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Queering Hip-Hop

Photo credit: Frank Ocean “Nikes”

Remember hip-hop in the 70s?  Okay, maybe you don’t.  Circuit parties.  Emcee battles. Beat Boys. DJs scratching the sickest mixes.

Hip-hop exploded as a South Bronx earthquake that in the 80s sent shockwaves throughout America, and in the 90s reached to the ends of the earth. Smelling money, the music industry came on board and fueled the hits.  Rap groups could hear their own music on the radio and in clubs. With the new millennium, hip-hop begot gangsta rap, driven by rage, celebrating the violence of the Hood.

The cultural muscle that gave hip-hop its irresistible appeal?  The hyper-masculinity of the black male.

In the 90s, the industry had no time or tolerance for alternative masculinities. “Ain’t no due process / For boys that become girls or verse-visa. / Field niggas. Control this: / Pin the hollow-point tip on this gay rights activist…” (Goodie Mob, “Fly Away,” 1998). The only safe place for queers was at the back of the bus: “it’s rumors of gay MC’s, just don’t come around me wit it” (Common, “Nag Champa,” 2000).

Eleven years ago, the fresh-face Kanye West spoke out against hip-hop’s homophobia. He spoke of his own experience, reflecting on how the pressures to conform to standards of masculinity affect gay people. “If you see something and you don’t want to be that because there’s a negative connotation towards it, you try to separate yourself from it so much that it made me homophobic,” he said. In 2011, when West performed in a kilt, Lord Jamar tweeted that “Y’all Cee where that Kanye shit takin’ us, right? (Lord Jamar, #halfafag, 2013).

Yes, Lord Jamar, we do see: that Kanye shit is takin’ us right out of your Gender Prison.

In 2012, Frank Ocean posted a letter about his relationship with a boy when he was 19. Kanye West praised Frank Ocean for coming out. “The people who break the stereotypes make history,” West told Dazed.

Kanye extended his praise and support for Ocean by encouraging radio stations to play his newest album “Blonde.” “If anyone at radio really loves music… Pick your favorite Frank Ocean song and play it at least 10 times a day… This will make the world better,” West expressed on his Twitter account.

Jeffery Lamar Williams — “Young Thug” — defies the norm with his playful fashion sense: His favorite footwear? women’s Uggs. His favorite accessory? an AR-15. The rap hippy graced the cover of Dazed magazine, sparkling in diamonds over a red-lace Gucci sweater. Young Thug has reinvented the gangsta. “It don’t matter,” he says in a Calvin Klein ad. “You could be a gangster with a dress, you could be a gangster with baggy pants. I feel like there’s no such thing as gender” (2016).

Blurring the line of gender roles, Ocean’s most recent visual, “Nikes,” is perhaps his impressive work of art. Naked dancers in angel wings, male and female, twirl upon stripper poles. A woman spreads her legs to unleash a glitter storm. Glitter booties jiggle. Plenty of skin, lots of lovers — he and she, her and her, him and him.

Goodie MOB’s hollow-tip bullets are no match for Black individuality or Queer freedom.

Beyoncé has denounced the trans-phobic North Carolina “Bathroom Bill.” She also encouraged fans to “support Equality NC by donating, volunteering, become an ambassador, attending an event, or simply spreading the word!”

On Instagram, Snoop Dogg flaunted his new French manicure. Jaden Smith has become the new face of Louis Vuitton women’s wear. Can you imagine Common or Saigon or Brand Nubian embracing such freedom?


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(Video Courtesy: Apple Music)