Macklemore, Murs, Frank Ocean, and LGBTQ Racism in Hip-Hop

Before getting into the bulk of this piece, I would like to make clear that this analysis is not a hit piece on any particular artist. It seems to be the case here that the artists themselves were simply delivering a message, and personally I see no ill intent involved. The issue I wish to address in this article is the reluctance on the part of a specific section of the population within members of the LGBTQ community as well their allies when it comes to discussing intersectionality and the problems of racism within the LGBTQ and the spillover into hip-hop music, with one specific example in mind.

What exactly is “intersectionality”? The term itself was created through feminist sociological theory and attempts to examine the relationship between various social and biological categories like race, gender, sex, etc. and how these entities react with one another and how that interaction might contribute to social inequality. That may sound a bit confusing, so let us take one example out of that jumble. Say there is interaction within the LGBTQ community and Black people in America, mostly in the realm of LGBTQ black people and the “mainstream” gay rights movement. Intersectionality would attempt to examine whether this interaction contributes to the inequality problems within each community as the result of this interaction, and examines the factors involved.

Historically, intersectionality has had detrimental effect on particularly Black gays in America. In Social Work Practice in Sexual Problems, the authors discuss how “Historically, black gays have received treatment from society than white gays for being gay” and give examples, such as “the names of black gays, their feminine aliases and addresses appeared in the press notices of their arrests, while the names of the white consorts with them were not given”. There are more historical examples one could read, but that is not the intent of this article. To set the foundation in this case is important because these issues of intersectionality have yet to be addressed.

Two emcees, two songs (released right around the same time), two messages which are practically the same, and two different reactions from the public reflect the desire to write this article. Most fans of music (especially hip-hop music) have heard of Macklemore, especially the hit song ‘Thrift Shop’, as well as the gay rights anthem ‘Same Love’. ‘Same Love’ is a valiant effort to spread awareness for the gay rights community, especially through the lens of a hip-hop artist in a genre where the topic of homosexuality is often met with much dissent. While such an effort is definitely worth praise, that same praise and recognition was not given to another emcee that took the same crusade, and probably much more risk.

Murs, an underground rapper that in the past has made a name from being PETA’s most animal friendly rapper, made his own attempt to help bring awareness to the gay rights community with his song ‘Animal Style’, which tells the story about a 17 year old black high school student (played by Murs) as he struggles to cope with his relationship with his boyfriend. The video has quite a tragic ending, but also brings up many issues pertaining to black gays in the gay community, which was highlighted by the scene in the video where Murs’s character violently denied his relationship in front of his boyfriend due to the presence of his friends. Murs also perhaps made the riskiest statement a black emcee could make by kissing his love interest in the video, a kiss that would cause Murs to receive some praise and ridicule from hip-hop fans.

There are definitely opposing views on the success of the Macklemore song, such as this article from Racialicious and this article from Gawker (you can read those articles for yourself on your own time), but it is worth addressing some points. The Racialicious article attempts to examine the White Straight Male Privilege of Macklemore while the Gawker article is a direct response to it. Both articles bring up a quote from Ellen DeGeneres when she had Macklemore on her show and introduced him by saying ““Here’s why you need to care about our next guest. No other artists in hip-hop history have ever taken a stand defending marriage equality the way they have.”. Ellen DeGeneres, herself a Lesbian, would understandably appreciate the effort undertaken by Macklemore, but why couldn’t she reserve a spot on the couch for Murs?

Issues of gay rights in hip-hop undoubtedly will have to address issues of racism as the genre itself is for the most part composed of  black artists, who will have to address these problems of intersectionality using their own methods. Such methods are already being underplayed in the media, with essentially zero coverage of a 2004 festival that highlighted a style called “homo-hop”. The festival itself featured more than 40 open LGBTQ artists. Such a blueprint might be more beneficial to the genre, with open artists interacting with other artists. Such a reality has come alive since former Odd Future member and famous r&b singer Frank Ocean, came out regarding his own sexuality (and props to Ellen for inviting him on the show). Of course, it not only helps that Frank Ocean is relatively popular and also an r&b artist as opposed to a hip-hop artist who partakes in other aspects of the culture (I doubt we would ever see extensive media coverage or appreciation for any of the openly gay black rappers discussed here).

In the end, the problems of intersectionality here are due to the lack of discussion, as well as the unwillingness to discuss the privilege involved. Let us make one thing clear, because people seem to have a twisted view of what exactly privilege is in a sociological, anti-oppression context. Privilege has nothing to do with being racist, supporting supremacy of any kind, or belittling people when pointing it out. Privilege is simply about how society accommodates you, and about the advantages you have that you see as normal, that may not be normal for disenfranchised groups of people. In this case, the privileged group (here are certain white gay males, not ALL of them, as well as assorted members of the white LGTBQ community) do not engage issues of intersectionality with racism due to their immediate sphere of consciousness not having to deal with those issues, due to them simply not being black. It’s really not that hard to grasp and I fail to see any problem. That is no attack on their character, because any of them could still denounce the system while admitting they benefit from that privilege. Many have. This debate just needs more honest discussion and we cannot bog ourselves down in illusions of utopianism while there are still necessary steps to take.

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