Practically every genre in popular music has had to grapple with regressive opinions about sexuality, yet through pop(ular) music history, few genres have displayed these ugly attitudes as openly as hip-hop. Despite the historical association between hip-hop and anti-gay sentiments, the genre has progressed in step with American society in its views on sexuality over the last 20 years, resulting in a more diverse and expressive hip-hop community today.
The reasons for hip-hop’s deep connection with homophobia are complex, but some factors are easier to identify than others. Notably, braggadocious lyricism served as a crucial element of hip-hop culture since the genre’s genesis in New York in the late 1970s. This tradition often relied on sexually explicit boasts and displays of hypermasculinity, making anti-gay sentiments practically an innate component of many early emcees’ personas. Even Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” a paragon of early conscious rap — which Rolling Stone recently named the greatest hip-hop song of all time — features derogatory words as an insult toward gay men multiple times in its lyrics.
By the 1990s, gangsta rap had become the predominant style of hip-hop music, and its exaggerated portrayals of masculinity often went hand-in-hand with anti-gay sentiments. Seemingly every emcee from gangsta rap’s heyday relied on anti-gay language at some point, including many who are acclaimed legends to this day. The Notorious B.I.G. resorted to labelling his father as gay in “The What,” and Nas’s “My style switches like a faggot / But not bisexual, I’m an intellectual” is a notable blemish on the “Halftime” lyric sheet. Anti-gay lyrics were certainly not unique only to the gangsta style, as evinced by A Tribe Called Quest’s infamous “Georgie Porgie,” an early version of “Show Business” that was rejected by Jive Records for its horrifically hateful lyrics.
By the turn of the century, anti-gay language became a hallmark of hip-hop lyricism in the eyes of the public. Kanye West offered his impression in a 2005 MTV interview, lamenting, “Everybody in hip-hop discriminates against gay people. To me, like, that’s one of the standards of hip-hop.” In the interview, West explained that anti-gay sentiments were a large part of his life until he discovered that one of his cousins was gay, causing him to reassess his beliefs. After this realization he offered a resounding message to the hip-hop community regarding its reliance on anti-gay attitudes: “Stop it, fam.” The passionate message from one of the genre’s rising stars was a sign of a larger shift in opinion on the topic.
Since 2000, hip-hop’s attitudes toward sexuality and LGBT rights have evolved, roughly paralleling American society’s increasingly progressive views on sexuality. The fact that many rappers who have previously flaunted ignorance in their lyrics have expressed support for LGBT rights is a particularly positive sign. Eminem, notorious for his use of anti-gay slurs, attempted to set the record straight in 2013, telling Rolling Stone that he “has no issues with gay, straight, transgender, at all,” adding that he’s “glad we live in a time where it’s really starting to feel like people can live their lives and express themselves.” A Tribe Called Quest expressed solidarity with the queer community in the chorus of their 2016 hit “We the People,” which lampoons discriminatory beliefs with the lyrics, “Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways / So all you bad folks, you must go.” Although hip-hop artists who have used anti-gay language in the past arguably do not deserve praise, shifts in their public attitudes toward the LGBT community are at least a sign of acceptance becoming more commonplace in hip-hop and its larger community.
Particularly in the past few years, the hip-hop community has made great strides in its acceptance of the LGBT community, leading to a present-day scene that is more tolerant than ever before. In 2012, Frank Ocean became the biggest star in hip-hop to publicly come out as queer. That same year, Macklemore’s pro-same-sex marriage anthem “Same Love” became a major hit. In the past year, Tyler, the Creator, who had previously drawn ire for using anti-gay slurs in his lyrics, released the heartfelt Flower Boy, which features several references to his own same-sex relationships. One of the most popular upcoming groups in hip-hop today, Brockhampton, is fronted by the openly gay Kevin Abstract, who frequently raps about his sexuality and the personal adversities he has faced in coming out. The list of mainstream rappers who express support for the LGBT community is growing bigger than ever before and has come to includes A$AP Rocky, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj and Lil B.
Hip-hop’s regressive attitude toward sexualityhas not been left in the past. Migos made headlines earlier this year by making disapproving comments about fellow Atlanta rapper iLoveMakonnen coming out as gay. Azealia Banks, herself bisexual, has frequently used anti-gay insults on Twitter. And there are undoubtedly more performers who privately harbor anti-LGBT sentiments. Fortunately, looking back on the widespread attitudes against the LGBT community within hip-hop during its first two decades reveals the hip-hop community has come a long way. As Tyler, the Creator and Brockhampton demonstrate with some of the best albums of 2017, a more inclusive hip-hop community allows for more expressive, creative music. For the sake of equality, and for the sake of the music itself, let’s hope the hip-hop community can continue to distance itself from its less tolerant past.