Hip-Hop Fridays: Black Culture Is Not Homophobic by Zoe Williams
Caushun is a rap artist from Brooklyn, who releases this summer what he has called hip-hop's first gay album. This isn't strictly true (what about Deep Dickollective?), but it's certainly the case that his arrival is being widely described as a breakthrough in black culture. Hip-hop and rap are renowned for their anti-gay content, but there is a much more serious assumption floating around - that black culture as a whole is inherently homophobic.
You see it in news stories all the time, a thoughtless segue from "rap" to "black culture". And yet the evidence for homophobia in black culture is patchy at best, and the upshot of this supposition is to characterise that culture as less tolerant, less sophisticated and more primitive than its white equivalent.
This mistake is born out of one syllogism, one misconception and one silly error. To deal with those backwards, the silly error is this: where no one would ever define "white culture" solely by the views of its young straight men, there is a lazy tendency to do this with black culture. Young straight men tend to be the most homophobic demographic in any culture, since open-mindedness comes from self-confidence, which comes with age.
The misconception is a confusion between rap and reggae. Some reggae is homophobic - Bob Marley isn't, but modern artists such as Tok, Elephant Man and Beenie Man are. This music comes from Jamaica, which is also homophobic - it is one of three Caribbean countries with actively enforced laws against homosexuality.
This attitude arrived with British evangelists, as a direct component of their Christian message. All the homophobic laws date from the period of British governance. There is no evidence that Jamaica was preoccupied with same-sex sex before the arrival of the British. In fact, the only sustainable cultural generalisation that can ever be drawn about homophobia is that it proceeds as a direct result of religious fundamentalism.
The syllogism is straightforward - rap music is homophobic, rap music is black, ergo black culture is homophobic. If you look at the seminal black artists at the start of hip-hop, Public Enemy and Niggaz With Attitude, you won't actually find much homophobia. The only recorded homophobic lyric in Public Enemy's canon was: "Man to man/ I don't know if they can/ From what I know/ The parts don't fit" - it's not a ringing endorsement of homosexuality, but it's nothing to Eminem's "You faggots keep eggin' me on/ till I have you at knifepoint, then you beg me to stop?"
Professor Griff, once part of Public Enemy, was virulently anti-gay, but he was eventually kicked out for this, along with his anti-semitism (he was Nation of Islam, incidentally - again, his views proceed from religious belief rather than race). Dr Dre, once part of NWA, was and remains homophobic - "I don't really care about those kind of people" he said in an MTV interview.
And yet, Public Enemy and NWA were never known for homophobia as much as lambasting everyone: the police, Koreans, women, other black people, other black people's mothers, all figures of authority, Jews, gays, absolutely everyone. The ideal of verbal battle was crucial to early hip-hop - everything that could ever in one's wildest dreams function as an insult was pressed into use.
Ultimately, it was not black rappers but white ones who corrupted this form; being too yellow (white?) to hurl racial slurs, groups such as the Beastie Boys and, latterly, Eminem, concentrated their abuse solely on women and gays, made it more violent and, crucially, more pointed, since it was no longer part of a scattergun attack. The Beastie Boys have recently apologised for their homophobia (the working title for their debut album, they said at the time, was Don't Be a Faggot). Adam Horovitz wrote at the end of last year: "I would like to... formally apologise to the entire gay and lesbian community for the shitty and ignorant things we said on our first record." Note, he does not apologise to any other minority, since there was no racial content, and misogyny (still!) doesn't count.
Eminem is unapologetic about his homophobia, and yet rather prim on the use of the word "nigger": "That word is not even in my vocabulary," he said to a Rolling Stone journalist. "I do black music, so out of respect, why would I put that word in my vocabulary?" Well, that's very sweet, but also absurd from a person whose entire raison d'Ítre is that he's out to shock.
So, this musical form has always revered verbal attack on a deliberately absurd scale. People existed who filtered in a fundamentalist agenda, but they were peripheral. The denigration of women and gays was once incidental to a message of wide-ranging and usually amusing insult. Homophobia has only become axiomatic with the arrival of white boys who want to sound tough but are too frightened and apolitical to attack anyone else.
And black culture, ultimately, is no more homophobic than white culture - which is to say, some people are, and some people aren't.
Zoe Williams can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article first appeared at the Guardian website
Friday, May 2, 2003