I listened to a lot of rap music as a kid – I feel like a lot of us do. There’s just something about the emotional voltage produced by passionately spit lyrics that makes an overactive pre-pubescent brain light up. Naturally, since my personal odyssey into the vastness of rap music began before the conception of modern day streaming services such as Spotify and Soundcloud, the music that I was exposed to was (unbeknownst to me) sorely lacking in variance. In my defence, at the time I was equipped with little more than a Sony Ericsson flip phone and a certain citrus-flavoured file-sharing client which may or may not have contaminated literally everyone’s old family computer while we were collectively attempting to download ‘Ke$ha_Tik_Tok_.mp3’. I was completely enamoured with this style of music. For years my headphones exclusively carried the soundwaves of artists such as Kanye West, Eminem and 50 Cent – globally lionised monoliths of the industry who were deemed untouchable in the early 2000’s.
As is to be expected, the majority of the lyrics went right over my thick eleven year old head. Looking back on it now, it’s hard to imagine that I was so obsessed with a genre of music which I had such a feeble understanding of. Social commentaries and cultural innuendos were lost on me – I understood only the emotion that stood behind them. The main emotion I remember identifying with was the anger, predictably enough – a vitriolic rap verse screamed over a gut-busting instrumental is a gold mine for any angst-ridden pre-teen in need of an emotional vent. I identified with this pure rage and uncensored expression, but I certainly didn’t understand it. To me, the homophobic slurs (and there were lots) were only further angry splashes on the canvas – no different from the fucks and the shits and the bitches. It’s only when you look back on this music with a matured (however acutely) eye that you realise how disappointingly rife with hatred it was. What you also come to realise is that homophobia has had its talons buried deep in the gut of the rap industry for decades.
The first ever hip-hop record to achieve a top 40 spot, The Sugarhill Gang’s squeaky clean 1979 “Rapper’s Delight”, even features a casual reference to a rival artist as being a “fairy”. This would be a continuous and compounding feature of rap music over the succeeding thirty years. Violent anti-gay attitudes achieved a sense of normalcy among rap artists and went largely unquestioned. Artists such as Eminem and DMX were unapologetic of their lyrics and spearheaded the hip-hop industry as a homogenous body that held no peace about its anti-gay views. Any positive change in rap culture has been molasses-esque in its passing, and at times it has seemed that the industry’s attitudes have become ineffaceable.
However, it deserves to be mentioned that in the past year in particular, a shift in values has been noticeable; and as it only ever could have been, it was a shift brought about by the fans. Migos’ Offset came under fire for his “I cannot vibe with queers” line on a track released late last year was a phenomenon that would have been unheard of ten years ago. Offset, however, soon found out that queer people could not, in fact, vibe with him; and was met with an onslaught of tweets calling out his unnecessary and casually insolent lyrics. Rap fans have evidently grown tired of the needless homophobia that has been a consistent blemish on their preferred genre for decades. Kevin Abstract, founding member of ‘best boyband since One Direction’ Brockhampton is one of the many LGBT artists paving the way and illuminating the possibility for a more accepting future. Abstract is unapologetically dysphemistic in his depiction of gay relationships in his lyrics, providing a necessary breach in the heteronormativity that has saturated the mainstream rap scene hitherto.
Abstract’s exponential rise in popularity and Offset’s PR upheaval, I think, represent a larger movement happening in hip-hop culture at the present time. Devotees of the genre have grown not only tired, but defiant of its habitual position – one bolstered and enforced by years of apathy and ignorance, wilful or otherwise. Perhaps this is too optimistic an interpretation, and perhaps rap music will never truly renounce the words it has weaponised and built its foundations upon; but the power for change lies with the fans – and I believe in the fans. Maybe, just maybe, if we continue to combat gratuitous discrimination with a voice that is both relentless and unified; and continue to support artists who are doing the same, it is deceivingly probable that we may summon a day that marks the end of homophobia in rap.