Fronting for the Enemy

Gay Men Who Make Homophobic Rappers Look Good

DMX, Goodie Mob, Mobb Deep, Ja Rule, Ice Cube, and Elton John's nigga Eminem: All these rappers have gotten rich on vicious, sometimes violent, homophobia. Yet these same rappers have been styled, promoted, and in one case actually signed by gay men.

"My first signing was a rap group whose lyrics were definitely derogatory," says a gay a&r man at a major label. He has since signed other well-known rappers who beat down gay people in their music. "When I'm in the studio with them and they're smoking and getting high, and it's 'faggot this' and 'faggot that,' what am I going to do? Get up and say, 'I can't believe you're saying that because I'm gay?' No. I am not going to deal with it."

This a&r man is no anomaly. The business of making and marketing rap is no different from the rest of the music industry: It's full of gay men. Maybe not as gaaaay as the dance-music arm of the business—and far less out. But they are everywhere.

Illustration by Justin Hampton

Gay managers, publicists, songwriters, clothing designers, magazine editors, and lawyers—most of them black——keep the rap juggernaut moving. They are present at every level of this game, and even the most vicious rappers know it—or learn it as they climb the ladder. "Hip-hop is nothing without the people behind the scenes—and it's no secret that gay men are giants of the industry," says an agent who brokers deals between celebrity thugs and clothing lines. "We're VPs and directors of public relations. We make things happen."

He's not talking about closeted men with understanding wives. The record industry isn't Wall Street. These men live privileged 21st-century gay lives, complete with live-in boyfriends and jaunts to Black Gay Pride weekend in Washington, D.C. They enjoy all the benefits of gay liberation while colluding in the popularization of primitive ideas about gay people. They don't set out to make this music, but neither do they object to it in any way. They put up with a fusillade of "faggot" references from rappers, telling themselves that the word doesn't refer to them. Or that rappers are ignorant. Or that, in rap, verbal gay bashing goes with the territory. "I surely don't agree with what they're saying," says the a&r man, "but I know it's not directed at me. So my feeling toward them is, wow, you guys will never know."

That might be true where he's concerned. Most gay men in the rap business live in terror of being equated with Blaine and Antoine, the famous snap-queen film reviewers from In Living Color. Like everyone in hip-hop, they work hard to look "hard." That might mean baggy jeans and Tims, cornrows and do-rags, but especially that sexy (and usually deliberate) thug front. Of course, straight men do gangsta drag, too. But for these gay men, it's part of the professional closet.

Is this front necessary? Yes and no. To name the people interviewed for this story—most of whom would talk only off the record—would probably not get them fired (although one former publicist thinks he lost his job at a major rap label for being too visibly gay). But coming out would jeopardize their hold on the most important tool of this trade: street credibility. As one professionally closeted lawyer put it, "Your career would get killed."

This lawyer, who brokers TV deals between rappers and networks, realizes that "to be in hip-hop you have to be like a gangsta, and there's no way a gangsta could be gay. It carries over into the business, and to be successful it has to be part of your life. So no one checks their artists for fear of losing a client."

The main reason why so many gays are willing to shut up and put up with being dissed is that to do otherwise would threaten the code of keeping it real. Anything "gay" goes against the rules of the thug game—and to speak out against a homophobic artist would, at the very least, create the suspicion of homosexuality. In this industry, silence equals survival.

That is, unless you're a stylist. "Artists expect stylists, photographers, and publicists to be gay," says Emil Wilbekin, editor in chief of Vibe and one of a very few powerful men in hip-hop who are openly gay. A video or photo shoot is one of the few rap environments where the F-word is rarely uttered. There are stories of rappers who refused to allow flamboyant gay men to dress them or do their hair, but for the most part it doesn't come up. Darren Anthony, a gay stylist who worked with Eminem (prior to the infamous Marshall Mathers LP), calls this "the rap wall of silence." Stylists get what Wilbekin calls "an artistic waiver," while rappers get to maintain their gangsta image, as crafted by a "faggot."

Puff Daddy (a/k/a P. Diddy) is one of the very few rappers to break through the wall of silence—at least in New York fashion circles, where he has surrounded himself with openly (sometimes outrageously) gay people. It goes with the furs—and the upmarket ambition. (Mr. Diddy was unavailable for comment—as were all the rappers mentioned in this piece.)

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