Homophobia Is Bigger Than Hip-Hop

First things first: it takes an immense amount of bravery to come out of the closet. That’s true whether you’re a student, a file clerk or a hip-hop artist. Though the circumstances are all very different, the once certain common denominator for coming out is courage. This is, of course, the main motivation for the amount of support rightfully being offered up to Frank Ocean.

Like all other music in today’s world, Ocean is a contradiction. He is an excellent rapper and lyricist who’s made a name for himself in the indie hip-hop and R&B scenes while at the same time writing lyrics for Justin Bieber, Brandy and Beyonce, and collaborating with Jay-Z and Kanye West. He’s part of the collective of young uber-misanthropes Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (OFGKTA). His relationship with Nas, an MC whose own political and lyrical evolution place him heads above the Odd Future crew, seems to have Ocean straddling a wide spectrum.

Now, he is the first hip-hop artist to come out of the closet while in the midst of his career. On July 4th, Ocean wrote on his Tumblr page that he is bisexual, stating that four years ago he had had a relationship with another man his age. Though he didn’t mention the man’s name, he did thank him for his influence. Ocean also said: “I don’t know what happens now, and that’s alrite [sic]. I don’t have any secrets I need kept anymore… I feel like a free man.”

Some might say that the news of Frank Ocean’s coming out as bisexual might be made “simpler” if he weren’t such a musical contradiction — in particular if he weren’t affiliated with a group who have become infamous for front-loading lyrics that feature gruesome violence against gays and lesbians. But then, the politics of sexual liberation have never been simple. Neither is popular music, or, for that matter, hip-hop.

Timing is everything, and there’s without a doubt some telling timing in Ocean’s decision to come out — namely that it comes barely two months after President Obama himself has announced his support for same-sex marriage. Some have gone so far as to thank Obama for Ocean’s coming out in the first place!

In a certain sense, it’s not so far-fetched. Especially if one accepts the logic that has been promoted for years in the mainstream debate over the rights of LGBTQ people — and the logic of how civil rights are won.

In broad strokes, that logic can be summed up like this: that the leaders know best, that they always have a reason for supporting or opposing something. Those who want just treatment immediately are being reckless, and ironically jeopardizing their rights by standing up for them. If a president changes his position, it is due to his wisdom — a wisdom designed to protect us from ourselves. The state, no matter its laws, can’t be hateful one way or the other because it’s the state, an entity hovering above us all, and it’s our own ideas that are really the problem. The notion of bottom-up movements and cultures providing spaces of enlightenment is right out.

So it’s little wonder that few have asked why despite his own support, Obama continues to drag his feet on signing an executive order around same-sex marriage. The street-level activism that has put years of pressure on the prez has been at best glossed over.

Ocean’s revelations have provoked some thoughtful and interesting debate. AllHipHop.com’s editorial section carried a piece entitled “5 Things That Will Come Out From Frank Ocean’s Coming Out.” The article points out that there have been countless rumor mills about this or that rapper’s sexuality for a long time, then goes on to say that:

Hip-Hop will be forced to cool off on the homophobia. The fact is, Hip-Hop has had gay people in it for a very, very long time. That is a fact and far truer than people care to admit. But, somehow, unlike the rest of the world, the Urban Music world has been slow to accept homosexuality. Sure, there have been folks like Little Richard and Sylvester back in the day, but recently, gays in R&B and Rap stay tucked away in the closet. Frank Ocean is at the beginning of his career, but you better believe with Jay-Z and Kanye West as homies, along with Odd Future, maf*ckas are going to have to recognize.

Russell Simmons, in a very brief article of his own, extended his congratulations to Ocean on Global Grind:

I am profoundly moved by the courage and honesty of Frank Ocean. Your decision to go public about your sexual orientation gives hope and light to so many young people still living in fear. These types of secrets should not matter anymore, but we know they do, and because of that I decided to write this short statement of support for one of the greatest new artists we have.

While both of these tributes are certainly appreciated, they also present a very skewed picture. For one thing, Kanye is already on record declaring that homophobia in hip-hop needs to go. For another, as society’s own ideas have shifted on sexuality, so has the rejection of homophobic ideas within hip-hop — though once again, as in society as a whole, those ideas have not completely disappeared.

Even when it comes to the debate around Odd Future, the tendency has way too often been to place the reactionary ideas squarely on hip-hop’s doorstep with nary a mention of the deep homophobia that prevails in the world at large. Too many commentators, including within hip-hop itself, are willing to present the art-form as a monolithic entity.

A similar dynamic took hold two months ago when Tom Gabel of agit-punkers Against Me! announced her intention to begin hormone therapy and to live as a woman named Laura Jane Grace. There was plenty of thought-provoking and incisive commentary on the matter, including many in the scene asking themselves about the nature of machismo in punk rock. There was little acknowledgement that, along with this machismo, punk also provided a space to question dominant sexual mores (Tom Robinson, Jayne County, Genesis P-Orridge and others).

Looking from the outside, punk must have looked like little else than a bunch of dumb white kids looking to beat up anyone not manly enough. Now, this same one-sidedness has been amplified and sharpened around Ocean and hip-hop.

While Ocean’s announcement is surely significant, it’s not as singular as one might be led to believe. Note the wording in the third paragraph of this article: “[Ocean] is the first hip-hop artist to come out of the closet while in the midst of his career.”

In other words, the hip-hop world is filled with queer and trans MC’s, but most of them have been out before they started recording and touring. The Lost Bois from DC, New Orleans’ Big Freedia, and countless others from various underground scenes, many of whom can rhyme with the best of them. This is befitting a sub-culture that’s grown from a cry against invisibility in the South Bronx to a global language encompassing a diverse array of experiences — racially, economically, and sexually.

The difference, though, is that the major labels have no idea what to do with artists that push sexual taboos — no matter what we’re told about hyper-sexualized teen pop stars. Record companies have spent years molding all popular music into something that is easily consumed and tossed aside; ideas of sexual liberation don’t square with this.

Onus for all this falls squarely on the shoulders of the execs and moguls, who have a fundamentally opposing interest in music to that of the artists. And so while Russell Simmons may have rushed to be one of the first to congratulate Ocean, nobody seems to be asking why Simmons, when he was head of Def Jam, never signed any openly queer MC’s himself.

Nobody appears to be pointing out that homophobia isn’t specific or unique to hip-hop, that it’s woven into society’s fabric and has to be torn out by the root. And, of course, it’s not pointed out that there is a ruling clique of politicians and industry moguls who materially benefit from bigoted ideas running through society, whatever their own race or sexuality.

This skewed picture, at its most extreme, portrays on the one side a mostly tolerant and accepting musical mainstream ready to join hands and sing kumbaya across all lines of sexuality, while on the other side of “urban” music is an endless array of MC’s searching for the word that best rhymes with “faggot”. The underlying message isn’t very thinly veiled; we heard the same script with different actors when African-Americans in California were blamed for passing Prop 8.

It’s a dangerous assumption to make. Not only does the “hip-hop equals homophobia” equation paint with far too broad a brush — forgetting, for example, that historically Blacks have been the most enthusiastic supporters of civil rights legislation. But that same equation lets off the hook a broad structure that remains profoundly unequal and discriminatory toward anyone who deviates from the norm of straightness.

Harvey Milk was murdered by a white former cop. It was a duo of young white men who beat Matthew Shepard and left him to die on a fence in Wyoming. It was a group of older white people who called CeCe McDonald and her friends “niggers” and “faggots” before attacking them and forcing her to defend herself. And it was a white prosecutor who refused to drop the charges of manslaughter against CeCe.

None of these cases are to say that queer-bashing or transphobia, wherever they may rear their ugly heads, should be given a pass from anyone of any race. It will certainly be interesting to see if Ocean’s newfound public sexual identity will have any bearing on OFWGKTA’s future material (I won’t hold my breath, though).

We live in a “post-civil rights” era, however; one in which politicians will gladly use hip-hop culture as a proxy for African-America in their push to divide and conquer. Readers only have to think back to the fallout from Don Imus’ “nappy-headed hos” comment in 2007 for an example of this. The shock-jock’s excuse was that rappers use the same language. Within a few weeks, Imus was out of the spotlight and there were hearings being held on the Hill about hip-hop’s “depravity.” What could have been a national dialogue about structural sexism was now twisted into a conversation about the misogyny of Black men. Obama, right at the start of his presidential campaign, was perhaps more eager than anyone to join that chorus.

A far more effective tactic could be seen last summer, when none other than Odd Future were announced as headliners at Chicago’s Pitchfork Music and Arts Festival. Though the awful misogyny and gay-bashing of the group’s lyrics were rightfully highlighted by activists, they were careful to not let their arguments turn into ones about hip-hop in particular. Rather, the organizers of the Pitchfork Festival themselves were targeted and called out for denying domestic violence and queer community organizations table space in the fest. It was this way that these same groups were able to turn attention toward the sexual violence that is endemic in society as a whole.

And now, as it turns out, such an argument has proven prescient. If a bisexual man like Frank Ocean can find himself affiliated with a group who so casually use anti-gay violence in their lyrics, then it goes to show just how deeply rooted homophobia is in our world. It also speaks toward the urgent need for an alternative that points to the common interests of ordinary LGBTQ people and working people of color.

That’s the reality of the system we live in, and the conversation can’t stop at any one style or culture. Homophobia, bigotry and the struggle against them are, after all, bigger than hip-hop.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to SocialistWorker.org, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in TheNation.com, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com Read other articles by Alexander.