Joel Penney. Popular Music & Society. Volume 35, Issue 3. July 2012.
Introduction: Contemporary Hip Hop’s Gay Panic Moment
This article examines the tension within contemporary hip hop between the rising popularity of queer-inflected style within the genre and its corresponding backlash, fueled by those who continue to conflate hip hop with a hyper-masculine black identity. The author begins by exploring both the aesthetic and the economic motivations for hip hop’s recent embrace of queer-influenced music and dress styles. He then analyzes two recent media controversies, involving online video clips of rappers Thug Slaughter Force and Beanie Sigel, in order to deconstruct contemporary hip hop’s gay panic moment. In these clips, the performers direct their verbal aggression towards fellow rappers who wear tight clothes and other forms of dress associated with queer style, even threatening violence towards them. The author demonstrates how these attempts to police the boundaries of black masculinity connect with a long history of homophobia within African-American culture. He concludes by arguing that these reactionary and alarming incidents highlight the need for further transformations within hip hop’s conceptions of black masculinity.
In 2008, the relatively obscure Brooklyn rap group Thug Slaughter Force received high-profile press coverage for its new release, a controversial online video and song entitled “Tight Clothes?!”. In the lyrics, the group blasts prominent black male hip-hop performers for wearing form-fitting pants and shirts, claiming that this kind of body-revealing dress marks the wearer as “feminine” and “queer.” The song goes on to threaten beatings and even death to those who make such fashion choices. A year earlier, the more prominent rapper and Jay-Z protégé Beanie Sigel created a stir in the media when he criticized the image and clothing of Kanye West and Pharrell Williams, suggesting that if either performer were to come to his Philadelphia neighborhood dressed in “silk shirts with the buttons, with the chest hairs hanging out,” he would be attacked on the street. In each incident, the specter of violence was explicitly invoked as a way to control and discipline the public spectacle of the black male body—to rid it of any possible traces of homosexuality and to ensure the survival of a “hard” masculine image within hip-hop culture. It seems that when hip hop’s gendered dress code is violated, punishment may be quite literally waiting around the corner, bringing the concept of “fashion police” to a whole new level.
The acts of verbal aggression of Thug Slaughter Force and Sigel aimed at forms of dress associated with queer style point to something of a gay panic moment within contemporary hip-hop music. While such statements can perhaps be written off as mere juvenile outbursts of homophobia, their timing speaks volumes about the current state of hip hop as a lifestyle identity under contestation. The recent popularity of queer-friendly, fashion-obsessed rap superstars such as Kanye West and Pharrell Williams threatens to destabilize the hyper-masculine identity associated with mainstream hip-hop culture, calling into question the heteronormative assumptions which have long framed the black male rapper subject.
The embrace of queer-inflected aesthetics by some of the biggest hip-hop stars of the late 2000s includes not only the snug-fitting dress styles decried by Sigel and Thug Slaughter Force, but also musical influences such as 1980s British electronic pop and dance (a genre which featured a fair number of openly queer performers). Together, these developments in music and fashion appear to be causing an identity crisis for those who continue to be invested in conflating the genre with aggressive hyper-masculinity. It seems that the well-established subgenre of gangsta rap—defined by physical toughness, dominance over women, and resolutely heteronormative sexual behavior—no longer appears to have a monopoly over constructions of the black male body in mainstream hip-hop culture.
This shift signals an important queering moment, which, as the history of hip hop (and African-American popular culture more generally) demonstrates, is long overdue. However, as the gay panic incidents of 2000s hip-hop culture illustrate, this progress is still tentative and fragile. Reactionary attempts to police the bodily style of black rappers, such as those outlined in this article, suggest that the reconceptualization of black masculinity within hip-hop culture is far from complete.
“Tainted Love”: The Embrace of Queer Style in Hip Hop
In the late 2000s, signs of hip hop’s growing appreciation for queer-inflected styles were emerging everywhere. On “urban” hip-hop and R&B radio, the sounds of early 1980s electronic pop and dance were flourishing, and songs which had once been performed by flamboyant and androgynous queers were being remade on labels like Def Jam with great commercial success. For instance, Rihanna’s 2006 number-one hit “SOS” was based on the hook of 1981’s “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell, a group featuring the openly gay singer Mark Almond. In 2009, the rapper Flo Rida had a chart-topping hit with a reworking of 1984’s “You Spin Me Round” by Dead or Alive, another electronic pop group fronted by the wildly coifed bisexual vocalist Pete Burns. Also around this time, Kanye West, arguably hip hop’s biggest star of the period, began re-crafting his public persona around the craze for all things early 1980s. West appeared in the video for his 2007 hit “stronger” with a vintage denim vest, form-fitting jeans and T-shirt, and, most notably, large white “shutter-shades” sunglasses, harking back to the excesses of early 1980s new wave fashion futurism. The song “Stronger” was based on a sample from Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” from 2001, which in itself was only a few years old, but was very much indebted to earlier electronic pop and dance styles. Up until that point, Daft Punk was relatively unknown to hip-hop listeners, but was extremely popular in the international gay club scene (among other audiences); for example, a remix of the song “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” was featured on the 2002 Season Two soundtrack album for the American TV series Queer as Folk. West’s embrace of Daft Punk in his “Stronger” song and video suggested nothing less than a deliberate attempt to push hip hop’s sound and image into a new phase, leaving the old “street thug” stereotypes behind and constructing a new (and queer-friendly) black masculine identity for hip hop’s future.
What can account for West’s and other hip-hop artists’ turn towards musical styles which might have been derided in the past as “sissy” or “gay”? Part of the answer may lie in the fact that sales for 1990s-style gangsta rap have dropped over the course of the last decade, and hip-hop artists appear to be pursuing new creative directions in order to achieve commercial success. The changing dynamics of hip hop aesthetics and economics in the 2000s can be demonstrated by comparing the sales record of Kanye West with that of 50 Cent, a more typically hyper-masculine gangsta rapper. According to RIAA.com, while 50 Cent’s 2003 major label debut was certified 10 times platinum in the USA alone, his most recent album from 2009 has so far only gone gold (representing one-tenth of the platinum amount). The year 2007 saw both 50 Cent and West releasing new albums on the same day, and a high-profile chart war resulted; the clear winner was West, as his Graduation sold 957,000 copies in its first week while 50 Cent’s Curtis sold 691,000 (“Kanye Crushes Cent”). West’s mainstream success has since held steady, as each of his four albums released in the past decade has been certified platinum in the USA according to RIAA figures. It seems that West’s love affair with the music and image of vintage electro-pop, featured most prominently on 2008’s 808s and Heartbreak, has paid off well. Meanwhile, the career of 50 Cent—the standard-bearer of gangsta rap in the 2000s—appears to have stagnated (this is not to say that gangsta rap is no longer popular, but rather that it does not commercially dominate the genre as it did in the 1990s).
West’s open-minded creative sensibility was mirrored by his headline-making interview comments from 2005, in which he publicly apologized for earlier homophobia and expressed respect and appreciation for the gay community (which includes a member of his family). West even went so far as to ask his fellow hip-hop artists to change their attitudes towards gays and lesbians: “I wanna just come on TV and just tell my rappers, just tell my friends, yo, stop it”. On the other hand, 50 Cent received wave after wave of bad press for a series of public anti-gay remarks; the most recent controversy saw the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation castigating the rapper for an “insensitive tweet” (“Cent’s Blast at Perez Hilton Stirs GLAAD”). West and 50 Cent have come to represent two competing images of the contemporary black male hip-hop artist, not only in terms of what he should look and sound like, but also in his attitudes towards the broader social world, including the LGBT community. While West’s career is not without troubles of its own (mostly due to his outrageous behavior at televised awards shows), his more tolerant and queer-friendly version of hip-hop masculinity has succeeded in the mainstream as of late.
The “tight clothes” style West has adopted, beginning with the release of his 2007 Graduation album, further signaled his comfort with queer-inflected style and with openly gay men. Much of his wardrobe has been personally created for him by the Louis Vuitton head designer Marc Jacobs, an out gay man who is also West’s close personal friend. In a profile on Jacobs in Rolling Stone, West appears as a key supporting character: “Kanye West gathers Jacobs in a bear hug, camera in hand. ‘This guy’s my idol,’ says West, handing the camera to his manager to snap them together. ‘I wish I could hang out with Marc all the time, because he’s so cool. I want to be just like him'”. West’s candid assertion that he wants to be just like a gay fashion designer speaks volumes about the increasingly cozy relationship between queer style and mainstream hip-hop culture in the late 2000s.
In fact, many of hip hop’s top performers have become major designers in their own right, moving beyond urban “streetwear” lines like Phat Farm and FUBU and into the upper echelons of runway fashion. Pharrell Williams recently created a luxury clothing line called Billionaire Boys Club, which sells, among other items, 1980s-inspired skin-tight red pants (bbcicecream.com). Another key member of hip hop’s fashion set is P. Diddy, who not only won the 2004 menswear designer of the year award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America for his Sean John label, but also formed a business partnership with openly gay fashion mogul Zac Posen for a company called Outspoke. The fact that stars like P. Diddy are so comfortable forging professional relationships with out gay men is a notable turnaround for the once notoriously homophobic genre of hip hop, although this is likely motivated by economics as much as by anything else. LGBT fashion icons like Zac Posen are perhaps acceptable colleagues for hip-hop stars because of the upwardly mobile luxury lifestyles these figures represent; indeed, mainstream hip hop’s obsession with status consumption has created a long-standing—if sometimes unwitting—presence for gay male cultural elites within rap lyrics, such as in the case of the myriad shout-outs to the gay couple Dolce and Gabbana. In the last few years, this relationship has become more and more explicit, as photographs of Kanye West and Pharrell Williams clinging to Marc Jacobs at fashion shows circulate across the Internet at breakneck speed. The fact that this has all coincided with the genre’s embrace of queer-friendly electronic pop and dance music may be a mere happenstance of history, but in the figures of West and Williams in particular these two trends have seemingly merged, forming a new cultural nexus of electro-pop grooves and ultra-chic and tight-fitting style within contemporary hip hop.
In both music and image, then, hip hop seems to be experiencing a profound queering moment, driven by a complex combination of aesthetic innovation, commercial pressure, and shifting social and political viewpoints. However, this development has not met with universal acceptance; rather, it has inspired caustic mockery and even threats of violence from some of hip hop’s more reactionary sectors. In order to understand why tight clothing has been singled out by these detractors as being so offensive to the perceived tradition of “hard” hip-hop masculinity, it is necessary to unpack the strongly gendered symbolism of dress practices within hip-hop fashion more broadly.
Tight Pants/Baggy Jeans: Sexual Signification and the Public Spectacle of the Gendered Black Body
The gender-specific codes established within mainstream hip-hop fashion follow a distinct pattern: the black male body is cloaked in fabric, often from head to toe, while the black female body is revealed with tight-fitting outfits and positioned as an object of sexual desire. This division in dress styles is by no means particular to hip hop, as some anti-rap cultural conservatives might argue, but rather is part of a much broader tradition of western dress practice. The critical feminist scholar Diana Crane notes that “for approximately the past one hundred years, the expression of sexuality in men’s clothes has been largely taboo, while women’s clothes throughout the period remained sexually expressive” (Crane). This pattern identified by Crane also closely mirrors Laura Mulvey’s famous feminist theory of cinematic images (and western visual culture more broadly) as being organized around the principles of the male gaze and the female’s to-be-looked-at-ness. In other words, patriarchal privilege dictates that men conceal while women reveal. According to Crane, it is only recently that these dress codes have met with resistance. Beginning in the 1980s, some designers influenced by gay male urban style began to experiment with skin-tight pants for men; by “present[ing] the male as a sex object,” Crane argues that these tight clothes presented important symbolic “challenges to hegemonic masculinity” (195).
It is important to note, however, that the patterns which Crane describes have not always held true for African-American males. During the era of American slavery, for example, black male bodies were frequently exposed in slave auctions in order to indicate strength and work potential (Roach). The history of black male style in the United States has also included many examples of flamboyant and body-focused dress styles, even within a resolutely heterosexual context. For instance, Monica L. Miller has shown that the showy and form-fitting style of black dandyism loomed large in nineteenth-century America, although this figure declined in the post-war era (interestingly, Miller argues that the black dandy has been at least partially resurrected in recent hip-hop fashion, and she connects this trend to the queer performance art of figures such as Lyle Ashton Harris and Ike Ude. While standards of masculine body stylization are always inflected by race and class, and are in no way universal, the patterns identified in the feminist critiques of Mulvey and of Crane are nonetheless helpful for understanding the ways in which the gendered codes of hip hop are situated within the broader cultural context of the late twentieth-century United States.
By the time gangsta rap had ascended as the dominant commercial sub-genre of hip hop in the early 1990s, a stark division in gender roles had become standardized. Earlier eras of hip-hop culture did in fact include some marginal queer figures who blurred gender boundaries (for example, the producer Man Parrish and the graffiti artist Keith Haring), while the dominant strain of hip hop in its commercial phase was characterized by hyper-masculine male rappers and scantily clad female “video honeys.” It seemed as if the patriarchal conventions discussed in Mulvey’s famous thesis had been re-inscribed rather conservatively within the specific cultural milieu of black American hip hop. In an essay on the hip-hop fashion industry, Nicole Fleetwood describes this strictly gendered dress code in careful detail. She identifies baggy jeans as part of the “virulently masculine” style emphasized by hip-hop-oriented clothing companies such as Phat Farm. While the company’s female line, Baby Phat, sells “highly sexualized” clothing such as “tight-fitting body-suits, miniskirts, and revealing lingerie,” the looser-fitting designs targeted at young men are organized around the seemingly masculine principle of “modesty” (Fleetwood). Thus, the fit of one’s pants can be directly linked to broader concepts about sexual objectification, and about gender identity more generally. Fleetwood’s discussion of Phat Farm’s differing jeans sizes signals how gender norms within hip-hop culture are powerfully reinforced through the materiality of clothing practice.
However, if black male hip-hoppers were to flip the script, as it were, and reveal their bodies with tight clothes, they might be perceived as signaling an interest in their own sexual objectification. Such a move would violate the established gender conventions of hip-hop fashion, calling the very sexual identity of these men into question. The threat which body-revealing dress styles poses to the figure of the hyper-masculine black rapper is well-dramatized in Thug Slaughter Force’s “Tight Clothes?!” The differing gender roles signified by tight versus baggy clothes serve as the guiding principle behind both the song and video. Thug Slaughter Force’s lyrics are entirely upfront about what the rappers believe to be hip hop’s appropriate gender roles and corresponding dress styles: “We the hammer crew/We let it hang for our balls/We don’t wear tight clothes/We leave that to them broads… We don’t wear tight clothes like those chickens do/It’s not in our plans/We let it hang.” This gender binary in dress is reproduced in the visuals of the music video: the male group members are all pictured in loose-fitting, oversized jeans and sweat shirts (the latter emblazoned with a rule-bearing “No Tight Clothes” symbol), while the women in the video are shown wearing tight-fitting jeans, with numerous close-ups showing off the curves of their buttocks. The video also contains an introductory text warning that “wearing tight clothes may result in feminine tendencies, homosexuality, possible yeast infection, severe hemorrhoids, permanent wedgies, and genetically inherited transsexual characteristics in your son.” Here, gay male, female, and transgender bodies are conflated with one another and marked as inferior to the heterosexual male body, with clothing being (mockingly) identified as having the power to vitiate hip hop’s supposedly superior hyper-masculine identity.
In addition to making a clear distinction between proper male style and that of sexually objectified female “chickens” and “broads,” the lyrics reveal the important phallic (or perhaps more accurately, testicular) connotations behind the act of letting one’s jeans sag. Here, baggy pants become a symbolic stand-in for the male genitalia they conceal: the more the drooping fabric hangs, the more it signifies the large size of the pendulous body parts underneath. Thus, notions of mere modesty in dress cannot fully account for what is going on within the sexual symbolism of “Tight Clothes?!”; while the lyrics make a number of allusions to comfort in dress as a masculine privilege, the constant references to testicles and needing room for them to hang work as a kind of phallic boasting which positions the black male body as highly sexual—only it is a certain type of sexual role this body is made to perform.
Tight clothes, on the other hand, draw attention to the entire male form, curves and all, and this de-phallicization is perhaps a key reason why they are perceived to be so dangerous and threatening to hyper-masculine identity. The song’s lyrics make repeated parallels between the act of revealing the outlines of the male body and an inferior, feminized masculinity: “The fuck’s wrong with y’all niggas/Shirt extra small when you six feet tall nigga/Looking like you got your pants off a Ken doll nigga… Nigga get your weight up, be a boss, let your nuts hang/Pants too tight like you with the booty butt gang.” This last line is particularly telling, as it equates male homosexuality with a focus on the posterior, rather than on the phallus. By sexualizing other parts of the male body—in fact, sexualizing the male body as a whole—tight pants make a spectacle of this body, emphasizing a to-be-looked-at-ness which invites the gaze of the other in no uncertain terms. Using the broad framework of Mulvey’s feminist theory, it becomes clear that the sort of homophobia expressed in Thug Slaughter Force’s “Tight Clothes?!” is much more than just a simple intolerance towards gay men; what is it at stake here is the entire western patriarchal order.
Of course, there is a great deal of irony to the idea that baggy pants do not already make a sexual spectacle of the male body and draw attention to the curves of the male form. In fact, this boxers-exposing style has often been labeled obscene by various figures of authority. Dallas Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway led a well-publicized recent campaign against saggy pants and “dirty boxers”, and President Obama has even commented on the issue publicly, although the implied proper alternative is modest medium-sized slacks as opposed to sexually suggestive tight pants. Terrence Dean, the openly gay music industry figure and author of the recent Hiding in Hip Hop, points to the contradictions within mainstream hip hop’s heteronormative dress codes in a Village Voice article on the “Tight Clothes?!” phenomenon: “You walk in urban communities [like] Harlem, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and you see these young people walking around with pants sagging way down below their ass cheeks and underwear showing—what are you selling? That’s much more homoerotic than fitted jeans” (Childs).
Following from Dean’s point, it is often noted that there are clear homoerotic overtones in much of mainstream hip-hop culture, such as the constant lyrical emphasis on homosocial male bonding and album covers featuring rappers such as DMX and 50 Cent showing off chiseled bare torsos (Touré). However, there is a key distinction in the kinds of hyper-masculine sexualized spectacles marked by underwear-exposing baggy jeans and shirtless poses: while they certainly have the effect of casually revealing the male body, the form of the clothing objects themselves (or lack thereof) does not explicitly signify male sexual objectification. Tight clothes, on the other hand, are signifying objects that unambiguously “speak” of the sexualized male body, as their very form makes a statement about the to-be-looked-at-ness of the wearer. Thus, while heteronormative male hip-hop fashion is suffused with contradictions and ironies, there is a certain undeniable logic to tight clothes being singled out as the stylistic threat to the genre’s investment in hyper-masculinity.
The controversial comments made by rapper Beanie Sigel on the website QD3.com in 2007 operate under a similar logic, using clothing as a signifier for the proper gender and sexual order. The following is a transcript of Sigel’s remarks about Kanye West and Pharrell Williams in their entirety, pulled from a longer interview and made available as a popular video clip on many sites throughout the web:
Now look who the hot… look who everybody want to be like. They want to be like Kanye and Pharrell. Them dudes is not cool. They not cool to be. That’s not cool to be, in the ‘hood. That’s not cool, like they whole image. Who would want to be that? You wear Louis Vuitton driving shoes. Like who does that in the ‘hood? Who dresses like that? Silk shirts with the buttons, with the chest hairs out and all that. Who does that? Like they trying too hard. That’s not cool to be. Dudes like where I’m from, you get caught, you walking down the street like that, you liable to get something happen to you. Yeah. You might as well come all the way out the closet, homeboy.
Sigel’s censure of chest-revealing silk shirts—a reference to Kanye West’s outfit at the 2007 Grammy Awards—is another example of how a clothing form explicitly sexualizing the male body in its entirety is viewed as a threat. Sigel is particularly concerned about the status of West and Williams as role models for young black male hip-hop fans; it is not just their own behavior and image that is as stake here, but seemingly the entire future of hip hop’s hyper-masculine identity as a whole. Thus, his repetitive refrain “That’s not cool to be” takes on a certain didactic function as he warns young black men to resist emulating those rap stars who have abandoned the perceived gender norms of hip hop.
The rhetoric, then, of the gay panic of Sigel and Thug Slaughter Force is ultimately about disciplining the heterosexual black male body and maintaining its dominant position in the patriarchal gender hierarchy—the male as the looking sexual subject, as opposed to the looked-at sexual object. This emphasis on policing the boundaries of straight-ness is implied in Sigel’s call for West and Williams to come out of the closet: the suggestion is that if these two performers were to simply identify as gay and thus remove themselves from the conceptual field of heterosexual male blackness, all confusion would be laid to rest and everything would seemingly be all right. The threat that West and Williams pose to Sigel is not their own possible queer sexual orientation, but rather their queering of straight male hip-hop style and subsequent blurring of identity boundaries. In the article in the Village Voice about the controversy surrounding “Tight Clothes?!,” Thug Slaughter Force member Blanco the Don voices this exact same sentiment: “It basically boils down to: You are in a homosexual attire, and you are claiming to be something else. That’s what I have a problem with—not the homosexualism [sic]. You’re a front artist, and you’re promoting homosexuality with your actions and dress code, but you’re promoting gangster lifestyle with your lyrics. The two don’t match up” (Childs). While it remains questionable whether Blanco the Don is sincere in his stated tolerance for gay men (or if he is instead just spinning in order to ward off criticism), what is clear is that what really bothers him about presumably straight rappers wearing tight clothes is the ambiguity it engenders. His desire is to maintain the “gangster lifestyle,” constructed around notions of aggressive hyper-masculinity, as a safe space free of any potentially queer pollution.
By insisting that homosexual attire and gangster rap simply “don’t match up,” Blanco is attempting to preserve a rigid binary between gay and straight cultural domains, while claiming hip hop exclusively for the latter category. It is precisely this sort of policing of boundaries of straight black male identity which lies at the heart of the panic represented by both Thug Slaughter Force and Beanie Sigel. Indeed, the history of gay panics within the African-American community—as brilliantly documented by E. Patrick Johnson and others—reveals a strikingly similar pattern.
Bracketing Off the Queer Other: Black Gay Panic in Historical Perspective
In the book Appropriating Blackness, Johnson examines how “black male heterosexuality conceals its reliance on the black effeminate homosexual for its status… call[ing] attention to the process through which gender and sexual identity inhere when predicated on the repudiation of its Other” (Johnson 74). Johnson’s contention is that there is an unacknowledged yet fundamental instability in the construction of heteronormative black masculine identity, and in order for this identity to be shored up, as it were, the inferior homosexual Other must be constantly invoked as a kind of negative example of what not to be. A quote Johnson takes from the work Black Gay Man by Robert Reid-Pharr—another key scholar in the burgeoning field of queer African-American studies—eloquently sums up this idea: “to strike the homosexual, the scapegoat, the sign of chaos and crisis, is to return the community to normality, to create boundaries around blackness” (Reid-Pharr). This, for Johnson, explains why there has been so much attention paid over the years to denigrating and ridiculing “the effete black gay man” within the performances of heteronormative and patriarchal black male cultural producers. Johnson looks at diverse texts such as Eldridge Cleaver’s writings, Imamu Amiri Baraka’s poetry, and the satirical comedy of Eddie Murphy and the TV show In Living Color in order to chart a troubling history of homophobia and ridicule within late-twentieth-century black popular culture (Johnson). In each of these cases, black male queerness is portrayed as a weak, disempowering, and ineffective form of masculinity which must be “marginalized and excluded from the boundaries of blackness” if the heteronormative black man is to retain his strength in the battle against oppression as well as his dominant position over black women (51).
On the other hand, Johnson turns to the metaphor of gumbo, borrowed from Marlon Riggs’s documentary film Black Is… Black Ain’t, in order to highlight the fundamental multiplicity and inclusiveness of blackness: the coexistence and co-mingling of the male and the female, the rich and the poor, the urban and the suburban, and most importantly for the present discussion, the straight and the gay. Johnson describes Riggs’s metaphor as “underscor[ing] the multiplicity of blackness insofar as gumbo is a dish associated with New Orleans, a city confounded by its mixed race progeny and the identity politics that mixing creates. The gumbo trope is apropos because, like ‘blackness,’ gumbo is a site of possibilities” (Johnson 19). The cultural mixing which took place in New Orleans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also notably fostered an incredibly fertile and innovative music scene, which we know and celebrate today as jazz, rhythm and blues, etc.
The gumbo metaphor is perhaps also appropriate for the later cultural milieu of hip hop: as Tricia Rose has observed in the landmark book Black Noise, hip hop is all about appropriation, reflexivity, and redefinition, a cultural gumbo for another time and place. The work of scholars like Johnson and Rose suggests that the genre of hip hop can indeed function as “a site of possibilities” (Johnson 19) within the larger project of queering black masculinity. While the recent music and fashion choices of artists such as Kanye West suggest a positive step in this direction, there is clearly more transformative work which needs to be done. When figures like West and Pharrell Williams are made into “sign(s) of chaos and crisis” (Reid-Pharr 99) by their hip-hop colleagues, as in the case of the Sigel and Thug Slaughter Force incidents, it suggests that this progress will continue to be a struggle rather than a smooth and easy transition.
The panic surrounding contemporary hip hop’s recent queering of black masculine identity can be read as the latest iteration of a long and unfortunate history of homophobia within African-American popular culture. The denigration of the queer Other in order to strengthen an unstable heterosexual masculine identity has a very particular history and meaning within the African-American community; as Johnson and other scholars have argued, black masculinity has often been constructed as emasculated and castrated by the dehumanizing legacy of racism—particularly in the rhetoric of Black Power leaders such as Eldridge Cleaver—and the queer Other has subsequently served as a scapegoat, a symbol for a weakened masculinity which must be renounced if black men are to regain their strength and power (Johnson 51-7; Reid-Pharr 99-134).
In this context, the function of anti-gay bigotry within black hip-hop culture becomes considerably clearer, if nonetheless troubling. As underground queer hip-hop artist and scholar Tim’m West has noted, homophobic lyrics have appeared in the work of artists as diverse as Public Enemy, Easy-E, Brand Nubian, and Common (West 166, 171), as well as in the work of the dancehall performers Beenie Man and Buju Banton (181). Yet until now, pioneering out rappers like Tim’m West have borne much of the brunt of this homophobia. West’s essay “Keepin’ It Real” describes the backlash against the burgeoning “homo hop” movement: “the hip-hop nation senses its crisis, and the burden of proof for the hip-hop nation’s security is encapsulated in the nation’s mantra: ‘keepin’ it real.’ Terrified that hip hop will become a beat to which anyone can break-dance, hip hop’s national guard becomes more watchful of its borders” (171). However, as some of the genre’s most prominent and successful mainstream performers have embraced queer-influenced style in the form of tight clothes and electronic pop music, this “national guard” has now shifted its focus from the borders of the underground to hip hop’s very center. The militant rhetorical gestures of Beanie Sigel and Thug Slaughter Force thus mark a moment within hip hop when the crisis comes not from the outside but from within, and when the hyper-masculine identity which has long been associated with mainstream hip-hop culture has become unstable to the point of dysfunction.
Perhaps these rather isolated reactionary moments can be read as signs that hip hop is in fact progressing in the long run, and the continuing widespread success and acceptance of the performers targeted in these verbal assaults suggests that hip-hop audiences on the whole are much more open to post-gangsta, post-hardcore constructions of black masculine identity. Yet it is unclear at this point whether contemporary hip hop’s adoption of queer style is just a flash in the pan spurred by aesthetic experimentation and commercial pressure, or if it instead represents a major shift in the politics of gender and sexuality within the genre. What is clear, however, is that the queering of black masculinity within hip-hop culture is a project which will continue to face challenges from the reactionaries of the “national guard,” and that this must not discourage those who wish to reimagine what “keeping it real” might mean in the genre’s future.