Lil Nas X, DaBaby and the question of homophobia in hip hop
Lil Nas X is challenging what it means to be a hip-hop star — but was he really the first?
Love him or hate him, the one thing you can't say about Lil Nas X — or his music — is that he's boring.
That's because the 22-year-old rapper's music perpetually challenges the genres it inhabits. His early 2019 smash-hit Old Town Road broke down barriers on what constitutes country music, its intersection with rap, and what kind of voices are heard.
And as the song steadily rose up the Billboard country charts (before being disqualified for not fitting the genre), it prompted a re-evaluation of the industry.
Now Lil Nas X is grappling with even more challenging — and insidious — issues.
Performing openly and proudly gay music as a male pop star is a rarity in the industry, and Lil Nas X is leading it through a reckoning with open displays of queer sexuality, kicking up controversy not unlike what female pop stars — from Britney Spears to Nicki Minaj — have faced in the past for their videos.
At the same time, some LGBT musicians argue that solely focusing on Lil Nas X as making hip hop more inclusive is both unfair to him and ignores the work that a litany of other queer artists have done in the genre for years — in the face of serious adversity.
"Hip hop, like a lot of Western popular culture, is steeped in traditional ideas of gender and sexuality," said Spencer Kornhaber, a pop culture and music writer for The Atlantic. "And so it's not traditionally been a super-friendly place for queer expression and for queer people."
While these issues are not new, they've come to a head in recent weeks. Just two days after Lil Nas X released the music video for his provocative and defiantly open track Industry Baby, fellow rapper DaBaby made homophobic comments on stage at a Miami music festival, igniting a firestorm of criticism.
Though he has since made a number of apologies, DaBaby has seen a massive fallout — a rare consequence for the genre — and has been dropped by both business partners and festival lineups.
And though neither artist mentioned the other, the two have become immediately and intractably linked, as supporters and detractors of each rapper invoke the other in their arguments.
"In the last few weeks, you've seen all the different ways that someone like Nas is disruptive to a bunch of old ideas and assumptions and hierarchies," Kornhaber said. "You see people really explaining all the different reasons they have to, honestly, fear someone like him."
For those who support Lil Nas X, Kornhaber explained, they point to DaBaby's comments as evidence that music like Industry Baby is sorely needed to increase representation and inclusion.
But others, including rappers Boosie and T.I., brought up Lil Nas X in their defence of DaBaby, arguing that if he's allowed to act in ways that provoke them, then rappers like DaBaby should be able to do the same.
That argument, Kornhaber explained, demonstrates the double standard that queer artists have to grapple with — especially gay male artists in hip hop.
Rappers have often sexualized themselves in their lyrics and videos, including DaBaby, who appeared fully nude and performing a sex act in his video Giving What It's Supposed to Give, which released just days after his comments.
So when Lil Nas X challenges norms in his videos, Kornhaber said, he's not challenging other artists: He's confirming what hip hop already is.
"He's saying, you know, 'It was OK when straight guys did it. It's OK when Eminem is in his boxers in a music video. It's OK when DaBaby… has a little censor card over his crotch. But when I do it, it takes on a different meaning. And it's on all of you to really figure out why you're having that reaction to it,'" he said.
But outside of that comparison with straight rappers, Lil Nas X is following in the footsteps of other queer ones.
Though Lil Nas X is the first openly gay rapper with superstar-level appeal and influence, he's far from the first gay hip-hop musician — or even the first openly gay one, explained Myst Milano, a queer Toronto-based rapper, DJ and producer who uses they/them pronouns.
Growing up, it was seeing artists like Cake Da Killa, Le1f and Mykki Blanco rap about being LGBT that allowed Milano to see a space for themself in hip hop.
Closer to the mainstream, both Tyler the Creator and Frank Ocean have explored queer themes in their music.
Milano said that's because queer art and artistry exists in every genre — regardless of whether it's widely acknowledged.
LISTEN | Lil Nas X and the Satanic Panic he inspired:
"No matter what, queer people create spaces for themselves in any art discipline," Milano said. "There's always a queer version of that — not necessarily because we want to be separate, but because we have to be."
For that reason, Milano said, queer creators — especially Black queer creators — have gone through the same challenges and criticisms as Lil Nas X to help build hip hop.
More than homophobia
Toronto rapper turned music exec Kiana (Rookz) Eastmond says that's where the question of whether hip hop is inclusive of LGBT artists misses the breadth of the issue.
"That question in and of itself, really, makes invisible all the queer hip-hop artists," she said. "The moment that we decide that some space is not safe for people, we also make invisible all of the people who are trying to make that space safe."
Asking whether hip hop as a genre does or doesn't include queer performers ignores the fact that queer artists helped build it, said Eastmond. The question reduces queer artists, managers and producers to a subset of hip hop trying to get in, she said, rather than being as much an integral part of hip hop as any other person.
WATCH | Lil Nas X, DaBaby kick off discussion about homophobia in hip hop:
At the same time, homophobia is not unique to hip hop — and neither is queer artists making a name for themselves in other genres.
In Canada, there's Orville Peck, an openly gay man challenging what voices can be heard in country music. And Calgary's ElyOtto, who made the smash TikTok hyperpop hit SugarCrash!, is helping to champion that genre — which has significant roots in hip hop — as a place to celebrate trans artists.
And while there is this contingent of out and proud artists, Eastmond said getting that message into the mainstream can be more difficult for hip hop.
The reason for that though is more complicated than a fear or hatred of LGBT people, she suggests. Since hip-hop culture is viewed as close to — or even synonymous with — Black culture, a narrow view of what masculinity should look like has been championed in both.
"It's not just about homophobia — I don't think a bunch of hip-hop artists … see gay people and they're like, you know, 'Let's go throw stones at them,'" she said. "When black masculinity — by definition of what the media has also created — is attacked in any way, shape or form, I think we often see the same response."
Lil Nas X is helping to change that, she said, but until it takes root in the mainstream, these growing pains will continue.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.