By now, many of us have heard that Jay-Z, arguably the most influential rapper alive, was the first to back Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage. But then came other prominent hip-hop figures, west coast rap pioneer Ice Cube and southern rappers T.I. and Bun B, who condemned discrimination of homosexuals and spoke of individual rights. Even Jamaican reggae star Beenie Man (who represents a cultural framework similar to that of hip-hop) has recently apologized for his long history of lyrics promoting violence against the LGBT community.
It’s no secret that commercial hip-hop has saturated the global music landscape with reckless individualism, misogynistic bravado, and a monolithic understanding of black male identity for decades. For every rapper who amplifies the urban plight and seeks to give voice to the full range of African-American identity and culture, there are countless others who boast of having from-the-projects-to-the-penthouse narratives rooted in criminal activity.
Many of these rap artists have manufactured personas that glorify aggression. That aggression surfaces in the violent language and animalistic imagery used to describe sexual intimacy with women. It makes itself known in its all-consuming obsession with capital and material goods. And, undoubtedly, in the brutal verbal lashings it often gives to homosexual men.
It is within this cultural context that we must pause when four prominent rappers and a Jamaican dancehall artist not only speak publicly about homosexuality in a thoughtful manner — but go as far as to support (or voice indifference to) marriage equality.
While many conservative pundits are quick to brush off the remarks of these artists, particularly Jay-Z, as damage control on behalf of their presidential candidate of choice, I’m left wondering if the hip-hop community, under the leadership of Obama, is very slowly etching toward (obviously not yet having arrived at) a post-homophobic era.
Are hip-hop artists being challenged to stretch themselves beyond their comfort zones to make room for identities that have historically been silenced and made invisible in the public’s imagination? Is Obama helping to create a safe space in which black men can broaden their definition of manhood without fear that it brings their own sexuality into question?
Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University, responded to the questions I posed by saying, “Many male rap artists, Jay-Z among them, have been long grappling with the constructed versions of masculinity that they have been tethered to. If anything, President Obama's performance of black masculinity — thoughtful, adaptable, and even progressive (if we consider the stance on same-sex marriage) has given many male rap artists the cover to explore the nuances of their manhood.”
Bakari Kitwana, author of “The Hip-Hop Generation” and executive director of Rap Sessions, is leading a nationwide 10-city tour of town hall meetings with Neal and other intellectuals to challenge communities to think about these intersections of gender, race and hip-hop. He pushes back on the notion that Obama has inspired an ideological shift within the hip-hop community in regards to homosexuality.
“Hip-hop culture doesn’t take its social cues from Obama,” he told me when I asked what artist support of Obama’s endorsement suggests about the current state of hip-hop. “Most hip-hop artists came into the game as teenagers. As these young men mature, their public comments reflect their growing comfort level with speaking about the diversity of opinion in hip-hop — more than any indication of Obama changing the hip-hop landscape.”
If Kitwana is right and this is simply about the comfort level of these specific individuals, then it’s important to note that they are all well-established artists who have very little to lose in comparison to rappers that are not equally as secure in their careers.
Not only have they been in the industry long enough to lead the pack on an issue as controversial as this without fearing what it means for their artist branding, but they also don’t stand the risk of having to defend their sexuality. Jay-Z and T.I., in particular, have had the privilege of juggling their highly visible, long-term relationships with prominent female entertainers alongside countless tracks that boast of the sex-infused-rock-star-good-life. Nonetheless, Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar’s recent public statement on this issue suggests that less-established artists may soon be following their lead.
Still, I think we would be short-sighted to assume that their comments reflect a tangible shift in how they think and plan to operate in the world. For example, Jay-Z’s comment in a CNN interview that opposition to marriage equality is “discrimination plain and simple” doesn’t prove that he is not homophobic. It is one thing to accept at face value his belief, which was also expressed by T.I., that what “people do in their own homes is their business,” but it’s a huge leap to assume that artists who have derided gays in their lyrics are now comfortable with homosexuality in their own personal spaces.
As such, perhaps it’s too early to claim that hip-hop artists (and Obama for that matter) have undergone an overnight ideological transformation when so much of what they say and do is driven by branding and market appeal. And it’s also premature to conclude that hip-hop is on the cusp of a post-homophobic era based on the opinions of a handful of rappers who may not yet be willing to personify the tolerance that they have recently preached.
But we can hope that these artists have made way for conversations about gender and sexual politics that were previously unimaginable for hip-hop artists in the public sphere.
Those of us who came of age with hip-hop as the soundtrack of our formative years have longed for the day when hip-hop would move closer to a cultural form more reflective of the complex, multi-dimensional identity of our generation. Hip-hop has a long way to go toward that end. But for now, the salvos fired by hip-hop icons Jay-Z, Ice Cube, T.I., and Bun B are a great start toward much-needed cultural reflection and generational dialogue.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT.