Jay-Z and the new crew of publicly gay-friendly rappers
For those keeping score at home, the list of rappers who are ostensibly in favor of same-sex marriage now includes Ice Cube, T.I., 50 Cent, and Kendrick Lamar. I don't know this because they made bold, formal statements like Jay-Z. I know this because they were asked by Ad Age, MTV, Vibe, and DJ Drama's Streetz Is Watchin' Sirius/XM radio show, and then their answers were turned into blog fodder and disseminated across the Internet. The impulse to ask rappers what they think about same-sex marriage contributes little to the discussion of this important issue, though it is a page-view win-win: If a rapper is cool with it, well, there's a story; If you ask them and they disagree, well, you've got an even bigger news story. Hopefully, they might slip up and say something homophobic!
As you might expect, all four rappers answered with fairly hedged responses. Ice Cube came the closest to responding like a sensible human when he said this to Ad-Age: "I don't want to discriminate on nobody." None of these answers are painful to read, though T.I., 50 Cent, and Kendrick Lamar sound pretty unsophisticated. T.I. told MTV: "I don't care...if it's not something that directly affects you…what difference does it make to you what other people are doing with their lives?" 50 Cent to Vibe: "I think everyone should be happy…I don't have strong personal feelings towards it because I'm not involved in that lifestyle, but I want people to be happy." And Lamar to DJ Drama: "I don't give a fuck about people doing what they do. That's your lifestyle...Do what you got to do to be happy. Fuck it man, it's fuckin' 2012, people need to stop crying over some bullshit." I suspect this well-intentioned, half-assed "live and let live" pseudo-libertarianism will become the new hip-hop party line.
Because of how prevalent and unchecked homophobic language has been in hip-hop, the same-sex marriage issue doesn't seem like an unfair topic to broach with a rapper. However, turning rappers into mouthpieces for an entire genre seems unfair, as well as unproductive. Hip-hop's homophobia is treated as a given, which turns any utterance on the issue into a mini-event. How many rappers have to half-heartedly agree with Jay-Z before it stops generating headlines? We're frequently confronted by thinkpieces that highlight open-minded rappers and pockets of "queer rap." Maybe it needs to be acknowledged that perhaps hip-hop is progressing?
Late last week, Pitchfork called out Action Bronson after he posted a photo on his Instagram of a woman on the ground, covered in water. He tweeted along with it, "Close up of drunk Mexican tranny after Bes poured a bottle of water on its head." He later apologized, in typically Bronson-like style: "I love gay people. Trannies not so much." He added, "In no way was I trying to offend anybody from the Gay and Lesbian Community. It wasn't even a transvestite it just honestly looked like one." He also told "everyone" to "blow [him] from the back." The whole thing is terribly insensitive (it may even constitute a hate crime), but not out of character for a rapper who jokes about fucking prostitutes and throws around the insults "half-a-fag" like he's doing shtick from a Scorsese movie.
We shouldn't demand rappers live up to their on-record persona, but we shouldn't be shocked when they do. If they say something enlightened like Jay-Z and, to a lesser extent, Ice Cube, T.I., 50 Cent, and Kendrick Lamar, well, that's great. Bronson's statements, though, don't say anything more about hip-hop and homophobia than the emphatic support of Jay-Z and the hedged statements that will certainly start coming in more and more often in the coming months and years. Playing the "who's more open-minded?" game however, seems dangerous and besides the point. T.I., 50 Cent, and Lamar probably represent the average American's feelings on the topic. But that makes for a much less interesting story: Rap is maturing at about the same pace as the rest of the country. For every four or five reasonable people out there, you've got one ignorant fuck who thinks it's funny to pour water on a "tranny."
Rappers are presented as violent, vulgar sexists and homophobes, and then they're not only expected to have fully-formed opinions on social issues, but progressive ones. This is an ugly update on the always implicit, often explicit demand that hip-hop, if it is to be lauded and celebrated, must espouse a strong, left-leaning political message. For too many, Public Enemy remains the blueprint for legitimate, significant hip-hop. That ideal is impossible because very few rappers or rap groups will ever be as musically incredible as Chuck D and company. Meanwhile, the actual political messages of hip-hop have far outgrown P.E.'s radical rhetoric. Kanye West made anti-homophobic comments back in 2005. As random as they are, songs from "gangsta" rappers like the late Pimp C and Z-Ro feature pro-gay lyrics. Not to mention, Public Enemy's music contains homophobic lyrics ("The parts don't fit — aww shit," from "Meet the G That Killed Me"). This hangover from the '60s, where the clunky rockist ideal that "important" music has to "matter," in an activist sense, now has been updated to include rappers' ability to speak cogently on a particular issue in interviews. An issue, mind you, that until three weeks ago, our own president wouldn't discuss.