"Faggot soundmen, they be sabotagin' shit!"-Method Man, "What the Blood Clot"
The other day I was reading a review of a documentary called Bully; the film as a whole seems to present the issue of bullying and psychological victimization with a striking level of clarity, but one scene in particular stood out in that regard. One of the kids that the film follows is bullied so frequently, and by so many people, that he starts mistaking physical abuse for regular joshing and playing around. His mother tells him not to hang out with people who beat him up, and his reply is heartbreaking: “What friends does that leave me with?”
I think there’s a similar sentiment present in wider media, in that there are certain messages that are so ubiquitous that we think it’s impossible to cut them out of our cultural diet, lest we miss out on pretty much everything we want to watch or listen to or read. We don’t let Sergio Leone’s fixation with female degradation interfere with our awe at those incredible shots he manages to get, we don’t let H.P. Lovecraft’s horrific racial views distract us from his once-in-a-lifetime expressiveness of imagination, and if you listen to hip-hop, you tend to brush aside the ever-prevalent, near-deafening homophobia that infests the genre in order to better focus on the lyricism and production.
"These faggots hit like teddy bears."-EL-P, "Delorean"
This is something I have been doing, and am doing, and will probably continue to do, much to my own distaste. The reason I do it is because I don’t want to stop listening to things I like, and I like hip-hop, even though so much of it will at least reference in passing beating up gay people or emasculating an opponent by questioning his sexuality. And I do mean so much of it, because it’s everywhere. It’s inescapable. From thugs like Ghostface Killah to freakshows like Danny Brown to nerdy “nice guy” rappers like XV, it seems like pretty much everyone has to get their shots in. And sometimes I have to question my principles when I listen to this stuff, which sucks, because aside from the rare not-just-unoffensive-but-actively-socially-positive group like BBU, there are pretty much no alternatives.
People tend to have kind of an all-or-nothing attitude when it comes to issues like this in hip-hop. As in, you either accept the whole package as presented or reject it entirely. Whenever you try to discuss the ethical problems with the genre it's thrown in your face that you either don’t know what you’re talking about (“it’s all pimps and hos and crack and murder, what happened to the Rolling Stones, why don’t comics cost a nickel, etc. etc.”) or, if you do have legitimate concerns to raise, you’re told it’s not your place to bring them up since you’re not part of the culture. I think that’s kind of a bullshit response, though, since I’m not a part of skinhead culture either, but that doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to be appalled by the existence of things like Stormfront.
"Ayo, I'm quick to lick the mag twice/And cold take a fag's life."-Big L, "8 iz Enuff"
Obviously, very few hip-hop acts are quite so militant in their hatred or dismissal of LGBTQ culture. That doesn’t mean it’s not a completely shitty aspect of the genre, or that it’s in any way excusable. If rap’s opponents can’t use the “poor and ignorant” card to dismiss the music, that means that, in turn, its advocates can’t use it as a defense. When I’m listening to Action Bronson, and I stumble on a lyric like “I’m a man motherfucker, you’re half a fag,” it not only takes me out of the song, it fills me with disgust. It makes me instinctively push the skip button on my iPod. There's no rationalization I can come up with that will deaden the feeling that that absolutely revolting lyric gives me in my core, and frankly I don't think you should be able to contextualize away the chilling significance of lines like that. Does it say something about me that I didn’t have that same gut reaction to the songs on the very same tape that mention beating up hookers? Probably, yeah, it does.
The thing is, at the end of the day, you can’t really control what you are and are not comfortable with in the media you consume. I can’t outline the exact reasons why some kinds of violent lyrics bother me and others don’t, except to say that as someone who identifies as bisexual, those sentiments can't help but instill in me the impression that I am not welcome as part of the listening audience. More importantly, though, it gives me the impression that these men do not believe that we share the same common ground as human beings.
That’s a weird thing to say, coming from a white suburban twentysomething (how many umpteenth million times have you read that qualifier when reading a blog post about hip-hop?) so I’ll give an example.
"You're on the side of faggots and cock blockers/I'm on the side of bad-ass kids and the top-notchers." Tyler, The Creator, "Nightmare"
One of my favorite albums of the past few years has been XV’s Zero Heroes. It wasn’t a concept album per se, but a lot of it dealt with how XV grew up in a small town, without a father and with few friends, and became dependent on comics and music to help make it through the most difficult times in his life. That describes my adolescence to a tee, and it was revelatory to hear someone rap about things I could relate to on such a personal basis-escaping into the variety of personas that music could afford you, feeling your jaw drop when you meet a pretty girl who’s into the same weird stuff as you...99.9% of that album is an honest, utterly relatable story that’s near impossible to find in any other kind of music. It’s the sort of personal, confessional storytelling that hip-hop does as well or better than any other kind of art there is.
And then there is one, almost unnoticeable line near the end of the last song on the album where XV says he’s “iller than a nigga on the DL.” For those not familiar with the term, “on the DL” usually means “in secret,” but it also refers to gay black men who haven’t come out of the closet. In context, there really aren’t a whole lot of things that line can mean: XV, mere feet from the finish line, made a “gay people have AIDS” reference. And so now I've got this notion hovering around in my head that this dude, who I’ve been listening to, who I’ve been relating to, who I’ve been bonding with in that way that can only be facilitated by great music, probably thinks my sexual orientation means I've got AIDS (because hey, bi basically means gay and I'm just too scared to commit to the label, right?). And that illusion of personable friendliness that had been built up over the course of fifty some-odd minutes reveals itself to me as just that: an illusion.
And I’m sick of it. I’m sick of having to treat the music I listen to like it’s a fucking minefield, sick of everyone making excuses for this hideous specter that no one can seem to exorcise, sick of having to steel myself when I listen to a song with a phenomenal beat and great lyrics, bracing for that horrific slur casually slid in like a razorblade in a scoop of ice cream. How do I reconcile what I like with who I am? What are the options here? Where’s my out? Do I tell them to stop? Do I just quit listening to things I love?
"Call me homophobic but you know it and I know it/You're filthy and funny to the utmost exponent."-A Tribe Called Quest feat. Brand Nubian, "Georgie Porgie"
“What friends does that leave me with?”