Riot Boi(z): The rappers challenging hip-hop’s heteronormativity
Mykki Blanco, Le1f and Zebra Katz: a look at rappers taking on homophobia in hip hop
As a genre that’s largely dominated by heterosexual males, hip-hop has had an unfortunate relationship with homophobia since its early days. From Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s ‘The Message’ to A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Georgie Porgie’, which features the lines: ‘You fucking faggot / Couldn’t wait for gay parade so you drag it’, attitudes of intolerance have long been ingrained in the mind-set and lyrics of the movement. But like the many female rappers who have persisted with their active defiance of the misogyny of rap, there are a growing number of gay rappers who are challenging the homophobia of the genre in an attempt to reconstruct the heterosexual male identity associated with it.
Mykki Blanco for example, who identifies as trans, utilises her innovative style and avant-garde performances to break conventions and challenge notions of hyper-masculinity. As she raps in ‘Wavvy’: ‘What the fuck I gotta prove to a room full of dudes / who ain’t listening to my words cause they staring at my shoes?’ Likewise, in ‘&Gomorrah’, Le1f directly attacks the homophobic beliefs of his peers by making such beliefs visible: ‘I see them side eyes drifting at me / Like the air I breathe spreads HIV.’ Zebra Katz on the other hand has consistently rejected the ‘gay rapper’ label, due to the way in which the term can pigeonhole artists who have much to say beyond their sexual orientation. This opinion is held by many including Le1f, whose persistent confrontation of complex socio-political matters allows him to succeed in creating a space where the discussion of sexuality can exist alongside discussions of race and violence.
With his recently released debut album Riot Boi, Le1f broaches topics such as homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and Black Lives Matter all while making use of a huge array of styles and sounds courtesy of collaborations with the likes of Evian Christ and SOPHIE. The skilful experimentation gives strength to his lyrics, allowing him to tell a story from a perspective that has previously been denied a voice in hip-hop.
Though the rising number of LGBT voices within the genre are certainly making a difference, homophobia continues to exist in certain areas. Michael Eric Dyson in his book Know what I Mean?: Reflections on Hip-hop comments that one of the greatest male-to-male insults in hip-hop is the questioning of masculinity through the use of derogatory terms reserved for women or gay men such as ‘bitch’, ‘ho’ or ‘fag’. He notes that these insults ‘place a male lower on the totem pole of masculine identity by classifying him with the already degraded female or gay male.’ For many rappers, homosexuality undermines the accepted modes of hyper-masculinity in hip-hop and so derogatory terms, when used to criticise homosexual activity, also act as a source of authentication for masculinity. For this reason, gay rappers often face the same level of exclusion in hip-hop as that of their female counterparts.
Though hip-hop’s focus on heterosexuality often dictates a hostility towards those who don’t conform to the heterosexual label, rappers like Mykki Blanco, Zebra Katz and Le1f are lyrically confronting the hyper-masculinity and homophobia implicit in the movement, proving that the words ‘gay’ and ‘rap’ can no longer be treated as the oxymoron they once were. The future of hip-hop ultimately depends not only on the shedding of its negative heteronormativity, but also on the unconditional acceptance of both women and members of the LGBT community.