It was during the tenth-anniversary screening of Tongues Untied, the groundbreaking Marlon Riggs film about gay African-American men, that the seeds of Oakland's queer-positive hip-hop group Deep Dickollective were planted.
It was there that Juba Kalamka, aka Pointfivefag, met Tim'm T. West, aka 25Percenter.
"He was reading at a poetry thing afterward," Kalamka says about West. "He started reading this poem called 'Quickie,' and it was about these exchanges where these gay black men were trying to mediate these affections for each other in secret at a B-boy club space. You know, what a handshake really is. Like when you say, 'What's up nigger?' it's not just just like, 'You know, you my boy,' it's like, 'What's up with you later?' I was just like, wow. We have to meet." Not only did they meet -- they went on to perform in a field that is at best a hetero-dominated and, at worst, straight-up homophobic.
Perhaps one of the most controversial things you can say about music these days is that there is homophobia in hip-hop. "There's just as much in rock music," goes the retort. No, there is not. Yes, there are probably just as many fag-haters in rock, but lyrically, hip-hop talks about it way more.
Ethno-sociologists with too much time on their hands point to hip-hop's origins in "doin' the dozens," that game of urban one-upmanship that places your mama somewhere below Sasquatch. From there, DJs had the idea to battle for braggin' rights. Emasculating your opponent is a big part of this, and for many young heteros that means calling into question their target's sexuality (which, for them, is the same as masculinity). "And I swear black," says Chicago's Common in "Making a Name for Ourselves," "Try to battle me, you won't last/ I'll turn your ass into the artist formerly known as You Gay Ass Fag."
The real sin isn't simply being gay, it's being seen as feminized in some way, hence the aforementioned Prince dis. (LL Cool J also goes off on musicians wearing high-heel boots. "What I'm saying is you're a Fruit Loop troop," a probable dis of Rick James and Prince.)
All of this is probably why gay hip-hoppers, or "homo-hoppers" as they call themselves, still are such an anomaly. An article in the Village Voice last year outlined the "homo thugz" culture of the Bronx: B-Boys with gold caps, do-rags, platinum necklaces, and FUBU jackets who throw 300-strong warehouse parties with "all the dick and ass you can handle." "You can walk through the projects and be gay," says one clubgoer in that story, "but you can't walk through the projects and be a faggot." Machismo is the real barometer, not sexuality.
Kalamka thinks the idea of a gay thug scene is overblown. "We react to 'homo-thuggism' as a manufactured fantasy of the straight imagination," he says. "It's a convenient way to delineate straight/homo spaces when the lines are constantly being blurred." OK, the hetero fantasy might be the mistaken belief that before these parties started there were no classically "butch" gay men in hip-hop. But it cannot be argued that groups of young gay people are attracted to hip-hop culture instead of the predominantly white house-music culture in gay New York. But what Kalamka points out is how this scene is viewed through white, straight lenses.
"I don't regard a bunch of gay boys in a club listening to DMX and Jay-Z call them faggots as a 'gay hip-hop scene,' " he says. "There have been gay fans of hip-hop and closeted performers as long as there have been women fans biting their tongues at hip-hop's misogyny."
If definition and delineation seem important to Kalamka, it's probably because he has to traverse so many different cultures as a black bisexual man. He and the other members of the Deep Dickollective -- Ralowe Trinitrotoluene Ampu, aka G Minus; Phillip Atiba Goff, aka the Lightskin-did Phil(osopher) -- have found themselves embraced to a point by Bay Area gay culture. "People were cool with us talking about queerness," Kalamka says. "But as soon as you brought challenges to racism within the communities, then it wasn't something that people wanted to talk about." Gay white people tend to carry their homosexuality as their identity, but people of color have to juggle several identities. "We're all queer, we're all friends," says Kalamka of the community. "But I still can't get a cab coming from a party at two o'clock in the morning; I'm still getting called 'nigger' walking through the Castro."
All of this comes across in their music, which is word-heavy and thoughtful (they even manage to rhyme 'hegemonic' with 'chronic'), all flowed over smooth beats. From the sounds of their rhymes, it's no surprise that they had their roots in spoken word, but whether they like it or not, now they are part of the queer hip-hop vanguard. Every time they play, they freak out a few homophobes and enlighten everyone else. That's not to say the group is didactic. Its real strength is that its queerness is an element of its rhymes without being some traveling "let's learn about gay people of color through music" outreach program.
In fact, members of the collective so easily drop allusions to their boyfriends and the like into their show that many people originally assume they must be homophobic. Kalamka says that happened after a recent performance at San Francisco's Amoeba Records. "People came up and questioned us later," he says. "They really hadn't accepted that we were up on stage and were like, 'OK, we're queer emcees, this guy's gay, I'm bisexual.' Even then, people really hadn't accepted that these were queer black men standing on stage."
Group members do know that just by being "out" musicians they are activists, but Kalamka balks at the idea that hip-hop culture is in need of sensitivity training. "In the sense that hip-hop is homophobic, people discount the racism that's connected to that," he says. "Hip-hop is in a culture that is homophobic. Hip-hop is a reaction, and it's schizophrenic. That is not to absolve it of its homophobia, I'm just saying that it's not something that exists in a vacuum." In short, black men are marginalized, so they subjugate women by calling them bitches and feminize other men by calling them fags.
Within this sphere, being an out black hip-hop group takes balls, period. The members of the Deep Dickollective are gutsy. "I've had black men tell me that I was brave just for saying that I was bisexual out loud in a community of gay black men," Kalamka says. "I would say that for anybody, it takes a certain amount of bravery to go against the accepted norm."
Deep Dickollective appears on the recent Amoeba compilation Independent Sounds Vol. III, and has a full-length out called BourgieBohoPostPomoAfroHomo. The group will appear February 9 at 21 Grand, Oakland, 510-444-7263.
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