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Lil B onstage at SXSW in March 2011.
Roger Kisby/Getty Images
Lil B, the prolific, Internet-obsessed Bay Area rapper, announced at Coachella that he would call his next album I'm Gay – a provocation that extends past the comfort zones of many rap fans. Lil B is known for assuming alternate identities (previous releases include the songs "I'm Miley Cyrus" and "I'm Charlie Sheen"), but this was his most surprising move yet. GLAAD questioned his motives – was this a prank, or a stealth macho move akin to other rappers' use of the phrase "no homo?" Lil B's response – surprisingly serious and empathetic – was to express "major love for the gay and lesbian community," despite apparent death threats.
This isn't the first time gay culture and hip-hop have come into contact, but since Lil B is a rapper right on the fringe of the mainstream, and he's putting himself in the middle of the genre's long-term conflict over homosexuality, Ann Powers wrote to Tavia Nyong'o, professor of performance studies at NYU and blogger at Hear is Queer to talk about where his decision might take the debate.
Very interesting developments lately at the spot where hip-hop culture meets sexual politics.
This would all strike me as an isolated stunt – claiming that you're using "gay" as in "happy," as Lil B did, sounds kind of like something my grade-schooler would do. Except that it's just one of several recent events within hip-hop that suggest the scene's tolerance toward sexual difference may be growing. Big Freedia, queen of the New Orleans "sissy bounce" scene, released her first EP and is bringing her "go homo" anthems nationwide on a successful tour. Hardcore rap's pop star 50 Cent issued a surprisingly empathetic defense of Mr. Cee after the radio personality was caught en flagrante with a young person who may be transgender. And the Pacific Northwest collective Rainbow Noise caused a Youtube stir with its jammin' cut, "Imma Homo."
Hip-hop, long assumed by most to be a stronghold of homophobia, suddenly seems a lot more fluid.
Gender-benders have always played a major role in African-American music, from Bessie Smith to Little Richard to RuPaul. But I wonder what you make of this moment. Is it a watershed? Or just another round of entertaining exceptions?
Eager to hear your thoughts.
The openness of hip-hop to women, queers and people of all races has often been underplayed in favor of a image of black male macho that is simpler to understand, more lucrative to market and easier to disparage. The recent welter of queer counter-examples to this norm may seem like "entertaining exceptions," but isn't that the stuff that pop is made of: the exceptional, the unexpected, even the anomalous?
Hip-hop is a global lingua franca for youth, and it is unsurprising that this is as true for LGBT youth as it for straight, for middle class as for working class, for white, brown and yellow as for black. In mash-up culture, straight kids appropriating gay culture isn't weird: what's weird is the idea that we can keep them separate in the first place. I think visibility organizations like GLAAD recognize this, both when they laud artists like Big Freedia and engage playful provocateurs like Lil B. Myself, I'm not too bothered by Lil B's freeloading on gay visibility. As Eve Sedgwick once said, perhaps all it takes "to make the description 'queer' a true one is the impulsion to use it in the first person."
Pop politics wants to live in the eternal now, but queer hip-hop, as commentators like Shanté Smalls and Tim m' West have shown, has been around for a minute. Underground artists like Hanifah Walidah, Deadlee, Deep Dickollective, God-Des, Cazwell, and basically all the artists featured in the excellent 2006 film Pick up the Mic: The Evolution of Homohop. Smalls points to hip-hop's roots in a multiracial 1980s scene that made space for people like the gay Asian visual artist Martin Wong, who brought graffiti artists together with the downtown gallery scene and was associated with the seminal film Wild Style. Much like Gladys Bentley's outrageous bulldyker antics in the Harlem Renaissance, posterity has a tendency to dismiss such queer presences in black artistic movements as ephemeral. And a politics of respectability has colluded with the closet to enforce historical invisibility upon lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered folk, including Bentley herself. But was we move from the era of the closet to what I think of as an era of queer conviviality, there will be many more examples of genres like sissy bounce and artists like Lil B who are unafraid to acknowledge a black culture where straight and gay can share space, spit rhymes and trade dance moves.
Of course, the hate spewed at Lil B reflects a real problem. I mean, death threats? Where hip-hop seems to bring a specific and sometimes disturbing flair to good-old American homophobia is in its expectations of an unbreakable masculinity grounded in ghetto-centric ideals of toughness. For too many, "getting punked" is the absolute antithesis of such manhood, such that homosexuality is not so much an identity as a specter that must be violently expelled from oneself, one's neighborhood, one's music, and one's world. But here hip-hop is simply articulating an aspect of the reality of mass incarceration that Michelle Alexander calls "the new Jim Crow." Dream Hampton recently set off a Twitter-storm in her call for black people to wake up to the reality of same-sex relations in prison. And we remain silent on the scandal of prison sexual assault, and fail to confront the abusive conflation of the "punk" or "faggot" with the survivor of rape. Ubiquitous homophobic humor about "sissies" like American Idol rising star Jacob Lusk — whose recently surfaced mugshot produced hostile internet commentary that he might be "happy" with some jail time — come about because of a failure to address these problems openly and seriously.
You've left me with a lot to consider. I love that phrase "queer conviviality" – it explains so much beyond just this discussion (like, for example, Glee's Warblers.) It also reminds me that the first steps in combating bigotry are often made by the people who've been reviled, as non-violence combines with pride in liberation movements that challenge us all to rise to higher levels of humanity. As the great civil rights leader (and gay man) Bayard Rustin once said, "The bravest are the most tender; the loving are the daring."
That's not to say righteous anger isn't sometimes what history demands. Think back two decades, when the fight for AIDS awareness lit the discos and the streets on fire at the very same time that NWA and Ice T were using gangsta rap to protest the same criminal system that, those artists might claim, created the prison crisis of which you speak. These very different sets of rabble-rousers defined themselves as rebels within the same moment. It's interesting that the more open atmosphere you describe also seems less intensely political – or is that fair?
My fellow NPR Music writer Jacob Ganz recently wondered aloud if rappers are generally easing up on machismo. Lil Wayne's goofy album covers (the latest is basically an Urkel tribute), girl-friendly stars like Drake and B.o.B, and still- unfolding rehabilitation of king bigot Eminem suggests that as hip-hop grows ever more pop, being too hard may become a liability. After all, next to Detroit's finest, this year's hottest rappers are female: Nicki Minaj and Ke$ha.
So what's the upshot of all this? Does progress come only under the cloak of comedy? And what do you make of the fact that, as rappers relax into a wider definition of masculinity, up-and-comers like Odd Future and even stars like Kanye West often still talk about women using the language of pornography and sexual assault? Two steps forward, as I always say....
Closing thoughts welcome,
Comedy is often not straightforwardly progressive. It uncorks profane, taboo topics that polite society would prefer to keep the lid on. And humor always contains elements of aggression, which is why it so often offends or even seems hateful. But while it's definitely politically ambidextrous, I wouldn't want to be part of any movement that didn't have a funny bone. Lil B's hip-hop is digitally native, insofar as he gets that the first rule of viral video is to have a sense of humor about yourself.
And here's the link to gay culture as another margin he's reaching for. The one thing you can't get away with in queer conviviality, after all, is taking yourself too seriously. ACT-UP activist Greg Bordowitz even wrote an essay called "The AIDS Crisis is Ridiculous" that pointed out how satire kept us sane in insane times. And while it was called "the CNN of the ghetto" at the time, what stood out about gangsta rap to me was not its truth effects so much as its creative use of hyperbole, braggadocio and wicked rhyme. I think such creativity in the face of hostility is a place where black and queer culture can meet in a (sometimes uneasy) call and response. Viral videos like Rainbow Noise's "Imma Homo," for instance, use the power of the first person to joyously defang hip-hop's "no homo" tag. But they do so within, not against, the spread of hip-hop culture.
At a time when the preferred mainstream image of LGBT folk is of marrying couples and patriotic soldiers, the pop culture of which hip-hop is such a major part is exploring the messy, sexy, and conflict-ridden side of living with difference. The turn towards the male abject in hip-hop — by turns comically self-pitying and virulently misogynistic — seems part of this process, even if a part we'd prefer to do without. But as women and LGBT folk poach on previously off-limits musical and cultural territory, straight men have to re-imagine their own roles, give up some privilege and let their hair down. Not all are doing so graciously! But as hip-hop is growing up it is also "growing sideways": expanding the template of what can be done in the art form. Lil B's "I'm Gay" declaration seems part of that lateral, zig zag movement.
That's my best answer to the "two steps forward, one step back" conundrum ... does it have a beat? And, can I dance to it?