Sunday, 2 February 2014

Rapping Out A Queer Beat

The US is celebrating its annual Black History Month this month. I’ll be writing some articles on black music later in the year in October when we celebrate Black History Month in the UK. In the meantime, here’s a look at one of the music genres that originated in the black community, where singers have been considered homophobic and have used anti-gay lyrics, and in which a large number of recent artists have been openly lgbt – hip hop and rap.

Hip hop was originally, and to some extent still is, centred around the urban black youth culture in America. This particular community in the 1970s, when the hip hop genre first saw the light of day, was often violently homophobic. Some rap lyrics were deliberately anti-gay, reflecting the attitude prevalent in the African-American community at the time that no black men could ever be homosexual.

In turn, this seemed to alienate the black community from the lgbt community as there was a perception that all black people were homophobic, and so hip hop never really became part of 1970s gay culture.

Even so, within the hip hop culture there were young gay black men who wanted their music to be accepted by both communities. Some were even rejected from the hip hop community when their sexuality became known.

The beginnings of the gay hip hop movement began in California. The first hip hop song to be released by an openly gay artist was in 1982 – Man Parrish’s “Hip-Hop, Be Bop (Don’t Stop)”. Shortly afterwards rap entered the hip hop genre. The song became popular in the lgbt community though Man Parrish himself, because he was both gay and non-black, suffered from discrimination in the hip hop community.

During the 1990s many gay rappers and hip hop artists were performing gay lyrics in underground clubs. By 1998 the first gay hip hop band, Rainbow Flava, released their first album online. This mixed black/white group had several members during its lifetime who went on to have solo success – most notably Tori Fixx and Juba Kalamka.

Juba Kalamka went on to co-found Deep Dickollective. Often called “the Godfather of Homo-hop” Juba met fellow gay hip hop MC Timm’m T West at a gay film screening in 1999. Juba, Timm’m and Phillip Atiba Goff, another gay hip hop MC they met after enrolling at Stanford University, gave their first joint performance as Deep Dickollective in early 2000.

Just over a year later, when straight hip hop was a prominent voice in the mainstream music charts, the organisers of the East Bay (Oakland) Pride decided to showcase the lgbt hip hop talent that California had and asked Juba to put together an event. And so the world’s first annual lgbt hip hop festival was born.

Between 2001 and 2007 the PeaceOUT World Homo Hop Festival (as it became known) was hugely popular and spawned several smaller sister festivals in New York, Atlanta and London.

By 2003 the internet listed at least 40 openly gay rappers and MC. Many of them performed at the PeaceOUT festival, and at several festivals Alex Hinton filmed and interviewed performers for his 2006 film documentary “Pick Up The Mic”.

With this increased exposure within the lgbt community lgbt rappers found a voice that challenged the often homophobic hip hop mainstream. With the heart of the gay hip hop scene in the USA it’s no surprise that most out rappers are American, but as their music spread around the world, mostly by internet and then by public performance, the notion of a non-American gay rapper led to many European and international rappers coming out and many aspiring lgbt rappers starting out on their careers as openly gay artists.

While the terms “homo-hop” and “queer hip hop” have been used in the early years as a definitive identity for both the music and the artists, the last decade seems (to me) to have seen lgbt rappers becoming part of the hip hop “establishment”, where their sexuality is secondary to their music, yet often influenced by it.

It says something about the power and influence of hip hop when you see openly gay rappers such as Zebra Katz, Kaoz, Azaelia Banks and QBoy on lists of the Top 50 most influential lgbt people in the last 3 years. Certainly more rappers seem to make these lists than rock stars. While some homophobia still exists in hip hop, the pioneers of “homo-hop” have shown that music has the power to inspire, and have become influential members within the whole hip hop community.

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