On Tuesday, Odd Future mastermind Tyler, The Creator released his latest opus, "Wolf." Of course, as with most of his creative output (as well as his personal antics), the release was met with a highly-polarized response. While most reviewers paid high compliments to the album's production and Tyler's evolution as an artist in that regard (he produced the entire record essentially by himself and the music is largely pretty great), most also took the time to highlight the album's rampant use of what appears to be Tyler's favorite word in the English language, "Faggot."
Indeed, the word "faggot" has, over time, become something of a calling card for Tyler: there are claims that he said the word over 200 times on his previous release, "Goblin." When questioned about its use, Tyler adamantly claims that he is not using the word in a derogatory way towards gay people and that he is resolutely not homophobic, citing his close relationship with recently un-closeted Odd Future-member Frank Ocean as definitive proof of this (Ocean appears on two "Wolf" tracks).
Yesterday, Gawker's Rich Juzwiak wrote a great piece which highlights the inconsistencies of Tyler's argument for using the word. Essentially, the rapper explains that his over-use of "faggot" actually deflates its meaning as a homophobic epithet. He ardently claims that he would be cool with a white person referring to him as a "nigga," and when referring to the often painful historical baggage inherent in both words, Tyler claims that he simply "doesn't give a fuck about that shit." "I'm not homophobic. I just think 'faggot' hits and hurts people. It hits. And 'gay' just means you're stupid," Tyler continues, "... I don't want people to think I'm homophobic." As Juzwiak points out, Tyler claims to be using this word for it's power without acknowledging that the reason it wields so much of it is due to its complicated cultural history. "Faggot" does not exist in a vacuum.
The debate about Tyler that is raging this week, and the fact that I really like "Wolf," has me reflecting on my own complicated relationship with homophobia in hip-hop. As a New York gay kid who grew up largely on Biggie, Nas and Wu-Tang, I had always been a staunch defender of all of hip-hop's ethically ambiguous tropes: the rampant misogyny, the casual violence, etc. What I always loved about the genre, and the reason that I always related to it more than any other popular music form growing up, was its rawness regarding human nature, no matter how ugly and, for lack of a better word, un-"PC" it was. Sure, hip-hop explored violence, deviant sex, and drug distribution and use, but so what? That was real, that was the reality of the artist's creating this work and I related to that honesty despite being an upper-middle class, queer Jewish white boy from Westchester.
I grew up in a decidedly eccentric family. My dad is in the music business and from the time I was born, worked with and had a deep respect for artists like RZA, Noreaga, Mobb Deep and the like. My mom, largely shunned by our suburban community for not playing by any of the traditional soccer-mom rules, had less of a natural understanding of hip-hop but appreciated it and was always passionate about attempting to get into anything I was interested in as a kid. We'd drive in the car and I'd play her "Ready to Die" and the Clipse, and she'd vibe out to the best of her ability (she went through a phase where she was really into Ol' Dirty Bastard).
However, I have one distinctive memory of playing her Biggie's "Ten Crack Commandments" around the time I came out of the closet at 16. In the song, Big runs down the rules of dealing crack, one of which is not to mix business and family and includes the line "money and blood don't mix like two dicks and no bitch." "I like it, but I don't understand how you could not be bothered by the homophobia and the misogyny," my mom said. "What's wrong with mixing two dicks and no bitch? That's you!" I immediately went on the defensive, explaining that in his reality, gay-ness was equated with weakness, uber-masculinity was needed for survival in the drug-game, and that I personally did not take offense. "I feel like if Biggie had met me, he wouldn't have had an issue with me at all," I said.
"Ten Crack Commandments" was written in 1996 and clearly, both we as a society and hip-hop as a culture have made great strides in understanding and accepting homosexuality. Equal rights for gays in 2013 seems pretty much like an inevitability and I never thought I'd see the day where Jay-Z, a man who once rapped, "Niggas wanna strip you to the bone for that shit you own / Hate a nigga like that faggot" would publicly state his support of gay marriage. I shed tears when Frank Ocean came out of the closet last year, representing the first openly queer mainstream hip-hop or R&B artist. The fact that Ocean's career has only been elevated since his brave confession only further highlights how far we've come in just 15 years.
But the flip-side of those strides is that I have become far less tolerant of my favorite rappers and their use of casual homophobia. A couple years ago, I was really into the Game album "Doctor's Advocate" until I saw him tweet some ridiculously homophobic stuff which included the question, "what kinda man lets another man stick a dick in his booty?" Around the same time, I watched an interview with Busta Rhymes, an artist who I had loved since I was kid. When asked how he felt about gay people, Busta was visibly uncomfortable with the question, tried everything in his power to dodge it, but eventually let the interviewer know that he was "not with it."
While 2002 Louie would have accepted or even justified this kind of thing, 2009 Louie could not. I found myself wanting to walk up to Game and Busta and tell them to go fuck themselves. With the dial moving so rapidly on gay issues throughout our society, it somehow stung in a way that it hadn't before. Here I was, a fan, someone who had bought their albums and gone to their shows and even defended them all while they were hurling homophobic barbs in their raps, and they couldn't even find the respect not to shit-talk me in public. Furthermore, I wondered how members of a community that was founded on being the underdog, not being understood by mainstream culture and on anger rooted in a grotesque history of discrimination, lack an understanding of the fact that homophobia was just a different iteration of the same shit they had and continue to experience? I was dumbfounded by this ignorance.
The bottom line is I don't think Tyler, The Creator is homophobic, at least not in a conscious way. As with Biggie, I feel pretty confident that if I met Tyler, we would be cool with each other and I certainly have deep respect for him as an artist and a musician. But I'd be lying if I said that, when I start to really think about it, his insistence on using "faggot" doesn't bug me a little. Whether or not the word "faggot" has meaning to him or not, it has meaning to me. Throughout middle and high school, I got called a "faggot" and not for being "stupid" and not just because it "hits." I got called a faggot because I was gay and was called it by people who did not think that who I was as a person was acceptable. It was an extraordinarily painful, life-defining experience. And while things are changing, there is a still a very staunch reality that gay kids everywhere everyday are getting called "faggot" in a cruel, discriminatory way. The word still has a very deep meaning that is not diminished just because Tyler says so.
I've also gone through life as a hip-hop fan, knowing that no matter how many times the word is used in all my favorite songs, it's not at all cool for me to casually use the word "nigger," even when reciting lyrics. The hip-hop community has long-claimed that its use of the word is about reclamation, deflating the meaning and changing it's connotation to one of endearment, all facts which I fully accept. But I believe that as a gay man, I should be afforded the same rights. It is not Tyler, the Creator's place to tell me "faggot" has no meaning because he has decided it is so. It is of course his right as an artist to say whatever he wants, but I think it behooves him to think a little more thoroughly about his reasoning. Maybe if he did, he'd realize there are far more effective ways of continuing to move hip-hop's dial on this issue than just incessantly saying a word.