The question 'Who Is The Gay Rapper?' became something of a pathological obsession within the hip-hop community of the mid-Nineties, after an interviewer with an anonymous but supposedly well-known rapper who talked about his closeted homosexuality appeared in a leading magazine. Amid all the rabid speculation and name-calling, what most people seemed unable to even entertain was the idea that there could possibly be more than one. This is hardly a surprise considering that hip-hop is dominated by an overlap of two communities (entertainment and black American) who have traditionally maintained their official immunity from the perceived taint of homosexuality, as if worldwide statistics don't apply in their case. Whereas in fact, there's no reason why the proportion of gay hip-hop artists should be any smaller than the proportion of, say, gay dentists. If you believe one set of statistics, for example, at least one member of the Wu-Tang Clan is likely to be gay.
But this is by the by: there's little to be gained from speculating about the sexuality of individuals. Instead, it may be more rewarding to consider those moments at which hip-hop, which is continually reaching out to recuperate and adapt all other cultures, crosses the line and starts to suggest something other than the kneejerk homophobia with which it is usually associated. Take this lyric, from Nas' 'Half-Time':
"I switch styles like a faggot,
But not bisexual, I'm an intellectual…"
Ignoring for a moment the negative overtones of the language used (and we would do well to ignore them when dealing with a discourse which has always taken pejorative words and turned them into badges of pride), we are presented with an interesting question. One of the unspoken golden rules of hip-hop lyricism is that you only say you are 'like' something if it has qualities which you wish to attain - so, notwithstanding his rather awkward qualifier in the next line, in what way does Nas wish to be like a "faggot"?
The answer lies perhaps in hip-hop's perpetual obsession with the Other. Hip-hop has always had and will always will have an irresistible pull towards subcultures, and the unknown of all kinds: you prove your skill as a DJ by digging in the crates for the most obscure beats, and your skill as an MC with coming up with the most unexpected, crazy references in your rhymes. The terms 'sick', 'ridiculous', 'mad' and 'off the hook' are all compliments when applied to hip-hop music: juxtapose this with the fact that the standard reaction to homosexuality in hip-hop culture is incredulous revulsion ("how can they do those things?"), and what Nas is doing is becomes clearer. He's reaching for that next comparison, that next mad surprise he can pull out of the hat, he's trying to say that he switches styles like something completely out there – and then what he gets is too alien for him, and he has to quickly pull back.
There's a strange similarity between hip-hop culture's attitude to homosexuality and the attitude with which hip-hop itself was once regarded. For a long time, rap was read by the mainstream media as being somehow essentially in opposition to an identifiable musical and cultural norm – it was a non-music, an anti-matter aberration that was simultaneously terrifying and exerted a fascinating pull. Of course this dichotomy relied on numerous fallacies, one of which was the belief that hip-hop is essentially black music, whilst rock and roll is essentially white: an idea that on one side at least is obviously laughable, yet which bizarrely persists to this day amongst some. But hip-hop didn't start out as the music and culture of black America men, but rather as the music and culture of working-class, urban New York in the 1970s. It existed side-by-side with the other subcultures of that time (disco, punk etc), and fed off them even when it was defining itself in opposition. It doesn't take a theorist to see similarities between Grandmaster Flash's Furious Five and the Village People, and not just in terms of dress sense.
At its most expansive and inclusive, hip-hop, like the Zapatista movement, extends to include anyone who is dispossessed. While much of mainstream commercial rap is still about the black American man, the unquestionably straight black American man, in recent times hip-hop has widened its horizons once more to include white trailer trash (Eminem), psychedelic cross-dressing visionaries from Atlanta (Outkast), and the pint-sized bastard lovechild of Madonna and Lydia Lunch (Lil' Kim).
Outkast are a fascinating example, right here and now, of where hip-hop is, where it's come from and where it might be going. Sure, one half of the group, Big Boi, may have a strip club installed in his basement, but increasingly the group's vision and public profile seems dominated by a Pushkin-reading Ecstasy-addled prophet with a fondness for performing in semi-drag. Make no mistake, however much he likes to identify it firmly in the context of George Clinton and the flamboyant 'pimp' look, Andre 3000 likes to wear a dress now and again. Or a cape. Or a pair of bright green trousers that come halfway up his slim but toned bare chest, topped off with a curly bright blond wig, a huge pair of sunglasses and a shit-eating grin. Performing the band's hit 'Ms. Jackson' on Top of the Pops in this get-up, Dre looked no less a pansexual androgynous Bacchanalian god beamed down from outer space than David Bowie at his peak. So what if he insists he's heterosexual in practice? If he is –well, so's Eddie Izzard. And if he isn't, there's also a precedent there – Morrisey, anyone?
But it's not just the relatively outré Outkast blurring the gender lines in rap: some of the artists at the heart of the ghetto-fabulous mainstream are taking things even further. The extent to which hip-hop's visual aesthetic has become camper than Cabaret is obvious (and that's without even mentioning 'Puffy' and his fur coat and diamonds get-up). But when this is coupled with the torrent of violent genderfuck fantasies unleashed by Lil' Kim on the astonishing 'Suck My Dick' (which starts with the self-declared 'Queen Bee' being introduced by a drag queen), it's something of a revelation:
"Niggas love a hard bitch
One that get up in a nigga's ass quicker than an enema
Make a cat bleed then sprinkle it with vinegar
Imagine if I was dude and hittin' cats from the back
With no strings attached
Yeah nigga, picture that!"
What's particularly revealing is Kim's suggestion that the way she takes on aggressive masculine attributes is precisely what makes her so attractive to both her male and female admirers. In a culture that celebrates a brand of masculinity so macho it frequently strays into the realm of high camp, it's implied that what the swaggering 'thug' wants most, his deepest, darkest fantasy, is to be flipped, for Kim to take control and humiliate and degrade him. Another Lil' Kim track, 'Dreams', expressed her desire to make r&b singer Tony Rich her "bitch". His alleged reply? "I'll be your bitch any time."
This all seems strikingly appropriate when one considers that Kim's former love Notorious B.I.G. recorded 'Me and My Bitch'. Aside from containing the rather eye-opening lyric "You look so good, I'd suck on your daddy's dick", seems to confirm this desire for a woman who fulfils the hip-hop ideal of male behaviour even more than he does: one who'll "invite me, politely, to fight, G" if she suspects him of cheating.
It's hardly surprising within the context of the culture that Biggie's ideal soul-mate should be such a strikingly masculine figure. It's only by having these qualities that she can be his "best friend" as well as lover. Hip-hop masculinity is all about the celebration of homosocial relationships, even at the expense of heterosexual ones: a sentiment neatly summed-up by the liner notes to Xzibit's Restless album, where he declares "I love my niggaz and not my bitches!" Any potential dangerous overspill into homoerotic territory is resolutely ignored, but it happens all the same. And it happens most notably not when affection is being expressed, but in the realm of conflict. Telling others rappers to suck your dick, or claiming they are already doing so, or that they are "riding" your dick – all this is common for the modern MC. In the context of this kind of highly-charged verbal battling, the superior rapper succeeds by establishing himself in a dominant position expressed in explicitly sexual terms: his opponent becomes his catamite, his bitch. The language in which this is framed is one that has its roots at least partly in an experience all too commonly cited by rappers: that of prison. While experiences of homosexual sex in prison are rarely cited (one rare example is Ol' Dirty Bastard's hilarious but still rather transgressive claim on 'Got Your Money' that Eddie Murphy taught him to suck his own dick in prison, thus avoiding the need to indulge), it's undeniable existence still lurks at the back of the collective hip-hop unconsciousness.
All this is just one aspect of a continuing contradiction between the stability of the fixed, solid identity that many in hip-hop would like to present (that of the young black male whose gender, race and sexuality are untainted, inflexible attributes), and the true nature of hip-hop culture. Hip-hop does not have a fixed identity: it's inherently fluid, reaching out to embrace and make its own other musical genres, other cultures, other races, and unconsciously, instinctively, other sexualities. For now, a noticeably neurotic brand of knee-jerk homophobia struggles to shore up that final boundary. But the boundaries between hip-hop and other cultures are not solid, and nowhere is this clearer than in the inability of hip-hop lyricists to stay within the culture's self-proscribed boundaries where sexuality is concerned. The queering of hip-hop has been going on since it's inception, and the signs are becoming easier to read every day. The Gay Rapper? It's just a matter of time.
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