Hip-hop artist T-Pain has been an unlikely gay rights activist lately with his recent series of anti-homophobia tweets. But as with much of hip-hop itself, one must explore the context to really appreciate it. Without the story behind statements such as "Attention all homophobic idiots: if you're not attractive to straight women, you're probably not attractive to gay men. You can unclench now," they can be unsettling.
Are these musicians, T-Pain's esteemed peers, still walking past gay men with their butts clenched? And why is T-Pain, of all people, getting his own boxers in a twist about it?
I sat down with the King of Autotune at a press event and found that his newly acquired rage against homophobia stems from witnessing his gay assistant, E.J., endure daily rounds of disrespect and discrimination from within the industry.
"I was at an Akon party, and for some reason everybody was trying to stay away from me because of my assistant," said T-Pain, who witnessed a shift in the dynamic of the whole party. "I was sitting next to him, and it seemed like no one wanted to even come around us."
Some readers might be nodding right now, thinking, "Obviously, Rajul. The hip-hop industry is known to be a cesspool of homophobic imbeciles." However, that is a stereotype. So I prodded further.
Apparently, as Teddy Pain explained, the ones who are "cool" (that is, gay-friendly) are too cowardly to be loud and proud about it.
"It's not the hip or cool thing to do to be OK with it; you're not allowed to say it," he said. "Everybody was working with Frank Ocean before he came out. And now you have people like, 'No Frank Ocean features!' When he came out, it was like, 'Oh, that's not cool. People gonna think I'm gay if I put him on a song with me.' No, they're going to think you got a song with Frank Ocean. That's all."
T-Pain's reference to Ocean proves that hip-hop is a kindergarten-playground type of game: Be nice to the kid who's different, but don't go public with it, because it could drag you down. That's quite disconcerting.
T-Pain went on: "You know, I've had people not want to work with me because I have a gay assistant. These people don't want to be in the studio if I have [E.J.] with me."
Meanwhile, I spied the man responsible for T-Pain's rainbow-flag-waving rant standing in the corner, conversing with a publicist. He is an attractive, lean, young black man dressed in plaid and khaki. I wonder if his presence bothers other men in the industry because he isn't the gay stereotype that the media lustfully craves. His sexuality doesn't seem to be the only throbbing quality he possesses. Perhaps that makes straight guys in the industry who look, sound and dress like him uncomfortable.
Before my interview, E.J. patiently stood next to T-Pain, meticulously folding up the cuffs of his boss' button-down to prep him for a photo shoot. The gesture floored me. T-Pain is not considered pretty in any way (in fact, one of my favorite hip-hop journalists, Rondell Conway, once described him as having "a face only a mother could love"), yet his appearance has started to evolve. He's switched up his hairstyle, his clothes coordinate and fit better, and his skin is like a newborn's.
I'm not saying that this change is thanks to his new gay assistant, because that would be indulging in stereotypes. I'm just presenting the facts. Take from it what you will. While T-Pain told me that he's agitated by his peers' behavior, he seems lighthearted and approaches his homophobia bashing with humor. He laughs and smiles a lot these days.
A few of my journalism students, in their typical-20-year-old-frat-boy mindset, perceived T-pain's tweets as hyperempathy. "He just might be gay as well," they scoffed. Sure, that's a possibility for anyone, but they don't get it. Could it be that coming out isn't just about proclaiming one's homosexuality? Perhaps the really liberating thing for T-Pain is proclaiming his status as a straight ally in a community that spits on straight allies.
We went on to discuss NBA player Jason Collins' recent coming out. Forgetting Collins' status as a free agent and his career politics for a minute, I asked T-Pain if he thinks it's going to change the vibe between Collins and his teammates in the locker room. What I got was the makings of another potential tweet:
"You been getting butt-ass naked all these years, and [he] ain't did nothing yet; [he] don't want you, dude," he said. "If I was to come out gay as an athlete, I'm not going to all of a sudden want you. They already have their gay partners or whatever. They're not going to want you now. You're very ugly, dude."
A little clumsy, yet charming. It seems that it's not just society's conflation of sexuality with profession that T-Pain is upset about here, but the arrogance of straight men. Don't flatter yourselves, he's saying. Gay men have standards.
So there you have it: The guy who sang about falling in love with a stripper is defending the right to fall in love with whomever else you damn well please. Now all we need is for Rick Ross to attend a gender studies course at Sarah Lawrence and for Kanye West to spend some time on the therapist's couch, and I can stop defending commercial hip-hop for good.