“Hip hop,” whispers a friend in my ear, “is for queer kids who are content to live in subtext.” We thought we knew differently: sweating it out to disco, new wave, house, and rave. All these were music scenes where gender fluidity and kaleidoscopic sexual tastes were privileged, where a singular mode of blackness wouldn’t be prescribed. Hip hop, circa 1991 in a small town in the Midwest, meant the gangsta swagger booming out of my kid brother’s room, as he sampled the cartoonish version of black masculinity that came shrink-wrapped with a parental advisory in the local mall’s CD bins. I closed the door and turned up my own stereo, which blared Tracy Chapman, Terence Trent D’Arby, Sinéad O’Connor, and Prince, Prince, Prince. I’ll see your NWA and raise you one Prince, motherfucker! Now there was a nigga with attitude!
Still, hip hop made steady incursions into my queer consciousness, and not only when it was “conscious rap.” Sure, I appreciated Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy calling out schoolyard homophobia—but this wasn’t exactly booty-shaking music. If queerness were always to be a serious matter of identity and oppression, then yes, maybe we were content to live in the joyous subtext of mainstream rap’s affirmations. Maybe we could just dance to Salt ’n’ Pepa and sing along when they told the male object of their desire “to thank your mother for a butt like that.” Kids longed for music that affirmed body and soul, not songs that sternly reminded us about our oppression.
At least not until Me’Shell Ndegeocello’s 1993 electrifying debut, Plantation Lullabies, invited us to “step into the projects where I found love,” and the whole history of black sonic, sexual, and antisegregationist dissidence practically burst our eardrums. It was all there: snarling black rage over a phat bassline, a bone-deep yearning that was equal parts erotic and spiritual, and a funky embrace of all our carnal and political strivings. Me’Shell’s flow prepared me for the astonishing vocal attack of Skin, lead singer of the UK’s Skunk [End Page 144] Anansie, whose 1996 album Stoosh pounded out of every student’s bedsit during my postgraduate year abroad. Skin was the subject of every student’s cultural studies term paper that year, with songs like “Yes it’s Fucking Political” and “Intellectualize my Blackness.” She wasn’t a rapper, but the way she bumrushed the pop charts with unapologetic black feminist attitude was definitely hardcore. Skin’s voice echoed within an extended diaspora of black rebel music that included rap, rock, reggae, and punk. Her razor sharp confessionalism makes her a precursor to rappers like Angel Haze, whose “Cleaning Out My Closet” may be sonically built out of Eminem’s hit of the same name, but whose feeling tone is closer to a song like Skin’s “Twisted (Everyday Hurts).” If hip hop has been a privileged site for working out one’s personal demons in public, Haze managed to take Slim Shady’s paranoid template and cut and mix it into a scorching indictment of male abuse. More than living in subtext, this was a mode of living as the subtext of a homophobic, misogynist society, a queer mode of reading the lines of the dominant script otherwise.
Haze is not the only queer shadowboxing with Eminem as the ultimate bad object choice. In the heyday of ’90s-style gay visibility, Shady’s calculated homophobia was bait that LGBT media watchdogs like GLAAD couldn’t resist taking. What our spokespeople never could quite grasp was our hangdog affinity for him, which we even imagined was covertly reciprocated. Here was the ultimate rough trade fantasy. What with the bleach blond hair, earrings, and pretty boy looks, there were a couple years there where many gay boys were prepared to forgive Eminem almost anything except the seriousness with which he sometimes took himself. When Eminem let us know on 2002’s “White America” that he knew we knew he knew “Shady’s cute, Shady knew Shady’s dimples would help,” he was...