Do you know how I know you’re gay? You just read this essay in Slate about the rap meme “no homo.” The phrase, in case you’re not familiar with it, is commonly appended to lines in rap that could possibly be interpreted as, well, gay. The essay — which gives a nice primer on the phenomenon, including how it originated as a way for rappers to distance themselves from closeted “down-low brothers” — argues that there’s a possibility that it’s “helping to make hip-hop a gayer place.” Once upon a time, the story goes, rappers would go around telling other men to, say, “suck a bowl of dicks,” and no one found this anything other than just plain macho. (Which, given the nature of rape and sexual assault — it is violence, pure and simple, not sex — really kind of makes sense.) But today, “no homo” “tweaks this dynamic because it allows, implicitly, that rap is a place where gayness can, in fact, be expressed by the guy on the mike, not just scorned in others.”
The idea that this phrase represents the glimmers of a new awakening in hip-hop certainly makes sense when you consider that for gays to be considered equals, they must first, in some primordial stage of social understanding, be understood to even exist. (By the way, full disclosure: The essay’s writer, Jonah Weiner, is a colleague and friend of ours. Obligatory “no homo.”) But to call this progress might also be premature. After all, getting playful with gay-sounding phrases isn’t the same as winking at gays. Wordplay is what rappers do, and, in this case, they’re still doing it to explicitly call out what is “gay.” In a sense, “no homo” is just a more evolved way of calling someone a “faggot” — and evolved partly in that it’s more clever. (It also, let it be said, just sounds good. Weiner highlights a line of Lil Wayne’s where, incidentally, he further extends the rhyme: “no homo, though.”)
Cam’ron, the originator of the phrase, might be the most macho rapper going, and was once, arguably, the most creative. His use of the phrase — and his onetime obsession with the color pink — were both innovations and ways of announcing that he’s such a man, he can get away with dressing “gay” or saying “gay” things. A world where people talk about Brüno, Judd Apatow movies, and homoerotic rap wordplay is indeed a world where gayness comes to the fore. However loose it may be, “no homo” is still meant as a lid on such eruptions.