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The Decline of Homophobic Hip-Hop

As time moves on, as does the music industry. The idea that the 2001 Grammy performance of then-contentious lyricist Eminem alongside openly-gay music legend Elton John was once considered controversial almost seems archaic.  In hip-hop, a culture entrenched with over-sexualized messages written to reinforce the male-ego, there was a time when being so much as associated with the homosexual community was considered career suicide.  Now it seems time has helped guide rap music and the homosexual community into a relationship of mutual respect, connectivity and acceptance-at least at a quick glance.

“Media representations on gender are improving, but there’s more work to be done. Hip-hop artists undeniably influence popular culture on a global scale,” says Marcus Brock, media field strategist for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation(GLAAD). “Hip-hop artists have an invaluable position to change the discourse on LGBT equality.”

With hip-hop titans like Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, and Kanye West openly verbalizing their support of gay marriage, there has been a noticeable undercurrent rising in urban music: an outspoken allegiance to the LGBT community, which intensified with singer-songwriter Frank Ocean coming out on his blog earlier this year. Ocean, a member of the hip-hop collective Odd Future, openly discusses his bisexuality on his critically-acclaimed album “Channel Orange.” Since then, Ocean’s career has seen a meteoric uptick that leads some people attributing it more to his sexual orientation than his musical talent.

“When I was growing up, you could never do that and announce that,”  West Coast rap icon Snoop Lion/ Snoop Dogg said in an interview of Ocean’s coming out. “There would be so much scrutiny and hate and negativity, and no one would step (forward) to support you because that’s what we were brainwashed and trained to know.”

For artists today, things have changed. For every Nicki Minaj or Azealia Banks who freely talk about bisexuality, there is a Tyler, The Creator (also a member of Odd Future) or Chief Keef, who make a name for themselves with the help of brash, homophobic rap lyrics.

“There is a localized conversation with new, aspiring artists who still believe that to get a record deal and to have a popular following, you have to present yourself as this hyper-masculine figure that denigrates other people,” says Dr. Cathy J. Cohen, who teaches on race, culture and political science at the University of Chicago. “I think it’s only when people get to a certain level of having a certain power in the industry do they feel the freedom to move away from this. There is some movement, clearly, among a wider hip-hop audience.”

Professor Cohen is the author and creator of The Black Youth Project (BYP), an online community resource designed to empower today’s black youth while giving them a platform to express themselves. According to BYP, 58 percent of young African Americans say they listen to hip-hop music everyday, highlighting rap music’s influence on young listeners daily lives. Cohen asserts,”The glass is sort of half empty and half full.”

So in light of present events, is the urban music landscape ready for an openly gay, mainstream rap artist?

“I think so,” says New Jersey entrepreneur Christina Coaker. Coaker herself came out when she was working at Island Def Jam over a decade ago, which she described as a challenging experience. Yet she remains confident that times have indeed changed since then. “We have a Black President. We have gay marriage. It is a very different world. That was 15 years ago; (back then) no one was out.” Nicki Minaj has been quoted saying she believes she will see an openly gay male rap superstar.

For music artists making a name for themselves, that may be easier said then done when faced with having to choose between their sexuality and their craft. “There are some people that don’t want to work with me because they don’t want to look a certain way, and then there are those who are open. There are still certain lines people don’t want to cross,” says New-York-bred musician Roman, who has showcased his talent for television shows like “The Voice” and “American Idol.”  “At the end of the day, it’s all about what makes money. Once an artist comes out, then the image (of the artist) changes.”

Seasoned R&B crooner Rahsaan Patterson, who has opened up about his challenges of being a gay male in urban music, also applauded Frank Ocean but Patterson remains cautiously optimistic about the industry completely opening up to urban homosexual artists.

“When thinking of how many ‘gay’ urban artists receive massive marketing and radio promotion, zero come to mind,” he says.

As for Frank Ocean, he has deftly moved on from the firestorm surrounding his sexual preference, allowing for only his music to speak for him resoundingly, serving as a glimmer of hope for other artists and labels to see.

“I know other artists like me who have given up,” adds Roman. “But I’m going to keep pushing until I get to where I want to get to.”

Lenora Houseworth is a writer, editor, and social media strategist in the New York City area. She can be reached atlenora.houseworth@gmail.com or on Twitter

@LenoraTheScribe.