Contextualizing Lord Jamar, Le1f, And Hip-Hop's Homophobic History
I’m sure the joke has already been made, but Lord Jamar (of Golden Era hip-hop duo, Brand Nubian) probably needs to slow down and have a seat. It all started on Instagram, where Jamar posted a picture of a male runway model wearing a skirt and included the caption, “Y’all Cee where this Kanye sh-t is takin us right? #halfafag” [sic]. Not long after, Jamar released the homophobic crusader theme song of the year, “Lift Up Your Skirt,” on which he raps, “I rebuke all this gay sh-t, some are scared to say sh-t.”
More recently, Jamar took to a profile in the New Yorker (in which he's dubbed "hip-hop's conservative reactionary") to continue the crusade and speak about the waning masculinity in hip-hop music, citing the aesthetically-progressive Kanye West and even New York-based rapper Le1f as vivid examples of "JUST THE BEGINNING" of where urban music is headed.
Le1f, who recently made his network debut on Late Night with David Letterman, and is openly gay, took to his Facebook page to pen an open letter response to Jamar. His words are concise and moving: “I’m African. I’m a black man and I experience all the same racism you do…on top of homophobia…Rap started out as a creative response to oppression, and no matter my outfit, I know oppressions you will never understand.”
Le1f’s letter reminded us all that being a member of an oppressed minority group in America means living with several layers of consciousness as to how people perceive and interact with you. Le1f goes on to ask Jamar, “Are you proud of being a hateful member of a majority?”
In interviews with Vlad TV and on Rap Genius, Jamar attempted to clarify by claiming he is not homophobic. On Rap Genius, he writes, “It is well known that I’m not in AGREEMENT with homosexuality, but in no way does this make me a so-called homophobe” [sic]. This is an incredibly problematic statement, and it’s also nothing new for Jamar. In 1992, Brand Nubian released what is considered one of their biggest singles, “Punks Jump Up To Get Beat Down,” which is essentially about beating up gay men, and on which the other half of Brand Nubian, Sadat X, raps, “Though I can freak, fly, flow, f--k up a fa--ot / Don’t understand their ways I ain’t down with the gays.”
In the next verse, Jamar raps, “We’re gonna have to off you with a few cracks / To the jaw and you won’t pop that sh-t no more / Explainin’ to your friends why you’re layin' on he floor / Did you want some more? I didn’t think so / Just got whipped like a fa--ot in the clink, so…”
Admittedly, it’s hard to understand why Jamar is even bothering to say, “I’m not a homophobe,” when he has been so passionately and openly homophobic for over two decades. The other problem is that while folks like Jay Z, T.I., Snoop Dogg, Talib Kweli, Royce da 5’9”, and even Lil Wayne (yes, the same guy who drops “no homo” on a frequent basis in his music) have attempted to come to the defense of the gay community—some of their defenses are at best unknowingly backhanded and fail to move the conversation forward.
The bigger problem is that many of us don’t know how or are not comfortable (or both) talking about gender and sexuality, and that maybe we haven’t spent enough time interacting with our queer-identifying neighbors, making it easier for degrading and dehumanizing, homophobic rhetoric to take root in our psyches.
To offer perspective on this topic, Seattle hip-hop duo and Shabazz Palaces’ protégés, THEESatisfaction—comprised of MCs Stasia and Cat (both openly lesbian)—Dr. Moya Bailey of Penn State University’s Africana Research Center, and Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African & African-American Studies at Duke University, spoke with REVOLT on hip-hop's ongoing reluctance to accept (and promote) LGBTQ artists and culture.
REVOLT: Homophobia isn’t exclusive to hip-hop culture, but sometimes it does feel more prevalent in hip-hop, why do you think this is?
Stasia of THEESatisfaction: Hip-hop is an easy target and often the scapegoat for everything that’s wrong in society. I’m not sure why we don’t discuss the blatant homophobia and misogyny in other genres like gospel, country, and rock. We could also discuss homophobic reality television shows, homophobic news reporters, and homophobia in the fashion industry. It literally exists everywhere. Certain artists in the hip-hop genre are homophobic but making the generalization that “Hip-Hop culture is homophobic” is problematic and false.
Cat of THEESatisfaction: Homophobia stems from fear of understanding and fear of sense of self as I feel most phobias or isms do. It also seems to come from an obsession with the unknown.
Dr. Moya Bailey: Hip-hop as a genre has long privileged a certain type of patriarchal aggressive Black masculinity as authentic and that representation of artists is the one most circulated by the media. This representation of masculinity is set up to be the opposite of femininity. Women and other feminine people are portrayed as objects and conquests, not equals. People often equate queerness with a less dominant type of masculinity so I think people are conflating sexuality and gender in regards to homophobia in the music. Because it’s so bad to be feminine and being gay is considered particularly unmanly, homophobia is strongly present in hip-hop culture. Misogyny and homophobia reinforce each other, not only in hip-hop but in our society. Because hip-hop is such a sexually charged and masculine space, it seems artists feel the need to reassert their heterosexuality, which invariably means distancing themselves from queerness. No homo.
In a recent journal article, I talked about the ways in which the performance of a certain type of masculinity matters more so than someone’s sexuality. Part of the reason Frank Ocean hasn’t really been sidelined as much as he could have been post-revelation that he loved a man at one point in his life, is his masculinity is still in line with what one might expect from a hip-hop artist. He still stalks about women in much the same way that other artists do. Similarly, because hip-hop has centered Black men, women rappers have tried to make sure that their rhyming abilities are not misconstrued as evidence of any masculinity or l****** ways. Things are slowly changing on that front with folks like Azealia Banks and Angel Haze, but they are still new in the hip-hop landscape.
Dr. Mark Anthony Neal: There’s a narrative within mainstream culture that attaches homophobia to hip-hop, as if such homophobia didn't occur well before the emergence of hip-hop culture and didn’t inform hip-hop’s own processing of homophobia. Homophobia is as American as apple pie, but hip-hop gets scapegoated as its sole purveyor.
What connections can we make between late filmmaker and gay rights activist Marlon Riggs’ work and homophobic attitudes in hip-hop?
Dr. Bailey: When I think of Marlon Riggs I think of his oft quoted, “Black men loving Black men is the Revolutionary Act.” I wonder how hip-hop would change if this quote was embodied by Black men in the industry. So much of the commercially successful sound in hip-hop is men talking about how much better they are than each other. Lyrics reflect a perpetual pissing contest; I can steal your girl (women as infantilized objects); I’ve got more money, cars, things than you, etc. (capitalism, individualism). How different would it be if an ethos of love between Black men was at the center of the music? And it’s there on some level.
Dr. Antonia Randolph is doing great work on how hip-hop is a space for male bonding and fraternity in ways that can be really positive. I’d like to see more of that in hip-hop and I’d like to see it built on love and not through dissing other man, denigrating women, or saying things that are homophobic and transphobic. I am also reminded of Marlon Riggs’ poetry, which has all sorts of cadences that lend toward hip-hop. I’m thinking of “Snap” in particular from Tongues Untied (1989); it could be transformed into a hip-hop track, an early precursor to snap music in Atlanta.
Dr. Neal: Riggs really challenged Black folk about homophobia, particularly in his film, Black Is, Black Ain’t (1994). If anything, his work emboldened a generation of hip-hop critics, fans, and yes some artists to be more sensitive to issues of sexuality and gender within hip-hop culture.
Is Lord Jamar the Rush Limbaugh of hip-hop right now?
Dr. Bailey: I don’t see him as a Rush Limbaugh, but he does follow the classic “I’m not a bigot” manual by referencing a once-attended gay wedding as a pass for his anti-gay views.
Dr. Neal: We’re kidding ourselves if we think that hip-hop or Black culture, for that matter, has only produced figures that are politically progressive. James Brown was a social conservative; LL Cool J is a social conservative. If you listened to “Punks Jump Up to Get Beat Down,” you already knew his thoughts on same sex desire, particularly given his ties to the 5 Percent Nation and by extension the Nation of Islam. We just need for folk to be intellectually honest about their positions. I’ve always loved Lord Jamar’s skill and respect his opinion, even if I vehemently disagree with it.
Cat: Not at all.
What did you think of Le1f’s response to Lord Jamar?
Dr. Bailey: Le1f’s response is perfect. The conflation of q**** identity with whiteness is an old trope. It’s amazing how much of the history of various types of sexuality among communities of color is omitted from our history books because of colonization and enslavement. So many cultures had multiple genders and sexual practices before colonization and globalization made those ways of being a problem. My students are always surprised to learn that the words "homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” aren’t invented until the late 19th century. Le1f is so right that hip-hop was and should continue to be a voice for those most marginalized. The impact of white artists on hip-hop is completely different from that of q**** artists of color. Just think about the Grammys.
Stasia: I think Le1f’s response was perfect and graceful. He didn’t allow Lord Jamar’s ignorance to spark a negative retaliation. He related with him and presented facts.
Cat: Le1f is on point with his commentary.
Is Jamar justified in attempting to distance the LGBTQ movement from the ongoing struggle for justice and equality in the Black community?
Dr. Neal: I’ve often joked with comrades, that when some of our folk express an opinion somewhat out of pocket and ill-informed, we need to send them care packages. There’s an Audre Lorde care package to be prepared for Lord Jamar, with works from Lorde, Aishah Simmons, James Baldwin, E. Patrick Johnson, Cathy Cohen, Jeffrey McCune, C. Riley Snorton, Barbara Smith, and a few others. After he’s engaged those, then we can have a real conversation about LGBTQ rights and the Black Freedom movement.
Stasia: Apples and bananas are both fruits but they are very different in taste, texture, color, and shape.
Cat: Why even try to compare extremely different struggles? It winds up being a huge waste of time.
Within the LGBTQ community, do you feel that the voices of minorities are often shut out or silenced? Shine some light on the perspective of being a minority within the LGBTQ community.
Stasia: Intersectionality is difficult for most people to grasp. I don’t like to measure oppression but it’s hard as f--k being a black q**** woman. We are silenced and shut out but we kind of don’t care. We constantly have to carve out our own path. We work with people who work with us. Believe me when I say there are a lot of racist q**** organizations and agendas.
Cat: It can be very discouraging at times in the LGBTQ community. Sometimes folks claim they are about changing this negative, oppressive environment then turn around and oppress people of color involved in the movement. I also don’t consider myself a minority—never have been, never will be.
Do you think Macklemore’s “Same Love” and its growth into a pop hit was overall good or bad for members of the LGBTQ community?
Dr. Neal: Credit for the intervention, but not its policy. Always important for art to grab our attention in this way, but it has to be followed by strong and sustained policy.
Stasia: “Same Love” was a very strategic move by some of Seattle’s elite influencers at pushing the marriage equality act in Washington State. The most popular rapper in Washington was selected to create a song that pandered to a certain audience. The song did the job that it was supposed to do.
Cat: That piece of sound work was an instrument for a political purpose. Doesn’t make me feel any more safe or comfortable as a q**** woman of color. The fact that it was advertised by a straight, white man speaks volumes.
Dr. Bailey: I think we need to be specific when we consider whether the song is “good” or bad.” For white gays and lesbians who have money, marriage may be an important issue. For the rest of us, there are more pressing concerns. Q**** youth in Jamaica are living in the sewers of Kingston because they’ve been kicked out of their homes. Over half of all LGBTQ hate murders are of trans women and 73% of hate crime victims are people of color. “Same Love” didn’t save Britney Cosby or her girlfriend from murder at the hands of Cosby’s father.
Assimilation into the ruling class does not undo the structures that oppress people. For me, gay marriage is a distraction from issues that unite q**** people with other marginalized folks. Dealing with the way that homophobia, transphobia, sexism, ableism, impact education, health care, housing, and employment would be a more useful endeavor than symbolic songs like “Same Love.” Marriage is an institution that affords people all kinds of benefits in our country and for me, the question is why those benefits are only available through this one act; why can’t everybody just have what they need, regardless of whether they are married or not?