Hip-hop artist Adair Lion is garnering accolades for a pro-gay track, "Ben,"… (Scott Gold, Los Angeles…)
AMARILLO, Texas — It's well after midnight in a parched corner of Texas known as the buckle of the Bible Belt, down the road from the Jesus Christ is Lord Travel Center, which is just what it sounds like: an evangelical truck stop.
In the back of an empty strip mall, an up-and-coming hip-hop artist with the self-assurance and billowing locks of Samson is shooting a video. His hair is up in a tidy bun and he's enduring a second hour of makeup transforming him into the likeness of a gender-bending woman, all of which makes more sense once you know that Adair Lion began his career by destroying it.
Hip-hop has been described as the heartbeat of urban America, but for years, it had an open secret — that heart was brimming with hate. Rap was one of the most reliably homophobic arenas in American pop culture. Its stars casually tossed off references to stabbing gays in the head or shooting them in the crotch. Rappers felt compelled to devise a catchphrase to give themselves cover while saying something nice about another man — "no homo," as in: "That's a cool shirt. No homo."
It was not exactly a world where an aspiring star would break in with a song declaring that gays should be out, proud and embraced — while calling out the industry's biggest names for failing to say the same. Earlier this year, that's what Lion did. On "Ben," a single from his upcoming album, he rapped: "The Bible was wrong this time. … Gay is OK — the No. 1 thing a rapper shouldn't say. I said it anyway."
Friends told him he was committing career suicide. He feared they were right. Then, a strange thing happened — nothing. Nothing bad, anyway.
Across the board, hip-hop is having a change of heart. Either in song or in interviews, one headliner after another — the mogulJay-Z; Jayceon Taylor, better known as Game — has thrown his support behind the gay community.
Last year, Calvin LeBrun, a noted hip-hop figure known as Mister Cee, pleaded guilty to loitering after he was caught receiving oral sex from another man in a parked car; 50 Cent, who once suggested in a Tweet that gay men should kill themselves, stood publicly by his side.
Most notably, Frank Ocean, a member of hip-hop collective Odd Future, released a letter in July declaring that his first love had been a man. Ocean's stock soared. Among those who supported him was the rapper and producer Tyler, the Creator — who had, a year earlier, released an album that disparaged gays.
As for "Ben," the song went viral, racking up tens of thousands of hits on YouTube. Lion's songs have landed on taste-making radio stations and websites. His calendar of live performances is filling up — and now includes appearances at gay pride festivals in Memphis and his hometown of El Paso.
Lion, who is not gay, believes his song lives up to the finest tradition of rap.
"What hip-hop does is talk for people who don't get to talk," he said one recent morning in his studio. "And if you think about it that way, 'Ben' is the most hip-hop thing I've ever heard."
Long before he became known as the rap star Murs, Nick Carter grew up on the hardened streets of Mid-City Los Angeles. There, he experienced a curious phenomenon. Amid all the problems — violence and addiction, substandard education, a rotten job market — "you'd rather be a lot of things other than gay," he said.
"Some people would rather their son be in jail, or a drug dealer, than be gay," he said.
The relationship between urban communities and homosexuality is complex and sometimes secretive. Murs, who is not gay, believes it began in church pulpits — sometimes the only "positive centers" in the communities, he said. In many of those churches, the message is clear and absolute: Homosexuality is a sin.
In May, after President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, some of the most vociferous criticism came from African American and Latino religious leaders. California's black and Latino voters delivered heavily for Obama in 2008 — while providing crucial support for the state's same-sex marriage ban.
Those same communities were the bosom of American hip-hop; homophobia had become entrenched in rap music.
Rap stars tried to explain it away. They were just storytellers, they said, rapping in the voices of characters. Calling someone gay, they insisted, had nothing to do with sexual orientation; it had merely become a synonym for weakness. The protestations were difficult to reconcile with the reality of the music.
The late Eazy-E, known as a godfather of gangsta rap, had one song about raping a woman at gunpoint, then discovering the woman was a cross-dresser. "Put the gat to his legs," Eazy-E rapped, "all the way up his skirt." A Tribe Called Quest referred to gays as "filthy," "weak" and "gross" — in one song, devoted entirely to rejecting a gay friend.
"Hate fags?" Eminem sang. "The answer's yes."