Three Hip-Hop Scholars Talk About Combatting Homophobia

DJ Davey D., William Jelani Cobb and Anyabwile Love use their history classes to tackle one of the most explosive issues in hip-hop culture.

By Akiba Solomon Apr 19, 2011

To some, the concept of meeting people where they’re at is tired. But in the case of homophobia–a complex mix of religious doctrine, cultural ideas, sexism, peer pressure and general insecurity about identity–that principle seems to be the best hope. In the wake of recent sex panics in the hip-hop world, first around Hot 97 DJ Mister Cee’s arrest and then Malcolm X’s biography, I asked three educators talk about how they’ve approached this huge topic in their hip-hop classes. (Yes, universities today have classes that address hip-hop culture as an important part of American life and history.) 

Student reaction ranged from the good to the bad to the ugly. But the classroom conversations are an honest start, and they offer insights for all of us.

Davey D., host of KPFA-FM’s "Hard Knock Radio," teaches with Dawn-Elissa Fischer 

San Francisco University 

Course: "Hip-Hop Workshop"

Since San Francisco State is a public university in the Bay Area, it’s equal parts black, Asian, Latino and Arab. That’s an [ideal] space to deal with difficult issues because students can explain their perspectives and cultural beliefs and be challenged. When the [recent news and speculation] about DJ Mister Cee’s and Malcolm X’s [sexuality] came up, I knew it was time to address homophobia as it relates to hip-hop culture.

I started the class off talking about how hip-hop has made room at the table for a lot of people: It came out of New York City, but made room for people from other cities. Now it’s this global culture. Then I talked about how previously marginalized groups were now included, such as Asians in the Bay Area who struggled to find an MC to represent them at first but were able to find a real home in turntablism and break ground there. I asked the students, "Is this a good thing that everybody has been able to participate?" They said yes.

From there, I moved it to how we’ve been so generous that we’ve let commercialism in, how we watch BET programs, go to Clear Channel summer jams and even use their standards as a measure of success. Everybody from the Pillsbury Dough Boy to Karl Rove have rapped, and we don’t have a problem with that.

After we’d agreed that hip-hop has given voice to a wide range of people, I played some music by Tim’m T. West, Deadlee and Sgt. Sass. I didn’t tell the students these artists were gay and I chose songs that didn’t mention [sexuality].

Afterwards, I asked them why these artists haven’t been allowed to participate in [mainstream] hip-hop. Referring to Deadlee, one student said, "He don’t rap that good." I responded, "Even if he stinks, is that enough to say he can never have a seat at the table?" No one could figure it out. When I told them the artists they had just heard were gay, class participation pretty much came to a halt.

There was lots of nervous laughter and grumbling. But I continued by asking them where gays did hip-hop and why they’re not being booked for showcases and for festivals like Paid Dues and Rock the Bells. "In a place like San Francisco, where you have a large gay population, wouldn’t that be appropriate?" I asked.

No response.

So then I pointed out how gays and lesbians have always had a role in hip-hop’s ascension in the Bay Area. For example, Paige Hodel was one of the first women to be on the air mixing hip-hop. And if you were into hardcore hip-hop and knew what was up, you would go down to her Club Q, a lesbian club. I also mentioned how [in the late 80s] there were a number of gay people in management at KMEL-FM, which was like ground zero for hip-hop at that point. It was a major radio station that played this music when no one else would. "We didn’t seem to have a problem [with homosexuality] when these people could do something for us," I said. "Now it’s time for hip-hop to share room. And if not, why not?"

Professor Fischer, who has researched hip-hop in 20 countries, added that hip-hop had always been a place for affirming human rights. She pointed out how it has given voice to voiceless, leveled the playing field, inspired hope, and given people much-needed centering. "This is about human rights, and we pride ourselves on human rights," she said.

I added how hip-hop has taken the lead on other social justice issues, from apartheid in South Africa to the police killing of Oscar Grant. We know hip-hop came out of oppression. So Professor Fischer and I posed the question, "How did we move from being oppressed to being people who want to oppress because of perceived differences? Is it that folks have taken on corporate-inspired values of intolerance?"

We went on to point out how we accept people who beat women, killers, and artists who talk about dealing. We have porn stars in videos and real live pimps all up in the hip-hop space. But when it comes to this gay thing, we have a problem. When we have two people [of the same gender] say they love each other, all of a sudden it’s about righteousness. And it’s not the thugged out dudes; the [conscious] folks are the main ones saying, "It’s unnatural. It’s not culturally sound," as if a Muslim rapper [sharing a stage] with one who drinks and sells weed is righteous.

The few students who spoke up made it clear that their fear is really around gay males in hip-hop. Some brought up how a lot of [males] they knew were going to jail and being sexually abused. Black students talked about how their communities are being [disproportionately] infected with HIV as a result. So I asked them why they weren’t down at the prisons demanding that no rapes happen. "If it’s really about prison rape," I said, "let’s make that a top issue, let’s push for a new anti-prison rape bill. Let’s stand outside with picket signs the way anti-gay marriage folks do."

Others mentioned the destruction of the family and used Mister Cee as an example. They implied that this married 40-year-old was somehow lured by the 20-year-old he was arrested with. I pointed out how that was bullshit, how a grown man in a committed relationship can be attracted to others but has the responsibility not to act on it.

Later, one of the sisters mentioned the [so-called] shortage of [eligible] black men and objected to "gay males being pushed on us." I reminded her that gays have always been a part of the family. The only thing happening now is that males are going to tell you sooner.

Toward the end of the class, one of the guys admitted that he was uncomfortable about homosexuality but didn’t know how to express how he felt without offending people. I actually thought that was a good start. 

Maybe we need to create more space where people can be honest, but keep it within certain boundaries. My main point to the students: Change is hard, but we can’t afford to lose sight of our humanity. Gay folks are already involved in hip-hop and they aren’t going anywhere. Some of us can try to draw a line in the sand and say, "They’re on their own." But we need to remember that it’s just a matter of time before the oppressor and exploiter gets oppressed and exploited. That’s just how this industry works.

Professor William Jelani Cobb 

Rutgers University 

Course: "The Blueprint: History of Hip-Hop Culture"

My class has a variety of students, from sophomores to seniors. It’s 75 percent female, and I have a lot of first-generation Nigerian- and Ghanaian-Americans. A couple of weeks ago when we were discussing their paper topics, one student said he was considering the subject of homophobia. The class started laughing and said, "Are you talking about Mister Cee?"

So I took this opportunity to discuss homophobia with the class. I said, "Look, if you’re talking about black music and you’re excluding gay people you’re going to miss a lot. The same goes for civil rights figures."

Pretty soon, the conversation moved toward Manning Marable’s Malcolm X biography. A male student demanded to know why Marable included any mention of Malcolm’s sexuality. "How come we can’t have just one hero?" he asked. I replied with a question: "Why would this small part of what Marable wrote–about pre-conversion Malcolm having a non-intercourse encounter with a wealthy patron–make Malcolm X any less of a hero? And why does Malcolm have to be a hero rather than a man?"

Another student insisted that Marable shouldn’t have "told it," that even as a historian, he should have ignored his professional responsibility because "Malcolm’s kids are still alive." Another kept insisting that the book was slanderous, that Marable was trying to "tear Malcolm down."

I told him, "We are experts in pointing out American hypocrisy. But it turns out we’re no better. We have the same, if not a worse reaction to parts of our history we don’t we want to discuss." Eventually, his own frat brother agreed with me. He said, "Be honest! You wouldn’t have as much of a problem if you found out that Malcolm was a serial murderer, rapist, or he beat his wife." The student didn’t respond. Another student brought up Martin Luther King, Jr.’s infidelities and said it was wrong [for historians] to expose those as well.

Eventually I asked, "Do you believe in democracy? Are we intelligent enough to make complex decisions? The idea of democracy rests upon the belief that people can weigh information and make informed conclusions. Do you think black people are so fragile that we would throw away Malcolm X or Martin Luther King because they weren’t perfect?" 

At that point most of the class seemed to get it. To the rest I said, "I think you find it easy to judge because you all haven’t made really huge, code-red level mistakes. But when you do make that kind of mistake–and believe me, you will–the world will look different to you." One of my older students, who is 26 or 27 and served as an Army ranger in the Iraq war, sat in the back nodding his head. Given his age and life experience, he knew what I was talking about.

After class, three of the young male students pulled me aside to finish the conversation about homophobia. We talked for a long time. Apparently, the class discussion had given them a lot to think about.

Anyabwile Love, Ph.D. candidate and teacher’s assistant

Temple University

Course: "History of Hip-Hop"

The week before the Mister Cee news broke, my class watched and discussed parts of "Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes," Byron Hurt’s documentary about black masculinity and hip-hop. After class, one student asked if we could continue the discussion in our next class. She wanted to wanted to talk about the side conversations and homophobic jokes the male students behind her were making about the transwomen who appeared in the documentary.

In the next class, I brought it back up and I mentioned the Mister Cee incident. But I was very neutral because I didn’t want to bias the students. I opened the floor. What I got from the class, which is made up of 15 males and 17 females, was a lot of silence.

The students were comfortable talking about how female MCs might be lesbians. It seemed impossible for them to have a conversation about [other] LGBT issues without seeing it through the lens of specific sex acts. Overall, it was quiet and some were squirming in their seats.

To keep the conversation going, I relayed one of my own experiences. In high school one of my homies came out to us. Our first inclination was to ask, "Do you look at us like…that?" He said, "No. The same way you don’t like every girl you see, I don’t like every man I see."

They seemed to understand, so I brought it back to hip-hop. I asked them about the part of the documentary where rapper/poet Tim’m T. West says men are enjoying the same images of, say, LL and 50 Cent [shirtless], as women are. I asked students what they thought about that, but no one really answered. I couldn’t breach the discomfort. I think that discomfort goes back to the [cartoonish] stereotype of the flamboyant gay man, like the kind we saw on "In Living Color." Most seem to have been taught that to be a gay male means you’re not a man.

What’s clear to me is that we need to keep exploring these issues. Next semester, I’m going to include more about homophobia and sexuality in my syllabus. It’s a perfect fit because we’re already discussing topics like authenticity, masculinity, race and power. Homophobia is like the last frontier in hip-hop. Like in "Star Trek," hip-hop educators can boldly go where no one has gone before. [Laughs.]