I love hip hop. I use the word “love” here in its full meaning. I am singing in the rain in love with the people, the culture, the expression, the complexity, the genius and the humanity of hip hop. In any loving relationship, we can be challenged, inspired, and at times thoroughly disappointed, but that bond makes us embrace our beloved even while we wrestle with their shortcomings. The wrestling match has become more intense as I grow, at once basking in the glow of oppressed people’s genius while cringing to hear hurtful slogans of oppression like fa***t be driven deeper into the collective consciousness. To complicate matters even more, I haven’t always been on the right side of that battle.
In fact, on my debut album, Shadows On The Sun, I displayed a few cringe-worthy slur moments of my own. I tossed it around with the reckless abandon of a young man lacking the empathetic sensitivity that only manifests through life-altering interactions and experiences. By my 2009 album, Us, I had evolved into manhood and dwelled on the cusp of self-actualization. This shift in perception allowed me to freely address through lyrics the hypocrisy of a supposedly free society that forces some men and women to keep certain dimensions of their lives imprisoned — including their sexuality.
One fateful night in Toronto, Canada, it also forced me to address my own hypocrisy and the power of words in a way that I never had before.
My crew and I had completed our performance and were settling into a diner at 2:00 a.m. for a bite to eat. The server has barely poured the water before the promoter starts interrogating me about one of the songs in tonight’s set, 2009’s “Tight Rope.” While the song tells the complex stories of three teenagers who are forced to live a double life to shield themselves from society’s scorn and judgment, he only takes issue with one: The tale of a kid who’s gay and growing up in a family who’ve shown him that they would never embrace him.
This brother is disturbed that I’m taking up for gay folks in this way. He believes that “pretending like it’s okay to be gay” is an affront to decent humanity. I informed him that it was above my pay grade to make value judgments on something as personal as sexuality. I believe in my soul that people are precious and that everyone, based on their membership in the human family, qualifies for a certain level of basic dignity and respect.
Again, not realizing the power of words and how they travel and linger in the atmosphere long after we’ve vacated a space, I flew back to Minneapolis. I signed online and realized that I was beaten home by a message from a lesbian sister who was eating at the diner while we were there. She recognized me when I walked in but wasn’t fazed because she hadn’t listened to hip hop in years. She said she respected the talent it takes but all the homophobic stuff she’d heard made her tune out. She gave me props for my courage to stand up for an unpopular opinion in my culture as a hip hop artist and decided to show her solidarity by ordering all five of my albums.
Dammit! That’s when it hit me.