In 1979 when the Sugarhill Gang released their hit single “Rapper’s Delight,” a new powerhouse in the music industry was born. Though this wasn’t the first group to utilize rap in their music, this song is often considered to be the song that popularized hip hop. Gaining popularity by the decade, hip hop lyrics became faster, more creative, and more explicit. Rap lyrics grew harder and darker, opening a new door to creativity, with seemingly any topic considered an acceptable one to write a rap song about. That is, of course, as long as it didn’t involve being gay. Make a song that makes fun of being gay? Sure! A Tribe Called Quest did it in 1991 with their unreleased song “Georgie Porgie,” with lyrics “Call me homophobic, but I know it and you know it/ You’re filthy and funny to the utmost exponent.” Make a song that normalizes using homophobic slurs? Look no further than popular artists like Eminem, and Too $hort, who both used homophobic slurs in music, stating in interviews that they were just words, and they didn’t mean it in any offensive or homophobic way. But rap about actually being gay? Twentieth century hip hop had a serious problem with you. However, as a push for gay rights in the real world grew so did a new wave of hip hop artists. An undoubtedly positive direction for hip hop, yes, but powerful enough to uproot a culture deeply intertwined with homophobia?
Throughout the 2000s, hip hop grew in popularity, but not without a caveat. A new wave of hip hop fans and artists weren’t going to stand for Eminem’s homophobic lyrics even if he claimed that they didn’t represent who he was as a person. This was and still is a popular excuse used by many rappers throughout the 2000s that weren’t ready to let go of their beloved homophobic slurs. As the early 2000s came to an end, rap transitioned to reflect current day events. Evolving from the days of the ‘80s and ‘90s, new rappers such as Kevin Abstract from group Brockhampton, is confrontational and blunt about his sexuality with lyrics such as, “I just want help if, my best friend’s racist/ My mother’s homophobic, I’m stuck in the closet/ I’m still claustrophobic, I just wanna know sh*t” from his song “Miserable America,” using it as fuel for his music. In other songs where Abstract proudly raps about his sexuality, he gives a glimmer of long overdue hope to LGBT+ fans from an unexpected source. Solo artists like Young MA, Cupcakke, and R&B/soul/hip hop artist Frank Ocean are stars in the hip hop community and are all openly gay, lesbian or bisexual.
Could this be a genuine step in the right direction? Or are we still stuck in a genre of music that continues to normalize the use of homophobic slurs like it’s no big deal. With so many of these rappers indoctrinated with the belief that it’s okay to say these slurs, and it’s not homophobic because they don’t mean it, they forget they’re not the ones actually being affected by these words.
It’s totally okay for popular rapper Tyler, the Creator to say, “Come take a stab at it, f****t, I pre-ordered your casket,” right? Because, you know, he doesn’t actually mean it and it doesn’t represent who he is as a person. To be quite honest, he probably didn’t mean these lyrics, especially considering that he recently came out as gay. Maybe a lot of other rappers didn’t mean the terrible and homophobic things that they said, but it doesn’t matter if they “actually” meant them because they “actually” said them, and they “actually” hurt people. For an industry that relies on clever wordplay and rhyme scheme as their trademark, it is astonishing how naive these artists can be towards the power of their words.
At the end of the day, we’re left at a crossroads. On the one hand, hip hop is more accepting and welcoming time than it ever has been before. Yet, while this is progress, hip hop is still a long way from being a community that is accepting of members of the LGBT+ community, and rappers continue to pay little attention the impact of their words. For the first time, we live in a time in which people are willing to take a stand with their lyrics against the culture of hip hop, and, though it might be a small one, it’s a great step in the right direction.