"I don't like gay people around me, because I'm not comfortable with what their thoughts are. I'm not prejudiced. I just don't go with gay people and kick it. We don't have that much in common. I'd rather hang out with a straight dude." - 50 Cent in an interview with Playboy magazine in 2004. Like A Tribe Called Quest, Jay Z, Eminem and many other US hip-hop artists before him, 50 Cent was proudly wearing homophobia on his sleeve.
A decade since that interview, attitudes within US hip-hop to LGBT people seem to be evolving. High profile rappers such as Jay Z and Nicki Minaj back gay marriage; openly LGBT rappers like Le1f and Angel Haze have made their mark on the mainstream; and artists like Big Dipper and Tim’m T. West form part of a scene referred to as homo hop. Homo hop evolved in the early nineties and is becoming ever more prevalent in America, with the popularity of rappers like Brooke Candy and Zebra Katz on the up. In opposition to 50 Cent’s take on things, these stars dare to be truly out and proud; wearing their homosexuality as a badge of honour.
Back in Britain, the hip-hop scene is routinely painted as a couple of layabout public school boys who’ve come across their Dad’s old drum machine, a Roots Manuva album and a GCSE poetry anthology. However there is a uniqueness which stems from UK rap, which goes largely unnoticed. Urban culture in Britain is a lot less divided up than in the States; gay rap is rarely bracketed and there’s no gay rap scene as such, although LGBT rappers are present. UK rapper and promoter MC Angel feels “the States are not integrated in the way we are. They're very racially segregated and quite segregated in their way of thinking. They feel they need to put everything in boxes whereas here in the UK we're more integrated amongst every type of person.”
While the UK scene may not place its rappers in boxes labelled gay or straight, it doesn't mean that homophobia hasn't also been rife in the land of scones and staffys. Grime, in particular, has struggled; it still has 1950s attitudes to homosexuality laid across contemporary beats. Simon Reynolds wrote in 2011 that in the early days of grime, the music existed in a “gender-polarised universe of lechery mixed with misogyny…spiced with rampant homophobia.” While those who’ve made careers from the genre may have moved on from those attitudes, less well-known grime MCs continue to make homophobic outbursts in their music and online. One gay grime rapper from Birmingham, Rawzilla, rapped about bumming in a way that rivalled the outspokenness of America’s Big Dipper and received a hostile response from bigoted British B-Boys.
Along the same lines, one of UK hip hop’s biggest stars, Klashnekoff, continues to release music that attacks gay people. “Klashnekoff used to be one of my favourite artists,” says MC Angel, a London-Irish lesbian rapper. “But he brought out his new album and it had some really homophobic lyrics, now I would never book him! How can you call yourself a conscious rapper, representing your own people, when you’re dissing people from the same council estate as you?”
American documentary Pick Up The Mic showcased LGBT rappers whose music was themed around sexuality and gay rights, but here in Britain most artists haven’t affiliated themselves with the homo hop scene at all. UK rapper and token Brit in Pick Up The Mic, Q-Boy, claims that he “was the UK gay rap scene.” He says the biggest prejudice he experienced in the early days was not from others in the hip-hop scene, but from within the gay community.
“I’ve not experienced homophobia, but I’ve experienced hip-hop-phobia from gay promoters before. When I first started, gay club owners and promoters did not want to book a rapper nor a hip-hop DJ. It did not conform to their idea of being gay. It threatened certain gay people’s perception of themselves. They got over that, however. The hip-hop look and swagga is almost fetishized by the gay scene now.” Despite the progress Q-Boy’s made, he’s often still the only gay rapper on a bill.
These days, Q-Boy is moving away from the homo hop subgenre, and rethinking his musical affiliations. “I’d like to be appreciated as an artist first and foremost. I am not always going to make songs that can be classed as hip-hop or write lyrics that are going to be coloured with my gay perspective, so in that sense the term can be limiting.”
Miss Blackman, a Bristol based MC and singer doesn’t want her sexuality to be associated with her music at all. “I think it’s not something you need to make an obvious subject, like, ‘Hi, I’m gay!’ It’s too obvious; if you’re straight you don't necessarily feel the need to portray it in a song. There are ways of doing it more subtly; I don't need to use my sexuality as a gimmick or means to get exposure, a lot of artists do that.”
Rumours frequently circulate that certain notoriously homophobic male rappers regularly have sex with men and trans people. A study by psychologist Henry Adams of the University of Georgia in the 1990's suggests that 80% of homophobic men get aroused by gay porn. In his study, Adams suggests that homophobia is a form of "latent homosexuality where persons are either unaware of or deny their homosexual urges." What was that you were saying again, 50 Cent?
Q-Boy feels that there is a method behind the madness of homophobia in hip hop. “If you are a man, not gay, and not thinking about men having sex with men, then why on earth are you talking about it so much in your music?” It may be that there’s a long way to go before everyone within hip-hop feels free to express their sexuality.
It would be a bold claim to suggest that things are easier for gay rappers either side of the Atlantic. The rappers from High Focus Records, arguably the biggest thing happening in UK hip hop right now, largely steer clear of homophobic slurs in their lyrics. But although the majority of the UK hip hop scene may not be discriminatory by practice, the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a homo hop scene for gay rappers to fall into may mean that it’s harder for LGBT rappers and fans of urban music to be open about their sexuality. There are few black male LGBT rappers in the UK, the majority being young lesbian women – contrary to the hip hop scene at large.
For one Hackney based rapper, Jai’Rouge, attitudes towards homosexual rappers have at least moved on far enough for him to be accepted. He struggled to be open about his sexuality until he was publicly outed by others in his community. “I live for me, I love me and I have grown up having to hide all the beauty of me. So I thank these people for the day I was outed, because they basically said ‘you’re free’, and now I find it so easy to stay in my skin and be comfortable in it.”