The arrest last week of Hot 97 DJ and hip-hop legend Mister Cee for allegedly having commercial sex with a 20-year-old transgender woman has sparked another hip-hop "war," this time between Cee's Hot 97 colleague Funkmaster Flex and rival DJ Charlamagne tha God. Since Cee's arrest, Flex and Charlamange, a former Wendy Williams sidekick, have been going at one another over the role of queer people within hip-hop, spurring a debate that's sprawled from Twitter to the blogosphere and that's been filled with a good bit of the expected homophobia and transphobia.
But a surprising voice has stepped into the forefront to defend Mister Cee: 50 Cent, one hip-hop's favorite homophobes (and a friend to Mister Cee). Fifty could care less about queer folks, of course. But he does care about the Benjamins, and to him hip-hop's pro-gay era needs to begin for one simple reason: Homophobia isn't good for business anymore.
Mister Cee's case has stirred such soul searching because he's not some fringe persona or an artist, who come a dime a dozen; he's a major figure important not only to fans of the music, but to the actual business of producing and promoting the artists and the industry. Hot 97 is arguably the most influential radio station in hip-hop--getting a record played there, or having an interview with one of its many DJs can make or break careers. Cee himself has been a DJ for hip-hop legend Big Daddy Kane, and is credited with discovering another hip-hop icon, the Notorious B.I.G. And 50 Cent told another Hot 97 personality, Miss Info, that he never releases a record without Mister Cee hearing it first, and giving him feedback. His sexuality notwithstanding, hip-hop needs Mister Cee.
So on Wednesday, Miss Info posted a short interview on her blog with 50 Cent in which he talked about why he intends to continue supporting (and consulting) the renowned DJ. 50 Cent explained to Miss Info that the "LGBT" market (and people who see themselves as our allies) may make or break you as an artist more than how masculine and straight you appear to be:
50 Cent: They can say what they want about it, but...how about if you say I don't care? Who is to judge you when there's an audience that's probably one of the strongest audiences--if you look at Lady Gaga's career--that says that that's fine?
Miss Info: And you will look crazy if you say that it's not fine.
50 Cent: No, if you say that it's not fine you're gonna get attacked. You're gonna write apology notices.
He'd certainly know. 50-Cent, who once bragged about being damn near un-killable, has shuffled back from multiple hateful statements and tweets he's made about queer people, after being challenged by LGBT activists and bloggers.
Black queer activists have for years organized against homophobic lyrics in hip-hop and in Jamaican dancehall music, causing artists to lose concert dates and endorsements. (Of course, Eminem hasn't paid the same price as black artists; he dared to share a stage with Elton John a decade ago as "proof" he loves the gays and all was forgiven.) Even Funkmaster Flex and Charlamagne tha God, while trading on-air jibes, have been careful to insist that they don't discriminate against anyone's sexual preferences (set aside the fact that a beef over Cee's sexuality is in and of itself homo- and transphobic). No one can afford to have already dwindling corporate sponsors pulled. These days, pissing off any audience that seems to be buying music, like them or not, does not make good business sense.
According to Billboard.com, while hip-hop album sales increased in 2010 by 3 percent from the previous year (mostly due to Eminem's highly anticipated comeback, which was the highest selling album of any genre in 2010), sales of rap records have been in substantial decline for five years. To be sure, all genres of music have experienced a drop in sales, but hip-hop's decline over the last decade is far more substantial.
Meanwhile, hip-hop artists have learned that there is money to be made in a gay market--and not just by Lady Gaga. Younger hip-hop artists are not using homophobia to sell records in the way their elders often have. Nicki Minaj has written songs about having having sex with other femmes and regularly autographs the breast of female fans. She's also been outspoken in support of queer youth. And many gay clubs--and not just the black or Latino ones--are incorporating more R&B and hip-hop into their set lists.
Last year, hip hop artist Wale initially signed up to perform at D.C. Black Pride, then backed out. But after taking bad press for backing out, he reversed himself again and performed. According to HipHopDX.com, Wale told the crowd during the performance, ''One thing I stand for is hip hop music. And hip hop music knows no race, no color, no age, no gender, no sexual orientation--none of that. So, the most important thing about it is the music, and if it makes the people feel happy, that's what we hear."
What's all this mean? Maybe in an industry that's always been dominated by young artists, the older set that rode in on a wave of thuggery and "keepin' it real" gangsterism is becoming irrelevant. Maybe younger artists embracing skinny jeans, cardigans and skateboards will make sagging jeans and macho posing the bell bottoms of their era--the punchline of a joke. And maybe the trumped up, often misogynist masculinity that went with the old gangsta mentality will become equally absurd.
Politically, young fans of hip-hop seem to be shifting on LGBT issues. Studies show youth are much more likely to support LGBT civil rights causes, regardless of their political affiliation. If young people are the largest buying audience for hip hop, might they be growing turned off by the incessant queer bashing?
Black Entertainment Television has also, for the first time, begun to tackle the issue of homophobia. Its flagship show, "106th & Park," this year featured Marsha Ambrosius' video "Far Away," about homophobic violence, and had Ambrosius on to talk about her real life experience of having a gay friend commit suicide. And this year, BET even honored me as a Modern Black History Hero for my activism as a black gay man. I'm not bragging. Rather, it marks a major shift in the network's willingness to feature black LGBT people in prominent places in its programming. Maybe the execs at the channel are beginning to get the word that selling homophobia may cost you more than it earns in the long run.
So I hate to admit it, but 50 Cent is on to something. Mister Cee has thus far kept silent about both the arrest and his sexuality. But he might just want to shout it out, as Wendy Williams would say, because despite persistent homophobia and transphobia in the world at large, market forces may just keep the haters at bay. Say what you will about 50 Cent--who's preparing for the release of "Things Fall Apart," in which he plays the sympathetic role of a man fighting cancer--the reliable provocateur also clearly knows exactly when to change his persona in order to stay relevant. Mainstream hip-hop is not getting soft on gays, it's mostly getting hard up for money, and as one commenter on Miss Info's blog noted: You don't bite the hand that feeds you.
Kenyon Farrow is a black gay writer, noted public speaker and activist based in Brooklyn and blogging at www.kenyonfarrow.com.