That most masculine of subcultures, the world of hip hop, ironically provides an acceptable outlet for men to express platonic affection for one another: through rap lyrics.
Few people would deny that there is a stringent set of rules that governs what it means to be a straight man, what it means to be “hetero-masculine.” One of the most of important aspects of this set of rules that forms hetero-masculinity is emotional management. Men must be in control of their emotions. Emotion is irrationality; love is feminine weakness, especially love between two men. Generally, men aren’t supposed to “love these hoes,” but under certain circumstances, men are allowed to love women. Men can love their parents—especially their mothers—their children, money—of course—expensive cars, and jewelry. And while men can certainly respect and be loyal to their friends, they aren’t supposed to love them because loving other men is “gay shit” and in the cult of hetero-masculinity, being gay is among the greatest sins.
Homophobia is also central to hetero-masculinity, and men go to extraordinary lengths to comply with heterosexuality, creating a constantly growing list of arbitrary rules to which one must adhere in order to maintain his heterosexual image. Hugs, if given at all, must be performed during a handshake with one arm and a two back-tap maximum; two-armed full embraces are strictly forbidden. If possible, men must skip a seat at the movie theater to avoid touching knees. When handing something to another man, he should be careful not to touch the other man’s hand. Regardless of however long a friend has been away, he can never admit to missing him, and the depth of a friendship should never venture into the realm of love. The appropriateness of crying is policed heavily. Slight deviations from the most minor of these rules may be tolerated occasionally, but repeat offenders are labeled “suspect,” as in they are suspected of being gay. “Suspect”: the word is heavy. “Suspect,” like an alleged criminal, someone to be interrogated, put on trial, judged, and incarcerated if found guilty. Love for another man cannot be tolerated.
But we know the truth. Straight men do love other straight men. They do miss other men. Men love their friends; they’re made happy by their friends. They miss their friends when they’re gone for extend periods, and they get excited when friends return. But the cult of hetero-masculinity denies us healthy ways to express our emotions. Few spaces exist where men can be expressive without being ostracized or being labeled “suspect,” although ironically, men may be able to find a safe space in a bastion of homophobia, patriarchy, and heteronormativity: rap music.
Rap music is a culture governed by a very conservative cult of hetero-masculinity. Bass laden beats and unbridled machismo dominate song after song. Womanizing, violence, homophobia, and consumerism blend with often overlooked social commentary and intricate wordplay in an art form that is both problematic and subversive, and hidden underneath layer after layer of misogyny and anti-racism is a space where hetero-masculine love flourishes, where straight men openly and proudly declare their love for their straight male friends and lament the departure (whether by prison, death, or a move to another record label) of their comrades.
The case of Bun B and Pimp C is a prominent example. When Pimp C was sent to prison in 2002 for a probation violation, Bun B found solace in the music, often expressing how much he missed his incarcerated friend. In his song “What I Represent,” Bun B said:
Well I miss my nigga, he was down for me
That’s why I got the whole world screaming “Free Pimp C”
And I’ll be right here waiting when you touch back down
Bun B explicitly admits to missing his friend, and after being released Pimp C reciprocates the affection and shows his appreciation on the song “Underground Thang,”
If it wasn’t for that Bun
Niggas might not know my name no mo’
But every time they gave him a mic
He told them hoes to let me go
This type of expression is common between Bun B and Pimp C and many other rappers who are a part of a rap group. Lil’ Wayne spoke of his love for his group members in the song “All Alone:”
Yo, I love my niggas
I swear I hope all get cheese like Digiorno
It’s somethin’ bout the Hot Boyz that you don’t know
I got a love for ‘em that I don’t show
Lil’ Wayne, though open about loving the rest of his group, still feels the need to distance himself from gayness with the homophobic phrase “no homo.” He also acknowledges that outside of this medium, he hides his love.
Rappers also commonly show affection towards friends who aren’t in their rap group and discuss how they love and miss friends who are either dead or in prison. Young Jeezy does this in his song “Talk to ‘Em:”
How the fuck I’m free out here and you locked in there
Your whole family acts like I don’t care
They don’t know about the nights I just lay in my bed
I can’t even sleep I just lay in my bed
Eyes full of tears and a heart full of pain
Jeezy admits to losing sleep and crying over his incarcerated friend, describing his pain in detail.
This lapse in the maintenance of traditional hetero-masculinity is mitigated by the hyper masculinity of hip hop music. Hip hop is synonymous with hyper-masculinity, and under this protective shell, rappers are able to show momentary “weakness.” Because rapping is so heavy with masculine expression, showing a bit of affection doesn’t typically harm their reputations. In fact, these hetero-masculine shows of love are absorbed into the canon of rap masculinity. Rappers are able to frame their love for another man in a way that increases their level of masculinity by directing their affection at a man who exhibits appropriate hetero-masculinity. Lil’ Wayne wouldn’t rap about loving a friend who was openly gay, and Young Jeezy wouldn’t talk about crying over a friend who had gone to prison for stealing romance novels and expensive cookware. The friend must be masculine enough to justify the rapper’s love of him so while showing his affection the rapper must simultaneously emphasize the friend’s masculinity, proving that he is worthy of the (unmanly) expression of affection.
Ironically, or perhaps predictably, this affection is rooted in homophobia and misogyny. Rappers distance themselves from gayness with the phrase “no homo” in an attempt to demarcate the boundary between homosexual love, which is an evil in the cult of hetero-masculinity, and hetero-masculine love, which has a place in this space. Many of these friendships are strengthened by mutual misogyny. For example, even when Lil Boosie says “If you love yo nigga, hug yo nigga / Look ‘em dead in the eye / And tell yo nigga that you love ‘em,” he almost immediately after discusses how he and a friend built a bond by “fuckin’ with these hoes’ mind” and talking about “hoes suckin’ dick.” It’s almost comical, if it weren’t so tragic and violent, how their affection for each other must be filtered through mutual animosity for other groups. Further, these limits reflect a fundamental problem with the hyper-masculine culture. Despite the contorting effects of expressing affection between men within a fundamentally limited, hyper-masculine space, the need to honor these bonds is so strong that men continue to find ways to perform appropriate masculinity while still being affectionate.
Though it’s important that rap music affords straight men opportunities for affection that are denied to them in most other spaces, we have to learn to not confine emotional expression to such a small number of hyper-masculine contexts. We have to create safe spaces for men by breaking the stigma against emotions and the stigma against gayness, and teach men that their emotions and affections are appropriate and healthy.
Read more: Defining Masculinity