At this year’s SXSW, a local Texas rapper, Adair Lion, approached me about his upcoming project – an ambitious pro-LGBT rights rap video. He was nervous about the response he would get. As a straight, Texan, Latino rapper, making such a statement was a bold move in his career. But he knew that the musical expression of support could make a difference, particularly to young people, and so he was determined to take on the project.
When the video dropped on May 1st, we were prepared for a range of reactions.
What happened was a shocking amount of coverage of what Gawker called “the world’s first pro-gay rap song.” (There is actually a number of LGBT hip hop artists who have released prior work. But on the ally front, Adair very well could be first.)
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Perez Hilton, Time, MTV, lots of local and LGBT outlets all embraced the song. But, at the same time, a number of hip hop outlets ignored the release and a few asked to be taken off of Adair’s press list. But the negative was far overwhelmed by the positive response. It was clear that Adair’s video hit sort of a zeitgeist moment where support for LGBT equality could spread beyond the more obvious backers.
And then, nine days later, President Obama came out in support of marriage equality. And then the NAACP endorsed marriage equality. And then the National Council of La Raza endorsed marriage equality.
Almost directly after President Obama made his announcement, Jay-Z said that the President’s move was “the right thing to do” and added:
“I’ve always thought it as something that was still holding the country back,” Jay-Z said, referencing the fact that same-sex marriage is not recognized nationwide. “What people do in their own homes is their business and you can choose to love whoever you love. That’s their business. It’s no different than discriminating against blacks. It’s discrimination plain and simple.”
And then Will Smith also came out in support of marriage equality, saying, “If anybody can find someone to love them and to help them through this difficult thing that we call life, I support that in any shape or form.”
As spring rolled into summer, on Independence Day, artist Frank Ocean made music news by releasing a statement where he beautifully describes his experience of falling in love with a man. Shaking the hip hop world again, and bringing about a new round of challenge and support.
Def Jam founder, Russell Simmons, released this statement on Ocean:
“Today is a big day for hip-hop. It is a day that will define who we really are. How compassionate will we be? How loving can we be? How inclusive are we? I am profoundly moved by the courage and honesty of Frank Ocean. Your decision to go public about your sexual orientation gives hope and light to so many young people still living in fear. These type of secrets should not matter anymore, but we know they do, and because of that I decided to write this short statement of support for one of the greatest new artists we have.
His gifts are undeniable. His talent, enormous. His bravery, incredible. His actions this morning will uplift our consciousness and allow us to become better people.Every single one of us is born with peace and tranquility in our heart. Frank just found his.
Frank, we thank you. We support you. We love you. “
And then there is the rapper, 50 Cent, who has previously rapped and tweeted a long list of homophobic statements, including encouraging gay men to kill themselves. And yet, this week he expressed a clear and specific new perspective, saying he supports Ocean, as well as marriage equality, and looks forward to a world where LGBT individuals can be out without discrimination.
While this was all happening, California straight rapper Mur donned a “Legalize Gay” shirt and released a new video where he plays gay and calls out the discrimination against the community.
And then this week, Seattle-based hip-hop artist Macklemore released a beautiful pro-LGBT track.
There is definitely a noteworthy thing happening here.
Lion’s video came out in May, and the response was excited surprise that a hip hop artist made a pro-LGBT statement. And here we are in July, in a whole other world.
I know that this article is a bit of a laundry list of happenings. I think this extraordinary and moving timeline needs to be documented in full. And by looking at the full picture of the dominos falling, the swiftness of the hip hop culture shift can be viewed in its full glory.
When Lion released his music video Ben, he also released a statement about how the video came to be, and where he expressed the risk he faced. Writing, “In the hip-hop world it’s not only accepted – but it’s actually cool to use terms like faggot, queer, homo and gay, in a derogatory manner.”
That history of the genre is true. But it’s also true, as Jenée Desmond-Harris wrote in The Root – while covering Jay-Z and Smith’s statements – that some of these announcements were almost starting the obvious. Talking about Smith, Desmond-Harris pointed out that, “commonsense tolerance isn’t really a shocker coming from someone whom we’ve never known to be in the business of discrimination.”
Desmond-Harris ends her article with the question, “How long until celebs have to start making public proclamations when they’re against equality?”
It might take some time until we get to that place in the public debate. But hip hop is getting us there quicker. As a genre, hip hop started as a culture originally rooted in positive community and making beauty, oftentimes out of struggle. Original hip hop was about moving things forward and telling truths otherwise unheard. In the commercialization of the genre, a lot of that original style has been replaced by more mainstream marketing considerations. But here we find ourselves – it is the summer of 2012 and the season of hip hop taking the lead in expanding support for LGBT equality. As just one member of the LGBT community, let me say to the hip hop community: the respect is mutual.