Why 2013 Was Hip-Hop’s “Faggot” Spring

"I'll be honest, I really wanted to win the Best Rap Video, but this Moonman right here stands for a lot more," the rapper Macklemore said earlier this year, holding the MTV Video Music Awards "Best Video With a Social Message" trophy. The honor was for the video accompanying his gay-equality anthem "Same Love," a song that he called "the most important record" out of everything he's written. "To watch this song in the last year spread across the world is a testament to what is happening right now in America on the forefront of equality," he told the crowd, echoing the song's self-important earnestness.

Macklemore is cloying: A straight male liaison informing the world that Gay is OK! (note that the track's collaborator, Mary Lambert, an actual gay person, did not get to say a word during the acceptance speech). His song is simplistic—not all love looks the same, especially not all queer love—but that simplicity allows "Same Love" to speak to the masses, including and especially to the idiots who need a model for tolerance. The song went Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 this summer in the wake of DOMA's reversal. It has been nominated for Song of the Year at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards. As recently as a few weeks ago, it prompted a sing-along amongst the 18,000 or so attendees who filled Madison Square Garden for the annual Jingle Ball concert.

Central to the song is its smarmy indictment of a hip-hop culture that it seeks to correct. "If I was gay / I would think hip-hop hates me," says Macklemore. That's an annoying thing to say, not just because it should be "If I were gay." It encourages wallowing. It ignores the complicated experience of being a LGBT person interfacing with bigoted pop culture. You don't have to surrender or ignore; you can glean what's useful to you and leave the toxic rest behind. Macklemore's sense of what he'd feel if he were gay matters less than, say, how actual, non-hypothetical gay people engage with hip-hop.

But you get what he's saying: Hip-hop has traditionally been an unfriendly place to gay people. "Same Love" was released in 2012, but it didn't break till this year, after Macklemore and Ryan Lewis scored their career-delivering hits, "Thrift Shop" and "Can't Hold Us." Had it been written later, it very well could have been different. It's been a watershed year in terms of hip-hop's relationship to homosexuality. It's harder and harder to make the case that "hip-hop hates me."

Hip-hop's traditionally overt homophobia—it's the musical genre in which anti-gay sentiments and slurs are most prevalent and acceptable—makes it a good gauge for social progress. And it is progressing, partly because it couldn't get much worse. Last year Frank Ocean, an R&B singer with close ties to the young L.A. rap crew OFWGKTA, made public a same-sex romantic relationship, and a new wave of sub-mainstream queer rappers such as Le1f, Mykki Blanco, and Cakes Da Killa provided new models for queerness in hip-hop, not to mention fodder for think-pieces. Established, well-respected rappers (many of whom had expressed homophobic sentiment on record at some point in the past) like Busta Rhymes, Jay Z, and T.I., spoke up to announce support of Ocean and Barack Obama's endorsement of gay marriage.

Earlier this year Lil' Wayne (frequent user of the that's-what-she-said variant "no homo") voiced his support for gay basketball player Jason Collins. Talib Kweli prophesied the imminent end of homophobia to Mother Jones: "There just needs to be a gay rapper—he doesn't have to be flamboyant, just a rapper who identifies as gay—who's better than everybody."

Times have been changing and we've been watching them change, and it's been exhilarating.

That doesn't mean the transition to tolerance has been entirely smooth, even when driven by seemingly good intentions. Snoop Dogg spoke out in support of gay marriage and admitted to having "gay homies," but when asked the possibility of mainstream gay rappers, he invoked stereotypes and the same kind of boys-will-be-boys attitude toward the status quo that suggests he's just as tolerant of homophobes as he is homos. "It's acceptable in the singing world, but in the rap world I don't know if it will ever be acceptable because rap is so masculine. It's like a football team. You can't be in a locker room full of motherfucking tough-ass dudes, then all of a sudden say, 'Hey, man, I like you.' You know, that's going to be tough."

Wu-Tang Clan's U-God sounded similarly beamed-in from decades ago, way back when gay men only existed to prey on straight men, when he spoke his peace on the subject: "Personally, I don't give a fuck if you're gay. That's your business. That's your sexual preference. But don't come over here and make me gay—you ain't gonna force something on me, see? But if you cool, you talented, and you gay? We can rock, nigga! We can drink, we can smoke, we can laugh. But don't try and bring that shit over here. I like titties. I like titties. I like titties. I like two pair, I like four pair of titties at one time." (We get it, U-God.)

On "the gay rap scene," U-God's colleague Ghostface said, "It's not my cup of tea."

Even Power 105 DJ Charlamagne the God (who so expertly handed Kanye West his ass) tripped over his sentiment in the slightly convoluted attack on homophobia in hip-hop that he issued in the wake of Mister Cee (from rival New York station Hot 97) coming out as someone who enjoys oral sex with men who dress up like women. Said Charlamagne:

Embrace who you are and use your truth, so that no one can use your truth against you. This is exactly what happened in this situation. Mister Cee's truth was used against him because he refuses to live it. I been sayin' since Day 1, nobody cares that Mister Cee is gay. The reason he keeps getting arrested and made the butt of all these jokes is because of his lifestyle choice of picking up male prostitutes. When I say Mister Cee is a serial purchaser of penis, that's not done in jest, it's the truth. When I say Mister Cee should get a boyfriend and an apartment and stop picking up young male trade in the streets, I'm not making jokes, I'm telling him the truth and I find it disturbing that we are part of a culture that has created an environment where a man can't just be who he wants to be without being ridiculed for it.

Charlamagne's language is coarse and seemingly mocking even where he says it isn't ("serial purchaser of penis?"). He also isn't entirely analytical—if he and his fellow hip-hop luminaries are "part of a culture that has created an environment where a man can't just be who he wants to be without being ridiculed for it," then in fact someone would care if Mister Cee were gay (if that's what he is). Charlamagne's on the right side of history here, more or less, but awkwardly, almost reluctantly so—in the broadcast he also referred to Mister Cee as "Sister Cee" and called his predilection for sex workers "disgusting." Ridicule.

But progress is progress. The incident around Cee was a particularly big moment—the Hot 97 interview in which he came clean featured his colleague Ebro Darden telling him things like, "There's nothing wrong with being who you are," and, "You're free, Cee!" Darden was a model of compassion and tolerance and Cee openly struggled to be honest about himself. Jon Caramanica in the New York Times said that as a result of this conversation, in addition to other overt signs of acceptance we've seen in the hip-hop world, "It's no longer tenable for hip-hop to be an island."

We can see a change happening within the music, too. It's not all "Same Love" kumbaya anthems, but increasingly, there is a more nuanced engagement with gayness in hip-hop than ever before.

In August, two hip-hop albums were released in which the only instances of the word "faggot" were descriptions of an antagonist's taunt. As opposed to the usual malice or at least thoughtlessness with which that word has been traditionally spit, here are two instances where using it is explicitly portrayed as a bad thing.

The first happens on the moody and eloquent album from Odd Future member Earl Sweatshirt, Doris. (As a contrast to Doris' single instance of the word, "faggot" appears about 15 times on the most recent album from Earl's cohort Tyler the Creator, who shows up on Doris both as a guest rapper and producer.) Sweatshirt's preceding release, 2010's Earl, contained an interlude titled "Wakeupfaggot."

Even more interesting, and novel, is that the person who says "faggot" on Doris is not Earl but Ocean, the only male Odd Future member to have publicly admitted to same-sex attraction (but don't call him bisexual).

Instead of singing, as he usually does, Ocean raps the following bars on the particularly downtrodden "Sunday":

They thought me soft in high school, thank God I'm jagged
Forgot you don't like it rough, 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?

In this verse—ostensibly a recounting of his physical altercation with Chris Brown—Ocean touches on the tense relationship non-heterosexual males have with their own masculinity—how years of being openly judged for lacking it can manifest in violent or otherwise macho behavior. (The "calling his bluff part" also slyly nods to the fact that Ocean came out not as gay, but something more fluidly sexual and less defined.) The violence Ocean invokes may not be admirable, but his explanation makes it understandable.

This is a scenario to answer those people—like Ocean's teammate Tyler—who say that their use of the word "faggot" doesn't refer to men who sleep with men: Here's what happens when it does.

This is a conversation that hasn't made its way to mainstream hip-hop before now. It's probably not as tidy as the most sensitive listeners would prefer. There's ambiguity there as to whether Ocean's proposed gunplay is a reaction to homophobia (because saying "faggot" is wrong) or an insult (because being "faggot" is wrong). Ocean is typically terse and selective on these identity matters—it's possible that he's still working out this question himself.

The second example of "faggot" shows up on A$AP Ferg's Trap Lord. On the remix of Ferg's "Work," his crewmate A$AP Rocky muses:

You want that pretty Flacko? Ratchets, designer jackets
The same niggas who jack it be the first who claim we faggots

Unlike Ocean, A$AP Rocky is firmlyproblematically, he might say—hetero. But he's an outspoken supporter of gay equality. Being that dude hasn't been easy, and Rocky's behavior this year makes me think he's more on Team Being a Faggot is Wrong than Team Calling Someone a Faggot is Wrong. He squirmed when was made to stand next to a gay man (Jason Collins) at the MTV Video Music Awards. He later issued an apology for the faces he made, emphasizing that he's "not homophobic at all," but he was still smarting over the incident: "I just found it odd that MTV wanted to stand me next to this nigga when they are talking about gay people, that's all." (Note to Rocky: When you're really not homophobic at all, you won't find it odd.)

Roc Nation's J. Cole has been similarly awkward and convoluted in his supposed display of supposed equality support. He opened his second album, Born Sinner (released in June), with the song, "Villuminati," which contains this section:

My verbal AK slay faggots
And I don't mean no disrespect whenever I say "faggot," OK, faggot?
Don't be so sensitive
If you want to get fucked in the ass
That's between you and whoever else's dick it is
Pause, maybe that line was too far
Just a little joke to show how homophobic you are
And who can blame ya?

Because the content here seems to make little sense (here's a little game to expose your homophobia…though I don't blame ya for being that way), Cole repeatedly has found himself explaining these lines in interviews. Earlier this summer, here's how he clarified to the Huffington Post:

There will soon come a day when people in general, and rap artists specifically, are going to have to answer for their past usage of the word "faggot," much like the grandfathers who are ashamed that they used the word "nigger" as kids. At a time when public acceptance of gay rights is soaring (rightfully), hip-hop culture and general are still battling with homophobia (not excluding myself). Rather than run from it I chose to attack it playfully. Those lyrics are meant to make everyone uncomfortable for the sake of this very conversation.

He then reiterated as much to BET.com, adding:

Much more than I think any other culture, I don't want to just compare it to white people, but in terms of jokes that you make — everything's got to be "pause" or "no homo." You cant even play basketball without someone saying, "pause." I'm not innocent of it. I am part of that same culture – but why? That line was supposed to be offensive and confusing, but I was hoping to have more conversations about it.

This is an odd hedging. Cole could, and should, be harder on himself. There's no reason that "day of reckoning" needs to happen in the future, instead of now. But his willingness to engage with the issue in the actual content of the music signals a palpable change.

And then there are those whose non-engagement marks a change. Some of this year's most-discussed releases don't contain any gay slurs from artists who've previously used them: It's nowhere to be found on Kanye West's Yeezus, Killer Mike and El-P's collaborative Run the Jewels album, Joey BADA$$'s Summer Knights mixtape and Jay Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail, which does contain samples from the gay-culture approved camp classic Mommie Dearest on "Jay Z Blue."

And look, if you want hard proof of the decline of anti-gay speech in hip-hop, here it is visually:

Why 2013 Was Hip-Hop’s “Faggot” SpringS

Only "pause" seems to have had an upkick. It's slight—and not necessarily a stand-in for "no homo" at every reference.

I love these examples for, at least, working toward proving Macklemore wrong. Hip-hop doesn't hate gay people. Not all of it, at least. Even when it stumbles in these attempts, even when rappers don't exhibit the full enlightenment that we'd want from them (Too $hort: "Just go with it, it's just a lifestyle, you know, so whatever"), it's still making attempts at engagement, which is more than it was doing even last year and far more than it was doing two years ago.

Still, we're talking about a vast, varied pool of points of view and opinions. There's still plenty of homophobic language. Still. In 2013. There's bound to be some push-back from conservatives, like the irrelevant Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian, who rapped earlier this year that Kanye West is "the pioneer of this queer shit," for his taste in skinny jeans and a skirts.

Here it is on one of the most universally beloved hip-hop release of the year, Chance the Rapper's jubilant Acid Rap mixtape:

"Chance, acid rapper, soccer, hacky sacker / Cocky khaki jacket jacker / Slap-happy faggot slapper" ("Favorite Song")

Here it is on Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire's Kismet:

"Satin drawers like I'm a faggot / Attract these hoes just like a magnet" ("I Was Drunk When I Wrote This")

You can hear Action Bronson say it, practically underneath his breath (perhaps as the phony-pound-throwing homie character he's describing), on his Saab Stories EP:

"Homie hold me down / Homie throw me phony pounds (Faggot!)" ("The Rockers")

And elsewhere on that EP, Raekwon says it openly:

"And I'm gon' keep you rich so chill / Or you can live with them faggots and stay away from real deal abbots" ("Seven Series Triplets")

And then there is, of course, Eminem's verse on "Rap God," which months later, still makes no fucking sense to me:

You fags think it's all a game 'til I walk a flock of flames
Off a plank, and tell me what in the fuck are you thinking?
Little gay looking boy
So gay I can barely say it with a straight face looking boy
You witnessing a massacre
Like you watching a church gathering take place looking boy
Oy vey, that boy's gay, that's all they say looking boy
You get a thumbs up, pat on the back
And a way to go from your label everyday looking boy
Hey, looking boy, what you say looking boy?

Em later explained that he didn't mean "gay" like "homosexual" ("It was more like calling someone a bitch or a punk or asshole"), much like Tyler the Creator told Arsenio Hall that "faggot" is "just another word that has no meaning," which is a stupid thing for him to say since his words mean so much that they keep him fed.

But look, at least in the case of Em, exactly what he's getting at while using all of those epithets is less clear than it was in 2000 when he rapped, "My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge / That'll stab you in the head, whether you're a fag or lez / Or the homosex, hermaph or a trans-a-vest / Pants or dress, hate fags? / The answer's "yes" / Homophobic? Nah, you're just heterophobic." I like that "Rap God" verse for not just illustrating the nonsense of homophobia but for showing the weakening power of Eminem's provocations. He might still be homophobic, but his homphobia has been confused and dulled; he can get away with dancing around it, but he wouldn't dare declare, "Hate fags" in 2013. In his latest video, "Monster," he plays footage from throughout his career. His much hyped duet with Elton John (a symbolic mea culpa to the gay community) is featured, including a shot of the two embracing. This is what he wants to impress upon you. This is how he wants you to think of him thinking of gays.

Screaming "Homophobe!" the second someone utters "faggot" is not good battle-picking strategy. Using an epithet could just be a product of habit, of people holding onto a word that isn't theirs (ostensibly all of these rappers are heterosexual) to hold onto. The person could just be lazy or self-righteous or have a more apathetic or ambivalent outlook. The person could think of him or herself as so down with the community that he or she feels the same kind of ownership over this word that gays do (it's rare but it happens, see Azealia Banks). You need to care about something to hate it, and a lot of these quotes could be just examples of flagrant carelessness (Chance the Rapper's is the only one that seems like a specific argument for anti-gay violence). This is not to excuse or forgive, just understand and not jump to knee-jerk outrage. It would be a disservice to acknowledge how things are getting better without paying attention to where they're staying the same.

If you expose yourself to the points of view of others, you're going to hear shit that chafes you, especially within a genre that persists with traditional ideas about masculinity (see the frequently progressive Kanye West telling his mother-in-law Kris Jenner not to call him soft "as a rapper"). I could write something as long as this piece about misogyny and the word "bitch." Or abelism and the word "retard." For over a decade there's been a movement to eradicate the word "nigga" from hip-hop. Oprah and Jay Z publicly argue about it. I don't know where the policing and calling out stop. Are we working toward an ideal where nothing off-color or politically incorrect can be said? Maybe the ideal is that more thought be put into the words we use, which is not an unreasonable expectation for verbal art.

And if that's the case, we are noticeably approaching that ideal. We can't ignore that the conversation about homophobia and homosexuality in hip-hop is becoming richer, even if the discourse remains fixated on what real men do and don't do, as the critic Al Shipley has suggested. For now, discourse is flourishing. This is the "faggot" spring, blooming hope and better reasoned thought and more even-handed individuals. Enjoy it now. Someday soon we'll be wondering why anyone said that rancid shit in the first place.

[Image by Jim Cooke, source photo via Shutterstock]