Don’t Call it “Gay Rap”: Moving Forward With How We View Homosexuality in Hip-Hop

“He was born with his sexuality backwards/When the homo strives to be a rapper/But rap’s homophobic, so why should he listen?/That’s not made for him, it’s for straight men and butchy women”

The history of open homosexuality in hip-hop is extensive, if perhaps not always well-documented. New Orleans club favorite bounce music has encompassed a subset known as “sissy bounce” for over fifteen years (the rich and fascinating history of bounce can be explored here at P&P, in this excellent 2010 New York Times article, and in these homemade compilations by Andrew Nosnitsky), a genre largely the artistic domain of drag queens, transvestites, and a cadre of openly homosexual performers such as Big Freedia, Katey Red, and Sissy Nobby. Though sissy bounce is often explicitly sexual, it doesn’t consistently concern itself with homosexual intercourse or love. On the mean, it’s party music pure and simple, incorporating chants, samples, and big bass at blitzkrieg speeds.

In the past two years, a slew of young, openly gay and bisexual rappers has emerged, springing in part from New York club culture (a world with a history of drag as competition—detailed in the excellent documentary Paris is Burning), in part from the freedom of the Internet, and in part from a general climate arguably more favorable to homosexuality now than at any point prior. From more underground artists like Le1f, Cakes Da Killa, and Big Momma, to wider known figures like Mykki Blanco and Azealia Banks, an overt sexuality pervades songs, occasionally playing central focus, quite often merely coloring boasts and observations. Sex and sexuality exist as a constant current for rappers Le1f, Blanco, and Banks, a source of power tapped into at will.

For these artists, sexual identity and gender politics are foregrounded questions, but not often questions the artists themselves are asking. Their music doesn’t broach the validity of their sexuality, it assumes it outright, allowing a rapper like Le1f to rap openly about sexual experience without it becoming reductive. It is “gay rap” in the same way that 50 Cent or any number of other male rappers detailing their conquests is “straight rap,” a position rarely questioned or so-labeled. From Blanco, for example, lines like “‘Oh this fag can rap’/Yeah they saying that they listening” often are as close to addressing public perceptions or internal reflection as it gets. Even Angel Haze—whose plainspoken treatment of her past puts sexual abuse, drug addiction, and sexual orientation on display in a musical landscape where such honesty is rare—doesn’t address the challenges of being homosexual or bisexual in hip-hop.

“His culture’s his release, but by this culture he’s neglected/Though its roots are from oppression, his objections are rejected”

23-year-old Canadian rapper F. Virtue’s new single “Anita Bryant” is a necessary step forward, an insider’s perspective (and, no matter where the discourse goes, it is important that it begins with someone who has not only observed but experienced) of being homosexual and hiding one’s true self in order to pursue a career in rap, a genre with a traditional and often explicit homophobic bent. The accompanying press release provides some context:

“When F. Virtue heard faggot in rap songs, he winced. As a young MC who was closeted and uncomfortable with being gay, it was never easy hearing a musician he admired put down his sexuality. So, he pretended to be straight while building with notable hip-hop scenes, knowing one day he would have to write this song, and subsequently make this music video. Anita Bryant is beyond a press release hyping music; it’s a push for social change”

By approaching the matter bluntly, directly discussing the challenges of being secretly (and, now, openly) homosexual in a culture so historically hostile toward gay males, Virtue bravely provides a new angle for viewing an infamous taboo of the hip-hop community. While being openly gay in rap is a risky proposition, both commercially and in terms of societal acceptance, the climate of the still-young genre and that of the United States at large is one moving steadily towards greater acceptance, understanding, and even celebration. The repealment of California’s Proposition 8 and the Supreme Court’s striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act show political progress mirroring social change and, in turn, encouraging it. Simultaneously, songs like Macklemore’s “Same Love” illustrate hip-hop’s progress on the grander stage—a heterosexual rapper denouncing homophobic attitudes, a needed public corollary to the decidedly less mainstream existences of Le1f, Mykki Blanco, Azealia Banks, and others.

Of course, softening hostile attitudes is far from the final goal. To “accept” or “tolerate” a state of being is to acknowledge, first and foremost, that it is “other.” This sort of consideration is potentially harmful, dangerous, and as limiting as the notion of “gay rap” that Virtue hopes to combat.

“The ‘gay rap’ label would, unfortunately, be detrimental to a lasting career as it cuts off too many potential listeners, and limits the artist to a very narrow scene,” says Virtue when asked about the damaging potential for the term “gay rap.” “Like an extreme version of when the label ‘emo rap’ was formed. One of those ‘emo rappers’ may also have a vicious 16 [bar rhyme], far from emotional, but the heads who would really feel it would never find it since they don’t listen to ‘emo rap.’”

When asked if the notion of “gay rap” could potentially be empowering—a concept challenged by Virtue’s pained lyric, “Put your hands to the sky/If you don’t feel proud when you hear the word pride”—the rapper noted: “If gay rap were truly an empowering thing, it would be a little corny. But that’s only because I think any extreme of anything is corny. But I think the gay rapper should feel empowered. This culture is the perfect outlet as it gives a platform for any individual’s voice. The artist can use that platform however they want. And in that sense, being an honest rapper is empowering. Speaking your mind is empowering for everybody, gay or straight. But because, currently, rap is seen as taboo for homosexuals to do, breaking down that ridiculous notion and proving self-worth on a plane of one’s peers is even more empowering.”

Remember when Eminem made headlines just for being a white MC? How ridiculous is that idea now?

“The next steps are articles like this,” Virtue continues. “It’s about making as much music and as many moves as we can until people are acclimated to the concept. It’s comparable to the ‘white rapper.’ Remember when Eminem made headlines just for being a white MC? How ridiculous is that idea now? People don’t often regard skin color when referring to rappers anymore. They discuss the actual artist. There will be a point where the gay man is accepted in this way. It just takes time and effort.”

“This isn’t gay rap. Do gay chefs make gay food?”

In an ideal world—or even in the less-than-ideal world in which we live where powerful ideas have greater potential to spread than ever before—Virtue’s courage will positively affect those who encounter it, adding to the ever-diversifying palette of sounds and experiences represented in rap music, helping to slowly but surely evolve attitudes, pushing beyond the point where a term like “gay rap” is considered valid.