Young Thug (image credit: Wikipedia)
Before you ask, no, “Young Thug” is not a GOP euphemism for (*cough*) black (*cough*) troublemakers, but the 25-year old rapper is just as difficult for those on the liberal spectrum to come to terms with as he’s been for those on the conservative end. Rising to infamy in 2014 off the strength of his single “Stoner” and guest features on T.I.’s “About the Money” and Rich Gang’s massive hit “Lifestyle”, Young Thug has become one of rap music’s most polarizing figures as a pioneer of “mumble rap”, a subgenre based in Atlanta, Georgia and built around often-indecipherable lyrics delivered through a variety of stylistic idiosyncrasies, including abrupt singing, yelping, and tonal shifts. If you listen to Future, congratulations, you’ve already encountered the Diet Coke (or Diet Dirty Sprite) version of Young Thug. If you’re still a bit confused, that’s OK: your fellow New Yorkers feel exactly the same way.
If the snippet of “Lifestyle” in the video above isn’t enough for you to decide whether you’re pro-Thug or not, there’s probably an entire week’s worth of music available online from Young Thug for you to explore further. And yes, most of it is free. Thug’s prolific output has made him constantly visible in the Atlanta music scene since 2012 but has only recently garnered high profile features alongside the likes of Kanye West and Usher. His latest mixtape JEFFERY, his third project this year, has continued Thug’s tradition of breaking tradition, although the hip hop world is less worked up over the music itself and more over JEFFERY’s cover art.
JEFFERY (image credit: Wikipedia)
Depending on who you are, you probably have one of a few gut reactions to this photo:
- It’s a young lady in a periwinkle dress. Big deal.
- Oh, it’s Young Thug in a periwinkle dress. Big deal.
- Oh, it’s Young Thug in a periwinkle dress. This is a big deal and I am not happy about this.
As you might expect from the Internet, numerous discussions and memes have emerged surrounding the photo. But despite its flagrant gender-bending nature, the cover is hardly the most surprising thing Young Thug has done concerning his gender or his sexuality. He’s been noted for his androgynous image over the past few years, drawing numerous comparisons to recently deceased music legends David Bowie and Prince, who Thug has described as one of his fashion inspirations. Some of his antics, which have provoked questions among fans, include wearing nail polish and women’s jeans, referring to fellow ATL rapper and former best friend Rich Homie Quan as “my hubbie” in an Instagram post, and a tweet unearthed in 2015 but dated back to December 2011, stating, “No homo we smokin penises!!!” Apparently, “smoking penises” is slang for smoking a marijuana blunt. Go figure.
There’s also strong evidence to suggest that Young Thug identifies as a straight man: he has six children by four different women, is currently engaged to his fiancée Jerrika Karlae (who is a woman), and, despite remaining silent on his sexuality for years, clarified his fashion sense on “Serious”, a track released earlier this year containing the notable line: “I dress like a prince, not a fag”.
While it’s disheartening to hear someone as defiantly gender fluid as Young Thug (he even said in a recent Calvin Klein ad, “There is no such thing as gender”) using homophobic slurs in 2016, it’s not at all shocking. Despite the fact that hip hop is still not a consistently safe space for queer artists, many of the genre’s stars have recently performed gender fluidity and LGTBQ acceptance. 2012 was a breakthrough year where Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ hit song “Same Love” became an anthem for gay marriage, and Frank Ocean’s public revelation that he had once been in love with a man was universally well-received by the online community. On a smaller scale, Kanye West has been wearing men’s skirts since 2011, Kid Cudi responded to the Pulse nightclub shootings earlier this year with venom for homophobic fans and denounced the hip hop community for being silent on gay issues, Jaden Smith (who is kinda a rapper) is currently Louis Vuitton’s womenswear ambassador and has announced his own androgynous style as “taking most of the blows” in order to promote acceptance of the queer community, and Lil B, a progenitor of Young Thug’s style, received death threats in 2011 for titling his album I’m Gay (I’m Happy) and even wore a sun hat and dangly earrings during an appearance on ESPN earlier this June.
IF YOU ARE AN INSECURE HOMOPHOBE AND HAVE A ISSUE WITH GAYS AND EQUALITY, UNFOLLOW ME NOW. THANK YOU
— The Chosen One (@KidCudi) June 12, 2016
What’s problematic, however, is the fact that almost none of these people are actually gay (although at least Macklemore used to think he was). And while Frank Ocean’s affiliation with hip hop is strong, it’s important that he is an R&B artist as opposed to a rap artist. I don’t question the significance of Frank Ocean coming out, but Prince, who Ocean has also claimed as an idol, had redefined black masculinity since the 80’s, rejecting homosexuality as an easy explanation for his effeminate style. But even Prince was fallible: after becoming a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001, he backtracked on his seemingly progressive image in interviews with The New Yorker in 2008 and on The Arsenio Hall Show in 2014, raising the question as to whether he was really down with queer rights or if he had selfishly appropriated the androgynous style. It’s easy to suspect that hip hop artists might be doing the same thing: Complex’s Steven J. Horowitz penned a timely article this June titled, “How Homophobic Is Hip-Hop in 2016?” and lambasted numerous rappers, including Young Thug collaborators T.I. and Lil Wayne who publicly voiced their support for the LGBTQ community following the Pulse nightclub massacre but have used the epithet “faggot” numerous times in their lyrics over the years, as well as Nicki Minaj, who was silent on the issue despite using a gay persona and pretending to be bisexual early in her career. Thug himself tweeted, “Praying for Orlando”.
Praying for Orlando
— Young Thug ひ (@youngthug) June 13, 2016
The problem then becomes more serious than just Young Thug’s sexuality. Although Young Thug’s periwinkle dress is only the latest in his trend of embracing queerness, he is using androgyny in order to sell music and appear fashion-forward and he is profiting off of that image. He runs the risk of going down the same route as Prince by co-opting queerness while remaining ambivalent on gay issues, although some might argue that Prince at least did more good than harm by the number of people he inspired, including Frank Ocean and Thug himself. But Thug’s gone further down the rabbit hole by continuing to use slurs in his music, even as he claims that gender doesn’t exist. If he really believes that, then as a musician who has made a name for himself through his artistic fearlessness, he should have the courage to take a public stand for the LGBTQ community.