Before the highly anticipated “Love and Hip Hop: Out in Hip Hop” special, my mom and I watched cast-member Miles being pressured to explain his sexuality to his family after his ex-girlfriend Amber threatened to out him herself on “Love and Hip Hop: Hollywood.” There’s nothing unfamiliar about this scene for me: a queer black man asking his religious family to confront their ideas around sexuality and the importance of labels. “Make better decisions, Miles,” says one of his sisters. That’s when I began to feel uncomfortable. Every time I get uncomfortable watching reality television, I remind myself that it’s surreal. But this time, my coping technique failed. This scene reawakened my animosity towards the black church and the way religion is often used as armory in attempt to eradicate queerness from young black bodies. So many black kids have similar conversations with their families and are often left feeling ashamed and unsupported. I know from experience. I also know that this is not everyone’s reality. Miles tries to share his past thoughts of suicide and his sister quickly dismisses his statement, instructing him to not discuss death. That moment also felt way too familiar. The way our black families often perpetuate taboos while discussing unfamiliar topics like gender expression, sexuality and desire is such a subtle component to our social arena, it could easily be overlooked. In no way am I attempting to vilify the black community.
I received a text message from my friend Malcolm reminding me that there are other communities of people that actively promote intolerance against queer people like fraternities, sports teams and other hyper-gendered networks. This isn’t just a black issue. Intolerance is a social plague that most of us will encounter at one point or another, especially if you’re not a cis-white ‘masculine’ male body. The problem is the taboo around queerness and gender expression in black families, black churches and in hip-hop. We can’t possibly expect one panel to be the only agent advocating for more nuance conversations involving black queer youth and their families but we can hope that kids are using support groups like the one Vh1 kept promoting throughout to show to help them with questions they may be having. We have to start somewhere, right? I thought about transcribing the T.J Holmes-hosted panel but remembered that this is still a VH1 special that will more than likely air about 5,000 more times before the year ends. However, I was excited to see some familiar faces participate in the panel like Sharon Letterman Hicks, Big Freedia, Cakes Da Killa, Emil Wilbekin and Darryl ‘DMC’ McDaniels.
McDaniels explained that the hip-hop community has always tolerated gays as stylists, choreographers, anything behind-the-scenes -- they’re just not welcomed to be rappers. I thought about how obvious of a statement that was but kept reminding myself that this is a panel on Vh1 and no type of discussion has ever happened on a platform like this until now. I was annoyed all over again because if you’re actively checking for new music like I am, then you’re aware of projects like The Eulogy by Cakes Da Killa or Allure by Jay Boogie which are as much about queerness as they are hip-hop and are phenomenal because of that. There are also so many openly queer rappers! Has McDaniels not experienced these projects? It’s more than likely he hasn’t because like Buttahman, another panelist, explained: hip-hop is so much about being vouched for by bigger, more financially impactful artists that inform the masses. We’ve all seen examples of this. It’s sad and pathetic but true.
“Does the industry see value in a gay rapper?” Chuck Creekmur asks while explaining how he believes there’s a market for it now more than ever. “Hip-hop is based around the premise of knocking down doors,” says Creekmur. But is hip-hop still about knocking down doors? The panel begins to address the impact of language used in hip-hop, particularly words and phrases like ‘faggot’ and ‘no homo’. Most language has undergone an implosion of meaning. Everyone is an artist, feminist, queer or radical. Words just don’t mean what they used to. ‘Faggot’ and ‘DL’ are just urban buzzwords at this point. However, hearing ‘no homo’ took me back days in the high school hallways, where every boy was clarifying his hetero-normative position by saying ‘no homo’ whether it was before paying a friend a compliment or describing how another person looked. It never made much sense to me but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t unpleasant and incredibly violent. “As a black man, I love hip hop. Hip hop in many ways saved me when I was younger...hip-hop was our “black lives matter,” right? But at the same end, as a gay man, hip hop hurt me,” Clay Cane explained when addressing the role of language in hip hop.
I understood him completely. Hip-hop was the way you bonded with your black peers. I can’t begin to explain how conflicted I felt talking about rappers that probably would want no association with me. I was shocked at the amount of people that were rotating on to the panel like Reverend Delman Coates, an ally for queer black people in the black church, Pastor Kevin Taylor Smith, an out gay black pastor from the DC area, Clay Cane and Sharon Letterman Hicks who are both featured in video pieces that directly address the shortcomings of the black church acknowledging queerness. Hicks is a pivotal character in Yoruba Richen’s “The New Black” and Cane produced “Holler if You Hear Me: Black and Gay in the Church”. Both brilliantly introduce language like ‘theological violence’ and ‘spiritual violence.’ If you grew up black and in the church, how many times did you hear “hate the sin but love the sinner” when talking about homosexuality? Intolerance that’s not explicit but implied. As that moment lived out on the panel, I was taken back to my twelve-year-old self, sitting motionless in a pew at a non-denominational all black church on Chicago’s Southside as my pastor talked about homosexuality being sinful.
My mom is speechless at this point of the program. I’m feeling vulnerable again. I re-engage with the television as Coates talks about the need for biblical texts to be reclaimed and re-contextualized properly for black queer people to understand. This part made me feel the most optimistic about the panel because it’s important for queer black youth to know they have spiritual leaders they can reach out to that won’t try to “counsel” or “transform” them like Pastor Jamal Bryant, a panelist Skyping in. A lot of black kids grow up in the church and when an impactful network such as the black church shames us for who we are, that directly dismantles the way we value our own lives like Kamaro Brown, another panelist explained. Theological violence often attacks the morale in a body. It prohibits the body from living in truth. The Bible is a complex piece of writing and as I get older, I grow weary of people that use it as ammo to condemn folks. A spiritual practice without vulnerability is just extremism with a political agenda.
The part of the panel stuck out most was when an audience member informed the panel about October being LGBT history month, reminding us how important it is to remember that all black lives matter: black LGBT lives, HIV positive black lives, incarcerated black lives, indigenous and black trans lives. In this past year, over 20 black trans-women have been murdered. Another essential part of the panel is Cakes Da Killa addressing the over sensationalized trope of gay marriage as a symbol to persuade the masses that we are making strides towards a better nation. “It’s people that live on the pier… I feel like getting caught up in this whole gay marriage hysteria and pandemonium, we’re missing a lot of the smaller issues and the smaller battles that effect people of color.”
Do gay artists need to let us know they’re gay? What is our obsession with figuring someone out? Why do we sensationalize that component of an artist’s life for our entertainment? Something about this reminds me of Hester Prynne from The Scarlett Letter. Should all gay rappers decline on wearing ‘HBA’ and just wear a t-shirt with a big ‘H” for homo instead? I don’t get it. While we’re on the topic of fashion, can we all take a minute to realize how men in hip-hop have always been cunt? From the Sylvester inspired looks Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five wore to the photograph of Dr. Dre in a 2-piece sequined suit to Christopher Wallace in Versace. Men in hip-hop have always been femme and flamboyant but as consumers, we’ve made so many concessions for them to do that without acknowledging the source of their inspiration: Queerness. It’s the same way that so many rappers are wearing Hood By Air right now without knowing those clothes have lineage to the cunts in the New York City ballroom scene. The ‘masc’ is probably the most quintessential accessory for rappers. The ‘masc’ allows you to catcall, be aggressive, violent and body shame. The ‘masc’ allows you to love pussy but hate women. The ‘masc’ allows you to flex your muscles, grab your dick, be disgusting and talk down to people who don’t or can’t wear it without raising suspicion. The ‘masc’ is slowly but surely ruining hip-hop and ultimately ruining culture.
I’m not here to demonize straight men, but failing to address the privileges that straight men are granted would be aloof, especially when you have a little sisters that worry about protecting their transness daily, young queers that sleep on piers and talented queer rappers with songs that I can’t request to hear on my favorite hip hop station because chances are, the DJ will not jeopardize their job to play them. This all has to do with our participation in upholding a fragile template of masculinity. It’s the reason why there’s only one successful woman rapper and why we all thought it was a valid dig for one rapper to talk about another rapper dating a woman rapper that makes more money than him. I’m disillusioned, annoyed and bored as fuck with misogyny. I’m tired of buying into it. I appreciate the sentiment of VH1’s panel and all the visibility it created for artists like Big Freedia, Cakes and D. Smith, but if we’re talking about hip-hop, specifically music which is engrained in our culture, then what does it mean to be seen and not heard?