A BAMM.tv Exclusive Report by Joseph Bien-Kahn
Warning: Strong and derogatory language is present throughout this article. BAMM.tv in no way condones discrimination of any kind. We felt it necessary to present the raw language used in the form of lyrics, comments, and quotes in order present an honest story addressing homophobia and sexism in hip-hop.
A rapper recently told me, “When you say, fuckin’ faggot, that’s like the worst possible thing you can say about someone, besides like, dirty cunt. Those are terrible words and when they’re coming out of your mouth, you have this feeling of, almost, hyper-masculinity, this feeling of like extreme power. When you’re saying those words, you feel badass, you feel like you’re dominating somebody.”
The rapper who said that, Sam “Oh Blimey” McDonald, explains herself as “exactly the opposite of what I know the face of hip-hop looks like.” She’s white, she’s female, she’s homosexual.
I squirmed in my seat when I heard that opening quote; your stomach might have turned reading it. But that’s where hip-hop’s at today. It struggles with mainstream success and its all-too-present misogyny and homophobia. Rap is big enough now that the headliner acts say all the right things about homosexuality and hip-hop. But the truth is, homophobia is still a living, breathing force in the rap game.
When Oh Blimey was a 7th grader at Roosevelt Middle School in San Francisco, surrounded by boy-crazy friends, she realized that she was gay. That same year, she realized that she wanted to be an MC.
Every day at lunch, a group of kids would circle up and have rap battles. She was already in love with hip-hop—“you know, Jurassic 5, Eminem, Andre Nickatina, Mac Dre”—and wrote poetry and took a beat-making class in her free time. Her friends had no idea that she could freestyle.
One day, she stepped into the middle of the circle and started to battle. She faced three guys that day and beat them all. “My heart beat out of my chest, and I was just like, I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna fuckin’ do this.”
After college, Oh Blimey moved out to New York and found herself drawn back to the battle rap scene. While competing in Grind Time Now and Barz and Brastrapz, she found she’d get the same response she’d received on the schoolyard. “Every single time that I rapped, somebody would come up to me afterwards and say, ‘I did not expect you to do that, I did not expect that to come out of your mouth.’”
In some ways, nothing’s changed. Even now when she performs, someone inevitably finds her after the show and tells her how surprised they were by her skills. But she’s still struggling to get people to listen to her in the first place. Because she’s gay, and she’s white, and she’s a woman.
In the last year, the discussion about homosexuality in hip-hop has been all over the news. Macklemore’s “Same Love” (below) brought the issue to the forefront, and the conversation has led many MCs and DJs to speak on the issue.
Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg and T-Pain have each weighed in, but the most telling quote of all came from Talib Kweli in an interview with Mother Jones: “There just needs to be a gay rapper — he doesn’t have to be flamboyant, just a rapper who identifies as gay — who’s better than everybody. Unfortunately, hip-hop is so competitive that in order for fringe groups to get in, you gotta be better than whoever’s the best.”
Though a gay rapper has yet to reach the top of the genre, there has been a gay presence in hip-hop for well over a decade. In the late 90s, the Homo Hop movement started as a unifying tool for gay rappers. Then in 2001, Pete King, the East Bay LGBT Pride organizer, began the PeaceOut World Homo Hop Festival in Oakland. It was a place for gay rappers to perform together in front of an audience that didn’t judge them for their sexual orientation.
But in a way, the classification of the Homo Hop artist — like the female rapper before it — became a means to differentiate genre rap from the real rap scene. Femcees were excessively sexualized things, dirty girls to be ogled over. Homo Hop artists were supposed to be sensitive and overly personal in their lyrics. Classification began as a tool to break into the misogynistic, heteronormative world of hip-hop. But it became an excuse to put rappers into a box on the periphery of the mainstream.
Every journey to the top of the rap game starts from the same place — the battle. Rap lyricism is so rooted in the antagonism of the rap battle, and in the genre as a whole, that the “I’m the shit/you ain’t shit” mentality is a hallmark of hip-hop. It was that ideal that brought homophobia into rap — over the years the word “fag” has become almost a placeholder in hip-hop. Right or wrong, the truth is that attacking someone’s sexuality remains one of the few insults that still stings. However, tradition of this nature comes at a price. Even as hip-hop has proven to be an empowering force for Black culture in America, it’s in danger of being on the wrong side of perhaps the human rights issue of our generation.
The gay rap fan has been forced to detach his heroes from their lyrics in order to listen to almost anything without cringing. Sadly, hearing “fag” is just part of the experience.
Oh Blimey has a more nuanced take on the usage of the word at this point in her life. “For someone like myself that is gay, I don’t really get offended by the word, I’m not really put down by it, but I think that’s because I’m so deep in the hip hop game and culture. I think that word was just ingrained in the culture, in the vocabulary, of being a hip-hop artist.”
She still loves Eminem (“That’ll stab you in the head whether you’re a fag or lez”), Mac Dre (“As happy as a faggot in a tree full of dicks”), and Andre Nickatina (“Beat up on the fags”). But while listening to them as a kid, she couldn’t help but feel that the rap world rejected homosexuals. Which is why the line, “If I was gay, I would think hip-hop hated me” in Macklemore’s “Same Love” hit home for her.
“Growing up, being obsessed with hip-hop, being fully submerged in the hip-hop world, I mean, I thought that,” she said. “I thought that there’s no room for me here.”
Macklemore’s ascension to Grammy-winning prominence has led to an inevitable backlash. People cited the artistic value of his music (most hip-hop fans agree that Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City deserved the award for Best Rap Album at the Grammys) as the reason he shouldn’t judge hip-hop. But as the discourse continued, it became clear the real issue was who made the critique, not what he said.
On Vlad TV, Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian said as much. He argued that it was wrong for Macklemore to attack a genre in which he, as a white man, is a guest (at 2:56 in the video below). “Making a song like that is like feeling that you have the same footing as any other hip-hop artist and to me you don’t. You don’t,” he said. “Like I can’t go to somebody else’s house and even though they let me wear their clothes and eat their food, that’s not my house.”
Even while Oh Blimey understands the sentiment, Lord Jamar’s comments still hurt. The reason why might surprise you.
“I think that almost hits me harder than any of the homophobia in hip hop,” she said. “The sense of feeling like the art that I love the most in the world, will I ever truly be excepted in it, because I am white?”
Oh Blimey said that while being lesbian has been a hurdle, it also has its advantages. “Something about being able to talk about girls together is like the ultimate bonding experience, especially in hip hop,” she said. “You know, we’re always obsessed with talking about chicks, and asses, and damn she’s hella fine, and when I can get on a track with a guy and talk about that, it gives us kind of an edge.”
Instead, she said she thought being white has been the biggest roadblock for her. She’s stopped looking at Youtube comments, because the number one thing she’d see were comments like: ‘Am I supposed to take this white bitch seriously?’ “And of course the word bitch is in there, but I think that the emphasis in that sentence is on white,” she said.
And in that case, the emphasis probably is on “white.” But it could just as easily be on “bitch” or “fag” or “dyke.” The point is, the language of rappers and rap fans is still overrun with overt ‘isms. But the rap game is also polluted with covert ‘isms that manifest themselves in which rapper a label will take a chance on. While word choice may send the message that hip-hop hates gay people, the labels’ fear that rap by gay artists won’t sell is the bigger issue. While derogatory terms may hurt feelings, the industry’s risk-aversion halts a true change from occurring.
Oh Blimey wants to make it more than anything else. But the parts of herself she can’t change make her a financial risk in today’s music industry.
Since 2008, Oh Blimey has lost 100 pounds to make herself a more viable option for labels. She said she wishes she could take a stand for overweight kids trying to make it, but she knows the industry isn’t going to allow it in 2014. “I want this so bad that I will put in the work and I will succumb to what they’re telling me beautiful is,” she said. “I feel there are only so many stands I can take at one time, you feel me?”
It’s easy to say that Oh Blimey should be herself and not bend to industry norms, but there is what’s right and then there’s the truth of the rap game. The truth is, she’s doing what she has to do to be a professional rapper.
“I definitely go through phases where I wanna get on the mic and say, What’s the face of hip hop? There is no face of hip hop, we’re all one,” she said. “But at the end of the day, I don’t think that’s my job. I didn’t get into hip-hop to make a statement for gay rappers, I got into hip-hop because I love rapping.”
Oh Blimey doesn’t want to be a “femcee” or a “homo hop star.” All she’s ever dreamed of is being a famous rapper. The question is, Is that possible in today’s rap game?
2014 has been big for Oh Blimey. In February, “Weird Science,” her track with Too $hort (also below), was featured on the front of Complex’s website. That same week, she got a chance to sit down with “some huge names in the industry” at Track Record Studios, where Tupac and Aliyah recorded. Her track “#EW” featuring GAVLYN has gotten a lot of Internet love and she plays about three shows a week. Last Friday, she headlined at the legendary Whisky a Go Go on Sunset Boulevard.
As she begins to get a foothold in the game, she’s starting to believe that she’ll be allowed to make it in hip-hop. She doesn’t want to be an activist, she wants to be a rapper. She thinks the best thing she can do for gay rappers and rap fans is to succeed.
“When you don’t give them an option, when you go hard at what you do all the time, people are gonna recognize your talent as talent, not judge based on your sexuality or your skin tone,” she said. “So I think we just have to erase people’s prejudice and show them that we’re good at this.”
It’s unfortunate that in 2014, the rap industry still is polluted with overt and covert homophobia. But when the gay MC that Kweli spoke of does arrive at the top of the charts, we’ll all look back at this moment and shake our heads.
I don’t know if Oh Blimey will ever be the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. She understands that the next three or four years will be her prime chance to make it, and the industry is still quite fickle and risk-averse. But she’s doing all she can do to build a following and make herself a viable option for a label. And if she does end up making it, she knows it will be a little easier for the next gay, white, female rapper that follows her.
Joseph Bien-Kahn is a freelance writer, part-time cafe worker and roving intern in the San Francisco literary world. After interning at both ZYZZYVA and 826 Valencia, he’s started freelancing, with articles published in The Rumpus, NFL Alternative, and No Tofu. He is also editor-in-chief of the literary magazine, Otherwheres.