November 04, 2009

>No Homo? Hip-Hop and Homophobia (Part 1)

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As both a committed ally to LGBT people and an avowed fan of hip-hop music, I often find myself at odds with the unfortunate waves of homophobic language that tend to pop up in rap. Of course, this is not to say that all rappers are homophobic--that would be an irresponsible exaggeration--but certainly enough to make me pause and reflect every once in a while. Since hip-hop remains such a huge cultural force amongst youth today, I'll be exploring various facets of hip-hop culture and homophobia in a series of blog posts--and hopefully raising important questions about how sexuality, race and gender all play important roles in shaping popular youth culture.

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"It's crazy how you can go from being Joe Blow / to everybody on your dick...no homo."
-Kanye West, "Run This Town"
A recent Slate article cites these words to outline a broader lyrical shift that Kanye has taken in his short 5 years in the limelight. In 2005, in two separate interviews, 'Ye bemoaned his fellow hip-hop artists who discriminate against LGBT people and expressed his love and support for his openly gay cousin while recognizing his need to confront his own homophobia. As the article notes, "West's call for tolerance remains the highest-profile rebuke of gay-bashing that hip-hop has seen."

In recent years, however, Kanye and several other rappers have embraced the use of the term "no homo," a poetic aside meant to distance the artist from any lyrics that may sound homoerotic. Similar to the often-heard quip "that's what she said," the phrase "no homo" attempts to make sexual double entendres out of everyday language.

However, artists will use "no homo" not only to poke fun at certain sexual acts, but also at forms of gender identity/expression that may not be seen as "manly" or "masculine." In one of his songs, Lil' Wayne raps "I wear bright red like a girl toe, no homo." Whether to stress that wearing bright red isn't "gay," or that he doesn't paint his toenails, Lil Wayne is defending a certain brand of his masculinity by denying any "gay" undertones.

As Jonah Weiner mentions in the article, "no homo" is nothing new: it arose nearly two decades ago in East Harlem, but came into widespread use in recent years when popularized by a handful of well-known artists. Weiner recognizes the homophobia inherent within the term--as well as its relationship to an artist's desire to boast himself as heterosexual and manly--but also asks the reader to consider the nuances with the term and its use.

For one, Weiner suggests that most rappers use "no homo" not to express some homophobic principle, but rather to tout a punchline, to flaunt their dexterity with the English language. "A funny side effect here," he notes, "is that the no homo vogue doubtless encourages rappers not only to scrutinize everything they say for trace gayness, but to actively think up gay double-entendres just so that they can cap them off with no homo kickers." In his concluding paragraph, Weiner notes Lil Wayne and Kanye West's own departures from a rigidly-defined masculinity--such as Lil Wayne's displays of affection for his (male) mentor, and Kanye's open affinity for design and fashion--to suggest that their use of "no homo" is more complex than outright homophobia:
When these rappers say "no homo," it can seem a bit like a gentleman's agreement, nodding to the status quo while smuggling in a fuller, less hamstrung notion of masculinity. This is still a concession to homophobia, but one that enables a less rigid definition of the hip-hop self than we've seen before. It's far from a coup, but, in a way, it's progress.

Certainly, hip-hop has seen worse. Eminem has continually defended his use of the term "faggot" not as gay-bashing, but as a way to shame and emasculate his targets: "'Faggot' to me doesn't necessarily mean gay people. 'Faggot' to me just means... taking away your manhood. You're a sissy. You're a coward." Be that as it may (and Grammy duets with Elton John aside), Eminem still conflates the word "faggot" as an insult to denote someone as effeminate or abnormal.

There is a striking similarity between Em's claims and the idea that "that's so gay" can refer to something as "stupid" or "bad" without ever introducing the idea of homophobia. In both cases, people may not intend to reproduce bigotry, but nevertheless leave the door wide open for the use of anti-LGBT language--and certainly do not denounce the disturbing levels of violence and intimidation that LGBT people, particularly students, face daily.

"No homo" may not be as used to intentionally express homophobia, nor is it as pervasive and shocking as other homophobic slurs, but does that make it okay to use? Journalist Jay Smooth breaks down his take on the term on his fantastic blog, Ill Doctrine (Facebook folks, click on the link, because Facebook can't support embedded video):

Jay brings up several good points: "no homo" (which he calls a "sad, old thing") can be used cleverly and is sometimes used to ridicule homophobia itself, but he chooses not to use the term, because it can get out of hand. His conclusion: "I'm not gonna say that nobody should ever say it, 'cause just like with any other word you've really gotta judge on a case-by-case basis...but as a general rule, if you're not the original target of an insult, you can't be the one to reclaim it."

GLSEN's perspective is that "no homo" isn't an acceptable term, regardless of the circumstance. Just like "that's so gay," "no homo" associates LGBT and gender non-conforming people with something bad or negative, because the speaker makes the effort to clarify that he/she doesn't want to be seen as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. There's also plenty of ways to be witty or clever with words without denigrating someone's sexual orientation or gender identity/expression!
And, I'd really like to stress that hip-hop isn't inherently homophobic--just like any other subset of the wider population, there are a spectrum of prevailing views about LGBT issues among hip-hop artists and it's important to embrace the personal and political changes that people make. Case in point: one of my favorite artists, the Minnesotan rapper Brother Ali, admitted his own past mistakes: "In my old [music], I was so ignorant to the hell that gay people are put through because they're deemed to be different...I said the word 'faggot' in my first album, and I'm so thoroughly embarrassed by that now. I have gay friends and gay people I look up to."
His recent album, Us, even addresses the emotional stress that closeted teens can go through when faced with the social pressures around them. Check out the song "Tight Rope" (skip to about 2:30):

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He retreats inside himself
Where he lives life itself in secret
Daddy says people go to hell for being
What he is, and he certainly believes him
'Cause there ain't no flame that can blaze enough
To trump being hated for the way you love
And cry yourself to sleep and hate waking up
It's a cold world, y'all, shame on us!
What do you think? Is "no homo" ever an acceptable term to use? Does it matter that many of its users don't necessarily intend to be homophobic?

Stay tuned until next time, where we'll explore other facets of hip-hop, homophobia, and youth culture!

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