I've been revisiting old Chris Rock standup specials lately.
I've always been a fan of great comedy and in the late 90s/early 00s, there was no one more kinetic or cutting onstage than Rock. It's been interesting, to say the least, revisiting Rock's old material through a modern lens. I could argue that it's rare that any art should look exactly the same with the benefit of hindsight, and Rock's certainly no exception. His infamous "Niggas Vs. Black people" bit is more cringe-inducing than ever; his '90s takes on marriage and women sometimes sound beamed in from the '50s; and then there was one segment from his 2004 HBO special Never Scared that I'd forgotten about before my rewatch.
"I love Hip-Hop. But I'm getting tired of defending it."
In the segment, Rock bemoans how difficult it is defending rap music when there are songs like "Get Low" by Lil Jon (with it's notorious, ejaculate-evoking "aww-skeet-skeet!" chorus) and "Move" by Ludacris on the radio. Rock's frustration with defending the bawdier side of rap ignores that there was so much more happening in Hip-Hop circa 2003 than "move, bitch-get out the way." That same year, OutKast dropped their Grammy-winning and genre-expanding double LP Speakerboxxx/The Love Below; Jay-Z delivered his "retirement" opus The Black Album; and Gang Starr released what would be their final album, The Ownerz.
Rock's lament rang in my ears after I'd revisited Never Scared, and especially in the wake of ongoing controversy that's been dominating entertainment headlines. A furor has been raging for several days now surrounding rapper DaBaby's onstage comments during Rolling Loud Festival in Miami.
During his set, the award-winning star launched into a tirade that drew a wave of criticism online and off.
"[If] you didn't show up today with HIV/AIDS or any of them deadly sexually transmitted diseases that'll make you die in two to three weeks, then put a cellphone light in the air. Ladies, if your pussy smell like water, put a cellphone light in the air. Fellas, if you ain't sucking dick in the parking lot, put a cellphone light in the air."
On top of a performance that saw the rapper bring out Tory Lanez (accused of shooting fellow Hip-Hop superstar Megan Thee Stallion in the foot), DaBaby stoked controversy both via his rant and in the immediate aftermath, where he doubled down on his comments, apologized, then seemed to bait everyone with the premiere of his new music video for his single "Giving What It's Supposed To Give."
In the days since, as DaBaby has been dropped from festival lineups, lost endorsements, and drawn criticism from everybody from Dua Lipa to Elton John, a predictable narrative has resurfaced that thrusts an entire segment of music under the microscope.
That narrative, of course, is Hip-Hop and homophobia.
There have been times in my career where I wanted to make sure the gay-bashing on rap records was called out and shouted down. There is no denying the homophobic slurs and references that have come all-too-easy from classic rap songs and legendary artists over the years. But over time, thinkpieces and media moralizing made hot-button issues endless cause célèbre, trendy woke-speaking for easy clicks. And Hip-Hop artists have always been asked to answer for each other in a way that has turned a corner into stereotyping.
In a recent interview with A$AP Ferg, The Daily Beast bemoaned that "his fellow rappers have stayed mostly quiet. It’s not surprising, considering the hip-hop industry’s bleak history of homophobia." While Ferg, in the piece, criticized DaBaby's words.
“I feel like it was super insensitive,” Ferg told The Daily Beast.
“I love everybody. I love gay people, straight people,” he added. “I have a lot of gay friends. I know a lot of designers. I know normal people that are gay—they’re normal people. They should be definitely treated with respect. You just got to treat people [like] respectable human beings, man.”
It's necessary to call out bigotry wherever it exists, but the oversaturation of online media means that certain topical commentary can go from delivering necessary truth to low-hanging, lazy pandering. And in the case of Hip-Hop, we've always been very comfortable branding a genre and a culture.
Roots drummer Questlove roundly condemned DaBaby's comments.
“I’m not trine be all performative smurf & create a social flogging or start some clickbait headlines,” Questlove wrote. “That’s missing the point. But right is right & his actions are wrong. Somebody Gotta say it: Homophobia/Transphobia/Xenophobia/Misogyny/Racism — this should go w/o saying is morally wrong. & not that fake hiding behind religion holier than thou morally wrong. But ‘that was fucked up’ & wrong. I had to say something.”
“[B]lack people already have a code about publicly criticizing so I’ll admit I was slow to do this because I mean he don’t know me from Adam. So this will prolly get marked as ‘old hater’ territory. But man…..that shit was not cool at all… Huey Newton wisely stated in the early Seventies that we as a people should NEVER go so low in life (with what we been through) that we start oppressing/terrorizing the next man in the way we been terrorized for centuries.”
DaBaby attends the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center on January 26, 2020 in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by David Crotty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
DaBaby performs on stage during Rolling Loud at Hard Rock Stadium on July 25, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images)
Even as Tyler, The Creator coyly plays with sexual fluidity, as artists from Kanye West to A$AP Rocky to Jay-Z have condemned homophobia, Hip-Hop is regularly reduced to a perceived genre of homophobes.
Common rapped about being a former homophobe who had to hear how much his ignorance hurt a closeted gay friend. But one rapper's ignorance is often used to scapegoat a society that acts like it's broader anti-gay tendencies and policies are distant history. And rappers are expected to answer for each other.
When former NBA star Tim Hardaway came under fire in 2007 for homophobic comments he made during an interview with Dan Le Batard, NBA players weren't tasked with condemning or educating the five-time All Star. Matt Damon recently admitted that his daughter admonished him after he mentioned using the F-word in his 2003 movie Stuck On You. After initially stating that the slur “was commonly used when I was a kid, with a different application," and sharing that his daughter criticized him "months ago," Damon clarified.
“I have never called anyone ‘f****t’ in my personal life and this conversation with my daughter was not a personal awakening. I do not use slurs of any kind,” Damon said via statement to Variety. “I have learned that eradicating prejudice requires active movement toward justice rather than finding passive comfort in imagining myself ‘one of the good guys’. And given that open hostility against the LGBTQ+ community is still not uncommon, I understand why my statement led many to assume the worst. To be as clear as I can be, I stand with the LGBTQ+ community.”
Were Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt asked to comment? It seems that rappers are expected to police other rappers for performative purposes in a way that other celebs aren't expected to.
In the case of DaBaby, Hip-Hop doesn't need to come to his defense. There's nothing worth defending there. The backlash he's enduring is one that comes with saying hateful things into a microphone; and it's not any different from what other celebs faced who spewed racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.
But his critics shouldn't resort to broad strokes and generalizations about Hip-Hop to call out his behavior. This culture has evolved, as communities have evolved, and as America has evolved. If America can understand that Matt Damon once said a gay slur in a movie because it was more socially accepted at that time, then America should be able to understand that rappers used that slur for basically the same reason. Things have changed, and that's a good thing. No one needs to pretend DaBaby is some kind of martyr. But his words are his; despite what people may want to believe about Hip-Hop. In 2021, there are a wide swath of opinions. Hip-Hop doesn't all think one way, and rappers aren't part of some monolithic fraternity. DaBaby's words don't have to be emblematic of anything but DaBaby.
I love Hip-Hop. And I don't defend it anymore. I don't defend it anymore because I don't know that it requires uniquely defending. I think our society has to answer for a lot of what it's done across popular culture; I'm just as likely to hear the word f*g in a Seth Rogen or Will Ferrell comedy from the 2000s as I am to hear it on a Dogg Pound song. Watching mainstream media wave a moralizing finger at Hip-Hop feels disingenuous and hypocritical. There's still a long way to go, but sanctimony is not how we get there. Calling out one man's actions doesn't always require indicting an entire demographic—or an entire culture.