Death of the Critic

LGBTQ Hip Hop: The Tantalizing Problem of Labeling

Written by: Tom Blaich

Historically speaking, rap music has always been a way for a marginalized group to express themselves creatively. And in the recent years of civil rights questions surrounding the GSM (Gender and Sexual Minority) community, we can see a surge in the number of rappers that identify in that way trying to take their feelings and reflect them onto the world through their music. Rappers like Zebra Katz, Contessa “Cunt Mafia” Stutto, Angel Haze, Big Dipper, Cakes da Killa, House of Ladosha, and others are leading the so-called “homo hop” or “queer rap” movement into the 21st century. But there are problems that are associated with taking this talented group and applying this label to them.

Labels are something that we are all intimately familiar with as a society. We’ve all heard them and all experienced them. From the simplistic like athlete or bookworm, to the more “fundamental” like boy or girl. These labels allow us to divide our society into different groups. Look at any survey published in the last thirty years and its easy to see. A list of checkboxes, mark all that apply. But the problem behind them is fundamental, by using labels we strive to simplify things, to place things into easily digestible boxes. When I describe someone as an athlete, a clear picture comes to mind. Same with bookworm, or boy, or girl. These labels have deep rooted stereotypes linked to them that are brought up every time they are used to identify someone.

And while some of these stereotypes might be positive, like linking the term bookworm to intelligence, or athlete to physical fitness, at the same time they put a great deal of pressure on the people that are identified that way to fit the mold that they are given. Does a high school football player feel pressure to lose weight to be recognized as an athlete? Does a student feel pressure to better their grades because their teacher called them a bookworm? How does the way in which we use labels affect those groups that are being labeled?

There are two schools of thought that go with this in the discussion of LGBTQ Hip Hop. The first is that by pointing these artists out and labeling them as such we give them recognition and status that they otherwise would not have attained without being recognized. It gives them the ability to be recognized by outlets like Pitchfork (Pitchfork), which has written extensively about the genre and the rappers within it, or Salon, which has done numerous articles about positive GSM role models within rap. (Lang 2013)

The other side of it is a bit different. By using these labels to describe these artists we are inherently limiting them. We are forcing them into a box which they can’t escape. The label becomes synonymous with their identity. And this identity then becomes a box from which they can’t escape. They become defined by the “queer” but not by the “rap”. Their success becomes an oddity of their label as opposed to their talent.

But to examine this question we must first examine rap and the subgenre itself to answer some of these questions. In
Enthnomusicology Cheryl L. Keyes wrote, “It (Rap Music) began in the Bronx, New York, in the early 1970s, with itinerant African American disc jockeys called ‘mobile’ disc jockeys (djs) who would mix pre-recorded hits alternate on two turntables while reciting party phrases to the crowd in a microphone. Because mixing records eventually became a competitive art in itself, mobile disc jockeys supplemented their verbal performances by hiring ‘rhyming emcees’.” (Keyes 223)

From these rather humble origins we can see a rapid spread. Coming out of block party culture in New York in the early 70’s, from its origin, rap music was tied into the experience of living in the ghetto. But through its meteoric rise, we can quickly see how this voice spread throughout the world. “By the 1980s, rap music – recordings, concert sales, television commercials and films – was a billion dollar industry” (Keyes 223) And as the popularity of the genre too, so did the popularity of studying it. Here, academic America was being presented with music that glorified violence, from the 1988 hit “Fuck The Police” by rap group N.W.A (Niggaz Wit Attitudes) to the early 2000s billboard star DMX, many rap songs expressly glorified violent or illegal acts. “Some dismiss its cultural significance, positing that the music lacks artistic value and is little more than a commercial fad, while others share the view that rap is representative of a degenerate urban black youth culture.” (Keyes 223).

But I would disagree with the statement. From its beginning rap music was a way to speak out, to yell and shout and scream about all the things that bothered you. During the early 1970’s the Bronx went through a total economic collapse, leading to Howard Cosell using the phrase “the Bronx is burning” during the second game of the 1977 World Series as a helicopter shot of the exterior of Yankee Stadium showed a fire ravaging in South Bronx. Property values were plummeting, and violence swept through the area. (NYT)

“Their research revealed that rap music expresses the everyday harsh realities of ghetto life and socio-political sentiments ranging from poverty, police brutality, and racial genocide to class and gender relations by an urban black youth constituency.” (Keyes 224) Rap music is the experience of the artist. But unfortunately for GSM artists, this experience is not a positive one, especially within rap music. The last 40 years of rap have been plagued with rampant misogyny and homophobia.

We need reach no further than rap superstar Eminem. Critically lauded and showered with achievements that range from being the best selling artist of the 2000’s in the United States (MTV), to being listed by Rolling Stone as the 83
rd greatest artist of all time (Rolling Stone), ten billboard number 1 albums, and selling more than 172 million albums (Independent Australia), more than any other hip hop artist. And once you start looking at some of his lyrics, you start to see how bad some of them can get.

“But I may fight for gay rights, especially if that dyke is more of a knockout than Janay Rice/Play nice? Bitch I’ll punch Lana Del Rey right in the face twice, like Ray Rice in broad daylight in the plain sight of the elevator surveillance/’Til her head is banging on the railing, then celebrate with the Ravens.” (Shady CXVPHER)

“That I’ll still be able to break a motherfuckin’ table/Over the back of a couple of faggots and crack it in half/Only realized it was ironic I was signed to Aftermath after the fact.” (Rap God)

“My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge/That’ll stab you in the head whether you’re a fag or lez/Or the homosex, hermaph or a trans-a-vest/Pants or dress, hate fags? The answer’s, ‘Yes’/Homophobic? Nah, you’re just heterophobic/Starin’ at my jeans, watchin’ my genitals bulgin’/That’s my motherfuckin’ balls, you’d better let go of ‘em/They belong in my scrotum, you’ll never get a hold of ‘em” (Criminal)

“I’m sorry, there must be a mix-up/You want me to fix up lyrics while the President gets his dick sucked?/Fuck that, take drugs, rape sluts/Make fun of gay clubs, men who wear make-up” (Who Knew)

“Don’t you never say my little girl’s name in a song again!/Fuckin’ punk pussy little bitch!/I’ll fuck you up boy!/Never! Never in your muthafuckin life!/I’ll choke the shit outchu little muthafuckin bitch!” (Hailie’s Revenge)

And he is the most popular rapper of all time.

So clearly there is a problem here. In 2001 SFGate published an article, “Hip to homo-hop / Oakland’s D/DC fuses gay and black identities with eyebrow-raising rhyme” about Oakland based rap/spoken word group Deep Dickollective. This piece was one of the first times that the genre attained public recognition. “To be gay within hip-hop culture, Kalamka notes, is to grapple with ‘the double bind of dealing racism and homophobia at the same time. In the Bay Area, ‘queer’ is conflated with white men; that’s the identity of the community to the public. And hip-hop is fighting against oppression, but at the same time takes on the role of the oppressor by mirroring society at large; male- centered, patriarchal, classist.” (SFGate)

This reveals a problem that is endemic within our entertainment industry. There are no gay black men. We watch movies that have straight white male actors playing gay characters every year, expressing their characters sexuality on screen. But in there simply are not many of these examples to be seen on screen. Being a gay man in America is being shown as an almost exclusively white issue. “Homo hop, West says, “challenges a lot of assumptions about who hip-hop is for and who it belongs to.””(SFGate)

More than ten years after this look this music is still locked into our public consciousness. In 2012 Pitchfork published an article which brought the idea of queer rap into the mainstream. Going through interviews with several artists within the genre itself, the website attempts to dissect queer rap. To see what makes it tick. 2 names stick out. Cakes Da Killa and Zebra Katz.

Even though the article was written more than ten years after West coined the term, it begins by stating, “”If there’s ever been a time for an artist to rip hip-hop identity conventions to shreds, it’s now. The genre is the furthest left-of-center it’s been in a long time—or at the very least, the line between mainstream stardom and underground oddballism is blurring beyond recognition.”(Pitchfork 2012) This idea, that now is the time for GSM rappers to step out and raise their voices to speak out against the “culture that caters almost exclusively to heteronormative sensibilities” (Pitchfork 2012) shows us the problem with applying these labels

By using these labels we are putting in place a system by which to segregate rap as a style of music. You can be gay and be a “normal” rapper, but you just can’t rap about gay things. Look at Frank Ocean or Azelia Banks, gay and bisexual rappers respectively that have achieved moderate mainstream success. But what they don’t do is rap about GSM issues. They aren’t queer. The second a GSM artist raps about their experience instead of the traditional stereotype as what we see rap music, then they are labeled as a queer rapper. Drake can rap about having sex with women all he wants, or going to the club, or dancing. But if an artist like Big Dipper raps about performing fellatio on a man, or gay sex, he’s a queer rapper.

The disconnect here is staggering. And while at first this might seem reasonable, as rap about queer or GSM issues is labeled as such, the power that the label has behind it to oppress is not insignificant. In a culture with a wholesale disrespect for the effeminate and queer, to be labeled as a queer rapper is basically a marketing death sentence. In return for gaining this label you will receive angsty college students stealing your music and writing philosophical papers about what it means to be queer within rap. But in exchange you must give up the possibility of having a chart topping hit, of working with different rappers within the industry, of working with certain record labels, of being publicized in certain places. After being labeled in this way, a rapper has to base all of their success on the blind luck that someone might catch notice of them, while everyone else does their best to hide their very existence.

“For most heterosexual rappers, treatment of gays seems to go like this: Cherry-pick gay culture for things you can use to enhance your own brand, fly your fashionable freak flag high, grandstand your anti-homophobic statements, if the spirit moves you, and wait for the applause (it will come). But make sure to keep the gay men at a fearful arm’s length at all times.” (Pitchfork 2012) The GSM rapper becomes a fashion accessory, a way for another artist to show how progressive they are. But if they were to threaten them in any way, sexually, commercially, or psychologically, they will be dumped by the wayside.

In 2013 Tim’m T. West was interviewed again about “homo hop”. “Coined by educator, writer, MC, and cofounder of Deep Dickollective, Tim’m T. West, Homo Hop is a term he doesn’t even like. “It reflected an effort to give credence to a sub-genre of hip hop that the mainstream was ignoring,” West told 429Magazine. “It’s not a different kind of hip hop, but places identity at the center of production, which is a blessing and curse. I’m a hip hop artist, ultimately, who happens to be queer. Homo Hop, as a mobilizing medium for queer artists, did, in fact, serve a purpose, initially.” (dot429) Since then times have changed. Fortunately for the better. Now GSM issues are on the minds of people across the nation, with court cases making national news, and Supreme Court rulings allowing for the legalization of gay marriage.

As a country, we can now have a conversation about being gay. Which is amazing, to say the least, but what we are experiencing is a pushback within the rap industry. Homo Hop or queer rap was a mobilizing and unifying term bringing people together that felt like they were alone. Now it is simply being used by the establishment to lazily label artists so that their music will better fit into a box.

Fortunately though, there is a pushback against this labeling. This year Pitchfork published a new article, “Queer Rap is Not Queer Rap”, which is a much more comprehensive look at the label within rap music. “How are we supposed to talk about “queer rap”, if at all? Is it a scene? A genre? A burgeoning movement? Or perhaps, none of the above? Is this just a case of a handful of incredibly disparate artists unwittingly (some unhappily) being grouped together for the sake of the convenience of labeling.” (Pitchfork 2015)

To examine this, let us take a look at the two artists mentioned earlier. Zebra Katz and Cakes Da Killa. These two artists clearly have their own opinion about the classification. Cakes saying, “I include a lyric booklet with everything I release. Let’s focus on the overall narrative of my work as opposed to a bar where I talk about giving a blow job.” (Pitchfork 2015) And Katz is in a similar vein, if more vitriolic. “I’ve been against the whole coinage [of the term queer hip-hop] since it happened… I’ve been trying to work my way outside of that,” (Pitchfork 2015) Other artists, like Mykki Blanco and Leif have also called out the term.

If you look at the music of the two artists it’s definitely different. Like the song “Ima Read” by Zebra Katz, which achieved critical success. “The song and video have earned praise from a long line of cultural higher-ups including big name, Goth-inspired designer Rick Owens, who used it during a runway show in Paris, along with the Roots’ ?uestlove and Saul Williams, among others.” (Pitchfork 2012)

The video is dark, with greys and blacks covering the screen as a menacing Katz raps over the hypnotic movements of two genderfluid dancers. “I’ma reach that bitch/I’ma teach that bitch/ I’ma take that bitch to college/ I’ma give that bitch some knowledge/ I’ma read, I’ma read, I’ma read.” (Ima Read). And the readings behind it are drastically more complex than the lyrics themselves, changing from a view on education to insults depending on the listener. “To the average listener, “Ima Read” comes off as a twisted pro-education—in some ways, it is, according to Morgan—but ultimately it’s a bow to this ballroom culture, a reference to the vogue slang “reading,” i.e., verbally insulting an opponent on the dance floor.” (Pitchfork 2012)

In no ways is this song simple. One can’t label it as queer and walk away from it. There are multiple layers of meaning here that are difficult to describe so simply. The same can be said about the Cakes Da Killa Song “The Cuntspiracy”, which is put together of two small, quick songs, “Rapid Fire” and “The Birdcage”. These two songs are extraordinarily interesting, at first glance sounding very much like traditional rap music. Bragging about “suicide doors” and “dropping bombs”, it seems very much like any other rap song that attempts to brag about their accomplishments or danger. But with a closer listen some queerness starts to come through. “Got some DL niggas that would love to poke ya.” (Rapid Fire)

But hearing these messages do not fundamentally change the song. It’s a message for those listening carefully, and it ties into the experience of the artist, but it does not make the song queer.

And that is the fundamental problem with labeling. Even though using labels does help us to identify things it carries with it a huge problem. A label becomes an identity. If you are an independent film, you have a certain reputation before anyone watches you. If you are a queer rapper, your music seems to become one note, and that is simply not the case. Using labels fails to reflect the infinite amount of creativity and variability something has. It fails to fully capture the nuance and meaning of something. Labeling is lazy and it forces those within it to conform to the label, in essence crushing their creativity. Which is never good. Good music has never been created without creativity.

Battan, Carrie. "Articles: We Invented Swag: NYC's Queer Rap." Pitchfork. N.p., 21 Mar. 2012. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.
Chonin, Neva. "Hip to Homo-hop / Oakland's D/DC Fuses Gay and Black Identities with Eyebrow-raising Rhyme." SFGate. N.p., 16 Dec. 2001. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.
D'Addario, Daniel. "Eminem’s Homophobic Lyrics Are the Worst Kind of Throwback." Saloncom RSS. N.p., 8 Nov. 2013. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.
Grimes, William. "A City Gripped by Crisis and Enraptured by the Yankees." New York Times. New York Times, 30 Mar. 2005. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.
"The Immortals." Editorial. n.d.: n. pag. Rolling Stone. 21 Apr. 2005. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.
Lang, Nico. "10 Queer Rappers You Should Be Listening to Instead of Eminem." Saloncom RSS. N.p., 16 Nov. 2013. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.
Montgomery, James. "Eminem Is The Best-Selling Artist Of The Decade." MTV. N.p., 08 Dec. 2009. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.
Shorey, Eric. "Queer Rap Is Not Queer Rap." Pitchfork. N.p., 31 Mar. 2013. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.
Woo, Jen. "Homo Hop Is Dead, Queer Hip Hop Is the Real Deal." Homo Hop Is Dead, Queer Hip Hop Is the Real Deal. N.p., 11 Mar. 2013. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.
Turnbull, John. "New Music Through Old Ears: Shady Queen Mark Guy." Independent Australia. N.p., 20 Dec. 2014. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.
Keyes, Cheryl L.. “At the Crossroads: Rap Music and Its African Nexus”. Ethnomusicology 40.2 (1996): 223–248. Web...



Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

You Might Also Like:
The Surprisingly Progressive Gender Politics of Some Like it Hot

Showing Sex

Compulsory Heterosexuality in Film

blog comments powered by Disqus