I love hip hop. I use the word “love” here in its full meaning. I am singing in the rain in love with the people, the culture, the expression, the complexity, the genius and the humanity of hip hop. In any loving relationship, we can be challenged, inspired, and at times thoroughly disappointed, but that bond makes us embrace our beloved even while we wrestle with their shortcomings. The wrestling match has become more intense as I grow, at once basking in the glow of oppressed people’s genius while cringing to hear hurtful slogans of oppression like fa***t be driven deeper into the collective consciousness. To complicate matters even more, I haven’t always been on the right side of that battle.
In fact, on my debut album, Shadows On The Sun, I displayed a few cringe-worthy slur moments of my own. I tossed it around with the reckless abandon of a young man lacking the empathetic sensitivity that only manifests through life-altering interactions and experiences. By my 2009 album, Us, I had evolved into manhood and dwelled on the cusp of self-actualization. This shift in perception allowed me to freely address through lyrics the hypocrisy of a supposedly free society that forces some men and women to keep certain dimensions of their lives imprisoned — including their sexuality.
One fateful night in Toronto, Canada, it also forced me to address my own hypocrisy and the power of words in a way that I never had before.
My crew and I had completed our performance and were settling into a diner at 2:00 a.m. for a bite to eat. The server has barely poured the water before the promoter starts interrogating me about one of the songs in tonight’s set, 2009’s “Tight Rope.” While the song tells the complex stories of three teenagers who are forced to live a double life to shield themselves from society’s scorn and judgment, he only takes issue with one: The tale of a kid who’s gay and growing up in a family who’ve shown him that they would never embrace him.
This brother is disturbed that I’m taking up for gay folks in this way. He believes that “pretending like it’s okay to be gay” is an affront to decent humanity. I informed him that it was above my pay grade to make value judgments on something as personal as sexuality. I believe in my soul that people are precious and that everyone, based on their membership in the human family, qualifies for a certain level of basic dignity and respect.
Again, not realizing the power of words and how they travel and linger in the atmosphere long after we’ve vacated a space, I flew back to Minneapolis. I signed online and realized that I was beaten home by a message from a lesbian sister who was eating at the diner while we were there. She recognized me when I walked in but wasn’t fazed because she hadn’t listened to hip hop in years. She said she respected the talent it takes but all the homophobic stuff she’d heard made her tune out. She gave me props for my courage to stand up for an unpopular opinion in my culture as a hip hop artist and decided to show her solidarity by ordering all five of my albums.
Dammit! That’s when it hit me.
My use of the f-word more than a decade ago in the song “Dorian” off Shadows On The Sun continued to echo in a space in which I no longer dwelled. That word and that mind-set would continue to be perpetuated through me, a man who had grown to understand more, but whose actions had left an indelible print that could not be erased.
I wrote her back explaining that when those albums arrive at her doorstep, she was going to hear a poor, angry dude fighting his way through life and spitting venom along the way, including that terrible F word. My world was pretty small and bleak when I wrote that album. Since then I’ve been fortunate enough to tour the world, read James Baldwin and develop deep friendships with musicians whom I love and respect and who are openly gay.
In short, the world gave me another chance. But those words are there forever.
Similarly to Tyler the Creator, the mastermind behind Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill ‘Em All, I wasn’t talking directly about gay people — at least I didn’t think I was. I was referring to weak rappers, or the neighbor I ended up scrapping with when I tried to talk to him about putting hands on his girlfriend. What I was too ignorant, and probably too careless, to understand was that using that word was co-signing the narrative that being gay means a person is weak and doesn’t deserve respect.
That’s what insecure young dudes do when we don’t feel complete as men. We place so-called traditional manhood on a pedestal and look down on any bi***es and fag**ts that dare to claim equal access to respect.
When Frank Ocean’s eloquent letter to the world about his nuanced sexuality came out, I was really intrigued by the fact that Tyler was first in line to celebrate the singer. Tweeting such effusive support as “It’s about time,” “My big brother just did that” and “So proud of you,” he still managed to juxtapose that seeming display of affection with the homophobic lyrics he’s known for.
The Odd Future collective and Tyler in particular have become the most outspoken artisans of the F word that hip hop has seen in recent memory. This group of wild, creative young black kids from LA has been condemned as the worst example of their generation’s cultural decay. Now we have a question to ask ourselves. What does it mean that someone who’s so publicly insistent on dropping F bombs is proud as hell of his “big brother” for sharing his sexuality with the world?
According to GLAAD, Tyler and Company unapologetically drop the word “fa**ot and it’s variants a total of 213 times on the album Goblin. When addressing the criticism in an interview with NME, Tyler absolves himself of any responsibility by claiming that he’s not aiming the word at gay people in particular, but just using it as a synonym of weakness and stupidity.
“I’m not homophobic. I just think ‘f****t’ hits and hurts people. It hits. And ‘gay’ just means you’re stupid. I don’t know, we don’t think about it, we’re just kids. We don’t think about that s–t. But I don’t hate gay people. I don’t want anyone to think I’m homophobic.”
Unfortunately, Tyler’s philosophy is not rare. I have rarely had a discussion on these terms where someone didn’t insist that words only have the power we give them. People act — or for that matter, don’t act — based on the ideas and priorities by which they live. Words are the X Box controllers of ideas and the F word, much like its elder cousin, the N word, continue to be bigot shorthand for “these people aren’t entirely human and I can target, degrade and even kill them without consequence.” These hot button terms aren’t “just words” any more than a burning Qur’an is “just a book” or a burning flag is “just cloth.”
Racism and homophobia are social diseases. When only symptoms of these contagious diseases are treated, they spring up in other less obvious incarnations. No matter what we tell ourselves, we have not treated these ailments, we’ve merely mutated our racism and homophobia. We’ve trained ourselves not to use easily recognizable hate speech. Our racism has traded in the N word for coded language like “welfare queens” and our anti-gay crusaders reserve the F word for private conversation, shifting their public rhetoric to “family values.”
Being targeted as a group creates a shared experience where for some people, the hate speech of the attacker doubles as a bonding tool for the attacked. Some people see the insult of such a hypocritical society as a compliment, a badge of honor. Teenagers nowadays may have seldom witnessed N or F bombs dropped in their original hate speech context. Chances are they’ve have heard them used ad nausem as ironic, comedic or even endearing. This is especially true of people who don’t have much personal experience with the black or LGBT communities.
These kids’ entertainment devices, their lives, are full of black pop-culture heroes using stylized remixes of the N word and gay folks using terms like “queer.” What hardly ever seems to make it to their iPhone is any meaningful depiction of where these terms come from or the intense debate in those communities about whether to reclaim tools of hatred or let them die a quiet death.
What seems undebatable to me is that as people who have never been on the life and death end of those terms, we don’t get to decide when they’re “okay” for us to use.
Tyler and Frank’s situation, as does my own, highlights how complicated identity issues really are. Often times fighting for justice isn’t the binary battle of prophets and bigots that our minds conveniently construct. People are more nuanced than that and our work to keep track of our collective humanity has to become equally nuanced.
Tyler, if you love your homie, you’ve got some serious work to do on understanding the power of words and the way they affect people. But we as a society, particularly those of us who care about human dignity, we’ve got some serious work to do in embracing and nurturing young people even when they show evidence of the blind spots our society has cursed them with.
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