Young, Gifted,
Black and Gay
A CultureMap®
by Stephen Brewer
Published on 6/26/14

Since it exploded out of the South Bronx some 40 years ago, hip-hop has embraced the provocative and the profane. These days the music is no less brash, but the genre is moving beyond its notorious misogyny and homophobia. Artists such as Frank Ocean, Zebra Katz and Azealia Banks bring a fresh perspective to the scene, as hip-hop and the nation at large invite more and more gay and bisexual voices into the mainstream.

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Paris Is Burning  (Jennie Livingston (dir.) | documentary | 1991)
to  Frank Ocean  (b. 1987 | American hip-hop artist)

In Paris Is Burning, a documentary about gay black and Latino men who compete in drag balls, a character recalls his father telling him, “You have three strikes against you in this world. You’re black and male and you’re gay.… If you’re going to do this, you’re going to have to be stronger than you ever imagined.” The film’s queens arm themselves with style and attitude to mimic the glamorous types who exclude them: runway models, businesspeople, wealthy yachters smiling from the pages of Town & Country magazine. One man explains the empowerment of ball culture as “like crossing into the looking glass in Wonderland.” “You go in there and you feel,” he says, “100 percent right being gay.”

Grammy-winning hip-hop star Frank Ocean emerged as black and male and possibly gay when he spoke of his erstwhile love for a young man. Ocean doesn’t claim he’s gay or bisexual; nonetheless, addressing the complexities of human sexuality is a bold move in the characteristically sexist and homophobic world of hip-hop. Ocean shares the liberating experiences of the men in Paris Is Burning when he says, “I don’t have any secrets I need kept anymore.… I feel like a free man.”

Paris Is Burning  (Jennie Livingston (dir.) | documentary | 1991)
to  Zebra Katz  (b. 1986 | American hip-hop artist)

In the song “Ima Read,” by hip-hop performance artist Zebra Katz, the term bitch is used 87 times—and that’s no accident. “It’s seen as a very misogynist word in hip-hop, but we’re trying to numb it,” explains Ojay Morgan, the rapper who created the Zebra Katz persona. Morgan says the song is an homage to the drag balls documented in the film Paris Is Burning, in which male contestants in drag competitions say bitch as involuntarily as they breathe. Their reverent yet mocking attitude creeps into the “Ima Read” music video that went viral on YouTube. A girl in a provocatively short school uniform (Njena Reddd Foxxx) slinks and gyrates to lyrics such as “I’m gonna take that bitch to college / I’m gonna give that bitch some knowledge.” The video explores the arcana of ball culture, where drag performers sometimes imitate uniformed students, dancers sashay (or “vogue”) like fashion models, and insulting someone in a really bitchy way is called “reading.” Evoking the competitors of Paris Is Burning, Morgan is, in his own words, “Creating a strong, black, other, queer male…, something that really needed to happen because you don’t see that that often, especially not in hip-hop.”

Azealia Banks  (b. 1991 | American hip-hop artist)
to  Zebra Katz  (b. 1986 | American hip-hop artist)

The music blaring over the loudspeakers at 2012’s Paris Fashion Week was a bit more outré than typical runway fare of years past. “Ima Read,” by Zebra Katz, a.k.a. Ojay Morgan, played at the Rick Owens show, and Azealia Banks premiered a new song, “Bambi,” at the Thierry Mugler show. Spectators may have noticed an abundance of foul language in the lyrics. Katz’s “What, bitch, you don’t like my shit?” shares a profane cattiness with Banks’s “I know all these bitches really can’t stand me.” But few of the fashionistas may have been aware of the rappers’ sexual politics. In a genre where antigay rants are common and verses may be filled with slurs such as “No homo” and “bitch-ass faggots,” Katz and Banks stand out for their sexual orientation (Katz is openly gay, Banks is bisexual). Neither is as out there as some gay rappers: Big Dipper rhymes, “My tenderloin is fresh / No expiration date on this hairy butt sex,” and six-foot-11 Cunty Crawford Ladosha (a.k.a. Adam Radakovich) wears stiletto heels and biker shorts. But through high-profile collaborations with cherished institutions, Katz and Banks are bringing gay-friendly hip-hop into the mainstream.

Azealia Banks  (b. 1991 | American hip-hop artist)
to  Frank Ocean  (b. 1987 | American hip-hop artist)

In July 2012 Frank Ocean posted this notice on his Tumblr: “4 summers ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too.… By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless. There was no escaping, no negotiating with the feeling, no choice. It was my first love. It changed my life.… Imagine being thrown from a plane.” This experience became the basis for Ocean’s song “Bad Religion,” from his Grammy-winning album Channel Orange.

Ocean’s words sent shock waves through the rap world, where antigay language is de rigueur. Tyler, The Creator, for example, uses the word faggot and its variants 213 times on his 2011 album Goblin. (As it happens, Tyler and Ocean belong to the same rap crew, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All.) Azealia Banks made news when she sent a series of tweets in which she called gossip blogger Perez Hilton a “messy faggot.” She added misogyny to the mix when she explained, “A faggot is any male who acts like a female.” Aside from being bravely open about his sexuality, Ocean stands out in the world of hip-hop as uncommonly thoughtful and circumspect.

Frank Ocean  (b. 1987 | American hip-hop artist)
to  Jay Z  (b. 1969 | American hip-hop artist)

Frank Ocean’s announcement that he once had feelings for another man elicited some predictable responses from the hip-hop world, which has a reputation for hostility toward homosexuality. Employing all the sensitivity usually associated with the genre, rapper Lil Scrappy said, “I’m glad that he came out…so all the real women that love to mess with real men, straight men, we can keep the AIDS situation down, you feel me?” Even so, much of the reaction was positive. Beyoncé, the superstar wife of rapper Jay Z, posted a photo of Ocean on her blog, along with a sort of poem: “Be fearless. Be honest. Be generous. Be brave. Be poetic. Be open. Be free. Be yourself. Be in love. Be happy. Be inspiration.” On Jay Z’s website, hip-hop journalist dream hampton wrote, “We are all made better by your decision to share publicly.” One of the biggest shows of support came from Russell Simmons, founder of rap record label Def Jam and an outspoken supporter of gay rights. “I am profoundly moved by the courage…of Frank Ocean,” he said. “Your decision to go public about your sexual orientation gives hope and light to so many young people still living in fear.”

Barack Obama  (b. 1961 | American president)
to  Jay Z  (b. 1969 | American hip-hop artist)

President Barack Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage in May 2012 spurred debate in many quarters, including the black community, where opposition to gay marriage has been relatively entrenched. Despite overwhelming support for Obama’s candidacy in 2008, the majority of black voters in California voted for Proposition 8, the measure to overturn same-sex marriage. African American support for gay marriage is on the rise but still below the national average; according to a Pew Research Center study, 38 percent of African Americans support same-sex marriage, compared to 50 percent of whites. So it was meaningful when Jay Z, the undisputed king of hip-hop, came out in support of the president’s endorsement, saying, “It’s no different than discriminating against blacks. It’s discrimination plain and simple.… It’s about people. It’s the right thing to do as a human being.” Anyone who knows Jay Z’s music is familiar with lines such as “Faggots wanna talk to Po-Po’s, smoke ’em like cocoa,” so his words of support are all the more refreshing and perhaps suggest good things ahead for gay equality. In 2011 Obama acknowledged the rapper’s growing influence, calling Jay Z somebody who “can help shape attitudes in a real positive way.”

National Organization for Marriage  (American political organization | est. 2007)
to  Paris Is Burning  (Jennie Livingston (dir.) | documentary | 1991)

The National Organization for Marriage, a nonprofit group working against same-sex marriage and gay adoption, calls gay marriage “the tip of the spear, the weapon that will be and is being used to marginalize and repress Christianity and the Church.” Part of NOM’s strategy to preserve traditional marriage is to actively foster antigay sentiment in the black community. The group has stated its goal to “find, equip, energize and connect African American spokespeople for marriage [and] develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right.” NOM also calls for making “support for marriage a key badge of Latino identity—a symbol of resistance to inappropriate assimilation.”

The margins are familiar turf to the gay blacks and Latinos who participate in the drag balls featured in Paris Is Burning, and the film shows that ball culture is about much more than spectacle. Participants, most of whom are outcasts from family and community, take refuge in “houses” presided over by older drag queens. The houses provide a welcome shelter, where the queens teach young initiates how to use drag to imitate the society that has rejected them.

Barack Obama  (b. 1961 | American president)
to  National Organization for Marriage  (American political organization | est. 2007)

In November 2012 Maryland voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have overturned the state’s legalization of same-sex marriage. It marked the first time the legality of gay marriage had been upheld in a state with a high percentage of African Americans, a group that has not traditionally supported pro-gay legislation. In the months leading up to the referendum, the National Organization for Marriage aggressively courted the black vote, often targeting community churches. Back in 2008, for example, conservative church spokespeople declared, “There’s been a hijacking of the civil rights movement by the radical gay movement.… You can’t equate your sin with my skin.”

President Barack Obama and a roster of black stars—including rapper Jay Z and his wife, Beyoncé—appear to have had greater pull. Before Obama’s endorsement of marriage equality in May 2012 and the show of celebrity support that followed, 56 percent of black Maryland voters said they would vote to overturn same-sex marriage, and 39 percent said they would vote to uphold the law. Afterward, those numbers essentially flipped, with 36 percent vowing to overturn and 55 percent vowing to uphold. When it comes to influencing today’s identity politics, you can’t count out hip-hop.