Nas's Illmatic is one of my top five favorite albums of all time. Right up there with Rumours, Songs in the Key of Life, Purple Rain, and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I especially love "Halftime," a classic, lyrically dense B-boy cut that a 19-year-old Mr. Jones released in 1992 under his then-moniker, Nasty Nas. On it, Nas spits couplets worthy of Shakespeare, like, "I drop jewels, wear jewels, hope to never run it / With more kicks than a baby in a mother's stomach" and "And in the darkness I'm heartless like when the NARC's hit / Word to Marcus Garvey, I hardly sparked it." The internal rhyming alone had every MC from the Boogie Down to Compton shook.
But the lines that stick with me most did so not because of their complexity or ingenuity, but the presence of a word and a sentiment that I have grown accustomed to in rap music: "I got to have it, I miss Mr. Magic / Versatile, my style switches like a faggot." I always rap along, almost unconsciously, until that "faggot" when I'm temporarily thrown, only to brush it off as I always do, as I've always done for years because even though hip-hop has never been fair or welcoming to me, that doesn't mean, like all abusive relationships, that I can't love it even if it doesn't love me.
It's a strong visual: A gay man walking with sass and purpose, switching, as I do all over these New York streets, while, perhaps unintentionally, invoking a sexual position among the faggot class, switching from top to bottom, all to describe his own flare on the mic. I used to find fault with Nas's boast in the following line—"But not bisexual, I'm an intellectual"—because it seemed falsely intellectual, hotep-ish, really, to claim wisdom while using such a pejorative term and then reflexively proclaiming his own heterosexuality. But there's also a bit of clever wordplay here—a "faggot," in British parlance, also refers to a bundle of sticks, and a "switch" can also mean a slender twig, so that Nas is giving us not only a double but a triple entendre.
This also illustrates why I love hip-hop. At it's best, it speaks to the black experience in America more eloquently than any other genre since the funk of the '70s. It's truly poetry. As a lover of words, it's the ultimate musical form. While at its most mediocre, it at least provides a banger to which one can get turnt, hopefully, all the way up. And at its worst, hip-hop reinforces stereotypes about black people, women, and queer people; glorifies violence, greed, and capitalism; and traffics in unchecked toxic masculinity, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia. And as a die-hard fan of "real" hip-hop (miss me with this current generation of face-tatted Soundcloud rappers, though), I'm tired.
It's 2018—can y'all just grow the fuck up already and quit with all this homophobic bullshit?
As Rap Genius points out, Nas still omits the F-word in live performances. Whether that's a sign of growth or a sign of the times is debatable, but Nas's fellow rap god Eminem doesn't seem to adhere to many, if any, signs. On the song "Fall," from his 10th studio album Kamikaze, Em, né Marshall Mathers, goes after self-proclaimed fag Tyler, the Creator, rapping: "Tyler create nothin', I see why you called yourself a (faggot), bitch / It's not just 'cause you lack attention / It's because you worship D12's balls, you're sack-religious."
Apart from having a sloppy rhyme scheme and just not being that clever, Em's bars side-step using the actual word—censoring the "faggot" in question on both the explicit and clean versions of the song—which makes its use, or lack thereof, even more gratuitous. But that didn't stop a very real backlash, led by noted woke bae, Imagine Dragons's Dan Reynolds.
On Nicki Minaj's debut studio album, The Pinkprint, Eminem guests on "Roman's Revenge," a song I will get hyped to for the first two minutes until Em's second verse when he, rather jarringly and gratuitously, raps: "All you lil' faggots can suck it / No homo, but I'ma stick it to 'em like refrigerator magnets." Though Nicki would later claim she was "uncomfortable" with the slur, there was no reaction comparable to "Fall." Instead, the general consensus was, "It's just Eminem being Eminem." He had unapologetically dropped F-bombs for years and referenced violence to women to the tune of millions of albums sold and accolades out the wazoo. It was almost expected of him. But nearly 10 years later and expectations have changed. Em, however, is slow to adapt, though he did express something close to remorse over the Tyler diss.
“I was angry when I said the shit about Tyler,” the artist alternately known as Slim Shady recently said in an interview. “And I think that the word that I called him on the album on that song was one of the things where I felt like this might be too far.”
"In my quest to hurt him, I realized that I was hurting a lot of other people by saying it," he continued. "At the time I was so mad it was just whatever. But in the midst of everything else that was going on on this album, the things that it took to pull this album together. It was one of the things that I kept going back to going, 'I don’t feel right with this.'”
In art, there's always some leeway. Whereas there was some nuance to Nas's style and how he referred to its versatility, Em often hid behind his Slim Shady persona, claiming that he was just joking. He even performed with Elton John at the Grammys to prove he wasn't homophobic, only to turn around and continue parsing the meaning of his use of the word "faggot." He, and others, have repeatedly claimed that their F-bombs aren't referring to gay men, that the insult has nothing to do with sexuality, but rather is an attack on a (straight) man's masculinity. But that argument doesn't make their reasoning any better. In fact it might be worse.
Correlating "faggot" with weakness, a lack of masculinity—which, in hip-hop, is the quintessential insult—degrades gay men, and no matter the intent, further marginalizes homosexuality. As artists and entertainers in this hyper-capitalist, hyper-commercial world we live in, rappers need to take some responsibility for the message they send because as soon as money is introduced to your art, it becomes something else: a commodity. And therefore one's creation is not just representative of the artist, but it also becomes beholden to its consumers. To shift the onus of understanding and interpretation onto the listener is quite simply, cowardly, or as some rappers would put it, it's a faggot thing to do.
See what I mean?
But homophobia is not the sole domain of male rappers. I was just getting into Miami-based duo City Girls—their bad-bitch anthem "I'll Take Your Man" was on frequent replay—when some old tweets from member Yung Miami resurfaced. The raptress's initial response missed the point entirely and only served to further estrange fans, most of whom—surprise, surprise—are gay.
This was just the eye of a homophobic tweetstorm by several female rappers, including cow-enthusiast Doja Cat, Dallas spitter Asian Doll, and Houston's own Megan Thee Stallion. And more recently, Cardi B came under fire for transphobic Facebook posts she later claimed was the handiwork of a disgruntled former employee—but fans were quick to point out that she's used transphobic language in the past. Much like how Eminem seemingly got a pass for years, as a hip-hop head you kind of expect the dudes to be homophobic, but it smarts when a female rapper reveals her own homophobia since gay rap fans have always found an entry point into the genre through its female artists.
It's a lot easier to identify with what Lil' Kim was rapping about—riding dick, sucking dick, and looking sick in your Six with your Christian Lacross [sic]—than with Biggie's endless parade of gang-banging and bitch-fucking (even though Biggie, ironically, wrote Kim's lyrics). Before Nicki Minaj was Nicki Minaj, she found a home with queer fans, even though she has repeatedly done and said things that test that loyalty. In the 2008 remix to "Dead Wrong" she raps: "First they love you, then they switch / Yeah, they switch like faggots." Ah, what hath Nas wrought? 10 years later she's recycling the same hackneyed simile, sans the F-word, on her reteaming with Eminem, "Majesty" from Queen: "Homes runnin’ like Griffey now / They switchin' like sissies now."
Again, it's bad enough that the lyrics are offensive, but this sissy-walking motif is, pardon the pun, pedestrian AF and, if we really want to be petty, has already been perfected:
As is standard procedure following an internet backlash, most of these MCs issued questionably sincere apologies, but Asian Doll took the time to point out that the problem goes beyond hip-hop.
Growing up in a West Indian household, I was privy to my family's less-than-favorable views on homosexuality, but maybe because I was myself gay, I didn't deeply internalize and adopt those views as my own. Meanwhile, black people are often stereotyped as being less welcoming or accepting of homosexuality, stemming from indoctrination through the black church. But the truth is, race doesn't influence homophobia, but a religious upbringing can. Deeply religious white folks are just as likely to denounce homosexuality as a sin as deeply religious black folks. Combating homophobia, then, is a matter of educating oneself, challenging preconceived notions, and listening to people who may actually know a thing or two about being queer.
So in that magnanimous spirit, here's a bit of advice to all rappers: Start treating "faggot" the same way you treat "nigga." If you're not black you simply don't say the N-word. It's an accepted fact, unless you're a blatant racist. Eminem has and would never. So if you're not gay, don't say faggot—simple as that. Unless you're a blatant homophobe. In which case, own your homophobia and its ramifications because we—as queer people, as fans of hip-hop, as human beings living under an administration that's full of shit—are all tired of dealing with your shit. Of course, things get more complicated with someone like serial F-bomber and definition of problematic Azealia Banks, who is a queer woman but also uses "faggot" to degrade gay men. Though I guess even she can have a change of heart.
In a further sign of how far hip-hop has come, there are enough openly LGBTQ rappers out here laying down bars that will snatch your edges—Cakes da Killa, Mykki Blanco, Princess Nokia, and Quay Dash immediately come to mind—but they have also earned the right to use the F-word if they so choose because it's either an act of reapprorpiation—as black people have done with the N-word, making it a term of endearment or community—or they are sensitive to the word's history and therefore cognizant of the importance of context.
On his fiery 2014 track "Oven Ready", Cakes raps: "One thing I wish / I wish a bitch would / But in hindsight I know a faggot wish he could / Do it like this get ya stick on wood" and then: "How you claiming legend when ya shit is all samples? / How these little faggots think it's Cakey they can handle? / Bitch I'm oven ready and you hot like a candle."
Comparing his use of "faggot" versus the way other rappers have traditionally used it, Cakes is espousing his own lyrical prowess, as Nas did on "Halftime," but he's also reaffirming his own sexuality is the process. Still, some queer people may disagree with other queer people using the F-word, just as some black people disagree with other black people using the N-word. Hell, there are gay people who still don't like the word "queer" because of its past negative connotations. But as a queer person of color, if I or Cakes or anyone who identifies as such wants to refer to ourselves or our peers as a "nigga" or "faggot," it's our prerogative because we've been called those names by people who didn't know where we're coming from or what we've been through. To reclaim those words that have been used to hurt and demean us is to render them harmless.
With more diversity in rap than ever before, and less tolerance for discriminatory language, the days of "switching like a faggot" are waning. It's just that rap, for all its revolutionary power, has been slow to check the rhyme.