By any objective measure — moral, legal, ethical, the eyes of his horrified mother — the hip-hopper Wale screwed up. Management for the gifted artist best known for his duet with Lady Gaga contracted him to perform at D.C. Black Pride, a 20-year-old festival—for 45 minutes and $18,000. At the last minute, his team backed out, claiming they did not realize Pride was a gay and lesbian event.
Furious Pride organizers put him on blast in the local media, vowed to explore their legal options, and quickly arranged for another artist, the tatted-out R&B crooner J. Holiday to take his place. In the middle of J. Holiday's Memorial Day Weekend performance, I watched Wale make an unpaid appearance to do a little damage control. He said once his mother informed him of the controversy which aired on local TV, he immediately came back from his trip to Miami to make things right.
''One thing I stand for is hip-hop music,'' Wale, the son of Nigerian immigrants, told the crowd. ''Hip-hop music knows no race, no color, no age, no gender, no sexuality, none of that …. But I will say, in this business, sometimes you get aligned with people who don't understand that, or who don't necessarily have the same belief system as you do. And I apologize for not putting my best foot forward and not understanding the people I'm in business with. And I'm gonna do better—as we all do. People, every day we gotta get better.''
So what exactly did we just witness? Was it a step forward for compassionate understanding of our friends in ''the life''? Did Wale just avert a boycott/lawsuit or discrimination charges? Is this the beginning of the end of folks tolerating homophobia? Could it be signs of actual—*gasp*—maturity in popular hip-hop?
When it comes to the topic of sexuality, rap could definitely use a kumbaya moment. After all, these are the folks who brought us ''no homo,'' that asinine expression that men used to preface any complimentary or kind words to each other. And as Byron Hurt pointed out in his groundbreaking documentary, Beyond Beats and Rhymes,'' the rampant homophobia in hip-hop lyrics can conceal … a lot. Popular rap is the province of men, grimacing men of six-pack abs, men who often fail to appreciate how much their glistening pecs also appeal to other men who happen to be gay.
My friend Asheru, a veteran hip-hop artist best known for being the voice for The Boondocks theme song, says that the industry has a long way to go in addressing issues of sexuality. He agrees with Hurt's assessment of the strange paradox in the way mainstream rap is marketed. ''Even though hip-hop is being sold as a hypermasculine art form, it is being pitched in a very homoerotic way, from the videos, to the imagery in photos, magazine articles, etc.,''Asheru told me in an e-mail. ''The shirtless, greased-up thug image from LL, to 50, to Ja Rule, to Plies, is for who exactly? The fellas or the ladies??''
Frank discussions about homosexuality are rare in hip-hop — and the rest of the black community. (Never mind that gays and lesbians are frequently at the heart of religious and cultural institutions, from the church choirs to museums to theaters to dance companies.) Before Wale's moment, I can't think of a time when a hip-hop figure (or a Baptist preacher for that matter) was compelled to publicly atone for their homophobia. After all, reggae/dancehall star Buju Banton, who once encouraged murder of homosexuals on wax and continues to taunt gay activists, still has a career. At the festival, Charles Hicks, a 65-year-old community activist, told me the apology showed that ''silent majority'' of black people who are against gay bashing are finally being heard.
Given the sexual politics of hip-hop, I wanted to find encouragement in Wale's speech. He's right. None of us are perfect and each day, we just have to vow to do better. ''I'm really feeling for him,'' said Rev. Michael Vanzant, who is one of the original organizers of D.C. Black Pride. ''You know how people are. [They'll say.] 'He performed for f——-s…. You think he like that?' ''
''It's not like he's Diana Ross,'' Vanzant continued. ''It's not like he's Aretha, getting an honorary doctorate of music,'' he said, breaking into a laugh.
''He's not even Usher.''
Contrast that with the performance by J. Holiday, Wale's replacement as a paid performer. When the sinewy 25-year-old J. Holiday swaggered onto the Pride stage, he didn't seem particularly pressed to assert his heterosexuality—which made him all the sexier in my eyes. ''I love y'all like I love my family,'' J. Holiday told the crowd, moments after tossing a sweat-soaked towel to a deep chocolate, bald-headed brother on the front row. ''It is what it is.''
Meanwhile, Wale was backstage giving an interview to a foreign journalist whom he was careful to inform, not once, but twice, that he ''doesn't know any gay people personally.'' Cute.
Fear not, hip-hop fans! Wale has not been contaminated by The Gay. He's spent his whole life stewing in a vat of manly man, and landed on the Pride stage fully formed, wearing dreadlocks and a scowl. Seriously—no homo.
Natalie Hopkinson is The Root's media and culture critic and co-author of Deconstructing Tyrone: A New Look at Black Masculinity in the Hip-Hop Generation. Follow her on Twitter.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.