Reconciling Homophobia and Homoeroticism in Hip Hop

By Luca Tiratelli

Since the decline of groups like “Tribe Called Quest”, “De La Soul” and “The Jurassic 5”, there has only really been one accepted definition of masculinity in Hip Hop. And that vision of manliness is one of hyper-machismo achieved through a combination of violence, physical strength, mental toughness, misogyny and wealth. As Byron Hurt points out it in his fascinating film “Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes”, if you fail to conform to these ideals “People call you soft, or weak or a pussy or a faggot, and no one wants to be any of those things, so everyone stays inside the box”. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Hip Hop has always had a strong homophobic element to it; in this aforementioned documentary Busta Rhymes declared “what I represent culturally, can not condone it [homosexuality] whatsoever”, and then walked out when asked if a gay rapper could be accepted by the mainstream of the scene.

However, misogyny and homophobia are well understood and often discussed subjects in Hip Hop. What is less examined is the blatant homoeroticism that permeates much of rap music, and how it can be reconciled with the homophobia that the same artists espouse.

So how does homoeroticism manifest itself in rap? Well, Emil Wilbekin, former editor of industry bible “Vibe Magazine” suggests that if Hip Hop’s main consumers are men, then you must conclude that LL Cool J posing half naked under a waterfall in his videos must be appealing to males in some way. Similarly, 50 Cent’s first two album covers, that feature him, shirt off and oiled up, must be successful marketing towards men as well as women to explain their rates of purchase by gender. Wilbekin’s own magazine has been as part of this. Vibe’s Cover has been graced, in various states of nudity, by Nelly, Tupac, 50 Cent, Trey Songz, Lil Wayne, Run DMC, Piles and Eminem, to name but a few. Can you imagine NME stripping off and greasing up members of the Artic Monkey? It seems unlikely.

Furthermore, it would be fair to say that these undertones permeate the music itself as well as the marketing. One of Hip Hop’s most covered lines is Snoop Dogg’s famous couplet “It ain’t no fun, ‘less we all get some”. Some have called this “an ode to gang rape” and focused on the misogyny of “No Fun” as a whole. But what is more striking than the old news of “rappers don’t respect women”, is the fact that Snoop Dogg is declaring that having sex with other men (albeit mediated by women) is “fun”. Why is this not more shocking? Why hasn’t this been seen as stepping outside the “box” that Byron Hurt described? There is even a strange form of homoeroticism about how Hip Hop portrays relations between men and women. Weather it’s P Diddy declaring that “you were more than my girl, we were like Brothers”, or  T.I. and R Kelly suggesting that the only purpose to seducing a woman is get a reaction out of other men (both your “homies” and her boyfriend), there seems to be no way that rap can separate male relationships from male-female ones. Whether this is overtly homoerotic is questionable, but there is no doubt that the continued devaluing of romantic feelings, whilst simultaneously elevating male friendships, has led to some seriously blurred lines.

But where does this culture come from? To some extent, it has things in common with other hyper-masculine environments, such as sporting cultures, which promote male bonding at the expense of interaction with women (and other men who don’t fit their vision of manhood.) And yet in other ways it is totally unique. “Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Lyrics” suggests that this could have something to do with the links between Hip Hop culture and prison culture. This relationship is very complex, largely because it is a mainly imagined interaction. Maybe rappers are better represented in prison populations than guitarists, but what understanding can Jay Z really claim of incarceration? But the fact that the relationship is based on collective fantasy does not mean it does not exist and is not influential. The role homosexuality plays in prison culture is well understood, and if that then effects gangsta affectations, then of course hip-hop picks up on it. As significant as the overt homosexuality though, are aspects of the exported culture whose homoerotic undertones are more subtle: wearing trousers well below the waste, not wearing a shirt and working out purely to impress and intimidate other men.

However, more fundamentally, it seems that homoeroticism is a response to misogyny. Romantic relationships are viewed with utmost suspicion in rap; LL Cool J was chastised for years for daring to make a Hip Hop love song. The ideal woman in the hip hop world, as P Diddy revealed in the quote above, is essentially a man. Biggie broke it down in “Me and My Bitch”:

Moonlight strolls with the hoes, oh no, that’s not my steelo
I wanna bitch that like to play celo, and craps
Packin gats, in a Coach bag steamin dime bags
A real bitch is all I want, all I ever had (yeah, c’mon)
With a glock just as strong as me
Totin guns just as long as me, that bitch belongs with me

The same qualities that men must have in order not to be seen as soft, women must have in order to be anything more than sex objects. So is it surprising that some contradictory thoughts emerge in the heads of men who are looking for a girl who is as masculine (not in looks) as they are?

To conclude, homophobia and homoeroticism are intrinsically linked in Hip Hop. Negative attitudes towards ‘gays’ and ‘gayness’ are caused by an incredibly narrow and hyper-masculine view of manhood. But hyper-masculinity simultaneously causes a deep distrust of women (a cause of rap’s misogyny), and promotes male friendships as the deepest relationships that can be formed. And when friendship is elevated to such a high status, lines can be blurred. This is a topic that has been explored since eternity (Antonio and Bassano’s relationship in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”, for example), but has yet to confronted in Hip Hop.

4 Responses to “Reconciling Homophobia and Homoeroticism in Hip Hop”
  1. Aydın Emre Osborne Dikerdem says:

    I think this is a really great article; you’re right to point to the perception of masculinity as dichotomy, that is the notion of a masculinity framed in aggressive opposition to femininity. This of course opens the door to a particular homoeroticism, where the logics of masculinity mean that violent anal sex with a man becomes less gay than holding hands with a woman, an egregious and ironic example of this can be summed up by the macho gay gangster Larry from Layer Cake who exclaimed ‘fucking females is for poofs’.

    However I think you’ve missed out a key feature. Race.

    The legacy of colonialism and racism are central to understanding the perceptions of masculinity you describe, particularly the hyper-masculine formation so prevalent in hip-hop. That is all the well known racist imagery of the savage black male framed as strong, violent and hyper-sexual. As James Baldwin wrote: ‘I have spent most of my life, after all, watching white people and outwitting them, so that I might survive. I think I know something about the American masculinity, which most men of my generation do not know because they have not been menaced by it in the way that I have been. It is still true, alas that to be an American negro is to be the kind of walking phallic symbol: which means that one pays in one’s own personality, for the sexual insecurity of others’.

    In many ways hip-hop reflects the internalization by black males of the very racist discourses produced by white males about black masculinity, a replication produced by the continued white supremacist power structures. It was not young black males from the ‘inner city’ who made 50cent rich from buying CD’s emblazoned with his oiled up body, but young white males predominantly from the suburbs. The commodification of the black male body by white America feeds the masculinities you described so well.

    This is not a new phenomenon specific to Hip-Hop. Jack Kerouac emitted the same racist narratives; ‘I walked with every muscle aching…wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world has offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night’. This is a liberal romanticizing of the black male experience along traditional racist lines (e.g. somatic, sexual etc.) in a time of Jim Crow, in the same vein as early 00’s 50cent consumption in the time of mass incarceration of black males.

    So basically I agree with you but think that racism and colonialism need a mention, as they remain foundational to any discussion of black masculinity.

  2. phoenixstar9 says:

    It’s so funny that so many people never look at the key points you made here. Starting with the way many males often love women that carry themselves just as thuggish as they are. Or like you stated above, it seems like they are describing a homeboy instead of a woman. Homophobia in my own opinion stems from fear, self hate, or the fear that they may really be gay. Really well written article here.

  3. Xavi says:

    Check this link for a snippet of The Boondocks comic take on this issue – Gagstalicious’ hit single “Homies Over Hoes”

    From the episode ‘The Story Of Gangstalicious Part II’

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