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As Coming Out Becomes More Common, Is Hip-Hop Less Homophobic?

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iLoveMakonnen at No Vacancy on March 22, 2016 in Los Angeles. 

When iLoveMakonnen addressed suspicion around his sexuality in 2015, he took a stance that sounded far more progressive than it actually was. Speaking with The New York Times, he said of curiosity about his sexuality, “The rap world thinks I’m gay. A lot of people out there do. They think I’m a homosexual, which is not a problem. I don’t want to say I’m gay, I’m straight, I’m bisexual or any of that, because that’s just… Who cares? All that’s doing is dividing us.”

An identifier is not divisive; when people say they avoid labels, they do so under the assumption that to avoid labeling one’s self is to prevent being hindered by other people’s prejudices. The fact that suspicion has followed iLoveMakonnen throughout his short career is a testament to that. That said, the Atlanta rapper/singer -- and every person breathing on this planet -- does not owe anyone intel with respect to their sexual orientation.

Yet in January 2017 by way of Twitter, the "Tuesday" hitmaker decided to share with the world that he is, in fact, gay. Joining him was Chance The Rapper’s brother, Taylor Bennett, who also recently used Twitter to share that he is bisexual. In response, his brother tweeted: "Love this man right here, through any and all. He has grown into a great man. He's got God and me behind him, he cannot fail he cannot fall."

Unsurprisingly, not all responses to each person’s revelation were warm and fuzzy. Ever the sarcastic, outspoken MC, Joe Budden wrote on Twitter: “Makonnen the only person that didn’t know he was out the closet.”

Regardless of anyone’s suspicions, no one knew what iLoveMakonnen was until iLoveMakonnen told us. To take this burden on is an act of bravery because while there are certainly other gay men around in hip-hop, very rarely does anyone volunteer to be the first. As Tom Sykes at The Daily Beast notes: “There are remarkably few out gay male stars in the hip-hop world; prior to today's declaration by iLoveMakonnen, the best-known would have been the producer and rapper Le1f, born Khalif Diouf.”

Still, when it comes to the state of homophobia in hip-hop, it is important to frame the discussion carefully. With every bit of growth within the culture, I’m often asked just how far we’ve come. However, it is always frustrating when that question is presented with the subtext that hip-hop is so much more homophobic than anything else.

Hip-hop, as dominant a force as it is, is nothing but a mirror to the dominant culture. The dominant culture has progressed in some ways like marriage equality, but as the new administration under President Donald Trump has already shown, the burdens for the LGBTQ community are by and large still omnipresent.

Not to mention, there are not many out pop stars, few gay contemporary rockers and zero gay major country singers. With hip-hop, though, there are quite a few noteworthy signs of progression. There are rappers who have come out to publicly support marriage equality and gay rights. The likes of Lil B specifically have not only spoken out against homophobia, but went as far as to name one of his albums I'm Gay with the intent to further de-stigmatize prejudices related to gay identity.

There are rappers like the lesbian Young M.A who is not only a rising force in hip-hop, but as shown in a recent ad for Beats by Dre, is comfortably displaying her sexuality by hollering at another woman with her signature "Ooouuu" in a major ad. And no matter the controversies surrounding her, there are women like Azealia Banks who have never shied away from their bisexuality and have refused to concern themselves with any needless attention drawn to it. For many, who they are is just that and they do not feel compelled to debate how they were born.

That doesn’t blind me to the reality that “f--got” is all too often casually used as a slur. It doesn’t delude me into not realizing that to be gay in hip-hop, or anywhere for that matter, doesn’t make life a bit harder -- especially if you dare to be both black and gay. I’m not naive enough to think a few folks coming out has changed everything.

Nevertheless, iLoveMakonnen feeling comfortable to reveal that he is gay as a rap artist is a testament to changing attitudes in the culture (and the dominant culture by which it only serves as a reflection of). He could have continued giving these very cryptic and arguably vapid statements about his sexuality and allowed people to keep speculating. It is very much a risk to still out himself in this way. That said, it is far much less of a risk in 2017 than it was five, 10 or 15 years ago. We have not evolved as much as many of us would like, but progress has been made all the same.

iLoveMakonnen's declaration shows that an increasing number of artists are not only more comfortable with being their most authentic selves in the public eye, but also less concerned about how homophobic fans will react to them. The homophobia in hip-hop lingers, but it doesn't feel as much as a burden as it once did. That's because, little by little, people who advocate for all of us to be treated equally no matter our sexual orientation are winning. Every little step forward is worthy of praise, so when it comes to iLoveMakonnen, thank you. You've made it much more easier for those who will soon come after you.