The Gay Artists Redefining Rap

Kevin Abstract, lead of BROCKHAMPTON

Kevin Abstract, lead of BROCKHAMPTON

Nayla Delgado, Staff Writer

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BROCKHAMPTON shattered listeners’ expectations of a rap group as they emerged into stardom with their hit JUNKY from the second album of their Saturation trilogy. From explicit references of their group lead’s sexuality to later verses addressing rape culture, BROCKHAMPTON was the opposite of what avid rap listeners were used to. On the same track, Kevin Abstract, the group’s lead, proclaims he ‘does the most for the culture by just existing’ and to some extent, he’s right. Rap and hip hop has never seen such an unapologetically candid gay rapper, prepared to directly address the machismo and homophobia of rap music with the same brutish delivery that other rappers use to hurl homophobic slurs.

These genres have been historically defined by their themes of hypermasculine gangsters gloating of riches and excesses of women. At times it is a violent industry as well, 90s ‘gangsta rap’ saw the early deaths of many rap icons such as Biggie and Tupac. It is a long criticized, lyrically charged genre. Many pioneers of rap emerged from poverty-ridden communities in inner cities where gang violence was rampant; private flights and gold chains were simply pipe dreams of their childhood. It’s no surprise the lyrics assert toughness and hubris when many of these artists have overcome unimaginable odds to achieve and maintain their musical success.

Yet with new generations entering the rap game, the narrative has shifted. From middle-class rappers to ‘singing’ rappers, hip hop purists have strived to discredit the authenticity of a new generation of artists simply because they no longer fit the nostalgic ‘old school’ hip hop narrative.

BROCKHAMPTON went on to rock the world of hip hop with the final addition to their Saturation trilogy. They continued to open up new conversations of how we define rap with their insistence on being labeled a ‘boy band’ instead of a rap collective and their bold commentary on the genre they have very much taken over in the past few years. But before BROCKHAMPTON was at the forefront of the new generation of rap, twenty-year-old Kevin Abstract was already making a name for himself in 2016 with his coming of age tale American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story where he sings passionately about a high school romance with a football player classmate, toying with heteronormative high school sweetheart tropes in the media.

Prior to Abstract, twenty-four-year-old rapper and singer Frank Ocean shocked fans by revealing his sexuality upon the release of his 2012 album channel ORANGE. Ocean vaguely addressed speculation surrounding his sexuality in a Tumblr post where he stated, ‘I feel like a free man’. Moreover, track 16 of channel ORANGE titled Forrest Gump clearly uses male pronouns to describe Ocean’s lover, with football player clichés paralleled by Abstract’s Seventeen.

 

I saw ya game, Forrest
I was screamin’ run 44
But you kept runnin’ past the end zone
Oh where’d you go, Forrest
Forrest Gump
Forrest Gump / Frank Ocean

He was everything I dreamed of
Used to ride around in his two-seater
Bein’ friends didn’t make it much easier, yeah
Friday night lights, stay away from the bleachers
Seventeen / Kevin Abstract

Similar to Abstract, Frank Ocean was also part of a rap/hip hop collective called Odd Future, originally formed by Tyler, the Creator who has had a controversial history of using gay slurs in his violent, brash lyrics. Tyler Okonma, known by his stage name Tyler, the Creator is a twenty-eight-year-old jack of all trades, with rapping and fashion design being only some of his many talents. Okonma has faced criticism many times for his seemingly homophobic lyrics. When confronted about it in the past, Okonma has simply shown ambivalence to those taking offense. He has denied being homophobic many times and was among the first to publicly support fellow Odd Future member Frank Ocean in his public coming out. Despite this, Okonma has never publicly apologized for his homophobic lyrics.

(Tyler Okonma, known as Tyler, the Creator)

Perhaps this is why it was so difficult for fans of Tyler, the Creator to grasp his not-so-subtle hints at his own homosexuality throughout his fifth album Flower Boy. This album was one of Okonma’s most well-received albums and displayed a lot of character growth. Track 7 on Flower Boy titled Garden Shed reveals a surprising, vulnerable, melodic coming out story using the ‘garden shed’ as a Flower Boy themed metaphor for ‘the closet’. Tyler raps of his internal struggles with his sexuality and a possible lover.

Them feelings I was guardin’
Heavy on my mind
All my friends lost
They couldn’t read the signs
I didn’t wanna talk and tell ’em my location
And they ain’t wanna walk
Truth is, since a youth kid, thought it was a phase
Thought it’d be like the Frank, poof, gone
But, it’s still goin’ on

Garden Shed / Tyler the Creator

Still, some fans were not convinced. Tyler, the Creator is known for exploring many themes in his music that are not exactly intended to be personal or literal. His tendency to ‘troll’ audiences and constant spontaneity left certain fans doubting his sincerity.

In May 2019, Okonma donned a platinum blonde wig, a pair of black sunglasses, and a variety of pastel-colored suits to become IGOR, the alter ego for his sixth album by the same name. On the eve of the album release, he warned fans on twitter that this album was like no other he had released before. To the surprise of many fans, IGOR was entirely a confessional; a vulnerable tale of heartbreak layered over cinematic synthesized rhythms. But the story was one that fans did not expect from Okonma, he had fallen in love with a guy who could not accept his own sexuality and later dumped Tyler for an ex-girlfriend.

Any fans that were still skeptical received all the confirmation they needed upon the release of his self-directed music video for IGOR’s track 7, A BOY IS A GUN*. The music video featured a male love interest and displayed visual references to Luca Guadagnino’s Academy Award-winning gay romance film, Call Me By Your Name, and the work of famous film director Wes Anderson. In the video, Okonma as IGOR is shown arguing with his lover who later leaves with a woman, reaffirming the album’s narrative.

These changes did not come without criticism. Many fans were uncomfortable by Okonma’s honesty regarding his sexuality and met the new album with disregard and even blatant homophobia. Abstract and Ocean were both met with similar reactions as well.

Rap fan’s homophobia is especially seen in the coming out of Lil Nas X. In a few months, Lil Nas X not only entered the world of rap and hip hop but dominated the charts globally with his country-infused hit Old Town Road. Nas went on to break all-time No 1 Billboard records by surpassing seventeen weeks atop Billboard’s Hot 100 charts. Nas dominated not only one but two historically homophobic genres: rap and country. At the end of Pride month 2019, Nas came out on twitter and lost a significant portion of his fanbase to the backlash surrounding his sexuality.

What we see is a major turning point in the history of rap and hip hop. While there is still homophobia (such as Eminem’s use of a gay slur when referring to Tyler, the Creator for criticizing his recent music on Kamikaze), the outdated hip hop purists are fading as a new generation of hip-hop fans take the spotlight.
These new artists may face backlash, but their music is undeniably successful and helps give a voice to young rap/hip hop fans who can no longer relate to the outdated traditionalists. While many mainstream rap artists still push the machismo of rap, gay artists are already in the process of redefining the genre, and they’re just getting started.