It’s no secret that historically mainstream hip-hop culture has been saturated by straight men making misogynistic and homophobic remarks in their music and in the media. Hip hop was dubbed a male and masculine genre that had no room for women or those with a queer identity. However, time changes things, as does talent.
Queer hip hop got its start as an underground movement in the early ’90s. Labeled “homo hop,” the movement wasn’t aiming to create a subgenre of music but to serve as a community building tool for LGBTQ+ rappers. Primarily based in Calif., the movement included the likes of rap group Deep Dickollective and rappers Caushun and Cazwell. Yet, the idea of a queer-identifying famous rapper still seemed strange. An unspoken rule still permeated hip hop, that even if you were queer, you didn’t talk about it.
While not necessarily a rapper, Frank Ocean is still a part of hip hop’s culture. He was a member of the California-based rap collective Odd Future and is friends with legendary hip-hop artists like André 3000, Jay-Z and Kanye West. On July 4, 2012, Ocean posted an open letter on his Tumblr account in which he stated that the first person he ever fell in love with was a man. His next album, released a week after his Tumblr post, would be filled with beautiful lyrics referencing his first love. Channel Orange went on to sell 131,000 copies in its first week, debuting at number two on the Billboard Top 200. A queer identifying man became a reserved superstar.
Ocean’s success set a precedent. Queer hip-hop artists who may have felt they couldn’t express their sexual identities through their music now had a shining example to look up to. Tyler, the Creator, the Odd Future frontman with an eccentric personality and a brand defined by his comical approach to music and social media, took a different approach to his most recent album, Flower Boy. Seen as a “coming out” album by critics and fans alike, the candid Flower Boy is splattered with direct references to Tyler’s sexuality. In the track “I Ain’t Got Time,” Tyler raps — almost under his breath — “Next line, I’ll have em’ like woah / I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004.”
While Tyler, The Creator is a part of the culture Frank Ocean helped popularize, artists like Kevin Abstract are a result of it. His 2016 album American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story paints a vivid picture of two men completely taken with one another. Abstract doesn’t try to hide his identity with suggestive or impressionistic lyrics. He is direct and open about his feelings for the man he loves. On the second verse of the album’s title track Abstract sings, “My parents wanna kill them / Let them kill me.” An aura of indifference towards others’ opinions of his sexual identity permeates throughout American Boyfriend.
Hip hop’s attitude towards queerness is evolving rapidly. The culture is beginning to lose the toxic masculinity that plagued the early years of the genre’s history. Atlanta-based rapper Young Thug wore a dress for the cover of his 2016 mixtape Jeffrey, and when asked about his decision to do so, he stated: “When it comes to swag, there is no gender involved.” Jay-Z raps about his mother coming out in “Smile” — “Cried tears of joy when you fell in love / Don’t matter to me if it’s a him or her.” Old- and new-school rappers alike are beginning to embrace the cultural shift of popular rap.
Despite the strides that have been made, it would be misleading to say that hip hop has become a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community. A few bad apples still stain the improving reputation of hip hop’s culture. The members of rap group Migos have recently made the news multiple times for making homophobic remarks. From Offset’s blatantly ignorant lyric “I don’t vibe with queers” to the members expressing public disappointment at discovering their fellow rapper iLoveMakonnen came out as gay. Yet the ignorance of a few shouldn’t minimize the clear shift currently taking place in hip hop. The young genre has come a long way from its socially problematic beginnings.