Flower Boy: On Hip Hop and Homophobia

Tyler, the Creator’s latest album, Flower Boy may well be the first genuine coming-out album in hip-hop. Of course, there have been precursors in recent years, most notably and notoriously Frank Ocean’s Blonde. Yet Blonde also seemed anxious to shift the burden of self-disclosure to the textual apparatus surrounding the album, leaving the music itself strangely ambient and vacant, as if articulating a space in which something couldn’t be fully or properly articulated. By contrast, Flower Boy emphatically embeds Tyler’s self-disclosure within the lyrics and ambit of the album itself, which in some ways plays as a concept album about the prospect and possibility of coming out within a hip-hop milieu. Of course, too, there have been artists like Mykki Blanco and Arca who have been fusing hip-hop beats with a queer sensibility for some time. Yet I would hasten to say that these artists have ever released a coming-out album in quite the same way as Tyler, just because their outlook and address was queer from the outset. If anything, Blanco’s announcement that he was HIV positive came closer to a traditional coming-out gesture than anything relating to his sexual orientation, while Arca’s music has tended to move further away from any single or stable sexual orientation and towards a more contemporary sense of transgendered and genderqueer becoming.

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In other words, part of what makes Flower Boy such a powerful coming-out album is that Tyler’s earlier work was embedded squarely within a recognisably gangsta aesthetic. No doubt, like all the members of the Odd Future collective, he warped and twisted that aesthetic in strange directions, but the fact remains that gangsta formed the basic lexicon and foundation of his music from the very beginning. In that sense, Flower Boy twins coming out of the closet with coming out of gangsta – and presents gangsta as a closet – forcing the listener to reevaluate all of Tyler’s earlier work in the process. While I haven’t listened to the album enough to offer any close reading here, it’s been fascinating to see how the media has reacted to it so far, since there have been two major responses. The first has expressed a kind of cautious sympathy for Tyler’s newfound identity, while the second has expressed a certain frustration with the way in which this tallies with the pervasive homophobia that has characterised Tyler’s releases up until this point. In a critical milieu that often seems to repress the very possibility of homophobia in hip-hop (or the possibility of it being more damaging than mere “play”), Tyler has become renowned for his homophobia, and that really says something. From the slurs on Goblin, his 2011 debut, to his infamous response to Tegan and Sara, it often feels as if Tyler has identified more closely with the homophobia of gangsta rap than with any other feature – or, alternatively, has reimagined gangsta rap as so many ways of creatively riffing on homophobic conceits.

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In retrospect, then, it’s perhaps not all that surprising that he has finally come out To to be fair, too, there have been hints strewn throughout his songs for years, to the point where his homophobia has itself gradually morphed into a kind of self-disclosure that is merely articulated a little more directly on Flower Boy. While I understand the more sympathetic and reparative responses to the new album, then, I also get why some fans might feel frustrated as well, since Tyler has been throwing LGBT people under the bus since the beginning of his career. Of course, this is only a young man we’re talking about, and it’s a bit of a mug’s game to moralise too heavily about what we can expect from younger artists (keep in mind that Tyler was barely 20 when he released Goblin). Yet what I find so strange about even these more sceptical responses to the album is that they tend to position Tyler as a lone homophobe who has now come to terms with himself enough to come out, even or especially as it seems clear that the greatest possible impediment to him coming out was the musical milieu within which he was working in the first place. In that sense, Tyler’s entire career now feels a bit like an effort to move beyond the homophobia of hip hop by first moving through it, in a kind of cathartic or even expiatory gesture in which he appears to have tried on every conceivable homophobic guise before finally realising that none of them would work for him. Even on Flower Boy, some traces of that earlier self remain, if only in the more aggressive and tetchy moments that periodically rupture the synth-drenched atmosphere of fecundity that percolates its way through the album as a whole.

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If Flower Boy represents the first coming-out album in hip-hop, then this critical response feels like a high watermark in terms of how far music criticism is prepared to go to disavow the systemic homophobia that so often seems to animate hip-hop as a whole. Even or especially as Tyler’s new album seems to revise his entire discography as a sustained engagement with his hip-hop milieu, critics have rushed to extricate him from this milieu and frame his story in purely individual terms. As a result, most reviews that I have read have tended to be either too hard or too easy on Tyler, presenting him either as a stand-alone emblem of homophobia or as a social justice warrior who has overcome his own, purely personal homophobia to arrive at some kind of self-reckoning. Yet the answer surely lies somewhere in between, since Flower Boy doesn’t ultimately seem designed to answer questions about either Tyler’s personal life or about his attitude towards homophobia in general (which has been contradictory, to say the least, over the course of his career). Instead, the point of the album seems to be to keep certain questions open as questions, which is sometimes the most radical gesture that a work of art can make in our contemporary cultural moment. At a personal level, it feels like Tyler is keeping his orientation open as a question as much as anything else, which also seems to align him with the emergent kinds of sexuality identity present in the works of artists like Arca. At the same time, it also appears as if Tyler is keeping the question of the relationship between hip-hop and homophobia open, even if he doesn’t have any consistent or definitive answer himself.

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In a strange way, that’s about the most radical question – how does hip-hop relate to homophobia? – that a hip-hop artist could choose to keep open in this day and age. As a gay, white male who has listened to a lot of hip-hop, I’ve thought a lot about this over the last couple of years, as well as how my own background might affect both my biases and insights. One thing I’ve noticed is that the reception of hip hop has changed drastically from the 90s, especially when it comes to hip-hop that has a gangsta impulse or inflection. Where gangsta rap once seemed to designed to promote liberal panic, gangsta-inflected rap has now become something of a liberal platform, with artists like Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and Run the Jewels tending to be associated with progressive causes and spokesmen for progressive political agendas. Of course, it is somewhat of a simplification to describe these three artists as gangsta per se, since their work often consists of building grand lyrical and sonic experimentations upon the most cursory of gangsta substructures. Yet it’s precisely because it can be so residual that this gangsta substructure can be so disturbing, with misogynistic and homophobic epithets often surfacing in the midst of even the most apparently liberal calls for social justice and, in the case of Run the Jewels, lyrics that appear to go one step beyond liberalism to advocate for the qualified socialism of Bernie Sanders.

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I should say, right away, that it is not necessarily these misogynistic, homophobic moments that disturb me. At the very least, they don’t disturb me any more than misogyny or homophobia in any other context. Similarly, I’m not easily disturbed by amoral or immoral art – in fact, I tend to be suspicious of art that frames itself in moral terms, or that offers a moral solution and worldview that is too pat or trite. What I find disturbing is the way in which this amoral, or immoral, substrate to hip-hop has been subsumed into a moral veneration of hip-hop by music criticism at large, to the point where it has become almost impossible to suggest that misogyny and homophobia might indeed be systemic features of this late, ostensibly liberal, gangsta aesthetic. In a 2016 Buzzfeed article, Tomi Obaro conveyed something of this situation with a point so shockingly straightforward that I’m surprised that it hasn’t been more prominent in the media at large: “Three women coined the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” It was a woman who climbed up the flagpole in front of the South Carolina statehouse and took down the Confederate flag. Women are at the forefront of activism in Chicago, St. Louis, and Baltimore. If Kanye and Kendrick want to stay relevant, and to continue enjoying the fruits of their wokeness, they have to reckon with this fact.”

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Of course, there is no obligation for black artists to align themselves with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. If anything, there is a kind of racism in assuming that black artists have to be more politicised than white artists in order to remain relevant. Nevertheless, it is notable that the gangsta impulse tends to be the area of black music that is most extolled by the liberal media but also the area that remains the most resistant to #BlackLivesMatter as well, with Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane, A$AP Rocky, Kevin Gates and even RZA coming out against the movement in one way or another. While Kendrick, Kanye, and Run the Jewels may have wrested this originary gangsta impulse into something that is more amenable to #BlackLivesMatter, their music is also indebted to this impulse, and to everything about it that remains inimical to #BlackLivesMatter as well. Yet that tension tends to be largely overlooked by the liberal media, who assimilate this gangsta substrate so seamlessly to a liberal agenda that it is easy to forget that most black artists don’t subscribe to this gangsta substrate in the first place, or only operate right on its most distant margins.

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In that sense, my discomfort around the pride of place of gangsta-inflected rap is partly a discomfort around liberal ideology, especially in the United States. Liberalism is often criticised in negative terms – for not being radicalism – but it’s equally easy to criticise it in positive terms, as a form of conservatism that just happens to benefit slightly more people than older forms of conservatism. To me, liberalism, at its very worst, is a way of normalising, rather than challenging, engrained forms of discrimination and prejudice under the guise of a more tolerant and open-minded social outlook. In many ways, that’s what I feel this liberal appropriation of gangsta culture has achieved, presenting us with a musical milieu – and a music criticism milieu – in which it is, strangely, more difficult than ever before to call out misogyny and homophobia. As this amorphous gangsta impulse suffuses other, whiter, forms of music, it becomes more difficult still, especially because the supposed payoff – heightened sensitivity to racial issues – starts to dissolve in the process.

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My discomfort around gangsta liberalism is only enhanced, however, by my suspicion that this payoff is not even really a payoff in the first place. From what I read in most liberal musical criticism, the assumption seems to be that the misogyny and homophobia of gangsta culture is a fair price for enhancing racial visibility, to the point where it can even seem racist to call out gangsta culture for that misogyny and homophobia. Yet what seems at stake here is not exactly greater racial visibility, but more selective racial visibility, with liberal music criticism assimilating gangsta rap into a form of racial protest that is itself inherently liberal, and largely driven by straight black men. When To Pimp a Butterfly was released, critics were quick to note and praise the cover design, and the way in which it recalled the visions of collective black power that graced the covers of those progressive 60s and 70s artists that Kendrick samples so extensively across the album as a whole. Yet, if you look at the cover closely, it becomes clear that every black person crouched in that single act of demonstration outside the White House is a man. That might sound like a simple fact, but it creates a very different outlook from that of the artists to whom Kendrick has been compared. Whereas Sly and the Family Stone included both men and women in their collective tableaux (Life, Dance to the Music), bands like Parliament and Funkadelic moved beyond men and women altogether to strange, science fictional vistas that seemed to defy any definitive distinction between genders, let alone between performers and technology.

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The effect of Kendrick’s appropriation is not dissimilar to that of Kanye’s debut of “All Day” at the 2015 Brit Awards. No doubt, this is one of the most incredible live acts this decade and yet this vision of black collectivity is also exclusively male and implicitly straight, with the clip having to cut back to female audience members – Kim Kardashian, Taylor Swift – to provide some counterpoint to the stifling masculinism of Kanye’s trap crowd. In both cases, the majority of the black population has been excised from this vision of collectivity, since black women now make up more than half the black population (at least two million more than black men), while recent statistics suggest that close to one fifth of the population as a whole identifies with an orientation other than exclusively straight. From that perspective, the liberal humanism of Kendrick and Kanye feels like a mechanism of suppression more than anything else, marginalising black artists like Janelle Monae, Flying Lotus, Yves Tumour, Moses Sumney and Lotic (to name a few) who are really radical, and yet whose radicality often simply consists in evoking a vision of black America that is genuinely animated and inhabited by women and queer folk, rather than mere strident displays of ultra-masculinity.

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While these artists may all have very different approaches, they all enact the failure of black culture to assimilate itself to liberalism, since being liberal partly means being straight, middle class and white. Whereas gangsta humanism has become a liberal platform – arguably the liberal musical platform – the classic era of gangsta rap was also driven by this performative failure at being liberal, and was largely animated by the traumatic fact that it is easier for a black man to become a celebrity than it is for him to achieve even the most banal middle-class status and fatherhood. That’s not to say, of course, that black people can’t experience class mobility, nor that black people can’t be born into the middle class, or into wealth. Yet these original gangsta rappers were prescient that even a black man who makes it it into the middle class, or who espouses liberal views, will never truly be middle class, or liberal, just because these are racial categories as much as socioeconomic or political categories, defined by whiteness (or perceived whiteness) as much as income, lifestyle or adherence to a social cause. What gangsta rappers offered, instead, was a kind of overdetermined vision in which they simply distilled the most base and basic foundations of middle-class life – sexism, homophobia, merciless acquisition of wealth and property – and turned them into an amoral dystopia that they then claimed as their own. No wonder, then, that gangsta rap should have had such a visceral pull on disenfranchised middle-class white men, since it identified with their aspirations more brutally than they ever could, marginalising them from their own trajectories and appearing to offer them the promise of getting back on track (if they could only manage to pass for black) in the very same breath.

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For all its staunch masculinism and apparent conservatism, then, gangsta rap was an iteration of Afrofuturism, since, as Steven Shaviro puts it, “in contrast to the mainstream Civil Rights movement, which demanded full recognition of the humanity of black people, Afrofuturists equate ‘the human’ per se with white supremacy, and with the normative subject positions of white, bourgeois society. Therefore they regard humanity, not as something to be attained, but in Nietzschean fashion as “something that must be overcome.” While contemporary critics may have lambasted gangsta rappers for their inhumanism, that determination to produce something that refused to assimilate to liberal humanism was precisely the point. Unlike Afrofuturists of the 70s and 80s however, the gangsta rappers of the early 90s were presented with a world in which the liberal media were keen to insist that the post-racial future had come to pass, and that there was now no excuse for black people to fail at social mobility, even as the Los Angeles Race Riots made it clear that this future was becoming more distant than ever before. Against that prospect of a black future that was increasingly foreclosed by both conservative and liberal agendas, images of radical departure from white middle class life became harder and harder to conceptualise and visualise. Instead, gangsta rappers were forced to denature white middle class assumptions from the inside, and it was only once they had built their gangsta substrate that the science fiction imagery of their 70s and 80s forebears would slowly, steadily start to return in albums such as ATLiens, Dr. Octagonycolygyst and Deltron 3030.

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Of course, the danger of this gangsta impulse was that it overidentified so drastically with white middle-class aspirations that it might one day become a mouthpiece for those aspirations, especially if they were ever themselves required to bunker down and defend their future. As it turned out, this is exactly what has happened in the United States in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, with the futurity of white middle class life sometimes seeming as provisional as the possibility of black middle-class life must have appeared to these original gangsta rappers. Far from being a challenge to liberalism, then, Kanye, Kendrick and Run the Jewels now feel like exemplars of how much collateral damage we are prepared to sacrifice in the name of liberalism, and in the name of a vision of culture that is still primarily driven by the beneficent liberal tolerance of straight men. For all that these artists’ fanbases have pitted themselves against Donald Trump, their music is also, somehow, a soundtrack to Trump’s America, and its striving for a lost fantasy of paternal and patriarchal authority, no matter the price. It’s no coincidence that Kanye, in particular, has such an ambivalent relationship with Trump, appearing to disagree with his policies but to also feel a more residual affective affinity that makes you wonder whether his own plan to run for President in 2020 is really about offering an alternative voice or simply about occupying Trump’s status and subject position in an even more emphatic and visceral way.

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Conversely, it is those artists who now operate on the fringes of the gangsta impulse – or even outside it – who really seem to continue its legacy, just as gangsta itself was a way of continuing the Afrofuturist impulses that had gone before it. In some ways, it might seem strange to speak of Janelle Monae and the Notorious B.I.G. in the same breath, or to think of Moses Sumney and Tupac as being part of the same musical milieu. Yet Afrofuturism is bound to be discontinuous by definition, since the moment it congeals into a single movement is also the moment at which its visions of the future can be co-opted, contained and commodified by the present. And that’s just what appears to have happened in the case of contemporary, gangsta-inflected rap, which stands in relation to classic gangsta rap much as the Ministry of Sound stood in relation to the Paradise Garage, and 90s house music stood in relation to electronic Afrofuturist experimentations. Nobody would doubt that much of this gangsta liberalism is formally brilliant, stylistically innovative and even Afrofuturist, at times, in its flourishes, with Yeezus, To Pimp a Butterfly and Run the Jewels 2 all standing out as high watermarks. Yet, as Tyler, the Creator seems to have intuitively understood, the only way to actually be gay within this milieu is to articulate how much it is still indebted to homophobia, even if it means embodying that homophobia in the process.

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In that sense, Tyler was openly gay long before Flower Boy, if only in his willingness to articulate assumptions that have come to be more more tacitly and tactfully naturalised within gangsta-inflected rap as a whole. Coming out as every bit as brutal as traditional gangsta rappers was therefore a significant precursor to coming out as gay, if only because the inhumanism of traditional gangsta rap was what Tyler apparently needed to articulate the incompatibility between his sexual orientation and the liberal humanism that has come to contain gangsta rap as a whole. In fact, as its name might suggest, the entire Odd Future collective, which also included Frank Ocean, was in some sense an effort to wrest this Afrofuturist impulse back from the hands of contemporary gangsta-inflected rap, if only by crafting a renewed version of gangsta rap that was even more shockingly antisocial than the original. To that end, the members of Odd Future often resorted to inanity and idiocy as much as offensiveness, adopting the macho posturings of gangsta culture but undercutting their own pretensions to masculine gravitas in the most grating and gleeful ways, as if daring even the staunchest of gangsta fans to condemn their immaturity and venality. At the time, they could have been mistaken for an artistic dead end, and yet ten years later the future they have produced is odd indeed, since no other hip-hop collective has ended up producing one, let alone two, artists who are prepared to be perceived as openly gay. And that strange situationlies the best summary of how both hip-hop, and the homophobic legacy of hip-hop, have come to shape the world we now inhabit – a world in which gangsta culture has become the liberal media, or medium, of choice, forcing other artists to resort to ever more experimental approaches in order to continue to envisage a radical black future.

About Billy Stevenson (694 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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