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"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 businessand far less out. But they are everywhere.
Gay managers, publicists, songwriters, clothing designers, magazine editors, and lawyersmost of them blackkeep the rap juggernaut moving. They are present at every level of this game, and even the most vicious rappers know itor learn it as they climb the ladder. "Hip-hop is nothing without the people behind the scenesand 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 storymost of whom would talk only off the recordwould 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 gameand 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 silenceat least in New York fashion circles, where he has surrounded himself with openly (sometimes outrageously) gay people. It goes with the fursand the upmarket ambition. (Mr. Diddy was unavailable for commentas were all the rappers mentioned in this piece.)
Still, it's one thing for fashion editors to see the influence of Puffy's pouffy pals on the runway or at the after-party; it's quite another for the baggy-assed consumer at HMV. "Rappers work with gay hair and makeup people all day, but they aren't telling the interviewer on Hot 97," says a former publicist at a major rap label. "If you're in a room with your boys, they don't want people to know they've got a gay publicity coordinator because if the word gay is somehow attached to you, it brings up that you are soft, a pussy, and going to hell. You'll have no street credibility, and you won't sell that record." In rap, homophobia doesn't just ruleit sells.
The irony is that many rappers who rail about "piss[ing] on that sissy" (to quote Snoop Dogg) are actually just "studio thugs"the industry term for a disingenuous gangsta veneer. Some of the most homophobic rappers have tight friendships with gay men in their entourageor so these gay brothers claim. "Major hardcore rappers treat me like family," says the broker of deals with clothing lines. "We work hand in hand." A major reason for this bonding is financial. "I have to have a relationship with these people to make an album," says the closeted a&r man. "I don't want to sound like I'm selling my soul to the devil, but I'm here to sign artists that make money for the label, and for myself."
But greed is only part of what keeps these gay brothers in line. There is also solidarity with rappers and sympathy with their struggle to rise. Says the a&r man: "They come from backgrounds where they are isolated and know nothing else." Quohnos Mitchell, a former rap publicist who is now an executive
at Tommy Hilfiger, knows what the ghetto is like. "The whole rap thing is about minorities making money for the first time," he explains. "The artists, the producers, the magazinesthese are all black folks making money."
As black men surviving in corporate America, these gay brothers are loath to rock the rap boat, because that would mean tampering with one of the few routes to prosperity for African Americans. Like countless black gay people in all walks of life, they see race as central to their identity. While they would never support an antiblack artist, they don't feel the same impulse to halt a homophobic rapper. "Race is an overt issue, whereas sexuality is much more covert," says the a&r man. "So I'm definitely not as sensitive to it."
But the solidarity goes deeper than just race. For some of these gay enablers, it reflects an unspoken admiration for the hard-man icon of the rapperand an expectation that this will include contempt for homosexuality. The result is an eroticized self-hate that feeds the cycle of degradation. "It works on your self-esteem," says Mitchell. "It's a kind of psychic slavery. What you're getting from your work is that you aren't rightand you validate that by doing what you do."
There are signs that this cycle may be broken soon. A few gay mensome of them industry titansare beginning to speak out against homophobia in rap. When Emil Wilbekin was hired to edit Vibe, he addressed homosexuality in hip-hopeven as he put hate-rappers on the cover. "I have the power to raise questions about it, but it's not my job to police every album and tell every rapper they're doing something wrong. That's where GLAAD can speak out."
Some gay men in rap are willing to go further. "I feel like if it's not right to say 'nigger' it shouldn't be right to say 'faggot,' " says stylist Darren Anthony. He won't work with homophobic rappers. "It's my integrity. I'm not going to style your video or editorial while you're dissing my community. If that's the case, it won't work."