You're really digging it. The song makes your fingers snap, at stop lights, you throw in a shoulder lean that only you can see, but then you hear this from rap phenom Jay-Z.

(Soundbite of song, "Takeover")

JAY-Z (Rapper): (Rapping) Youse the fag model for Karl Kani/Esco ads. Went from, Nasty Nas to Esco's trash. Had a spark when you started but now you're just garbage. Fell from top ten to not mentioned at all.

CHIDEYA: Is it homophobic? Certainly so. Is it hate speech? I'll leave you to decide. One thing is for certain - Jay-Z is not the only guy in hip-hop saying these kinds of things. The question is: When lyrics turn you off, do you turn the radio off? Or at the end of the day, does the beat win? Today, we have a special Roundtable on hip-hop and homophobia.

We've got Staceyann Chin, a writer living in New York City who has appeared on Russel Simmons' "Def Poetry Jam" on Broadway; and Mo Beasley, a poet, sexuality educator and author of "No Good Nigga Bluez." We've also got Deadlee, a rapper and satirist living in Los Angeles. Thanks everybody.

DEADLEE (Rapper): Hey, thanks.

Ms. STACEYANN CHIN (Writer, New York City): Thanks for having us.

CHIDEYA: So Staceyann, do you have a song that you like for the beat but it has offensive lyrics in it and how do you make up your mind about this?

Ms. CHIN: It's interesting. We always argue about this in my circle of friends. If the lyrics offend me because I'm a poet first, so the words are what I am drawn to. If the lyrics offend me, I don't listen to it. I don't listen to it. I don't listen to it. I might find myself in moments nodding to a song because music is infectious. It's kind of like laughter - you hear it and you start moving. But as long as I hear something that really offends me, I try my very best not to listen to it.

CHIDEYA: Deadlee, if you had a situation of people voting with their derrieres, who gets on the floor, who gets off. A lot of times people vote, I don't care about the lyrics, don't you think?

DEADLEE: Exactly. I've been to clubs where just everyone is there to have a good time. They're dancing. They're not listening to lyrics, and I think at that moment, you just not - you throw everything out there.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, it's definitely interesting situation and we had artist Toni Blackman on recently and she said folks used the N-word when they rap because it sounds nice, it's a good place filler but they're predominantly black artists. Must an artist be gay to have the right to use the words that other gays and lesbians might find offensive? Mo and then Staceyann. Mo, what do you think?

Mr. MO BEASLEY (Author, "No Good Nigga Bluez"): I think there is some truth to that. If you are from a certain community - certain communities, minority communities, take derogatory words and they co-opt them to take the power or the bite out of them. And also if you're from that community, if you choose to do that because we use that with the N-word in our black communities, it's, you know, it's hard to check somebody if they choose to do that.

I don't recommend it. I don't think it's a smart thing to do but I'm not going to check gay people if they decide to use derogatory terms in their conversation with each other.

CHIDEYA: Staceyann, what do you think?

Ms. CHIN: I think where we are, is trying to figure out what exactly is derogatory and to whom. The N-word has been, you know, there's been a large outcry against the N-word in the upper class and middle-class African-American communities. I know that the people who largely use that word are usually people who live, you know, not far from where I live in Crown Heights and who stand on those (unintelligible) are very different.

And it's - we have to look at the history of racism, and we have to look at who it affects, and we have to look at why people behave the way they behave. And it can't be all those people who are using this word and they shouldn't be using it. It's a part of their lingo. It's a part of the vernacular that informs the way they address each other.

I think we' really are caught up in semantics when we're trying to discuss who should and who shouldn't use the word. What we should probably look at is why it is that particular words have been used historically to refer to certain groups of people and if that affects at all the lives of the people who we refer to or the people who don't want to be referred to it.

CHIDEYA: One of those code words is punk. And back in 1993, the group Brand Nubian released this song.

(Soundbite of song, "Punks Jump Up to Get Beat Down")

BRAND NUBIAN (Rap Group): (Singing) Don't understand their ways I ain't down with gays. You wanna grab the style that was made from my mom and my dad. When I was young, I used to run with my notepad. Then dimes knew and somehow I knew that I was bad to the bone.

CHIDEYA: The song is called "Punks Jump Up to Get Beat Down." It includes a reference to the F-word. Deadlee, do you have to, like, put on your decoder ring to parse out the lyrics, like, are you always looking as just individually for how anti-gay words are put into lyrics?

DEADLEE: You know, I realized that sometimes rappers just are, you know, representative of society in general that we've used the gay-word, the F-word as kind of a cutdown and sometimes even in my life I still tend to use something that I think is negative, like, oh, that's a gay. And it's weird. You know, I'm gay myself and I'm saying this. So when you're rapping it's the same thing. I understand that some rappers, they might be using that as a cutdown and not necessarily as a cutdown to the whole gay world, but more, you know, just trying to, you know, battle somebody.

CHIDEYA: It's - I want to ask you about your style. I actually saw a group called the Deep Dickollective.

DEADLEE: Right.

CHIDEYA: You'll never hear those words again on NPR - I just want to let you know.

DEADLEE: (Unintelligible) boys are mine, yeah.

CHIDEYA: And they're these satirists, you know, rapper satirists. You're a rapper satirist, how do you approach the, you know, describe the kind of stuff that you do?

DEADLEE: You know, what I've done is - first of all, if you've seen my image, I'd probably look like any rapper out there.

CHIDEYA: Definitely.

DEADLEE: They might think I'm a gay basher myself, but I think that's part of - that's important. I've come out this way to show that there are gays like myself. There's homo thugs like myself who are out there, we're representing. And, you know, we're going neck to neck with these guys that are trying to bash us.

CHIDEYA: You know, we are going to reintroduce our topic. It is the issue of gays and lesbians and homophobia in hip-hop.

You're listening to NPR's News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya.

We were just hearing from Deadlee, a rapper and satirist living in Los Angeles. We've also got Staceyann Chin, a writer in New York City who's appeared on Russell Simmons' "Def Poetry Jam," and Mo Beasley, a poet and sexuality educator and author of "No Good Nigga Bluez."

Mo, how do you approach dealing with these issues as an artist?

Mr. BEASLEY: As an artist, hate is something that I attack like a pit bull and it comes - if it comes as homophobia or a sexism or racism or just - or class-ism, I'm just - I'm going to juggle with it. And that's what my poetry is about because that just separates the human journey and that's really - we're all here, we're all separate but we're all part of the same hole. And I love to see how other spirits get down in flesh, you know, in how to express themselves in the world. So people who are trying to shut that out are just driven by fear, and I'm always attacking fear in my own spirit. I'm attacking fear in the audiences. I get to touch and the students I get to teach.

CHIDEYA: Staceyann, you come from a background of being a Caribbean-American writer and there - you talk about Nostrand Avenue and there's, you know, that's a big nexus of the community. How do you deal with people in your community who might like you in one way and say, wow, she's so talented and she's representing the community and she's on TV and then they're like, oh, but gays and lesbians that no way, no how, God will strike them down?

Ms. CHIN: I think in the smaller aspect, in the smaller circle of where I live and how I live and who I talk to, it might be uncomfortable. You know, my partner might find it a little uncomfortable to walk through, no strength to get home from the train, but you - you cannot look at the behavior in isolation of the history and the socioeconomic politics that inform it.

I think we have to - we can't get caught up with trying to wrestle language to the ground without addressing the very issues that informed that language, that feed how it is that people think about homosexuality or, you know, the people who are most oppressed in the world that, you know, you find that people who have religion most knife-like against their neck. These are the people who are most homophobic and most violently homophobic. I don't find very many wealthy white men who are, you know, trying to beat down black people or gay people.

I think that when people have little of themselves and they don't have enough of what they need to live comfortably and to live happy in their own spaces, they find other people to attack. And we need to figure out how it is that we can give people what they need to live so that we can actually sit down and have a conversation that isn't trying to be judgmental about the group of people that we don't know who they are or where they come from or the nature of the life they lead every day.

CHIDEYA: Deadlee, you used the word homo thug or the phrase homo thug, which is known in some communities and not in others, and you definitely look, you know, the epitome of hip-hop, you know, the facial hair, the dress, the tattoos, you know, the necklace all that, but when you decided to come out, who did you come out to and how?

DEADLEE: You know, first, I did come out to my mom and I think after I did that everything was cool. As soon as I knew she accepted me then everything was easy. And I worked to - and I've been working with a lot of gay youth and I've seen the struggles that they've gone through in school and being out at such a young age that I really felt like, if I didn't come out in my everyday life or in my work, rapping, that that would be a punk move. And I wouldn't be the punk jumping up. And I felt like it's just that much more strong and I'm not being a punk by, you know, being out with whatever I'm doing and being a role model to a lot of these young kids who are going to school every day, coming home, you know, bruised up just because they're being who they are.

CHIDEYA: Do you think that kids are coming out younger today? And if so, how does hip-hop play into that in a sense that it might - if the lyrics are homophobic, it might be a deterrent if hip-hop is as popular as it is?

DEADLEE: Okay. And that's one reason why I haven't started doing rap, because with these kids, I was listening to Eminem, I was listening to 50 Cent, DMX, who were kind of saying, throwing the F-word around and bashing gays a little bit. And I even told the kids, I said, you know what? I'm going to come out with my own album and I'm going to be the gay rap superstar. And they used to laugh at me.

But now, I get so many kids happy that I'm out there. I had a video that was number one on LOGO, which addressed the whole issue. It's called "Good Soldier II" that addressed gay suicide. And a lot of kids have hit me up on the MySpace just saying, you know, that's my story. And I'm glad you're out there representing. And I wish I had that when I was young. I wished I had somebody to look up to. I just had an Elton John or Charles Nelson Reilly, you know, God bless him, he just died. But, you know, that wasn't me. That wasn't…

CHIDEYA: That wasn't hip-hop.

DEADLEE No, that wasn't me. And it's like - it's just nice to see that, you know, there's a Deadlee, there's a Johnny Dangerous who says to why(ph) I fix other gay rappers out there. You know, they are out there for the new generation.

CHIDEYA: Mo, there was a situation where Busta Rhymes said that he was going to take shots at gay men. And the general public didn't really pick up on that much or do you really think that this is an issue of how the broader hip-hop audience perceives what rappers should and shouldn't say? And also, how do you field the issue of free speech into that?

Mr. BEASLEY: I think we have an interesting dynamic on the black community. We think, because we're a minority group or we are oppressed group, we have the right to say anything foul to anybody. And so it was okay and we don't check ourselves. But, so I guess the question is the people who don't agree with Busta or not happy with that have to speak up, even if you love his work. And you don't shut people off. I don't think it's black or white. You go, well Busta says something foul and I'm not with that. So I have to shut him off. No, that's not how you love somebody through their bigotry. You just step to him directly and say, yo, I love what you do but what you say is hurting people.

CHIDEYA: Mo, you still argue that hip-hop can be used as an educational tool.

Mr. BEASLEY: Okay.

CHIDEYA: Explain the upside. Tell me what you mean by that.

Mr. BEASLEY: It's an art form. And it speaks to a specific generation. I'm a graduate of Howard University. And my mentors at Howard said as a black artist, you define our existence. You should speak our truth, our fears, our hopes, our dreams, our aspirations, our failures.

So it has to come from you to be offended. Hip-hop comes from today's generation and the generations behind us, and they speak authentically about what life is like if you are poor, black, Latino in the city in America. And so it has to keep speaking to that - from that community to the world. So with that, I'll bring that into the classroom to embrace what is good about hip-hop. And then, this is nothing all good or nothing all bad. So you come in and you embrace what is good about it, and you challenge what needs to grow in it.

CHIDEYA: Staceyann, I'm going to kick off something that we've done in a couple of our other Roundtables, which is just to ask people what they're listening to and what they recommend. And I want you to add the spin to it of - since you say you just don't deal with lyrics that you consider wrong or hateful. Explain how your favorites factor into that decision.

Ms. CHIN: I find myself listening to a lot of angst white women singing about feminist issues. And, you know, the likes of Ani DiFranco. I've begun to listen to the work of Me'shell Ndegeocello, which is I think wonderful music and it's - talks about human rights and about (unintelligible) to be good person in the world. I - but I want to give you just a little bit by just saying that this is not, this conversation is really homophobia and sexism and racism. It's not really about hip-hop.

Hip-hop is just one aspect of our society that reflects this and reflects these ideas and puts them out there in music and they probably use language that is a little more offensive to some of us than we are comfortable with. But the system we live under is homophobic. The system we live under is sexist. Gay people in New York, one of the most, you know, so-called progressive cities in the world, we are still rallying, and begging, and lobbying, and protesting for the right to marry each other, and to adopt babies, and to live in a world where we are - or hold(ph) people. And so it is important just to say that the world is changed.

CHIDEYA: Well, Chris X, who co-wrote the autobiography of 50 Cent, said pretty much the same thing in a context of gender and sexism. I do want to get a few more recommendations. Deadlee, what do you listen to?

DEADLEE: Well, you see, it's going to throw everything out of the box. Now, because I'm actually listening to stuff you would think gay guys would listen to. I'm listening to Christina Aguilera. I'm listening to Pink. You know…

CHIDEYA: There's no shame in that game.

DEADLEE: Yeah. There's not a lot of hip-hop artists except for a fellow homo rappers that I'm feeling. And I guess because they're talking when I'm talking about. There's JenRo, lesbian rapper out at San Francisco. I'm a big fan of hers. Salvi Mix(ph), they're like Latin, they speak - they do a lot of this stuff in Spanish and I listen to them. And so I'm listening…

CHIDEYA: You mentioned a couple others earlier. Who were they?

DEADLEE: Johnny Dangerous, Torri Fix. And there's a whole crew of us and, you know, we actually did a Homo Revolution Tour and we went to cities through the southwest just to tell people that we're out there, and - because a lot of people weren't even aware. And I think that's the whole point. You standing up, letting people know that we're out there. I kind of want to be like whenever somebody says the N word, you know, you see Al Sharpton standing up. You know, he's right there. I want to be that person. It's like whenever someone throwing the F-word it's like, oh, Deadlee, come correct them.

CHIDEYA: Yeah.

DEADLEE: I want to be that person.

CHIDEYAL: Mo, we're almost out of time. Do you have a quick recommendation or two?

Mr. BEASLEY: I'm listening. I'm still listening to (unintelligible). That album is I think the "Future of Hip-Hop," like I still run those 11 tracks. Listening to a lot of the roots, I listen to Ani DiFranco, Sweet Honey in the Rock. I listen to - I'm really one of those (unintelligible). This morning, I'm listening to Paul Winter and, you know, his music, which is totally sever from all of these. I'm just - I really I love the music of the world. So…

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, I mean, we have to leave it there. Staceyann, Mo, Deadlee, thanks to you all.

Ms. CHIN: thanks for having us.

Mr. BEASLEY: Thanks a lot.

DEADLEE: Thanks for having us.

CHIDEYA: Staceyann Chin is a writer living in New York City who's appeared on Russell Simmons, "Def Poetry Jam" on Broadway. Mo Beasley is a poet, sexuality educator and author of "No Good Nigga Bluez." He and Staceyann both came in to NPR's New York Studios. And Deadlee is a rapper and satirist living in Los Angeles. He's got an album called "Assault with a Deadly Weapon." And he joined me at NPR West.

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