No Homo: Homophobia & Hip-Hop

The phrase "No Homo" is an old phrase from about 5 years ago that is making appearances all over the blogosphere right now. I would like to take this opportunity to take advantage of this discourse around "No Homo" to extend it to a larger discussions of homophobia in hip-hop and in US pop culture at large.

So I want to first start out by saying that "No Homo" is not the first and probably not the last dig at homosexuals in hip-hop culture. According to Slate:

No homo, to those unfamiliar with the term, is a phrase added to statements in order to rid them of possible homosexual double-entendre. ("You've got beautiful balls," you tell your friend at the bocce game—"no homo.") No homo began life as East Harlem slang in the early '90s, and in the early aughts it entered the hip-hop lexicon via the Harlem rapper Cam'ron and his Diplomats crew. Lil Wayne brought the term into the mainstream, sprinkling "no homo" caveats across cameos, mix tapes, and his Tha Carter III LP, which was 2008's best-selling album. (Jay-Z has used the word pause in a similar way.

I doubt that it surprises anyone that a musical genre dominated by men, misogyny and hypermasculinity would also be homophobic. This homophobia is well-described in PBS Independent Lens/Hip Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes:

Homophobia is often based on a sense of insecurity about one’s own masculinity—an insecurity heightened by the limited ways in which men and boys can express themselves through traditional notions of masculinity. . Jelani Cobb explains, “It’s calling your manhood into question… it’s calling your sexuality into question … it’s saying that if you are not this you must therefore be gay, you must be a gay, you must be a fa***t, you know, you must be a b**ch ni**a.”

Yet homophobia, homoeroticism and hypermasculinity often go hand in hand. In hip-hop, for instance, images of thugged out, hypermasculine men of color—posing shirtless, greased up, muscular—decorate magazine and album covers. While these images might not have been created as explicitly homoerotic, hypermasculinity in hip-hop, sports and fraternity cultures serve to bond men together, often at the expense of women, gays and men who do not meet strict gender-based roles and expectations.

For a very specific list of homophobia in hip-hop, check out Queerty's Hip Hop's Homophobic Haters List. This list does not include some of the worst examples such as those in the popular raggae and dancehall hits:

Since the 1990's, Jamaican artists like Beenie Man, Tok and Buju Banton have released hit tunes with lyrics that, in addition to being blatantly anti-gay, also advise, and even instruct, listeners to kill gays. Another popular Jamaican artist, Elephant Man, declares in song, "When you hear a lesbian getting raped/ It's not our fault ... Two women in bed/ That's two Sodomites who should be dead." Another artist, Bounty Killer, beseeches listeners to burn "Mister Fa**ty" and make him "wince in agony."

That language is deeply troubling and concerning. But it also makes me wonder where does all this homophobia in this music come from? For me the answer is simple: our culture. The larger US cultural context is quite homophobic. Same sex marriage descrimination, Proposition 8, hate crimes and employment discrimination are just a few examples of the outright and even legalized homophobia in America today.

I believe that homophobia in hip-hop is a problem that must be addressed. However at the same time I also feel that we should not be hypocrites in our indictment of hip hop. American society at large still has a long way to go in recognizing its inherent homophobia and in taking steps to include every American in society and give equal rights and respect to all.

Further Reading:

1. NPR Roundtable on Homophobia in Hip Hop.
2.  "The rise of no homo and the changing face of homophobia in hip hop." by Slate
3. Censoring "No Homo" Will Help Hip Hop from the Washington, D.C. City Paper
4. About.com, "Cornel West, Hip-hop and Homophobia"
5. John Legend and Cornell West against  Homophobia on Bill Maher
6. Great article on Racialious about Homophobia, Racism and Queer people of Color