Jonah Weiner makes a provocative case on Slate today that homophobia in hip hop is decreasing and being redefined–primarily, paradoxically, through the use of the phrase “no homo.” The crux of Weiner’s argument is as follows:
As society becomes increasingly gay-tolerant, hip-hop is reassessing its relationship to homosexuality and, albeit in a hedged and roundabout way, it’s possible that no homo is helping to make hip-hop a gayer place.
Weiner isn’t entirely wrong. It’s certainly true that American mainstream culture is trending toward acceptance of gays and lesbians (though we still have a long way to go). And it’s certainly true that hip hop, given how integrated it is into American life, affects and is affected by general cultural trends. But ending homophobia in hip hop has less to do with perceptions of homosexuality than it does with notions of masculinity.
Scholars from music to African American studies have discussed in detail how hip hop reflects, and helps construct, ideas about how to be properly masculine for both artists and audiences. From the meteoric rise of gangsta rap in the late 80s-early 90s to more-recent video ho controversies, a very specific type of masculinity is being worked out in corporate hip hop: tough, heterosexual, potentially violent, financially successful, proud, fashionable, potentially misogynist (running the gamut from physical violence towards women to verbal disrespect towards women–see: Chris Brown and Rihanna for an extreme example). There are certainly exceptions within mainstream hip hop to all these characteristics (some of which are positive and some of which are negative), but on the whole, many artists attempt to put forth this type of image in the name of authenticity and credibility (even if they are not necessarily like this in their own lives).
Heterosexuality is a key part of this image. Just as it is important to continually reinforce one’s financial success, fashion sense, and other aspects of this persona, it’s important within the genre to reinforce one’s heterosexuality. One way of doing this is with respect to women, of course: an artist can boast about his sex life, rhyme about his lady, etc. (Detractors would argue that this method includes misogyny as a method of reinforcing heterosexuality.) Another way of doing this is by denying any homosexual impulse or affinity.
Hip-hop homophobia isn’t, for the most part, about hating gays and lesbians as such. It’s about reinforcing a specific notion of masculinity, one that dictates that men have power over those around them in a variety of ways: whether by having one’s own posse, being able to buy whatever one wants, and by having the upper hand in a romantic or sexual encounter. Being gay negates this latter possibility: one man will be in power, and the other will have been disempowered (within the context of this idea about being masculine, that is).
So I agree in a way–that
no homo tweaks this [homophobic] dynamic because it allows, implicitly, that rap is a place where gayness can in fact be expressed by the guy on the mic, not just scorned in others….When these rappers say “no homo,” it can seem a bit like a gentleman’s agreement, nodding to the status quo while smuggling in a fuller, less hamstrung notion of masculinity. This is still a concession to homophobia, but one that enables a less rigid definition of the hip-hop self than we’ve seen before. It’s far from a coup, but, in a way, it’s progress.
I’m not holding my breath waiting for the day when “fuller, less hamstrung” notions of masculinity don’t need to be smuggled into mainstream hip hop (with the important caveat that certain artists are already unapologetic about trying to redefine hip hop masculinity). But it’ll be a good day when it arrives.