By Tucker Pennington
With the release of “Culture II,” Migos tied a record set by one other group: the Beatles. Each group has had 14 of their songs simultaneously chart on Billboard’s Hot 100. In nearly 60 years, no other group has been able to achieve this level of superstardom and ubiquity on the radio (or a streaming service). But they didn’t reach this landmark achievement without controversy––mainly stemming from the group’s continued homophobia. A month before “Culture II” released, Kiari Kendrell Cephus, also known as Offset, was featured on a song where he said “I cannot vibe with queers.” His fiancé, Cardi B, attempted to defend him by asking why the LGBTQ+ community doesn’t educate others about what’s offensive.
In 2017, there were reports that Migos refused to rehearse with drag queens that were a part of Katy Perry’s performance for Saturday Night Live as well as questioned the credibility and authenticity of fellow rapper iLoveMakonnen when he came out as gay. Migos has followed a formula–apologize, claim they intended not to offend anyone, then move on without learning why their behavior was problematic. Despite these publicized incidents of homophobia, “Culture II” debuted at number one on the U.S. Billboard 200 and sold nearly 200,000 units in its first week.
This issue of successful hip-hop artists and their inherent homophobia isn’t new. Since hip-hop’s inception in the Bronx during the 1970s, songs have been plagued with homophobic lyrics, despite benefiting directly from gay culture. Arguably, the first hip-hop song to be recorded is “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang. It is a 15-minute song that defined what a hip-hop song would be for decades to come. There are lyrics about boasting and dancing, and there are lyrics about degrading gay people in order to appear more masculine. By sampling the disco band Chic’s “Good Times,” the Sugarhill Gang co-opted gay culture while simultaneously using homophobic epithets in their song. Since then, homophobia has continued as an underlying theme, even as hip-hop as a genre has evolved.
The Beastie Boys intended for their debut album “License to Ill” to originally be called “Don’t Be A F—–.” A Tribe Called Quest had to re-record lyrics for the song “Georgie Porgie” after their record label deemed them too offensive, so the group transformed the song into a criticism of record labels. Eminem––who has sold over 200 million albums and holds the record for most albums sold for a hip-hop artist––built his career off of playing up homophobia for shock humor. Each of these artists has attempted to make amends for their actions, with the Beastie Boys apologizing for their past behavior in a letter to the LGBTQ+ community in the New York Times and A Tribe Called Quest recording more LGBTQ+ friendly music in 2016 with “We the People….,” but that still doesn’t erase the impact their homophobia had on hip-hop.
Explicit homophobia, while still present, has become less common in the 21st century as implicit homophobia has allowed for discrimination to continue to plague the genre. Artists like Young Thug and Lil Uzi Vert, who have not come out as gay, play with gender by experimenting with fashion and image. This small level of growth, though, has come with critics who have questioned these choices while saying, “there’s nothing wrong with being gay” in the same breath.
This inherent uncomfortableness with any rapper who doesn’t fit into the expected mold stems from homophobia being ingrained into hip-hop culture. Additionally, the prevalence of phrases like “no homo” and “pause”––which began as slang before being brought into popularity from Harlem rappers like Cam’ron––just affirms the idea that even something that could be interpreted as gay must be purged from hip-hop at the risk of sounding gay. Maintaining a cool identity as a hip-hop artist means alienating LGBTQ+ fans through implicit homophobia.
Despite the success of Migos’ “Culture II,” there are signs of actual growth and acceptance of LGBTQ+ artists in hip-hop that should be supported in order to show that hip-hop isn’t shackled to problematic ideals from the past. In a 2005 interview with MTV News, Kanye West addressed homophobia and stressed the need to end discrimination of gay people in hip-hop and to stop equating LGBTQ+ culture as the opposite of hip-hop culture.
The 2010s saw a revolution of hip-hop artists coming out and being successful in the United States. Independent artists like Frank Ocean––who emerged from the notoriously homophobic Odd Future collective––proved that being openly bisexual and a hip-hop artist is possible. Mykki Blanco, Le1f and Zebra Katz toy with concepts of gender and sexuality in how they represent themselves as hip-hop artists, while also drawing inspiration from New York’s ball culture. Even an artist like Young M.A., who pulls from the same influences that Migos pull from, shows that a lesbian rapper can just as easily write a hit record. Hip-hop has long been a genre of conventions and traditions, but there are some that have been kept alive at the expense of groups of people. It’s important not to forget how ingrained homophobia has been in hip-hop’s expansion as one of the world’s most popular art form, but it’s imperative that the genre remedies the toxicity that has marginalized LGBTQ+ people since its foundation.