Rapper, record producer, Auto-Tunist extraordinaire, and gay rights advocate—can that last title really go with the others? T-Pain proved that the mix is possible in a brief interview released by the site VladTV earlier this week. Over the course of six minutes, T-Pain—expletive-rich and double Solo cup casual—speaks about the issue of homophobia in hip-hop with bracing honesty, reserving particularly strong criticism for men within the community who express gay paranoia (the fear that all gay men in your vicinity are somehow magnetically attracted to you). And if that weren’t enough, he’s also charmingly protective of his gay assistant.
The media response has been generally positive. Gawker’s Rich Juzwiak, for example, applauded T-Pain for “being on the right side of history” and for seeing “homophobia for the absurdity that it is.” While I join Juzwiak in his applause, I do so with some hesitation. He admitted that the T-Pain interview could give critics “something to do if [they’re] bored and looking to get mad.” Well, since I’m snowed in and a little bored (though not mad), I think it’s worth looking a little more closely at T-Pain’s words. For while this interview is clearly an encouraging contribution to the evolving conversation surrounding homophobia in hip-hop, it also perpetuates certain pernicious tropes that undergird that homophobia in the first place.
To start with, at one point in the interview T-Pain talks about the notion of giving “passes” to his friends for saying something that can be taken as “slightly gay.” This is comparable to a three-strike rule, I suppose, but instead of three strikes and you’re back into the dugout, we have three passes and you magically jump out of the closet. In other words, a person is heterosexual until proved otherwise, and being “otherwise” represents a failure (however gently judged) to adhere to the norm, as opposed to just another legitimate way of being. T-Pain laughs at this pass system, but you can tell by his comment about “having questions” for his pass-exhausting friends that he’s not totally comfortable with guys who strike out.
But T-Pain would have to be OK with a friend using all of his passes and perhaps actually being gay—his saying homophobia is unacceptable should be evidence enough, right? Well, no. If you want a comparable example of gay discomfort cushioned in progressive language, look no further than A$AP Rocky’s interaction with gay NBA player Jason Collins at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards.
Discomfort aside, the most troubling aspect of the T-Pain interview is his weird oversimplification of the gay experience. In a rhetorical move demeaning to both women and gay men, T-Pain positions the two groups as “gettable” objects by saying that a straight man in the club definitely can’t get a gay man if he doesn’t get women first. Additionally, he stokes the irrational fear that gay men are predators by saying “These gay niggas will get on you. If they want you, they gon get you.” It’s inevitable that gay men will prey upon you and proceed to engage in gay intercourse with you. But fear not! “Even if [gay men] did like you [they’re] going to be bottoms, so you’re the one fucking [them].” Well thank goodness. I was beginning to worry! Seriously, though, T-Pain’s gross oversimplification of what it means to be gay works against acceptance by continuing to imagine gay men as alien creatures ready to abduct you at any moment if they so choose.
All that said, I don’t want to seem like I’m just hating on a rapper who was bold enough to say something supportive of gay people, however awkwardly. But hip-hop is a genre that prides itself on realness—the beautiful parts of the music come from a transparency of emotion, struggle, and triumph. As a hip-hop fan and gay rights activist, I have a few thoughts about how we can use this moment to continue the struggle for true gay acceptance.
First, using sweeping generalizations about the gay experience has got to stop; that kind of thing is not conducive to understanding what it’s like to be gay in an unaccepting space. Also, masculinity and homophobia are a dangerous pairing. Using hyper-masculine and sexist language to promote gay acceptance only further marginalizes gay men of varying gender expression, not to mention women. And lastly, can we please hear from T-Pain’s assistant? Allies speaking on gay people’s behalf is a fine thing, but (like the Macklemore “Same Love” debate) a better model of activism might involve inviting them to the platform on occasion—don’t worry, they’re not “gon get you” while they’re speaking for themselves.