Can Hip-Hop Handle Lil B’s ‘I’m Gay’ Album?
by Ann Powers and Tavia Nyong’o
the prolific, Internet-obsessed Bay Area rapper, announced at Coachella that he would call his next album I’m Gay – a provocation that extends past the comfort zones of many rap fans. Lil B is known for assuming alternate identities (previous releases include the songs “I’m Miley Cyrus” and “I’m Charlie Sheen”), but this was his most surprising move yet. GLAAD questioned his motives – was this a prank, or a stealth macho move akin to other rappers’ use of the phrase “no homo?” Lil B’s response – surprisingly serious and empathetic – was to express “major love for the gay and lesbian community,” despite apparent death threats.
This isn’t the first time gay culture and hip-hop have come into contact, but since Lil B is a rapper right on the fringe of the mainstream, and he’s putting himself in the middle of the genre’s long-term conflict over homosexuality, Ann Powers wrote to Tavia Nyong’o, professor of performance studies at NYU and blogger at Hear is Queer to talk about where his decision might take the debate.
Very interesting developments lately at the spot where hip-hop culture meets sexual politics.
This would all strike me as an isolated stunt – claiming that you’re using “gay” as in “happy,” as Lil B did, sounds kind of like something my grade-schooler would do. Except that it’s just one of several recent events within hip-hop that suggest the scene’s tolerance toward sexual difference may be growing. Big Freedia, queen of the New Orleans “sissy bounce” scene, released her first EP and is bringing her “go homo” anthems nationwide on a successful tour. Hardcore rap’s pop star 50 Cent issued of Mr. Cee after the radio personality was caught en flagrante with a young person who may be transgender. And the Pacific Northwest collective Rainbow Noise caused a Youtube stir with its jammin’ cut, “Imma Homo.”
Hip-hop, long assumed by most to be a stronghold of homophobia, suddenly seems a lot more fluid.
Gender-benders have always played a major role in African-American music, from Bessie Smith to Little Richard to RuPaul. But I wonder what you make of this moment. Is it a watershed? Or just another round of entertaining exceptions?
Eager to hear your thoughts.
The openness of hip-hop to women, queers and people of all races has often been underplayed in favor of a image of black male macho that is simpler to understand, more lucrative to market and easier to disparage. The recent welter of queer counter-examples to this norm may seem like “entertaining exceptions,” but isn’t that the stuff that pop is made of: the exceptional, the unexpected, even the anomalous?
Hip-hop is a global lingua franca for youth, and it is unsurprising that this is as true for LGBT youth as it for straight, for middle class as for working class, for white, brown and yellow as for black. In mash-up culture, straight kids appropriating gay culture isn’t weird: what’s weird is the idea that we can keep them separate in the first place. I think visibility organizations like GLAAD recognize this, both when they laud artists like Big Freedia and engage playful provocateurs like Lil B. Myself, I’m not too bothered by Lil B’s freeloading on gay visibility. As Eve Sedgwick once said, perhaps all it takes “to make the description ‘queer’ a true one is the impulsion to use it in the first person.”
Pop politics wants to live in the eternal now, but queer hip-hop, as commentators like Shanté Smalls and Tim m’ West have shown, has been around for a minute. Underground artists like Hanifah Walidah, Deadlee, Deep Dickollective, God-Des, Cazwell, and basically all the artists featured in the excellent 2006 film Pick up the Mic: The Evolution of Homohop. Smalls points to hip-hop’s roots in a multiracial 1980s scene that made space for people like the gay Asian visual artist Martin Wong, who brought graffiti artists together with the downtown gallery scene and was associated with the seminal film Wild Style. Much like Gladys Bentley’s outrageous bulldyker antics in the Harlem Renaissance, posterity has a tendency to dismiss such queer presences in black artistic movements as ephemeral. And a politics of respectability has colluded with the closet to enforce historical invisibility upon lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered folk, including Bentley herself. But was we move from the era of the closet to what I think of as an era of queer conviviality, there will be many more examples of genres like sissy bounce and artists like Lil B who are unafraid to acknowledge a black culture where straight and gay can share space, spit rhymes and trade dance moves.
Of course, the hate spewed at Lil B reflects a real problem. I mean, death threats? Where hip-hop seems to bring a specific and sometimes disturbing flair to good-old American homophobia is in its expectations of an unbreakable masculinity grounded in ghetto-centric ideals of toughness. For too many, “getting punked” is the absolute antithesis of such manhood, such that homosexuality is not so much an identity as a specter that must be violently expelled from oneself, one’s neighborhood, one’s music, and one’s world. But here hip-hop is simply articulating an aspect of the reality of mass incarceration that Michelle Alexander calls “the new Jim Crow.” Dream Hampton recently set off a Twitter-storm in her call for black people to wake up to the reality of same-sex relations in prison. And we remain silent on the scandal of prison sexual assault, and fail to confront the