Defining Gay Hip-Hop: Reviewing LastO’s ‘Where’s Vivian’

where's vivian cover photo

 

“I don’t want to spend my time on earth performing, yelling “Look At Me” or “Confirm My Humanity, Please” in various tongues. I have problems of my own.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates

One of the things that I’ve found most difficult to navigate as a black same-gender-loving man is the way it is assumed that “blackness” and “homosexuality” are supposed to be somehow mutually exclusive and in conflict with one another. And the temptation is to choose one that controls. And while it is certainly true that the “gay” construct is a largely White one, my race and my sexuality really do work in concert. They inform one another.

So you do have to move through life aware of these boxes – “black,” “gay,” “SGL,” “homosexual,” “man,” etc – but constantly finding ways to not have to tell everyone else that they aren’t necessarily your boxes. And that anxiety does, in some ways, become part of the experience. Not necessarily because you are confused or self-loathing, but because there is real work in operating in a world where you have to always be conscious of people trying to categorize you.

Add to that trying to be an emcee when “gay rapper” is seemingly more a contradiction in terms than “black gay” and you understand I think why so much of gay hip hop feels like it’s always trying to decide whether to be “gay” or “hip hop.”

LastO’s Where’s Vivian is the first hip-hop album by a black homosexual man that really gets that all of this shit is just a false choice. It feels like the first time that a gay/SGL rapper is aware of all the traps that being a “gay rapper” has – and falls into none of them, primarily by having clear-eyed view of who exactly he wants to be as an artist. There’s anxiety here. There’s confidence. There’s also tremendous vulnerability. And, perhaps most notably, there’s a sense of self that is more present than it ever was before. And that’s saying something, because Run A Lap is one of the single best opening salvos I’ve ever heard an emcee make. It’s nearly perfect (I’d have left off So Magical, to be honest) and, for me, made me think “Oh, so this is what gay hip-hop can be.”

Where’s Vivian ups the ante by being more personal, more open — and yet forthright about the anxiety about doing so. That anxiety is really a running theme throughout the album, from the intro Bitches Be Like… all the way through to the tongue-in-cheek boast of I’m Ur S​.​s. Pt. 2, that actually draws you in because it is so often the underside of the confidence that an emcee is supposed to feel. As he says on the opening track, 34th and 42nd: “Truth be told/I might not be/Who they was rootin for/Who they would like to see.” Or take Dream Wild, which features the talented Sony Cobain, where Lasto explores why his desire to be an emcee is so powerful, asking: “Like it’s a dream that a nigga can’t get?/But I’m here though/Weirdo/Been did the shit 4 years ago.”

Because the conversation around gay hip-hop to date has been about whether or not there will be an emcee that the broader hip-hop community can embrace – and if that individual would have to not be “too gay” in order to feel that embrace – it’s quite refreshing that LastO doesn’t shy away from sex at all. It is certainly true that there are less explicit discussions of sex on Where’s Vivian than there are on Not For Non-Profit, but it is also true that what is discussed on Where’s Vivian is far more mature and, to my mind, representative of black gay men. Nearly every reference to sex also includes a reference to HIV, which is important given the rates of HIV in black gay communities and the anxiety that causes in the community. Even his love song to his boyfriend, For Tonight, is tinged with the always-present concern about the repercussions of sex:

And this consensus that love is for a nigga who acts like a bitch
is to keep niggas doing shit that kills us
Cause you know where ya dick is
Can you tell by looking exactly where that HIV is?

Perhaps the most amusing expression of Lasto’s anxiety is his ambivalent relationship to his beauty. On the album’s standout track, its centerpiece, Barcelon, Lasto laments: “I was told to undress; had to haggle to keep the hat and shit/Management wanted me to be a woman wearing Mac on lips/Ya’ll know that’s a Manolo slingback that I just cannot fit.” And then builds a whole song joking about how he’ll begrudgingly accept being a sex symbol on I’m Ur S​.​s. Pt. 2. and admits “Flaunt it?/Fuck it that’s in me.”

In a year when a lot of really talented artists put out uneven, messy albums, it’s really remarkable that Where’s Vivian is such a stunningly complete album experience. It’s not fair to pick a favorite because you really should always listen to the album all the way through, but Barcelon (easily the best song on the album), 34th Or 42nd, and both I’m Ur S.S. are brilliantAnd while 17 tracks for $6 is quite a deal, I might not have added Hunnid-Yard Stare at the last minute and can kinda do without Candy Clouds.

Ultimately though, Where’s Vivian fulfills the promise of Run A Lap spectacularly, reminding us again that if there is anyone defining what it means to be a gay rapper in all its messy, complex humanity, it is LastO.

Fatigue, Fluidity and Compassion: Some Thoughts On the Mister Cee Hot 97 Interview

I just finished listening to the Mister Cee Hot 97 interview and here’s the thing that I think is getting lost in this conversation about this interview: there is genuine love and respect and compassion between two, and then three, black men who are discussing non-heterosexual sexuality.

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Portrait of a Black Man: Reviewing ‘Fruitvale Station’

Fruitvale poster

“Seen as animals, brutes, natural born rapists, and murderers, Black men have had no real dramatic say when it comes to the way they are represented. They have made few interventions on the stereotype…Black males who refuse categorization are rare, for the price of visibility in the contemporary world of White supremacy is that Black male identity be defined in relation to the stereotype whether by embodying it or seeking to be other than it.”
–bell hooks

There’s a scene late in Fruitvale Station that is about as astute and subtle a depiction of the disparities between white men and black men in America as I’ve ever seen in a major motion picture.

Oscar (played magnificently by the phenomenally talented Michael B. Jordan) is standing outside a store waiting for his girlfriend, Sophina (beautifully portrayed by Melonie Diaz), and her friend to come out of the bathroom. He had just sufficiently charmed the owner into letting the two women go in when a white couple appears. The wife is pregnant and needs to use the bathroom too. The owner lets her in as well, begrudgingly, leaving Oscar standing outside with the husband. The two have a casual conversation that serves three purposes: one, to let the audience know that Oscar has been seriously considering asking Sophina to marry him; two, to remind us again how charming and at ease Oscar is with all kinds of people (remember – he also charmed the young white woman who didn’t know what fish to fry), and three – and most notably – to underline just how much harder it is for black people, black men in particular, to get their lives together than it is for white folks.

And yet, this is what the film really leaves us with, what it’s really about: A young brother who is just trying to get it together. We have spent the bulk of the movie watching Oscar fumble about trying to sort out his life. We watch him trying, by turns, begging and threatening, to get his job at a grocery store back. We watch him contemplate going back to dealing drugs. We watch him argue and seduce Sophina, charm and spoil his mother for her birthday, bail his sister out of her own money troubles, and perhaps most poignantly, dote on the one thing in his life that makes total and complete sense to him – his daughter. The struggle is real, specific. We care.

After a trying day, Oscar then gets to listen to this white man talk so casually about marrying his wife when they had “nothing” and then starting a business that is apparently doing well enough that he hands Oscar a card. Jordan’s reaction – a remarkable combination of respect, admiration and, just a touch of jealousy – says all we need to know. For this white man, things come so easily. In Jordan’s performance in that moment, we are reminded again that it’s just not as easy for a brothers like Oscar to get their lives together.

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On Trayvon Martin and the Zimmerman Verdict

I couldn’t watch the George Zimmerman trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin for more than 10 minutes at a time. The pain was too acute. The trial was such a mockery of everything that we are told to believe the “justice” system is supposed to be. I couldn’t bear to listen to the “balanced” coverage discuss how it’s about race and also not about race.

To see exactly how the system is rigged was simply too much.

And yet, there was a split second last night right between the time the judge asked the jury if they had a verdict and the moment that the verdict was read that I thought that George Zimmerman would be convicted of murdering Trayvon Martin.

A split second.

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On J. August Richards’ Webseries, ‘The Hypnotist’: Black People and Science Fiction

I’m struck by the fact that the great J. August Richards is developing a sci-fi webseries, The Hypnotist, featuring black people that seems to center blackness.

“…African hypnosis. It was essentially lost during the slave trade, but goes back thousands of years.”

I’ve had many a conversation about why it is so uncommon for Black folks who have money to explore science fiction; and how this limits the kinds of stories that black people have access to and how it limits black people’s ability to see themselves as expansively as they could. There has yet to be an adaptation of an Octavia Butler or Tananarive Due novel and yet we make a fair number of romantic comedies, comedies centered around a black comedian, hood tales, and Black American historical epics.

The Hypnotist posterSo good on J. that The Hypnotist seems to not only be a science fiction story but one that plays with blackness and Africanness. This is a teaser so one can’t know how deeply these themes will be explored, but I’m struck by the fact that this 50-second trailer so forthrightly names blackness, Africanness, and slavery. That. is. just. dope.

The question then is: how will this all work?

I’m wondering if The Hypnotist will be a play on Egyptian doctor Imhotep’s “temple sleep” and if part of what is explored is this notion of reconnecting to that subconscious Africanness that was erased by white supremacy and centuries in North America. There is a lot of subtextual room to play here that I think could give the show some deeper resonance that is specific to the Black American experience and psyche.

These are big questions, to be sure. We shall see just what J. has in store.