"I'll be honest, I really wanted to win the Best Rap Video, but this Moonman right here stands for a lot more," the rapper Macklemore said earlier this year, holding the MTV Video Music Awards "Best Video With a Social Message" trophy. The honor was for the video accompanying his gay-equality anthem "Same Love," a song that he called "the most important record" out of everything he's written. "To watch this song in the last year spread across the world is a testament to what is happening right now in America on the forefront of equality," he told the crowd, echoing the song's self-important earnestness.
Macklemore is cloying: A straight male liaison informing the world that Gay is OK! (note that the track's collaborator, Mary Lambert, an actual gay person, did not get to say a word during the acceptance speech). His song is simplistic—not all love looks the same, especially not all queer love—but that simplicity allows "Same Love" to speak to the masses, including and especially to the idiots who need a model for tolerance. The song went Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 this summer in the wake of DOMA's reversal. It has been nominated for Song of the Year at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards. As recently as a few weeks ago, it prompted a sing-along amongst the 18,000 or so attendees who filled Madison Square Garden for the annual Jingle Ball concert.
Central to the song is its smarmy indictment of a hip-hop culture that it seeks to correct. "If I was gay / I would think hip-hop hates me," says Macklemore. That's an annoying thing to say, not just because it should be "If I were gay." It encourages wallowing. It ignores the complicated experience of being a LGBT person interfacing with bigoted pop culture. You don't have to surrender or ignore; you can glean what's useful to you and leave the toxic rest behind. Macklemore's sense of what he'd feel if he were gay matters less than, say, how actual, non-hypothetical gay people engage with hip-hop.
But you get what he's saying: Hip-hop has traditionally been an unfriendly place to gay people. "Same Love" was released in 2012, but it didn't break till this year, after Macklemore and Ryan Lewis scored their career-delivering hits, "Thrift Shop" and "Can't Hold Us." Had it been written later, it very well could have been different. It's been a watershed year in terms of hip-hop's relationship to homosexuality. It's harder and harder to make the case that "hip-hop hates me."
Hip-hop's traditionally overt homophobia—it's the musical genre in which anti-gay sentiments and slurs are most prevalent and acceptable—makes it a good gauge for social progress. And it is progressing, partly because it couldn't get much worse. Last year Frank Ocean, an R&B singer with close ties to the young L.A. rap crew OFWGKTA, made public a same-sex romantic relationship, and a new wave of sub-mainstream queer rappers such as Le1f, Mykki Blanco, and Cakes Da Killa provided new models for queerness in hip-hop, not to mention fodder for think-pieces. Established, well-respected rappers (many of whom had expressed homophobic sentiment on record at some point in the past) like Busta Rhymes, Jay Z, and T.I., spoke up to announce support of Ocean and Barack Obama's endorsement of gay marriage.