By Sabrina Shaffer
It’s no secret: hip-hop has not been traditionally known as an LGBTQ-affirming space. While artists like Lil Nas X, Lizzo, and Young M.A. have increased queer artists’ visibility in the rap industry, homophobia is still widespread in the genre. If we want hip-hop to be truly inclusive, we must examine its history of “queerphobia” and think critically about how to effectively disrupt gender-stereotypes.
The genre’s inception was meant to be a place of free expression for marginalized communities, specifically Black americans. As hip-hop grew in popularity in the 1990s, artists like Schoolly D, Ice-T, and N.W.A pioneered a subgenre known as “gangsta rap”. Focused on widespread violence and drug use in American ghettos, it allowed artists to speak candidly about their personal experiences and the greater social plight of Black folk. At the same time, these lyrics began to regularly include misogynistic and homophobic language that would eventually reach mainstream audiences. Take, for example, Public Enemy’s 1990 album Fear of a Black Planet, which included “Meet the G That Killed Me”, a track that describes gay sex as a slippery slope to the HIV/AIDS crisis. Just one year later, A Tribe Called Quest would release “Georgie Porgie,” a song so full of anti-gay slurs that their record label would not allow it to be included on their album Low End Theory.
Rap was by no means alone in its anti-LGBTQ sentiment. As a means for social change, however, mainstream rap artists failed to advocate for queer folk in the 90s. And even as the visibility and popularity of queer rappers has increased throughout the 2000s, homophobia continued to taint the mainstream rap industry.
And even as the visibility and popularity of queer rappers has increased throughout the 2000s, homophobia continued to taint the mainstream rap industry.
Anti-LGBTQ language can take many forms. In rap music, it ranges from repetitive use of the f-slur to the fetishization of lesbian women. On one hand, Eminem has used the f-slur in his songs since the early 2000s and even still publicly defends his decisions to include anti-gay slurs. Meanwhile, Drake’s latest album Certified Lover Boy includes “Girls Want Girls”, which fetishizes sapphic sex for male commodification.
The hip hop community and its listeners have largely failed to hold these artists accountable for their language. With such widespread acceptance of casual homophobia, what will future of queerness in rap be?
This summer, fans of Philadelphia-born rapper Lil Uzi Vert noticed that the artist had changed their pronouns from “he/him” to “they/them” on social media platforms, sparking conversation and inquiry. Many internet users, even those most supportive of queer rights, were hesitant to applaud their decision, given the lack of an official statement and Uzi’s history of bigotry.
Since their first single in 2016, Uzi’s lyrics have been fraught with misogynistic and occasionally transphobic lyrics. In 2019, they released “That’s a Rack” in preparation for their album Eternal Atake. The song reads, “I was checkin' my DMs, found out she was a man (No, no, no) / I can't DM, never, ever again (No) / Lucien on my vision, that's the only thing that's tr*n (Yeah).” In 2021, Uzi’s ex-girlfriend Brittney Byrd came forward and charged them with two counts of assault, to which they pleaded no-contest. Evidently, Uzi does not have a strong record of supporting gender-equity and the LGBTQ community. But what is the best way for fans to respond to their apparent embracing of gender-neutral pronouns?
We should absolutely respect Lil Uzi’s new pronouns and use them whenever referring to the artist. But we must also think critically about how this change fits into their personal history and the history of homophobia in hip-hop more broadly.
As a native Philadelphian, I spent my high school years listening to and even fangirling over Lil Uzi Vert. My friends and I loved to blast classics like “Ps and Qs,” “Erase Your Social,” and “Money Longer.” We were willing to ignore what Uzi was singing for how they were singing it, and many of their fans continue to do the same.
Today, we are so bombarded with a limitless and never-ending media scene that we have lost our discernment skills. We are quick to accept knowledge and unlikely to verify its factuality. Therein lies the danger of accepting things at face value: we hear misogynistic and homophobic lyrics, subconsciously absorb them, and are unaware of what has taken place. This habit must change if we want to hold artists accountable for their actions.
Rap continues to be a positive mode for self-expression, especially among African Americans. As listeners, we must hold artists and celebrities accountable for their lyrics and not view performative activism as sufficient. If Lil Uzi Vert wants to show alignment with the LGBTQ community, they should accompany their pronoun change with a statement addressing past wrongdoing or make a meaningful contribution to the cause. Changing their pronouns does not give Uzi a pass to continue to spew hateful language towards women, transgender, and non-gender conforming people. Regardless, we should see the whole picture and continue to advocate for queer spaces in the rap industry–if hip-hop is a tool for self-expression and activism, its benefits should extend to all members of the community, especially those with intersectional identities.
Sabrina is the Indy’s Creative Director. She is a sophomore in the SFS majoring in Regional and Comparative Studies with a concentration on Asia.