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Ramon Johnson

Cornel West, Hip-Hop and Homophobia

By September 7, 2007

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Have homophobic hip-hop lyrics seen their last days? A few hip-hop hot-listers like Kanye West have already spoken out against anti-gay lyrics where the F-bomb (and we're not talking about the four letter one) is generally used to not necessarily target gay people but instead describe an artists' "weaker" adversaries. Still, it's no surprise that the F-word is spoken freely on plastic. After all, the word is one of the last to hit the offense list in our growing PC culture.

The problem with homophobic lyrics.

Whether hip-hop artists like it or not, they have positioned themselves as a driving force in pop culture. However, as with any mass appeal art form hip-hop has attracted young and not-so-young followers that view hip-hop artists as icons and roll models. Russell Simmons claims hip-hop lyrics are a reflection of the streets. I prefer Barack Obama's claim that hip-hop lyrics create a mirror of behavior of which people emulate. It's all too easy for a young fan to ask why it's OK for 50 to use the F-word and not them.

And yet still, using anti-gay words to describe "punk" individuals furthers an already dated generalization that all gay people are weak or lesser men—as if the visceral definition of hyper-masculinity still defines a real man. Have we not evolved beyond the perpetual quest to prove who is the alpha male at the expense of a culture that has already been damaged by widespread ignorance?

Hip-hop and so-called street credibility.

Some artists, like 50-Cent have vied to continue using their existing formula (keeping in mind that the heat is coming from the use of the N-word and not so much homophobic lyrics). At first glance, the solution seems simple: Stop using culturally offensive words like the N and F word. However, artists are resistant to softening their rhymes as it may tarnish their established (or perceived) street credibility. But their street cred is exactly why homophobic lyrics need to be stomped out. Free use of the F-word coupled with calls to take action against gays creates an extremely hostile and homophobic environment on the real streets. How is a young boy to deal with his sexuality when the music and the community that surrounds him continue to denigrate his very existence?

It's time for hip-hop artists to evolve beyond the basic one-dimensional definition of hip-hop credibility. Sure, street cred helps artists sell records, but individuality and a voice with responsibility makes one a true artist. The mold of hip-hop was established decades ago. But artists are now being challenged to reach back to the old school when hip-hip wasn't synonymous with violence, homophobia and sexism. It's time for artists to prove that they are in fact artists and not just products of the digital monitor. Adding a different hook to the same tired beat isn't enough. It's time to stand out and take a stand and let the art speak for itself.

What's being done about homophobic lyrics in hip-hop?

Scholar and theologian Cornel West is fighting back with a hip-hop compilation of his own called Never Forget: A Journey of Revelation, which features West's lectures with musical backgrounds by Andre 3000, Gerald Levert, Jill Scott, Killer Mike, Prince, Talib Kweli and KRS-One.

Will West's album change the face of hip hop?

Possibly. The impact wont necessarily come from record sales, but in the positive message it sends to young and impressionable hip-hop fans who can enjoy hip-hop without offending others.

Don't gay hip-hop artists already exist?

There is a growing number of openly gay hip-hop artists on the scene. L.A.-based gay rapper, Deadlee's no-homo-left-behind philosophy has sent shock waves through the homophobic hip-hop scene. Deadlee doesn't claim to be anything but himself--a hard MC, spitting rhymes of a grander truth and by doing so he's taking his rightful place in the hip-hop scene. Deadlee talked about being an out artist in a recent interview with Gay Life:
"When I was starting to write my lyrics some of it was coming out fake. It was wack and [my producer] was like, 'Why don't you write some real sh**--whatever you're feeling, whatever you are?' A lot of gay lyrics came out."
Deadlee went on to talk about the perception of gay people in the hip-hop community:
"I come hard to let [people] know that we ain't all punks or weak or feminine. I'm not saying if you're feminine you're a punk, but that's how they relate it. I just want to give them a different image. I've always been masculine and I look hard. I just want to flip it on them a little bit. I hope there is a place for [us] in hip-hop eventually."
Cornel West sticks by his challenge to the hip-hop community to take responsibility for their actions.
"We need to respectfully challenge [rappers] on the issues of misogyny and homophobia. You can hear that on the album, too. Quit bashing gay brothers and lesbian sisters. Quit this domestic violence."
Compare Prices for Never Forget: A Journey of Revelation by Cornel West.

Rap/Hip-Hop on About:
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Photo: Cornel West, on left, and Minister Ben Muhammed during the 'Taking Back Responsibilty Hip Hop Summit' at the New York Hilton in New York City. © Scott Gries/Getty Images
May 12, 2012 at 3:07 pm
(1) Terry C - NJ says:

50-Cent has identified himself as a conservative Republican.

Does that surprise anyone?

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