Was This the Decade Hip-Hop Finally Moved Past Its Homophobia?

Looking back at all the artists who came out in the 2010s, it’s easy to think that the culture matured. Not so fast.

Photo: Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images

TThere may be no better allegory for the state of hip-hop today than the seven shots that blipped Saucy Santana onto mainstream rap’s radar barely two weeks ago. In mid-December, the 26-year-old rapper and two of his friends were shot and wounded while scouting video locations in Miami; while no suspects have been questioned as of this writing, Santana is sure of their motivation.“It happened out of nowhere,” he told NBC. “Everybody isn’t going to be accepting of the type of artist that I am.”

The type of artist that he is isn’t easy to find on Rap Caviar or Billboard charts: When the Tallahassee trapper-ternt-emcee saunters onto a stage, his bodacious fake lashes, designer booty shorts, and Chanel bags come, too. All of which explains why, when #Santana started trending on Twitter in the wake of the shooting, most people checked in on Carlos and Juelz before they got to Saucy — if they knew of Saucy at all.

For the uninitiated heads, I imagine that seeing a full-figured, glossy-lipped, Gucci’ed-down gay Black man behind the name came as a surprise. And there’s a perverse upside for Santana, who thankfully came through without lasting injury — rappers have found notoriety through tragedy before, and better this than making like Gravy and Cheddar Bobbing himself. Yet, the situation proves a disappointingly fitting end to a decade in which hip-hop supposedly erected a bigger tent.

Scanning the flashpoints of the last 10 years, it’s easy to think hip-hop has finally shaken off the homophobia that lingered throughout its life. First came Lil “Tiny Pants” B, whose 2011 album I’m Gay showed love to his LGBTQ fans in order to start a conversation around homophobia. The next year, Frank Ocean celebrated the release of his album Channel Orange by coming out as queer — an unburdening that was all the more unprecedented for the fallout that never came. Odd Future had already cultivated a fan base ready to move past the status quo; when Frank’s Tumblr post hit, we collectively shrugged and kept it pushing.

Sure, there were missteps along the way. J. Cole clumsily attempting to follow in the Based God’s footsteps with a supposedly ironic “faggot”-spewing tirade on 2013’s “Villuminati”; Eminem doubling down on homophobic slurs in beefs with Elton John and Tyler the Creator. But nothing too wild, and easily outpaced by the parade of artists who came out in the latter half of the teens: Syd the Kid, Tyler, Janelle Monae, ILoveMakkonen, Kehlani. Young M.A.’s unapologetically butch steal-ya-girl bravado earned her a song of the summer in “Ooouuu.”

By the time the decade drew to a close, not only did Netflix’s rap competition show Rhythm & Flow boast an out gay man (the Brooklyn-based Cakes Da Killa), but the artist behind the biggest music story of the year — Lil Nas X — came out too, and wasn’t just accepted, but celebrated. Cats might still be saying “pause” from time to time, but it seems like hip-hop has kinda come around on the whole sexuality-is-a-spectrum thing.

Operative word, though, is seems. Hip-hop’s sexual liberation is anecdotal and individual, pockets of promise so well-defined as to illuminate the shortcomings of the whole. There hasn’t been a Hip-Hop Against Homophobia movement. The #blackboyjoy phenomenon — or at least its queerer elements — never really got invited to the mid-decade positivity cookout. The old heads didn’t galvanize the whippersnappers into being more compassionate to people who love differently. Where was Diddy’s “Vote or Die” campaign denouncing “don’t ask, don’t tell”? Hov won a GLAAD Award, but who did he show up for, other than his moms and Frank Ocean? If the decade signifies anything, it may be that while more folks feel less wary about coming out, hip-hop, for all of its progressive posturing, is still straight trippin’.

IfIf it’s evidence you need, look no further than ILoveMakonnen’s journey. In 2014, the rapper emerged from Atlanta’s primordial ooze to become SoundCloud’s most prominent vibe. Powered by smoky trap bops like “I Don’t Sell Molly No More” and “Look At Wrist,” he made fast fans of Atlanta’s producer pantheon: Metro Boomin, DJ Mustard, and 808 Mafia all crafted woozy bangers with the kid. Eventually, so did Drake, whipping up a verse to Molly-pushing anthem “Tuesday” and signing him to OVO Sound. The track went platinum in six months.

But, in the two years after that win, Makonnen remained mired in OVOs hit-factory morass, making records that never saw the air to play and routinely getting ghosted by his superstar CEO. Makonnen finally escaped his contract in 2016, moved to Oregon, and contemplated retiring from the music industry altogether. Then, in January of the following year, just before Trump’s inauguration, Makonnen came out via Twitter — and knives began to twist.

Everyone had a take, but the loudest and hottest among them came from fellow ATLiens Migos, who implied in a Rolling Stone profile that a gay man couldn’t have been a credible curb-server. “We ain’t saying it’s nothing wrong with the gays,” Quavo quipped, but “he first came out talking about trapping and selling Molly. That’s wack, bro.” A month later in a Fader interview, Makonnen reacted by questioning their credibility — not as criminals, but as homeboys — and also spilling the T-dot on his falling-out with OVO Sound. The animosity between them peaked, he claimed, when Drake threatened him at a VMA after-party over a misinterpreted freestyle lyric. Since that point, we’ve heard very little work from Makonnen. He seems happier and healthier, but it’s hard not to wonder if Migos weren’t the only ones questioning his integrity.

After all, credibility and authenticity are always in question when it comes to queer artists. The mantra “keep it real,” hip-hop critic Rodney Carmichael wrote, harkens back to rappers arming themselves with hyperaggressive masculinity and “defend[ing] gangsta rap as a representation of reality.” Sexual fluidity, regardless of the person it lives within, becomes a violation of those mythical constraints — and queerness, by definition, fails hip-hop’s purity test. But don’t think that stance won’t come back on you: Ask Chris Brown, who caught a two-piece from Frank Ocean outside an L.A. studio after Breezying a homophobic slur his way. (Later, Ocean would stunt on Earl Sweatshirt’s “Sunday” spittin’, “I mean he called me a faggot / I was just calling his bluff / I mean how anal am I gon’ be when I’m aiming my gun / and why’s his mug all bloody, that was a three on one?” KING shit boi).

Fine. So male artists, by and large, have some catching up to do. Given the steadily growing influence of rappity rap women this decade, though, the estrogen set gotta be better, right? Gay-best-friend archetypes and all that. Plus, Cardi hasn’t just spawned new acts — she’s nurtured them, in stark contrast to the there-can-only-be-one mentality that Nicki Minaj clung to during her time on top. We’d hardly know City Girls’ “Act Up” or Megan Thee Stallion’s “Stalli Freestyle” without “Bodak Yellow.” That spirit of generosity has expanded the wealth of topics, modes, and modalities that femceeing readily embody. These days, women are just as likely as men to rap about trickin’ these hoes, pushin’ dope, getting that paper. The sheer sound of womens’ voice on wax coupled with the utter joy they convey during their rise is certainly refreshing in what was quickly becoming a bland dudebro cosmology.

Unfortunately, as much as those femcees have championed each other as women and celebrated securing their bags, many of them have ended up capping on their queer fans — who often were the first to include them in the serato from jump. Nicki fired off an f-bomb on 2008’s “Dead Wrong,” then rehashed the line with Eminem on 2013’s “Majesty.” Just last year Cardi B defended her boothang, Offset, when he confessed that he just “cannot vibe with queers” on YFN Lucci’s “Boss Life.” After the internet think-pieced the line to oblivion, Cardi logged in and went after the pundits: “I see him around gays and he treats them with the same respect he treats everybody.” So Offset doesn’t stand behind his bars? Ironic, given how much he seems to care about authenticity. Between this incident, the comments about ILoveMakonnen, and Migos refusing to perform with drag queens during Katy Perry’s 2017 Saturday Night Live performance, we’ve got about as many receipts as we need.

At least for one person. Last August, City Girls’ Yung Miami copped a plea for her 2013 tweet threatening to beat the theoretical gay out of her son with the Kevin Hart defense: “I didn’t diss gays, me personally I wouldn’t want my son to be gay! Idk what’s so disappointing about that.” And in yet another case of “girl, who asked?” Doja Cat confessed to using the f-bomb “roughly 15 thousand times in my life,” in the course of concluding “I don’t think I hate gay people.”

It’s important to note the genealogies here. Yes, rap has always had issues with masculinity and sexuality. But if Nicki begat Cardi and Cardi begat the City Girls, what about Saucy Santana, who’s good friends with Yung Miami? These conversations don’t happen in a vacuum, and when platinum artists’ tendrils extend from music into fashion and beauty — industries no stranger to boss-level queer folks — how long do those queer moguls sit silently while artists publicly shit on their existence?

AA second, closer look at the artists who came out this decade muddies the verdict even further. Frank Ocean can rap his ass off, but he’s also an R&B star, which arguably blunts the subversive power of his queerness. Janelle Monae and Kehlani are similarly hip-hop-adjacent — and both beautiful in that Frank way, that way that brings them an extra cushion of goodwill to pad the impact of whatever they say or do. (And let’s not forget that super-feminine bisexual women are the holy grail for the “my girl got a girlfriend” strain of rap-god hedonism — the expectation being, of course, that the D always takes precedence.) Young MA is seen as one of the bruhs largely because a) she’s not femme and b) she can mack even better than most of her dude crew. Lil Nas X came out after he broke Billboard records and his position in the pop firmament was already platinum-solid. When it comes to queer Black men, it seems that safety is only guaranteed when success is already in hand. Class solidarity is a motherfucker, man.

Which brings us back to Saucy Santana — a rapper who hasn’t yet reached mass-appeal status, but is still living a brazenly queer existence. Can a femme-presenting gay man rise to the heights of his homophobic homegirls? Will he be able to get signed? Can he make a safe living in rap at all? If there is a path for him, perhaps it’s already been charted by an artist like Lizzo, whose size and personality has ruffled feathers and filled arenas. Granted, there are a number of criticisms one could hurl her direction — but sis knows how her bread is buttered. She’s showered her LGBTQ fans with love and appreciation because she understands what it means to be criticized for loving herself beyond social norms of beauty or behavior.

If there is any real hope for the culture to leave homophobia behind for good — and best believe that hip-hop’s survival hinges upon our ability to keep ourselves from offing one another — the straights gotta get onboard. Come TF on: It’s not like supporting the LGBTQ fam is even remotely difficult. Yet, look at what happened in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in 2017: the silence from hip-hop was utterly stifling. Kid Cudi was the most vocal rapper, by far, and all he did was mention hip-hop’s long history of queer antagonism. Minaj actually blocked one Twitter user for even suggesting that she offer anything as banal as “thoughts and prayers.” She wasn’t the only one; most rappers who have actually used gay slurs in their music, as Complex’s Steven J. Horowitz wrote, have “chosen to not publicly address the massacre.”

While queer folks are, by now, necessarily adept at creating and sustaining their own alternative lanes, hip-hop will never reach its true political, subversive potential if it rocks steady in its patriarchal B-boy stance. At the close of the decade, there is promise: some of the biggest pop-rap and hip-hop-adjacent stars have come out, sparked conversations about acceptance, and broadened understanding of the queer/trans/nonbinary experience. But relying on the act of coming out as the sole catalyst of change places the onus of fixing hip-hop on the shoulders of those already being crushed. And baby, that simply won’t do. You wanna know where hip-hop is going regarding homophobia? Mos Def (aka Yasin Bey) has an answer:

“You know what’s gonna happen with Hip-Hop? / Whatever’s happening with us. If we smoked out, Hip-Hop is gonna be smoked out. If we doin alright, Hip-hop is gonna be doin alright. People talk about Hip-Hop like it’s some giant livin in the hillside, comin down to visit the townspeople. We Are Hip-Hop. Me, you, everybody, we are Hip-Hop... So the next time you ask yourself where Hip-Hop is going, ask yourself: Where am I going? How am I doing?”

In this case, hip-hop is splintered — not fatally, perhaps, but patriarchy is a kamikaze mission. And we’ve been in freefall from the start.

African from Texas• Staff Writer at LEVEL • Black politics, Celebrity interviews, TV & Film Criticism • Previously: MTV News, San Francisco Chronicle

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