Three Hip-Hop Scholars Talk About Combatting Homophobia

Published: April 19, 2011

To some, the concept of meeting people where they’re at is tired. But in the case of homophobia—a complex mix of religious doctrine, cultural ideas, sexism, peer pressure and general insecurity about identity—that principle seems to be the best hope. In the wake of recent sex panics in the hip-hop world, first around Hot 97 DJ Mister Cee’s arrest and then Malcolm X’s biography, I asked three educators talk about how they’ve approached this huge topic in their hip-hop classes. (Yes, universities today have classes that address hip-hop culture as an important part of American life and history.)

Student reaction ranged from the good to the bad to the ugly. But the classroom conversations are an honest start, and they offer insights for all of us.

Davey D., host of KPFA-FM’s “Hard Knock Radio,” teaches with Dawn-Elissa Fischer

San Francisco University

Course: “Hip-Hop Workshop”

Since San Francisco State is a public university in the Bay Area, it’s equal parts black, Asian, Latino and Arab. That’s an [ideal] space to deal with difficult issues because students can explain their perspectives and cultural beliefs and be challenged. When the [recent news and speculation] about DJ Mister Cee’s and Malcolm X’s [sexuality] came up, I knew it was time to address homophobia as it relates to hip-hop culture.

I started the class off talking about how hip-hop has made room at the table for a lot of people: It came out of New York City, but made room for people from other cities. Now it’s this global culture. Then I talked about how previously marginalized groups were now included, such as Asians in the Bay Area who struggled to find an MC to represent them at first but were able to find a real home in turntablism and break ground there. I asked the students, “Is this a good thing that everybody has been able to participate?” They said yes.

From there, I moved it to how we’ve been so generous that we’ve let commercialism in, how we watch BET programs, go to Clear Channel summer jams and even use their standards as a measure of success. Everybody from the Pillsbury Dough Boy to Karl Rove have rapped, and we don’t have a problem with that.

After we’d agreed that hip-hop has given voice to a wide range of people, I played some music by Tim’m T. West, Deadlee and Sgt. Sass. I didn’t tell the students these artists were gay and I chose songs that didn’t mention [sexuality].

Afterwards, I asked them why these artists haven’t been allowed to participate in [mainstream] hip-hop. Referring to Deadlee, one student said, “He don’t rap that good.” I responded, “Even if he stinks, is that enough to say he can never have a seat at the table?” No one could figure it out. When I told them the artists they had just heard were gay, class participation pretty much came to a halt.

There was lots of nervous laughter and grumbling. But I continued by asking them where gays did hip-hop and why they’re not being booked for showcases and for festivals like Paid Dues and Rock the Bells. “In a place like San Francisco, where you have a large gay population, wouldn’t that be appropriate?” I asked.

No response.

So then I pointed out how gays and lesbians have always had a role in hip-hop’s ascension in the Bay Area. For example, Paige Hodel was one of the first women to be on the air mixing hip-hop. And if you were into hardcore hip-hop and knew what was up, you would go down to her Club Q, a lesbian club. I also mentioned how [in the late 80s] there were a number of gay people in management at KMEL-FM, which was like ground zero for hip-hop at that point. It was a major radio station that played this music when no one else would. “We didn’t seem to have a problem [with homosexuality] when these people could do something for us,” I said. “Now it’s time for hip-hop to share room. And if not, why not?”

Professor Fischer, who has researched hip-hop in 20 countries, added that hip-hop had always been a place for affirming human rights. She pointed out how it has given voice to voiceless, leveled the playing field, inspired hope, and given people much-needed centering. “This is about human rights, and we pride ourselves on human rights,” she said.

I added how hip-hop has taken the lead on other social justice issues, from apartheid in South Africa to the police killing of Oscar Grant. We know hip-hop came out of oppression. So Professor Fischer and I posed the question, “How did we move from being oppressed to being people who want to oppress because of perceived differences? Is it that folks have taken on corporate-inspired values of intolerance?”

We went on to point out how we accept people who beat women, killers, and artists who talk about dealing. We have porn stars in videos and real live pimps all up in the hip-hop space. But when it comes to this gay thing, we have a problem. When we have two people [of the same gender] say they love each other, all of a sudden it’s about righteousness. And it’s not the thugged out dudes; the [conscious] folks are the main ones saying, “It’s unnatural. It’s not culturally sound,” as if a Muslim rapper [sharing a stage] with one who drinks and sells weed is righteous.

The few students who spoke up made it clear that their fear is really around gay males in hip-hop. Some brought up how a lot of [males] they knew were going to jail and being sexually abused. Black students talked about how their communities are being [disproportionately] infected with HIV as a result. So I asked them why they weren’t down at the prisons demanding that no rapes happen. “If it’s really about prison rape,” I said, “let’s make that a top issue, let’s push for a new anti-prison rape bill. Let’s stand outside with picket signs the way anti-gay marriage folks do.”

Others mentioned the destruction of the family and used Mister Cee as an example. They implied that this married 40-year-old was somehow lured by the 20-year-old he was arrested with. I pointed out how that was bullshit, how a grown man in a committed relationship can be attracted to others but has the responsibility not to act on it.

Later, one of the sisters mentioned the [so-called] shortage of [eligible] black men and objected to “gay males being pushed on us.” I reminded her that gays have always been a part of the family. The only thing happening now is that males are going to tell you sooner.

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