I was a weird kid growing up — or so I was told. You never feel weird as a child. I thought everyone obsessed over Prince’s, Janet Jackson’s, and Bobby Brown’s outfits and dance moves. I thought all the other kids knew every breath and beat of Lisa Stansfield’s “Been Around the World.” They … did not. My first sense of being “different” arrived at age 6, when I showed up to the first year of grade school months younger than everyone else, quiet and bookish, and picked up slang and mispronunciations I had no practical use for, to keep from coming off as a smart-ass. The feeling never left. The urge to be more like the other boys would drive me through a string of feigned interests — I still keep tabs on the exploits of players for sports teams I don’t care about in the slightest — that never quite seemed to fit. I got by on trash talk and fistfights, as one did in those cagey Dinkins and Giuliani years, and the notion that soldiering through the end of high school with my own tribe of weirdos would get me to a point where it didn’t matter what the masculine norms were, or at least keep toxic ideas about manhood out of my line of vision.
Every few months I’m reminded that my old dream of normalcy, or at least persecution-free eccentricity, is a lie. Atlanta rapper iLoveMakonnen came out as gay late last month in a series of tweets that fought back years of speculation about his sexual orientation in the press and elsewhere. It’s a request most rappers don’t field in a lifetime, this urge to have him qualify his sexual identity beyond what he presents to listeners on record, and a curiosity borne out of a set of standards for manhood that are unique and, I maintain, injurious to rap. It upsets rap’s streetwise hypermasculinity to have a cherubic, eccentric drug dealer turned cosmetologist turned rapper crooning and rhyming his way through songs about drugs and women. “A lot of times, we hear a dude going to cosmetology school, we think … he’s gay,” Hot 97 morning-show host Ebro Darden ineloquently remarked in an early interview. The overwhelming fan response to Makonnen’s revelation has struck the same balance of acceptance and brutish prejudgment.
Rolling Stone recently ran a lengthy profile on the Migos, Atlanta rap peers of Makonnen’s and guests on his triumphant “Whip It (Remix),” following the trio through a hectic January studio day. At one point, the group praises the diversity of the Atlanta rap scene, and the interviewer brings up Makonnen coming out, news the Migos had not been privy to beforehand. Quavo suggests that it’s a knock against his credibility to come out as gay after blowing up behind trap anthems like “I Don’t Sell Molly No More” and “Look at Wrist,” echoing a cruder wing of the response to Makonnen’s announcement that posited him as a liar and a fake, since he simply can’t have been a gay criminal. This line of thinking is unfortunate and unsurprising, but above all, goofy, since Makonnen’s record was once a point of terrible controversy in his home state. The rapper-singer beat a murder rap in 2008, after a tussle with a loaded gun in a younger friend’s car accidentally left the young man shot dead. Clayton News Daily, a community paper in Jonesboro, Georgia, covered the case, and a few stories made it online. This lines up with early interviews where Makonnen talks about first dabbling in rap during a seven-year house arrest. This stuff shouldn’t be up for review. It’s public record.
To be a rap fan that identifies as anything other than male and straight is to wade against a current pushing back at your very being, to be constantly driven by your heart to decisions your mind ought to reject. Artists accept your patronage, but twist the knife by peppering music with insults and slurs, and interviews with attempts to create distance from hate and discrimination even as they flirt with the very linguistics of the stuff. When J. Cole uses “faggot” three times in a song, he says he did it to “spawn better conversations” about homophobia in hip-hop. Travis Scott called a hometown audience “a bunch of queers” for being too quiet at a show and explained that he was just “a li’l turnt up.” The Migos quickly issued a sizable note of apology after the Rolling Stone flap — “We are all fans of Makonnens music and we wish he didn’t feel like he ever had to hide himself” — leaving the dart about Makonnen’s sexuality undermining his credibility, the very remark they’re in hot water for, unchallenged.
Rap masculinity is equal parts machismo and tower defense; it has to be. The culture of hip-hop is a haven for castaways. It rose up from burned-out, bombed-out 1970s New York City, where young Black and Latin men denied opportunities and even simple infrastructure rerouted their pride through ostentatious dress and braggadocio. If your manhood was all you had, the worst thing you could paint anyone else out to be was something less than virile, less than strong. (This mindset is not specific to rap; it also rears its head in a dozen guitar-based music scenes, although hip-hop shoulders more of the burden for being more pridefully brutal about it on record.) Old-fashioned homophobia provided easy targets even our most righteous minds had a go at: A Tribe Called Quest’s vile anti-gay track “Georgie Porgie” narrowly missed inclusion on the classic Low End Theory. Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet includes “Meet the G That Killed Me,” which, in under a minute, posits gay sex as a slippery slope toward intravenous drug use and AIDS.
An industry witch hunt for closeted mainstream rappers would last as long as the mid-2000s, but the tone and texture of homophobia in the business began to change as record sales dwindled, and with the rise of lucrative endorsement deals that laid A-list rappers’ millions at the whim of corporations sensitive to the slightest hint of consumer backlash. Suddenly, 50 Cent, who famously told Playboy, “I don’t like gay people around me, because I’m not comfortable with what their thoughts are,” is a supporter of same-sex marriage; and T.I., who snarked, “If you can take a dick, you can take a joke,” after Tracy Morgan was blasted for a stand-up bit about stabbing a fictional gay son to death in 2011, changed his tune, too. (The only rapper I remember standing up for his gay fans before everyone got suspiciously “woke” was Kanye West. True to form, 50 snapped back with gay jokes about him too.)
The party line among the present generation of rap fans is that we’re a more accepting community now, but I think we’ve been lulled into the illusion of progress we haven’t quite made yet. It’s true that Frank Ocean was welcomed with open arms when he came out, and Brooklyn rapper Young M.A.’s summer 2016 smash “OOOUUU” soared with boasts about sex with other women, but there’s still room for growth. The same community buzzed for years with speculation about Atlanta rapper Young Thug’s sexuality — even though he’s a father of six with a fiancée who has been the subject of more than a few songs — because of his peculiar slang and flamboyant fashion sense. (Thug continues to be lauded as a keen mind on gender fluidity, but I swear he’s just having a puckish good time with the press.) Just a week ago, Memphis rapper Young Dolph sent hometown heavyweight Yo Gotti a diss track called “Play Wit Yo Bitch,” whose biggest takeaway seemed to be that Gotti can’t be gangster because he argued with a lesbian once. This week, a picture of a young man performing fellatio blew up on Twitter among rap fans falsely purporting it to be Chicago rapper G Herbo. Rap blogs ran both items as news, giving voice to hate speech best left to wilt unnoticed, while the question of whether the community is still homophobic in the 2010s surfaces year after year, as if the need to keep asking it doesn’t prove a lack of resolution.
The answer is that rap is better about homophobia than ever before, but still a long way from great. Many fans have welcomed Makonnen coming out … while refusing to believe a gay cosmetologist could sell drugs. They swear they knew he was gay all along because they buy into the idea that certain styles of dress, speech, and movement; certain interests; and certain professions differentiate straight men from gay and bisexual ones. They don’t see how this puts masculinity in a box. They don’t catch the irony of weaponizing a culture created by young people who America left behind against another group still struggling for acceptance. They don’t get that this is bigotry. They are protecting something by attacking something else. They are clinging to flawed hegemony because the alternative — twisting out in the wilds all alone — is a fate far more frightening than dancing with the devil they know.
As off base as they were in their interview, the Migos were right about a few things: The world is fucked up. Makonnen should never have had to hide who he is. The same thoughts have been rattling around my own head ever since I finally caught Barry Jenkins’s brilliant Moonlight last month. The story of Chiron, a quirky but perceptive little boy who struggles to come to grips with his sexuality as his schoolmates give him hell for it, felt like rolling back footage of my own awkward childhood. Eventually, we meet him as a surly adult with a short temper and gold grills, and he explains the transformation to a childhood friend with a simple, “I built myself hard.” It wrecked my week. I did this too! I punched my way out of whatever scraps I didn’t joke my way out of, lashing out through elementary and middle school and landing a short career as a self-hating high-school bully. Moonlight made me realize how much I’d let other people’s opinions alter the very fabric of who I am, and how little was won for the effort. After the movie, I didn’t know what else to do but hang out in the dark with my old Janet and Bobby favorites, mourning the weird, sweet kid I couldn’t allow myself to be. I’m trying to get back to that. It’s work.