I was walking through the Metropolitan Avenue L / G station on a recent weekend night, late to some place in Brooklyn I’ve already forgotten. As I rushed through, I saw a mass of people gathered around a corner, smartphones raised to document a spectacle I couldn’t quite see; there wasn’t a way around them, so I decided to find out what was causing the crowd. It turned out to be a couple guys freestyling, caught up in making the music they wanted to hear. I paused for a moment to take it in. I didn’t know anything about them except for the verses they were rapping. The music itself was enough.
Since the ’70s, rap culture has quickly evolved, responding nimbly to the particular challenges that each successive generation of youths face; and, make no mistake, rap is mostly for the young. Sure, there are legends, and yes, there is indeed a firmament—Thug Mansion?—where those legends puff blunts and sip cognac, but tradition dictates that the young sprint their leg of the race alone.
That’s one inheritance—the beats, images, and references, mixed with new influences, that combine to shape a generation’s sound. Then there’s the other, more harmful one: rap’s cult of hypermasculinity. Whether we like it or not, rappers are traditionally perceived as strong, virile, animalistically heterosexual men; that association, of course, persists, even as it changes, even as it’s been subverted from the very beginning.
“There are, no doubt, as many ways of coping with the resulting complex of tensions [between blacks and whites] as there are black men in the world,” writes James Baldwin in “A Stranger in the Village”, an early elegiac essay on being black, male, and American. There, he details his time in Switzerland as a stranger in a strange land, and it’s a brilliant execution of that old trope—sometimes, you’ve got to leave to see things the way they really are. In the U.S., hip-hop culture has perhaps been the most visible way of coping with those tensions; rap, its soundtrack, began as music for the struggle of a people divorced from their history.
The culture we invoke when we say hip-hop was birthed in the Bronx during the early ’70s, out of those raucous block parties that drew black kids from all over, drew artists like DJ Cool Herc—the Jamaican-born originator of hip-hop music—DJ Hollywood, and Afrika Bambaataa, drew all manner of b-boys and b-girls. It was the beginning of a movement.
At the time, academics eschewed studying rap, even as they acknowledged music’s important role in mass communication. This shouldn’t surprise you. It was the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s—street sounds meant street rats meant hoodlums meant society’s outsiders meant male meant black meant dangerous. To put it another way: no ivory tower gave a fuck about the streets, unless it was to wax rhapsodic about its threats.
Before rap, however, there was jazz.In a recent piece for the New Yorker, the critic Richard Brody writes a eulogy for the man who most influenced his career, the late jazz writer and poet Amiri Baraka. In it, he says:
Growing up nearly color-blind in nearly all-white neighborhoods, I thought of the blackness of the musicians I loved as an interesting coincidence; Baraka taught me that the music emerged from the specific experiences of blacks in America. He opens the book with the essay “Jazz and the White Critic,” which begins, “Most jazz critics have been white Americans, but most important jazz musicians have not been.”
The interplay here, of the tensions inherent in the intersection between creator and listener, is crucial to understanding how rap—and its own creators and listeners—have evolved in response to societal pressures. Most rap artists are black; most consumers, it appears, are white. In a 2000 article entitled “Guarding the Borders Of the Hip-Hop Nation”, the New York Times examined the ideas of authenticity and who belongs (indeed, who can belong) to hip-hop. It’s the source of the much-touted figure that whites consume the most hip-hop—then, fully 70% of albums bought.
“Who you claim?” the article seems to ask, as it sniffs round the edges of the territory James Baldwin explored 49 years earlier, of what it means to be black in America. I confess, I didn’t read the whole thing; I couldn’t get past this passage, on the former graffiti artist/hip-hop head/political activist (?) William (“Billy”) Upski Wimsatt, regarding an essay he’d written for The Source.
It was a withering critique of “wiggers,” whites who try too hard to be black so they will be accepted. Soon, he argued, “the rap audience may be as white as tables in a jazz club.” In the last paragraph, which The Source cut from the final version, he warned black artists that the next time they invented something, they had better find a way to control it financially, because whites were going to steal hip-hop.
“And since it's the 90’s,” he concluded, “you won't even get to hear us say, ‘thanks, niggers.’”
It’s worth nothing that Wimsatt is white. He’s right, though, about financial control—the figure’s somewhat outdated, but it makes sense that one would create music for whoever buys (and perhaps more importantly, can buy) the most. Bill Yousman addresses this in “Blackophilia and Blackophobia: White Youth, the Consumption of Rap Music, and White Supremacy”, wherein he connects ideas of traditional American masculinity to rap artists. “Rappers who construct violent, hypermasculine identities draw on the representations of masculinity that may be found in all of American popular culture,” he writes. Later in the piece, Yousman quotes Cornel West, who claims (rightly) that “[t]he growing gangsterization of America results in part from a market-driven racial reasoning that links the White House to the ghetto projects.”
Choice in consumption—wherein taste implies personality—signals to others what kind of person you are. As the white consumer eagerly devours rap, he necessarily skews the type of music that’s created: black is muscular, black is cool, black is exotic reads as “I am manly, I am cool, I am in the know”, and then the snake eats its tail and we get RiFF RAFF. In her 1992 book Black Looks: Race and Representation, noted sociocultural theorist bell hooks asked the obvious question—“Should we not be suspicious of the way in which white culture’s fascination with black masculinity manifests itself?” Further along, she answers herself. “Just as white cultural imperialism informed and affirmed the adventurous journeys of colonizing whites into the countries and cultures of ‘dark others,’” she writes, “it allows white audiences to applaud representations of black culture, if they are satisfied with the images and habits of being represented.” (Emphasis mine.)
There’s of course a confluence here, between masculinity, gender, and sexuality. Black masculinity is fraught—when one’s systematically emasculated by society (police encounters, Stop & Frisk, mass incarceration, economic violence, et al), how does one feel like a man? Rap’s fetishization of heterosexual masculinity is direct pushback—at least in part—against this systematic unmanning; the other piece might be what hooks said, that the twisted image of black masculinity is titillating, thrilling to consumers.
I got in touch with Dr. Michael Jeffries—author of Thug Life: Race, Gender, and the Meaning of Hip-Hop and professor of social sciences/American studies at Wellesley—to hear what he had to say. “Record execs believe audiences will best receive only a limited range of representations of black men, representations that are supposed to be recognizable, and representations that are supposed to be thrilling for young, white, adolescent men, in some way,” Jeffries said, “things that represent danger, things that represent sexual power.” He continued. “But I certainly think the logic of the record industry has been driven by that kind of cycle, that kind of self-fulfilling prophecy for the past 25 or 30 years, ever since they figured out that NWA was gonna sell records in the suburbs, that’s kind of been the model.”
Let’s face it: hip-hop is changing. The last few years have seen the rise of diverse artists whose styles probably wouldn’t have been welcome in the ’80s and early ’90s, like Mykki Blanco, Angel Haze, Le1f, Zebra Katz, Ddm, and Childish Gambino, to name a few. Drake, even. I called up Dr. Adam Bradley—associate professor of English at the University of Colorado, Boulder; editor of The Yale Anthology of Rap; and author of Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop—to get his take on the genre’s evolution.
“I think in the now 40 years or so since hip-hop has been around, we’ve seen an expansion of voices, really a chorus of voices on any number of different registers,” he said. “Rap as a form is really open and accessible to anybody, and isn’t necessarily codified in any particular way.” Bradley continued. “Of course, the popular perception of what rap is certainly has been coded—and it’s been coded black, young, and hypermasculine, so a growing tension exists between the reality of rap and the representation of it in the popular media.”
The question of media representation is vital. It sets the norms we live by, our cultural reality. That there are a growing number of visible diverse rap artists speaks to a progressive reflex, America’s slow thawing, her warming to difference. “Hip-hop is no more homophobic or sexist than American culture as a whole, which is to say that it’s been virulently homophobic and sexist,” Dr. Bradley told me. “Hip-hop is a vessel that we can use to hold any number of things!” he added. “Whatever we can fill it with, it’s up to us.”
A few weeks after our conversation, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis were nominated in seven categories at the 56th Grammy awards. By the end of the night, they’d won 4: Best New Artist, Best Rap Song, Best Rap Performance, and Best Rap Album. After the ceremony, Macklemore texted Kendrick Lamar (nominated for his fabulous album Good Kid M.A.A.D City) and posted it on Instagram. “You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and it sucks that I robbed you,” he wrote. Though self-serving, Macklemore’s text exemplifies hip-hop’s growing pains.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ win is perhaps the most public evidence of the change that’s been brewing in hip-hop. Their album, The Heist, is the furthest departure from rap’s traditional form that’s ever won a Grammy; it’s worth noting, too, that the Best Rap Album category has only been around since 1996, just after the golden age of hip-hop ended.
According to Dr. Jeffries, the change in hip-hop can be attributed to three major things: greater exposure for alternative artists, changing social trends (i.e., the growing acceptance of queer lifestyles and cultures), and the democratization of the music industry, as artists can produce work that isn’t shackled to the whims of a label. “You’re not only democratizing the consumption process, where consumers are able to pick and choose people that they want to buy,” he said, “but you’re also democratizing the production process, so that people for whom that kind of hypermasculinity wasn’t an attractive working culture don’t have to participate in that working culture in order to make the kind of music they want to make.”
Early last September, as the temperatures fell and summer started to give way to fall, a member of hip-hop’s old guard—famed Hot 97 D.J. Mister Cee—was confronting his personal struggle with his sexuality, on air, to hundreds of thousands of listeners. He’d been arrested multiple times for soliciting transgender prostitutes. This interview was prompted by the release of a video filmed by a blogger that showed Cee negotiating a price for sex.
“The truth will set you free,” he said a day later, after resigning and subsequently reclaiming his job. “I know it now.” It was a remarkable admission; historically, hip-hop has been neither kind to nor particularly forgiving of difference, of divergence from heterosexual norms.
Cee’s summer confession was met with widespread support. Quoth a recent GQ profile: “… when Cee started getting caught, friends and other artists got in touch or sent their support. 50 Cent. Wyclef. Busta Rhymes.” The few who haven’t—like J. Cole, who called Cee out on his last album: “The same reason they call Mister Cee “the Finisher” / Forbidden fruit, watch for the Adam's apple!”—either haven’t said much or haven’t been very vocal about their opinions (like, say, rapping them on a J. Cole album).
To be clear, Cee isn’t gay, and said as much to his GQ profiler. Even if he were, though, would it matter? What would it change?
Hip-hop’s answer, I think, would be the right one. That’s something it’s taken a generation to say, something that’ll be inherited along with the beats and rhymes when our youths are ready to pass the baton. Perhaps it’s cliché, but I’d like to quote from Frank Ocean’s landmark open letter, where he announced to the world his first love had been a man:
Maybe it takes a near death experience to feel alive. Thanks. To my mother. You raised me strong. I know I’m only brave because you were first. So thank you. All of you. For everything good. I feel like a free man. If I listen closely.. I can hear the sky falling too.
What Frank heard wasn’t the sky falling. It was the sound of the world rushing to meet him.
Bijan Stephen wears round glasses. His work has appeared in The Paris Review Daily, VICE, and The Awl, among other places. He tweets - @bijanstephen