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Fans may chalk it up to his uncancellable gift of staticky, blitzkrieg rap over Batman villain-type beats; the unmistakable genius of his Glock-waving, diaper-wearing antics that absolutely no one has ever done or will do again; or perhaps that the VVS diamonds in his grill are just so flashy that we are, rather unwisely, attracted to it. We know it can’t be the fact that DaBaby’s history of hitting Black women has placed him in communion with pal Tory Lanez, who shot Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion in both of her feet. It couldn’t be that violence against a “beloved” Black woman like Meg, who was central to DaBaby’s rise, could be a force so powerful as to actually bring hateful people together. It couldn’t be that a New York radio station Power 105.1 , which also invited noted homophobe Boosie Badazz to The Breakfast Club the morning after to discuss all the reasons why he believes Lil Nas X deserves to be beaten up for having the audacity to joke about performing in the nude, would co-sign this vile behavior.
During the Summer Jam performance, DaBaby played a prerecorded video that featured a non-apology, thanking Hot 97 for being “willing to stick their neck out on the line” and not drop him. This was the second apology in a month from the 29-year-old artist, who talked down on HIV-positive queer people at the Rolling Loud festival last month. “I want to apologize to the LGBTQ+ community for the hurtful and triggering comments I made,” he wrote on his Instagram after a bevy of popular music fests removed him from their lineups. “Again, I apologize for my misinformed comments about HIV/AIDS and I know education on this is important.” The contrition was short-lived though, as the artist deleted the apology a couple days later. And at Summer Jam, following his so-called “apology,” he branded critics of his homophobic rant “crybabies” before getting into the hit Megan Thee Stallion record “Crybaby” on which he was featured, twisting the misogynist knife in the wound. This combination of sexism and queerphobia is not lost on any hip-hop fan who’s been involved in the industry for any length of time.
Much ink has (and will) be spilled over how hip-hop will reckon with its inherent homophobia, and how artists like Lil Nas X deftly and freely gesture toward the answers in their music videos and live performances via Judeo-Christian imagery and the queer imagination of the incarcerated, and furthermore, how artists like Boosie, DaBaby, T.I., Migos and many others can use public radio and their own social media platforms to spew anti-gay hate. And yet, when it comes to the existence of homophobia in New York radio and within hip-hop writ large, we’ve made all the arguments, interrogated all the possible reasons as to why certain men can be so hateful, and why rap circles are quiet. At this point the facts are the facts. What feels important to get at now, with the umpteenth iteration of the same conversation, is: What’s the impulse that keeps straight Black men obsessed with queer people?
The answer, especially for a platform like Hot 97, is pretty simple. With their relevance in decline —a downward trend for public radio across the country—they need material that’s going to increase engagement, and queerphobia seems to sell to both the hateful straights who feel the need to legitimize their straightness and the whistleblowing public who feel the need to dunk on them. Emmis Communications, the company that owns the station, regularly touts the “Eleven Commandments” that were given to founder Jeff Smulyan on stone tablets at Mount Advertise. But like most commandments, these—specifically one that reads, “Never jeopardize your integrity—we win the right way or we don’t win at all”—are routinely broken, particularly when it comes to their handling of queer and trans issues.
In 2013, host DJ Mister Cee was accosted on-air by Ebro Darden after he was arrested for soliciting trans prostitutes. Ebro grilled him in order to establish his straightness or queerness, and wasn’t possessed of the range to grapple with the reality that straight men who have sex with trans women are, indeed, still straight. A year later, Ebro took up the mantle of Inspector Gaydget once more, interrogating Atlanta rapper iLoveMakonnen’s love of cosmetology and pointing out that this fascination would incur the wrath of hip-hop’s manhood gatekeepers. Later, of course, iLoveMakonnen would come out and, again, face ostracization from those within the rap industry, as artists like Migos questioned his realness as a drug dealer in light of his homosexuality.
Hot 97 provided Florida rapper, Trick Daddy, a platform to spout bullshit about how kids shouldn’t be able to come out as queer. “That wasn’t how I grew up,” he said, and even put an age requirement of 30 for when queerness can be made real.
Charlamagne tha God, Angela Yee, and DJ Envy of The Breakfast Club, like Ebro, are no strangers to inciting queer and transphobic hatred just for the hell of it. Following Ebro’s Mister C interview, Charlamagne gave his colleague “Donkey of the Day,” while repeatedly called him “sis,” a “gay boy,” and accusing him of picking up “male prostitutes.” In 2017, when trans activist and writer Janet Mock passed through the morning show to promote her book Becoming, she was subjected to an ignorant line of questioning about surgeries, body changes and the like, with absolutely no consideration for the woman that sat before them. Mock handled it the best way she could, but the very next day, the show had on rapper Lil Duval, who boasted of how he would kill a transgender woman if he were to have sex with them accidentally—which, as we know, is not a joke but a very real threat to transgender women who are attracted to men.
Hot 97 and Power 105.1 have a long, ugly history of inviting well-documented homophobes to their radio shows and festivals, as well as questioning the queerness of their guests in rote, antiquated, and altogether harmful ways. But that doesn’t necessarily get at the people themselves. Why do hip-hop artists, who know they have queer fans, unload these hate-filled diatribes against them whenever anything remotely gay happens (or at random)? And what does the manner in which artists go about depicting queerness say about them and their experiences?
Take DaBaby, who performed at Rolling Loud last month, and—in addition to inviting Tory Lanez onstage—launched into a homophobic rant. “If you didn’t show up today with HIV, AIDS, or any of them deadly sexually-transmitted diseases that’ll make you die in two to three weeks, then put your cell phone lighter up,” he said. “Fellas, if you ain’t sucking dick in the parking lot, put your cell phone lighter up.”
When he doubled down on the comments two days later on his IG Live, the North Carolina rapper made a delineation between his gay fans and the gays on the streets that he was talking about during the set. “They don’t got AIDS. My gay fans, they take care of themselves. They ain’t no nasty gay niggas. See what I’m saying? They ain’t no junkies.”
Obviously, the belief that HIV and AIDS make queer people dirty has a long racist and homophobic history. But in a less headline-ready statement, DaBaby also claimed to have observed a queer man reveling in his set. “My boy on the left of the stage,” he said, referring to an assumedly queer man who snapped a ton of vids of the set. “My boy had the crop top on, front row, he out there in that jungle, in that water,” he explained, softly rubbing his chest at the word water, “he out there standing on the rails, out there cutting up.”
The body language here is aggressive (he follows up by saying this man knew all the words and was “rappin them bitches with him”') and oddly soft. This dichotomy can be found elsewhere in DaBaby’s oeuvre, when he and BRS Kash ski down semen slopes in the music video for the “Throat Baby” remix. A song that could be read as pushing a male-centered power dynamic against a woman actually features two men frolicking in seminal fluid. Yes, it’s a silly, sexist joke, but there is undoubtedly subtle homoeroticism at play.
In recent years, a flurry of popular rappers have experimented with queerness. Tyler, the Creator, known for his shock-and-awe homophobia during his teenage years in Odd Future, informed the world of his queerness while immediately blurring the line between queerbaiting and challenging hip hop’s notions of queerness. When Jaden Smith called him his “motherfucking boyfriend” onstage in 2018, Tyler responded on Twitter with: “Hahaha you a crazy n***a man.” It was never really clear if they actually dated but the idea that two male hip-hop stars could be dating thrust hip-hop heads into a new realm of possibility.
Tyler took his shtick of challenging heteronormativity and/or just queerbaiting a step further in 2019, when he showed up on Funkmaster Flex’s radio show and dropped a flirtatious freestyle that left Flex flummoxed. “Me and Flex, looking in the index just for some buff net n****s / For some hot butt sex.”
The seven-minute flow was performance art, as Flex at once distanced himself by saying “pause” and questioning, “Now why you gotta say that?” while simultaneously grinning hard at Tyler’s advances. It was such a wonderfully awkward moment that showcased the ways desire and attraction from queer people speaks to the very existence of the “spectrum” that violent straightness seeks to destroy.
For their part, Boosie and Power 105.1 woke up Monday morning and chose an old brand of violence. They spoke, at length, to the Louisiana rapper about his latest threat of violence against a queer person—this time Lil Nas X, who he said deserved to get his ass beat for kissing a man on stage and joking that he show up naked and fuck a man at his next performance. “As straight people we need our own voice too,” the 38-year-old rapper said, later adding, “All the gay people I know, they love my company and I love they company.” But Boosie, like DaBaby, wants people to be gay privately; to confine their love to the shadows. They want to police queerness while actively participating in a genre that trades in homoerotic spectacle—something Boosie is no stranger to, given the time he recounted in vivid detail witnessing two men having sex in jail.
Just look at hip-hop magazines and music videos. In 2010, a masked, flexed-out 50 Cent posed behind a young, shirtless Soulja Boy on the cover of XXL magazine, his arm slung over Soulja’s shoulder. A number of other rappers, from LL Cool J to Nelly, have graced rap magazine covers shirtless, their pecs dripping with oil. Make no mistake: this performative masculinity is not just for women. So, it adds insult to injury when these same men, in their statements, lyrics, and aesthetics, then turn around and malign queerness.
An important entry regarding homoeroticism and the male gaze in hip hop is the work of Byron Hurt in the mid-2000s. Hurt’s documentary, Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, was one of the first to deal with hip-hop’s obvious appeal to queer people but also their reluctance to discuss it. Artists like Busta Rhymes, the record executive (and accused serial rapist) Russell Simmons, and even no-name rappers on the streets of New York kept mum when it came to queerness. In one truly revealing example, Hurt asks Busta about homophobia, prompting the rapper to start shuffling his feet. “I can’t partake in that conversation. With all due respect, I ain’t tryna offend nobody… What I represent culturally doesn’t condone [homosexuality] whatsoever.” When Hurt pressed on, asking whether a gay rapper would ever be accepted in hip hop, Busta exited the room. It seems rappers are outspoken on every topic except homosexuality in hip hop.
This isn’t exclusive to hip hop, of course. Homophobia and racism are cousins on the white supremacist family tree. Eugenicists like R.W. Shufeldt, who wrote 1915’s America’s Greatest Problem: The Negro, also preached queer inferiority. As Hugh Ryan, author of the book When Brooklyn Was Queer, wrote in the Washington Post, Shufeldt was researching queerness, “which he variously referred to as ‘passive pederasty,’ ‘inversion,’ and ‘perversion.’” Shufeldt, according to Ryan, “didn’t believe that someone’s sexual nature could be changed” but he “did believe we could prevent queer people… by closely policing heterosexuality.” Unfortunately, Hot 97, Power 105.1, Boosie, DaBaby, and a host of others are willing to carry the torch to police queerness into oblivion and self-hatred while at the same time profiting directly from homoeroticism.
At the end of his Summer Jam set, DaBaby performed Pop Smoke’s “Thief in the Night,” honoring the slain rapper. Just after the performance, the artist walked to the middle of the stadium, and, with men’s and women’s hands reaching out to the rapper, shouted, “Y’all mind if I take my shirt off, Summer Jam?” He then removed his tight, black Celine shirt to roars from the crowd, revealing his sweaty body, and dived into his smash hit “Suge.” The crowd writhed in ecstasy.