Excerpted by Latoya Peterson
Warning: Explicit Language.
Saying that this interview blew my mind is an understatement. Reading “It’s All One: A Conversation between Juba Kalamka and Tim’m West” in the Total Chaos anthology was an illuminating experience in reference to queerness and hip-hop culture. There were so many pieces I wanted to type to share with you all, but couldn’t do so without feeling like I was taking money out off Jeff Chang’s wallet. So here are a few snippets of the conversation that made the largest impact on me and hopefully many of you will try to locate the full interview (or even buy the book).
Juba: It wasn’t until commercial viability became an issue for the record industry at large did the need for a categoric and hard-line heterosexualization and hypermasculine posturing come front and center. Hip-hop’s racial contextualization has been similar to that of early rock ‘n roll – the sale of scart, titillating, and ultimately Otherizing fantasy images of nonwhite people that fit into that same old boxes of “frightening yet sexy.” So, no, maybe a “gay” identity wouldn’t fit as a component of a “hip-hop” identity if you understand “gay” as a code for “weak” or “feminized” and therefore undesirable to a media machine selling a particular kind of Scary Negro Drag, or someone who’s performing it and unable or unwilling to interrogate their positionality.
At the same time, there’s the issue of “gay” or “Queer” being yet another identity marker that had already been co-opted by white middle-class institutions by the time hip-hop was beginning to receive mainstream attention. An authentic b-boy (read: Black) would have had a difficult time integrating a gay or bisexual identity into his pose, as “gay” was something he would know he was racially, economically, and socially excluded from.
Tim’m: But even this undermines a rich legacy of gays and lesbians in Black communities that had little to no interaction with white gay culture. Culturally speaking, Black gays have always preferred to abide alongside their Black communities rather than “ghettoize” their sexualities into geographic “safe spaces.” This isn’t a criticism, just an observation.
Juba: I agree. There is the assumption by Black straights and white gays that Black Queers were somehow automatically interested in participating in white gay culture – which also assumes an uncomplicated relationship to being “out” in the way most people understand that. That is extremely problematic and, as you have said, lazy thinking.
Growing up in Chicago and attending high school in the early and mid-1980s there was no real distinction between straight and gay in the house music scene, though it was overwhelmingly Black and Latino. My high school reflected this dynamic as well as that of the white gay kids never really expressing any interest in what we were doing.
Juba: Don’t get me wrong. I’m not using the notion that critics have largely ignored nonwhite gay aesthetics inside of hip-hop culture as an excuse for the homophobia I or others have experienced within the African American community. I just think it’s a much more complicated conversation than Black people – especially Black men, critics, artists, and consumers alike – want to have because it would require an examination of the way partiarchy functions intracommunally. Open conversations about homophobia as an extension of sexism and misogyny would put a lot of stuff on the table that gets dismissed in the name of silencing and the erasure of inappropriate faggotry.
Tim’m: You said “inappropriate faggotry.” Let’s not get it twisted. Hip-hop heteros rely heavily on the inappropriate faggot in order to even exist. In a really twisted sort of way, they rely on the verbal bashing of fags in order to substantiate their manhood. Which backpacking love, peace, and justice MCs have ever been regarded as “hard?” None. In fact, many of them are so often suspected of being “fags” that they go to sometimes great and awkward lengths to say: “Hey, I’m for peace and love but fuck a faggot.” It’s really funny, actually. Sadly, hard edge and masculinity almost always means you hate fags. We can imagine Eminem doing a song on stage with Elton John, but that’ll be the day when Dre kicks it with Little Richard, “good lawdy.”
I think there’s also an assumption that people who seem to fag-bash in their lyrics are necessarily homophobic in the ways people normally think about homophobia. It’s one thing to say you “don’t like faggots” or “that’s so gay,” but, in reality, you love your lesbian mother or look out for your baby brother or cousin who you know ain’t never had a girlfriend. It’s another thing altogether to be raising megabucks to stop gay people from getting married or finance the Republican candidate for president. Sometimes I think I prefer the homophobic remarks I can strategically counter over the subtle, polite, smiling-in-my-face white (or Black) Christians who want to relinquish my most basic human rights. Generally, I just don’t think there’s ever been a thorough assessment of Black people’s perspectives on Black people in their community who are gay or lesbian, unless produced by the Christian right as a political scare tactic. Nobody’s interviewing my mama or straight brothers. They aren’t talking with the first (straight) emcees I ever rhymed with or people I collaborate with who still don’t care ’cause they see talent. This may sound a bit off, but I’ve been in a lot of Black setting where people know I like boys and ain’t a damn person tripped. [...]
Juba: Thanks for touching on something I hadn’t addressed directly – power, specifically the institutional power or the ability to create and effect public policy around one’s prejudices, global, white-supremacist, patriarchal capitalism – something that Black people do not possess. People do indeed get it twisted. Hip-hop didn’t draft the Defense of Marriage Act, or create “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” or murder young folks like Sakia Gunn, Matthew Shepard, Gwen Araujo, Brandon Teena, and Rashawn Brazell. What happened to those young people was allowed to happen, and encouraged. I too get tired of the onus and responsibility for interrogating and eradicating homophobia being laid at the feet of poor and/or nonwhite people.
The hypocrisy on both Black and white media outlets is so glaring as to be comical. Even the majority of white LGBT media outlets are steeped in and driven by middle-class economic and cultural privilege. They maintain and invest in these conversations about hip-hop – seen as a poor, urban, nonwhite youth culture – as the apex, if not the genesis, of all pop-cultural homophobic notions. We get the attendant ridiculously satirical or frightened and aghast puff pieces about b-boys and b-girls pushing against-all-odds at some huge wall of nigga antagonism.
Then a movie like Brokeback Mountain becomes successful, and all of a sudden, you see articles outlining the long history of Hollywood’s homophobia and how these invariably white actors can’t get jobs after playing fag on film. Huh?! What happened? Where did the b-boys disappear to – or is this our fault as well? Did Run-DMC secretly concoct some scheme to keep Harry Hamlin and Michael Ontkean from getting feature film leads after they did Making Love in 1982? Where we at?
We’re exactly where you say, Tim’m – invisible, trotted out when needed to create some furor or sell some magazines or some cable shows. Poor and nonwhite folks (and yes, this includes Eminem’s authenticated wiggerisms) become these abject, mythological characters. This is the genesis of my reference to the frightening, “inappropriate” faggot – by which I mean the real, the living, the breathing, fucking, fighting, loving, shit-talking faggot (and by extension the even more frightening, emasculating bulldagga/dyke) as opposed to the erstaz, apolitical, defenseless “Men on Film” incarnation of the “sissy bitch-nigga” (wow, there goes that misogyny again.)
I mean, really, could you watch Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied and come away with a notion that queeny Black gay men were afraid of straight people or somehow necessarily co-opted and conscripted by a whitewashed notion of “gay” culture? How does a straight Black man look at himself after reading Essex Hemphill’s interrogations of his brothers’ sexism toward Black women or deconstructions of how the white gaze had complicated his notions of what his desires should be? How do white and nonwhite men deal when confronted with Pat Parker’s dialogues on female masculinity and butch identity?
Heteronormative culture, white and nonwhite, doesn’t want to deal with the issues they discuss. It’s all too scary. So they start making up these mythologies, these ghosts to go “Ooooh, boogedy boogedy!” [...]