Four and a half years ago, I wrote about homophobia in hip-hop culture. iLoveMakonnen had just come out, and Young M.A was flourishing in New York. Not everyone handled these developments very well, but it felt like progress was being made, however painstaking and slight, toward greater respect for LGBTQ hip-hop fans and artists. What I’ve seen in the intervening years has made me by turns more hopeful about queer representation in hip-hop and less sure I will live to see a time when the community doesn’t excuse and ignore hateful, homophobic, transphobic rhetoric. We’re living in a preposterous time. If we wanted, we could restructure the power dynamics that bind us. But as it dawns on some of us that adding more seats to the proverbial table requires sacrificing a bit of your own elbow room, relations have gotten ugly. We’ve seen antiracism pawned off as “woke supremacy.” We’ve seen elderly men weaponize political power to legislate how women are allowed to care for and live in their bodies. We’ve seen young men fight tooth and nail to defend their ability to transgress and offend at will, clinging desperately to the 20th-century social mores that centered their needs and wants. The last four years have shown us that people don’t always band together when straits get dire. It’s not always like movies, where an existential threat to humanity forces us to settle our differences and soldier forward together, and some maudlin pop song soundtracks our unified efforts to save the future. Sometimes, we simply fuck off and do for self.
In the week since Lil Nas X released the provocative, pointedly homoerotic “Industry Baby” music video and North Carolina rapper DaBaby regaled a Miami Rolling Loud audience with a vile quip about gay sex and AIDS between songs, conversations about homosexuality and homophobia in hip-hop that have been percolating all year have come to a head. It’s been a painful handful of days, full of terrible conversations, lies, prejudices, and false equivalences. It’s been illuminating watching masks come off and hearing what people think these two stories say about the state of hip-hop. T.I. weighed in on Instagram, complimenting Lil Nas’s courage but also positing the “Industry Baby” video and the Rolling Loud remarks as acceptable opposites, respectable differences of opinion: “If you have a Lil Nas X video, and him living his truth, you gone damn sure have people like DaBaby who are going to speak they truth.”
The Atlanta star facing multiple accusations of sexual assault also claimed that the LGBTQ community is “bullying” DaBaby and complained about “high standards of morality,” framing rap shows as safe spaces where a terrible remark shouldn’t be villainized, a sentiment echoed in a tweet by Toronto’s Tory Lanez (whose appearance at the Rolling Loud set in question was met by stern criticism — since last year Megan Thee Stallion accused him of shooting her — and is surely the reason DaBaby is under intense fire, since gross, public homophobia is more often met with a yawn): “When did rap get so politically correct that u can’t speak your mind and have an opinion?” Veteran Louisiana rapper Boosie Badazz took things a step further, using a gay slur in an Instagram Live stream, where he also threatened to “drag his ass offstage and beat his ass” if he saw Lil Nas recreate the (mock) nude dance sequence in “Industry Baby” at an awards show. “Facts,” retired NBA shooting guard Nick Young added in the comments.
There’s almost too much mess to keep up with. After posting a flimsy, passive-aggressive pair of apology messages that also hit at Dua Lipa, whose “Levitating” remix with DaBaby remains perched at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and who has said she was “surprised and horrified” by the Rolling Loud incident, DaBaby released a video for a song called “Giving What It’s Supposed to Give,” borrowing Black queer slang for the title and closing with a message in rainbow colors: “Don’t fight hate with hate. My apologies for being me the same way you want the freedom to be you.” (More recently, Baby responded to criticism from Questlove by saying he has no clue who that is, a bold take since you can go to his YouTube page and watch a clip of him performing a medley of cuts from his Kirk album on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, backed, of course, by the Roots with Quest on drums.)
The message in the many twists this dialogue has taken is that a lot of people who claim credit for being open-minded also maintain that they deserve the right to object to some of the avenues of expression favored by the queer people they purport to have no problem with. It’s acceptance with a caveat: You can be gay, bi, trans, pan, nonbinary, what have you, so long as you don’t make too much noise about it. If you coddle hip-hop’s cisgendered, heteronormative core, you can cook. If you show too much queer attraction and self-expression, people get uncomfortable. The illusion of respect for our differences erodes. Acceptance is conditional upon giving the masses something to relate to. Young M.A is appreciated because straight male hip-hop fans see themselves in her verses about romancing women; there’s enough ambiguity and fluidity in Tyler, the Creator’s music to give a listener plausible deniability about whether the song they’re listening to is about falling in love with a man or not.
“Industry Baby” feels like a deliberate attempt to bear out this reality. The video balances queer fantasy and gay panic. It’s a bone for hip-hop heads attracted to the sweaty musculature of rap videos that bear a closer resemblance to Pumping Iron than “God’s Plan.” Lil Nas cannot be unaware of how much the idea of gay sex in prison terrifies some people. It is enough to be the biggest selling point for keeping kids out of trouble in any Scared Straight episode. (It’s no surprise that scene had a visceral effect on Boosie, who once posted a video about accidentally walking in on two men engaging in intercourse during his stint in Louisiana State Penitentiary, a story that was jarringly graphic in its specificity.) Straight guest rapper Jack Harlow is symbolically electrocuted after a lap dance from a woman, which Lil Nas says is the video’s only real bit of quasi-nudity. Cultural commentator and author Dr. Boyce Watkins complained about “Industry Baby” on Sunday: “He’s marketing the sexual irresponsibility that’s causing young men to die from AIDS. Being gay is one thing, but being a superspreader is another. There’s nothing healthy or helpful about that video. Especially for children.”
Either Lil Nas X is coolly getting fake allies to reveal the hypocrisy of their stances on the LGBTQ community one provocative dance routine at a time, and the Montero album videos are sly, reflexive conversation pieces tailored specifically to the dialogue that happens afterward, or the kid is just carrying on trying to be himself, and hip-hop is still a place so culturally conservative and heteronormative that the sight of someone ignoring the intricate network of etiquette that straight men in the community hold themselves to makes people angry. I can’t read Lil Nas’s mind, but I’ve been reminded enough times by random dudes on the internet that I am “a grown-ass man” whenever I post something “sus” to know that there is a quadrant of straight men who take it personally when you don’t behave in a manner consistent with how they were socialized, how they feel men are meant to carry themselves.
Two common side effects of being raised to think that the world caters to your interests are a narcissistic inability to conceive of people existing comfortably and happily outside your preferred framework and a desire to police the boundaries of what is acceptable. More and more of us are taking up the language of the privileged but aggrieved, of people who see the slightest request for consideration as an attack on their personal freedoms. It’s the story of “Karens” who freaked out in public all last year and are continuing the tradition now. It’s the story of reactionary anti-maskers. It’s the story of comics bristling at the blowback for dodgy jokes made in their standup sets. It’s the story of guys who believe in a clandestine “gay agenda” to emasculate men and enact population control. It’s the story of political pundits grousing about Dr. Seuss and Paw Patrol. It’s the story of hip-hop finally finding its first out gay superstar and having such a hard time dealing with it that people must now pretend to care about offensive bars and risqué videos and rap that’s appropriate for children’s eyes. (If you’re overusing the “What about the kids?” card, know that your company in that line of reasoning is the Q squad.)
It’s the story of everything. The connectivity the internet allows made it so people who grew up siloed in their like-minded communities now have to hear from the people on the margins, and the people on the margins got smart and organized and are starting to creep into positions of power and greater visibility, and the blowback for this has been unsubtle and retrograde and base and disgusting. A lot of people want things to stay the way they used to be and seem unable to grasp that the way things were required marginalized people to suck it up and live as second-class citizens in a country clearly built for someone else. There’s no going back to sucking it up. Here’s the thing: This ends one of two ways. We all die hating each other, or we start acting like other people exist and are deserving of the same respect and consideration that we demand for ourselves. What’s your play? The clock’s ticking.