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Music

Breaking sexual taboos in hip-hop

Many artists in the hip-hop scene are considered homophobic, yet several American rappers have begun speaking out in support of gay rights. Now their German counterparts seem to be adopting a more tolerant approach.

"If I was gay, I would think hip-hop hates me," sings Seattle-based rapper Macklemore on his latest song, "Same Love." He is referring to the casual use in many rap songs of words such as "gay" as both an insult and vilification.

Tobias Kargoll, editor in chief of online music resource hip-hop.de, says that "hip-hop culture doesn't have one set attitude towards homosexuality. Hip-hop in general and particularly rap have always had a competitive nature. With this particular verbal competition, the cliché of the effeminate homosexual was always used to cast doubt on the masculinity of others." It's discriminatory certainly but shouldn't be over analyzed, says Kargoll. "You can find just as many offensive expressions outside of hip-hop that offend people but aren't intended to."

Literary critic Dr. Cathy Waegner from the University of Siegen says this attitude has its roots in the American slave trade. "Black slaves were robbed of their masculinity. They were oppressed and in reverse oppressed themselves," she says. "It was a way to emphasize their masculinity and express their power. In this context homosexuality was considered unmanly."

American rapper Macklemore

American rapper Macklemore

Shock tactics

Today homosexuality is a central topic in generally conservative American society, thus also with hip-hop. When gay marriage came to the forefront as an issue in the 2012 presidential election, many rappers also made their opinions known.

In his song "Animal Style," rapper Murs criticized American double standards towards homosexuality, particularly those of the church. In the track's music video, Murs plays a homosexual man and kisses his partner - something unthinkable in hip-hop a few years ago. In an interview Murs said that rap has always wanted to change situations. And Murs is not alone. Groups such as N.W.A and Public Enemy have often used shock tactics to challenge ideas while Macklemore's track "Same Love" was the most commercially successful single ever to deal with homosexuality. So much so that he and producer Ryan Lewis were appointed UN Ambassadors for equal rights for homosexuals.

From macho to metrosexual

Frank Ocean at the 2013 Grammy Awards

Frank Ocean at the 2013 Grammy Awards

If songs like these have raised awareness of the issue, then arguably R 'n' B singer Frank Ocean made an even bigger splash last year when he outed himself in an open letter. "Four summers ago, I met someone. I was 19 years old. He was too," he wrote. Ocean's popularity certainly didn't diminish; since his statement he's featured as a guest vocalist on tracks by Jay Z and Kanye West and received accolades from Def Jam label chief Russell Simmons. Ocean is also a member of the Los Angeles-based artists collective Odd Future, generally credited as being one of the most progressive and controversial forces in hip-hop today.

German rapper MistahNice from the Ruhr region doesn't think that rap and homosexuality necessarily contradict each other. "Rap is a part of pop culture and especially in America, it's totally mainstream. That goes for homosexuality too. I think rap has always reflected what's going on in society. There's more openness to homosexuality these days. Not so long ago, an NBA player outed himself. That something like that should happen in the music business was the next logical step."

Tobias Kargoll from hip-hop.de holds a similar view. He says on the one hand hip-hop has taken hold on many different levels of society and on the other the image of masculinity has also developed from the traditional macho man to the metrosexual. All of this has had an influence on hip-hop culture.

What happens in America, happens in Germany

German rapper MistahNice

German rapper MistahNice

Dr. Cathy Wagener also thinks the Obama presidency plays a role within this social change. As America's first black president he has had a key influence on black America. Obama was also the first American president to express the equality of homosexuals in his inauguration speech. He said that if we are all equal, as guaranteed by the constitution, then the love between two people should also be treated equally.

Even in Germany hip-hop songs supporting homosexuality are also conceivable, says MistahNice. "Particularly for people who don't come from this hardcore gangsta rap scene, the issue of homosexuality isn’t a problem at all. If a rapper has gay friends and chooses to address that in one of his songs, I can't imagine Germany being up in arms about it. It would be perfectly acceptable." The 32-year-old rapper doesn't just see that as a mere possibility either. "I expect that there'll very soon be mainstream rap songs on this topic. Once something happens in America, it soon follows that it happens here too." In this respect the main difference between American and German rap according to Tobias Kargoll is that "America has one more openly gay rapper than Germany does."

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