When I was growing up, rap's raw sound drew me in, but its repugnant attitudes toward women and the LGBT community left me feeling torn. I love hop-hop but dislike what it has sometimes stood for.
Famous rappers and their fans have called me ugly names with no fear of reprisal, and some of my favorite emcees have dropped lyrics that are downright hostile toward who I am: an openly gay, "Generation Y," African-American male. Still, I've never lost faith in hip-hop's power to inspire and uplift. As an activist curator I'm often drawn to the more conscious aspects of hip-hop culture as source material. "Motown to Def Jam," which ended its month-long run in Harlem last week, is my most recent exhibition linking the art world to the world of music. It pays visual homage to the humanist output from four legendary record labels, including Def Jam, an easy target for homophobic assumptions.
Over the past three decades, hip-hop has become an important element in every American's journey, influencing everything from music, fashion and language to politics and attitudes toward gender and race. Few things come close to defining an entire era. The genre has been called "the heartbeat of urban America," but for years its atria and ventricles reliably pumped hate. Indeed, homophobia is in hip-hop's DNA: The Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," hop-hop's first crossover hit, dismisses a rival (Superman, no less!) as a "fairy." Since then, rappers have casually hurled coarser and harder anti-gay slurs. In 2006 Kanye West told MTV, "Everyone in hip-hop discriminates against gay people." While bravely condemning homophobia he added that the genre isn't alone: "Not just hip-hop, but America just discriminates."
A lot has changed in recent years: The nation is more tolerant, right up to the Supreme Court and the White House. And hip-hop has followed suit. Artists embraced Frank Ocean's admission that he once loved a man and also expressed support for same-sex marriage. This is redemptive.
But I can still feel the sting of the stupidity and ignorance that I encountered when I was coming of age in hip-hop. In 2009 WorldStarHipHop.com picked up a video interview I conducted with speed rapper Twista. The feature racked up over 50,000 views and over 130 comments, many of which were homophobic. Cyber bullies aimed venomous bullets at me, typing lines like, "I couldn't even fully watch this video cuz of that f***** a** n*gga yo" and "that f****** a** n*gga wit da dreads gotta go..If he dies he dies." These hateful eruptions surprised me. I was devastated.
Of course I'd been aware that homophobia existed in hip-hop, but until then I'd thought I could consciously circumnavigate it. I didn't dress or behave flamboyantly when representing urban magazines as a freelance journalist, interviewing the likes of Busta Rhymes, Joe Budden and Styles P. from former Bad Boy Records group The Lox. I wanted to be taken seriously and treated like a professional and not let my sexuality be a distraction. But hip-hop culture still didn't accept me. I continued to be dogged by its threats and taunts. This made me question why I was fighting to uphold a culture that did not appreciate diversity and tolerated individuals who would rather see me "die" than interview one of their own.
Then I started actively seeking out songs that embraced more upstanding attributes. I've always felt "different" in my skin; rap images of hypermasculine, thugged-out men of color looked nothing like me. My "eccentric" style and increasing sense that I was attracted to boys led me to female emcees who spoke about being fearless and independent. Like the LGBT community, women are marginalized in hip-hop. Therefore I was able to identify with "female" anthems and find my own inspiration in songs like Salt-N-Pepa's "Independent" and Queen Latifah's "U.N.I.T.Y." When Queen Latifah challenges misogyny with the line "who you calling a bitch," I could just as easily replace "bitch" with "faggot" and challenge homophobia. Seeing icons such as Salt-N-Pepa and Queen Latifah boldly claim their place in hip-hop on their terms restored my belief that beats and rhymes can be inclusive.
What helped me further navigate the hip-hop minefield is my upbringing, which emphasized being true to oneself. My mother always said, "Whatever you do in life, be the best you can be at it." I was not doing my best by compromising who I was to assimilate. I had to embrace all of me, whether it meant being accepted or not being accepted by hip-hop culture.
I developed a comfortable relationship with hip-hop and eventually began working with the music as a way to give rise to self-discovery and personal growth, curating projects like "Motown to Def Jam." The exhibition features artists visually interpreting socially conscious hip-hop songs from the Def Jam catalog. Foxy Brown's "B.K. Anthem" is brought to life by Fernando Carpaneda, who captures this raw depiction of street life, violence, broken dreams and perseverance. Through the creative use of QR codes, JaSon E. Auguste pays tribute to "Tribes at War," a collaboration between Nas and Damian Marley. Here hip-hop is the bridge uniting the international community and railing against the state of global violence and war. And vinyl pop artist Greg Frederick captures the themes of suspicion, fear and prejudice prevalent in LL Cool J's "Illegal Search," made all the more timely in the wake of Trayvon Martin's killing and the present examination of the nation's racial profiling tactics.
The artists all told me that they loved the challenge I presented them. And through the exhibition I wanted to remind people that hip-hop can be a transformative agent to help enlighten, inspire, educate and unite. We all -- hip-hop performers, executives, journalists and listeners -- just have to dig a little deeper in the crates and ourselves.