Hip-hop and queerphobia

The intro to Elshad Khose’s rap “Mavi” from his 2005 album “Ikhlas” begins with queerphobia:

“This is Azerbaijan, not Amsterdam. It’s the stage that you come on, not the bathroom.”

“Mavi”, one of the most queerphobic raps written in the Azerbaijani language, is a duet between singer Aygun Kazimova and rappers Elshad Khose and Dayirman band. In this first verse, the authors of the piece refer to Amsterdam, the capital of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and urge not to confuse Azerbaijan with the gay capital of Europe.

The negative situation regarding LGBTIQ+ rights in Azerbaijan has an impact on the attitude of Azerbaijani rappers towards queers, too. In other words, one can say that queerphobic rappers with a large audience are promoting hate speech against LGBTIQ+ people with rap rhymes. Since the heteronormative culture in Azerbaijan is based on archaic sexual practices and beliefs, those who do not meet this standard are subject to demonization and alienation.

Rap started to develop mostly through traditional television channels in Azerbaijan. One of the most famous among such performers is Elshad Khose and “Dayirman” band, which is his “comrades in arms”. The once popular “Dayirman” singers not only had a rap audience but also a fan base that could have appealed to the entire country.

The rap “Mavi” is one of the popular performances targeting LGBTIQ+, entailing discrimination, hate speech and humiliation of a group of citizens based on their gender identity. For example, one of the queerphobic verses in ABD Malik’s part is “Point your finger at a gay man on the stage” in the song’s intro. The performer then says “A man from the front, a woman from behind. Look at our faces, don’t say I’m a man” continuing with sentences such as “perverted, indecent bitches, you are just like a prostitute”. These verses underlie the general approach that gender roles in Azerbaijani society are accepted only as cishetero “male” and “female” and all other identities are not seen as legitimate.

Such a toxic lexicon in popular art paves the way for the rapid spread of queerphobic messages, normalizing the use of derogatory terms and LGBTIQ+ phobia.

There was a “ghostwriter” (a person who writes lyrics for rappers and often keeps his name anonymous; in the case of “Dayirman” it was music producer Emin Efendi and others) of the songs performed by “Dayirman” band, especially ABD Malik and Miri Yusif. But the fact that the lyrics were written by someone else does not mean that the performers’ attitude towards queers is different from the lyrics. Elshad Khose continues his part in “Mavi” with the words “His voice is mannish, he is womanish”. Later, the performer reveals his attitude towards transgender people with “great rhymes” suitable for the experienced rapper such as “you can wear tight jeans, but not cannot change your gender.  I would rather curse your loved ones, be them dead or alive”. In general, Elshad Khose often uses queers and queer identities as a means of insult in his other raps. He expressed this not only in his songs, but also in a live broadcast on a social media site last year. When asked why he did not appear on TV shows, he responded that one of the reasons was that the staff of TV channels were “petukhs.”

“The guest is petukh, the host is petukh, the producer is petux, the stylist is petukh, and the hairdresser is petukh. Everyone is petukh. Who should I sit with? Who should I talk to? Who should I join in those TV shows? What should I talk about?” Khose asked.

The “new” old AzRap against everything

After a long silence on the rap scene, new faces began to appear in 2006-2007.

This included classical multi-member bands as well. It included the Uran, Dastreetz band which included members of the former Anbar Clan band and was rebranded by producer Master T and H.O.S.T. Alliance. Both teams were different in terms of style. Dastreetz represented a classic underground rap, while H.O.S.T. turned to more political, and social commentary and related topics.

Since H.O.S.T. was almost unique in its style and the most popular band in the Azerbaijani rap scene at that time, it could feed the audience with any “porridge” in the name of lyrics and ideology. In the same song, they could talk about Hitler (Austrian artist), Fidel Castro, and nationalism, and then invite people to communism, or make demands typical of medieval Christianity, such as “burn all the prostitutes.” H.O.S.T.’s songs also featured queerphobic expressions in many cases. Garagan, the leader of the band, mostly wrote these verses.

“Whores, gays and newly minted lesbians

Yesterday’s Russian-speakers are today’s Englishmen

Well, we are Protestants, and you are Anglicans

My lines are battalions, my rhymes are partisans”

The following piece from the 2008 album Red in Black is blatantly offensive, repeating existing stereotypes, and contributing to discriminatory narratives. In the verses typical for H.O.S.T. lyrics, the singer expresses his dissatisfaction with seven social groups in four sentences. Garagan thinks that lesbians are a social group that emerged later than gays. Although we can see how “wide” his horizons are when looking at his lyrics, sometimes certain “facts” stated by the singer can create a shocking effect.

For example, in H.O.S.T.’s song “I Don’t Want” released a year before, Garagan says:

“I don’t want democracy, I don’t want restoration

I don’t want free elections, integration into the world

I don’t want Western culture, European style wedding

I don’t want my son to say to me one day, “Dad, I’ve become gay.”

When the singer talks about the things he doesn’t want, it becomes clear that he has problems deciding about the things he does want. As in the case I mentioned above, the singer is against everything here, too. He does not have a specific idea of what he is against or what he supports. This part of the rap is much reminiscent of the speech of an ordinary, anti-globalist Russian MP, and once again one of the main targets is queers.

The Dastreetz band also included the Rap Out Clan, a 6-member band. This group was mostly called Baku style by the local audience, used both Russian and Azerbaijani language in its songs and showed an underground approach, sticking to the style of Dastreetz. Okaber, the most famous singer of the group, said in his song Our Protest he performed in 2011 “If you want to join us, shave your head.”

In general, if you look at the old pictures or performances of Rap Out Clan, you can see that it reminds you of ultra-right football fans from the outside. I think it was not just for looks, but also related to their ideological views. Okaber later laid the foundations of right-wing nationalist rap in AzRap. He used Nazi symbolism in his album covers, sometimes quoted Nazi leaders and in one of the songs called himself both Hitler and Franz Kafka, whose sisters and family were killed by the Nazis, sticking to the style of the H.O.S.T. Nationalist pathos, patriotic slogans, authentic samples, etc. seem to satisfy all the demands of the rap audience at that time. Of course, Okaber is not only a rapper but also a regular Turkish nationalist who takes a radical stance towards queers. For example, in his 2011 piece Untitled Lines, he says:

“You didn’t write about prostitutes, you didn’t write about bastards,

You did not write about the gays, the husbands who sold their wives!

You didn’t write about innocent babies with AIDS.

You didn’t write about bridges built on abyss”

As I mentioned earlier, while classic AzRap made queers a direct target, their later representatives were spreading general hatred by equating queers with other social groups and professions they were opposed to. Maybe they don’t even know where this hatred comes from. Since pathos and being anti-everything has become a cult image, being anti-something for the sake of being anti-something is more characteristic of these patterns than being an institutionalized queerphobia, etc.

How did hip-hop become a hypermasculine genre?

Of course, an expression of hate speech and anti-LGBTIQ+ ideas in the hip-hop genre is not limited to Azerbaijan only. Although hip-hop was a pacifist and open-minded cultural form opposed to racism, xenophobia and other problems at the time of its creation, it later began to shift its form and content. It would be safe to say that queerphobia is one of the biggest cons in the history of world rap. But over the years, Western rap has started to consider the audience, trying not to offend the fans, or some social groups, religions, races, etc. In the West, the reaction of people to this type of discriminatory statements is quite harsh. For this reason, even the most famous rappers are now trying to be mindful of what comes out of their mouths. Not only because of fear of reputation but also because they are aware of how influential they are.

Gangsta rap, or reality rap, started to form in the late 80s as one of the subgenres of hip-hop. The main representatives of gangsta rap promoted the “values” of urban gangs and street robbers. The most famous representatives of this subgenre at the time were Ice-T, N.W.A and Tupac Shakur. Since its inception, gangsta rap has been accused of promoting crime, murder, drug addiction, misogyny and queerphobia. The accusations are justified when looking at the texts sung by the famous figures of the subgenre. However, the difference between propaganda and artistic self-expression leads listeners to disagree. Gangsta rap listeners perceive this subgenre more as a rising voice against social injustice and police brutality. But one undeniable fact is that since gangsta rap was born, rap has fueled more conflict and death, more crime and the romanticization of the criminal life. Thus, the genre, which was formed as part of the culture based on the principles of peace, later became hypermasculine. One of the main reasons behind this was that rap was more industrialized and capitalized than other elements of hip-hop.

Queerphobia in Western rap

Back in 1982, one of the hip-hop “scholars” Grandmaster Flash used the term “faggot” in The Message, one of his famous pieces against institutional racism. The attitude of hip-hop artists towards queers was often ambiguous at the time. This expression is also found in the tracks of NWA and DMX later. The position of Eminem, the most famous white face of rap, towards queers has been constantly changing. So, the singer said ” Hate f**s? /The answer’s yes” in his 2000 album The Marshall Mathers LP. It is related to hatred towards queers. But in 2001, he performed jointly with the famous gay star Elton John at the Grammy Award ceremony saying that he changed his mind. Later, Eminem used the term “faggot” again in a 2018 diss against fellow rapper Tyler the Creator:

“Tyler create nothin’, I see why you called yourself a f****t, bitch.

It’s not just ’cause you lack attention”.

After the piece gained popularity, the rapper emphasized in an interview that this was not an appropriate expression that he used and that it was wrong not only for the artist with whom he was in conflict but towards many other people.

In recent years, the Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar, one of the most famous representatives of “lyrical rap” (in rap slang, this is the style of rappers who consider the technique of words in their songs more important than the sound and presentation), touched on the topic of trans identity for the first time in big rap with the song Auntie Diaries in his last album Mr. Morale & Big Steppers. The attitude of listeners, and especially transgender or queer listeners, to the song is ambiguous. So, while some consider the piece an important step towards trans acceptance, others are unhappy with Kendrick’s form of self-expression and non-politically correct lexicon in the piece. The piece is certainly not politically correct, since Kendrick uses the dead names of his uncle and his daughter in the text and begins with a phrase like “my auntie is now a man” and even provocatively uses the word “faggot.”

As a regular listener and given the aggressive transphobia in the black community, it’s hard to comment on this Kendrick track. No matter how politically incorrect the form of expression is, Kendrick is a rapper who can appeal to a very large audience right now. The fact that such performers started to raise trans topics can perhaps be considered an “achievement” in some form.

In general, since the 2000s, the attitude of Western rappers towards queers has changed, at least to some extent, compared to the previous period. Even famous stars like Kanye West and Jay Z have made calls in support of queers and apologized for their previous approach. But in any case, the situation could have been better. Maybe it will, because the number of queer rappers on the big stage is much higher than it was before. An example of this is Tyler the Creator, or Young M.A., the most famous masculine lesbian face of rap.

Young M.A. is one of the first openly lesbian female rappers to go platinum. Currently, he works with the most famous figures of the industry, and the opinions about him are mostly positive. Young Thug, one of the most popular figures of recent times, often “cross-dresses” and changes his image in performances or music videos. When he talked about this in one of his interviews, he said, “In my world, you can be a gangster wearing a dress or very wide pants.”

In Azerbaijan, the attitude towards queers has changed neither in general nor in hip-hop over the years.  On the contrary, it has worsened. Therefore, not only the performers who do not want to take any responsibility for the ideas they write and say but also the audiences, who have no demands, are to blame.

The Bible says that there was only a word in the beginning. And God made all things out of words. A wordsmith should think twice about what he creates from words. Because the word can be either sacred or worthless according to the form attached to it.

The article was developed as part of the mentoring program of the QueeRadar.