By Kenyon Farrow
Last week Roc-A-Fella recording artist and producer extraordinaire Kanye West did something most would think to be career suicide for a Black hip-hop artist, and just days before dropping his sophomore effort, “Late Registration.”
During an August 18 MTV interview, Kanye spoke candidly about the impact of homophobia on his own life. He touchingly recounted his own insecurities as a not-masculine-enough youth and challenged hip-hop artists to end the homophobic content of their music. “I wanna just come on TV and just tell my rappers,” West said, “just tell my friends, ‘Yo, stop it fam.’”
Kanye’s astounding interview is being talked about all over the world right now, but the impact is really yet to be fully seen. I certainly hope his remarks will help bring about the day when I have to hear less of the words “faggot” or “chi-chi man” every time I turn on the radio or go out to dance. But Kanye’s story may be more important for what it demonstrates about the process of social change than any particular outcome that follows.
Kanye’s remarks are making such a seismic impact because no part of the explosion of media images dealing with LGBT people in recent years has come from or been targeted at the Black community. Despite all of the talk about how easily gay people have integrated into pop culture, as Kanye West points out, “the exact opposite word of ‘hip-hop,’ I think, is ‘gay’” – which makes it the opposite of a defining part of young, Black life and culture.
Black people must see other Black people confront homophobia, and must see LGBT people as Black people as well, if we are ever going to make real progress shifting attitudes. Kanye, bravely and boldly, has realized this fact. And his testimony couldn’t have come at a more apt time, in the midst of a summer in which we have once again heard startling news about HIV’s rampage among Black gay men – a reality that, in no small part, is driven by the Black community’s failure to embrace and support us.
Kanye opened his story on MTV by talking about his close relationship with his mother, which is captured in a song on his new CD entitled “Hey Mama.” He explained that growing up with his mother meant that he also took on some of her mannerisms. When he got to high school, this fact meant he was often ridiculed for being a “fag.” And, in turn, he became very homophobic.
But when Kanye learned through one of his cousins that another cousin in the family was gay, he began to rethink his stance. “It was kind of like a turning point,” he told MTV VJ Sway, “when I was like, `Yo, this is my cousin. I love him and I’ve been discriminating against gays.'”
And there it was, the cycle of homophobia broken.
Kanye’s seeing his cousin as gay helped to humanize Black LGBT people in his eyes and prompted him to in turn abandon the sort of knee-jerk attitudes that prevent people like his cousin from being able to come out in the first place. As Kanye so articulately explained in describing the roots of his own homophobia, “If you see something and you don’t want to be that because there’s such a negative connotation toward it, you try to separate yourself from it so much that it made me homophobic by the time I was through high school. Anybody that was gay I was like, ‘Yo, get away from me.’”
It is often assumed that the Black community is more homophobic than the white gay community. But while there is certainly homophobia in the Black community, the buzz surrounding Kanye’s remarks shows the real issue may be how rarely the topic is actually addressed substantively and humanly.
Black people still rely most heavily on indigenous sources for information about the world around them, particularly about issues like sexuality and health. Several studies have reminded us of this fact, and of its impact on the way we’ve responded to the AIDS epidemic – our griots, from media mavens to ministers, too often chose silence or disdain over education and communication. Not until mothers of dying gay men began to organize AIDS ministries in congregations did ministers begin to speak on the issue.
And still today, as AIDS becomes a growing concern of mainstream Black organizations, we hear a deafening silence about what the epidemic means for Black gay and bisexual men in particular – the group of people most impacted by the epidemic. Black media, from entertainment to news, has largely ignored this aspect of the epidemic.
Recent years have certainly seen an unprecedented increase in the amount of news coverage, TV programming and public relations efforts by white gay advocates and celebrities that has put a “face” on the gay and lesbian community. But when it comes to health and sexuality, the rising tide truly does not lift all boats equally.
Black LGBT faces have been made invisible by this media blitzkrieg of white middle-class gays. While Black folks may watch Queer Eye or Will & Grace, the white gay images they project do little to sensitize straight Black viewers to the needs, issues, and concerns of Black LGBT community.
And that’s what makes Kanye West’s bold statements so remarkable, and gives them such potential as a catalyst for healthier discussions around gender and sexuality in the Black community. He is a cultural icon who has a reputation for breaking molds and taking on issues in his music that people thought could not be broached in hip-hop – all while still selling millions. He also has “street cred” among Black youth, and even Black people disgruntled with the hyper-consumerism, sexism and homophobia in hip-hop respect Kanye for his work.
Most importantly, he has access to the sort of mass media that can carry his message far and wide.
But change cannot begin or end with Kanye West. It was really Kanye’s seeing his cousin as gay that caused his shift his thinking. While public education campaigns and more visible opposition to homophobia in the Black community is key, it is ultimately the work that we, Black LGBT people do in our families and in our communities that will make the difference.
This summer may go down in history as a huge turning point for the Black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, and for our relationship to the Black community at large. On one hand, we have seen great setbacks: the down-low craze continues to demonize us; new research suggested half of us in major cities may already be positive.
But on the other hand, we are engaging the community with renewed determination and hope. A few weeks ago Rev. Al Sharpton announced that he was launching a public education campaign to combat homophobia in the Black community. In early July, the Black LGBT community in the nation’s capital publicly challenged Rev. Willie Wilson’s homophobic remarks. The New York State Black Gay Network’s July REVIVAL! was a direct call to challenge the spiritual violence of Black clergy, and to affirm the lives of Black LGBT people of faith. And in June, The Souls A-Fire! Conference in Chicago brought together activists, academics and artists to discuss sexuality and the Black church.
Maybe we have finally reached the “sick and tired of being sick and tired” point. Everyday, I’m sensing greater resolve in the voices of weblogs, at community planning meetings and even in social spaces that suggests a collective statement: I am fed up. But I am ready to fight. Maybe it is now, when our backs are against the wall and we have nothing more to lose, that we can begin to see that what we have to everything to gain.
But in order gain, we must be willing to tell our stories to our families, our neighbors, and our communities. And we must support (and continue to challenge, as we must also deal with how Black women are depicted in hip-hop) brothers and sisters like Kanye, who take great risks to get our backs.
Kenyon Farrow is co-editor of the anthology “Letters from Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out,” due out this November with Nation Books, and the communications and public education coordinator for New York State Black Gay Network.