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Queering the Mic

Terry Sawyer

A hardcore advocate of free speech, Sawyer gives a close listen to hip-hop's homophobic spittin'.

"The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House"
-- Audre Lorde

"My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge
That'll stab you in the head
Whether you're a fag or lez"
-- Eminem

The Lorde quote has always haunted me for both the way it sears open an entire realm of truth to power and the ways in which it's clearly too pat; particularly when the master's tools are the only things lying around. In hip-hop, this quote seems to run on a loop in my head as I watch video after video of consumer gluttony gone bling with women just one more thing to accumulate.

Don't get me wrong, I love hip-hop. For someone enamored with language the way I am, there's nothing like the pleasure of listening to a genre where words are minted by the minute and meaning gets telegraphed to your booty through lexical stunts of brilliant rhythm. But I got issues. Even the margins of hip-hop are plagued with Promise Keeper views of women and tedious dependence on the crutch of homophobia. (e.g., Not two minutes into the latest MC Jean Grae, we're treated to diss all of the "faggots" who don't tremble in her path.) It's worse listening to the mangling explanations which come forth, that usually end by illuminating the fact that they're not just really calling someone a homosexual, but doing so with a back handed gesture of sexism. I guess this means that the categories of gay and lesbian has become a toxic waste dump for leftover bigotries that can no longer be expressed in polite company.

The energies of prejudice can be impacted into gays because there are still several socially acceptable rationalizations for the hatred. Still debating our existential validity, just recently given legal permission (at least partially) to be who we are, queer folk still operate as frighteners in public debates where religious psychotics still reign over a major political party and forge their selves and sense of mission from the number of freedom pyres under their belts.

Talking to gay artists about their sexuality and art can be a tricky task. Every time I do it, I'm confronted with the low-grade hostility that emanates from a human who feels caged and constrained by a label. Nobody wants to drag around such an oppression nametag as a point of entry for recognition. It's the same burden African-American artists struggled with and, in many cases, have largely overcome through ubiquity. Saying "gay" rapper, comes with an undercurrent of stooping as if to say "Oh, look dear" or "My, my, what a surprise."

Having wound my way through the house of a thousand caveats, I still set out to find out whether or not Lorde's axiom holds true for queers, and whether or not GLBT people could make countercurrent inroads in a genre deeply invested in keeping them as a place holder on the bottom of the totem — just below "yo mamma" slams.

Some cry "racist" when hip-hop's homophobia gets nicked because, they retort, rock 'n' roll is just as predisposed to hate queer folk. It's total bullshit, of course, because while Steven Tyler might privately pass fag jokes amongst his friends to stabilize the currency of his masculinity, rock 'n roll's lyrical content has never been rife with the denigration of gays and lesbians that hip-hop does. To the contrary, recurring currents of androgyny and sexual deviancy checker rock's history. Sociologists might point out that hip-hop at least partially emerged from the practice of "doing the dozens", a cadenced dialogue of insults designed to rhythmically axe an opponent's ego. But that just begs the question. Tradition hardly excuses bigotry.

Part of the aura of untouchability when it comes to criticizing a genre so heavily peopled with minorities comes from an excess of liberalism's success. People mistakenly assume that humans who've suffered culturally get some sort of pass for their intellectual shittiness. This privilege of those who have suffered can lead to the most egregious forms of exploitation: think of neo-conservatives who accuse every critic of Israel as being a closet Holocaust sympathizer. It is breathtakingly stupid for someone who has experienced oppression to pass it along to someone else without, for a second, recognizing the irony. But it's wrong to assume that people learn from being oppressed. For some, the lesson is simply that it's better to give than receive.

Moreover, the "master's tools" frequently pit one trammeled group against another, as if freedom and equality are a small tray of finger sandwiches in a starved stadium. Many African-Americans bristle at the comparison of civil rights to gay liberation (though many don't as well), because it's believed that homosexuality is a choice whereas race is not. That, of course, has the inadvertent moral effect of arguing that if it were possible to scientifically alter skin color, black people should just combat racism by choosing to be white. This inability to see homophobia and racism as parallel practices makes it all the easier for people in hip-hop to elide the implications of slandering the out group du jour. No one's status as a minority should magically ward off criticism. The achievement of equality should never be about the assumption of untouchable virtue. The psychology of quite a bit of hip-hop is royally skull fucked and there's really no nice way to put it.

* * *

New York City's Cazwell has the kind of swaggering style that belongs on billboards. He talks to me from the ass end of a brutal hangover (it's Tuesday) and speaks with refreshing candor, punctuating long riffs with a dismissive "and whatevah". His sound makes promiscuous use of other genres; a rowdy skim of club music, electro, and hip-hop, with lyrics that celebrate sex with the kind of horny abandon where no one gets hurt and everyone only wants to touch themselves a little bit more.

Cazwell sees one of the main obstacles to a successful queer rapper is the desire to meld into the hip-hop canon a fantasy he dismisses as "I can't wait until they invite me to the Source awards." He doesn't believe that the music industry has an intrinsic homophobia as much as they have a fear of not making money. He takes it further, adding, "One thing you learn as a gay artist is that you have to create your own space with your own thing going on and invite people to come to you. You want revenge? Make a hit record!" Cazwell believes that hip-hop's homophobia comes from its predominance of straight men who hang with straight men whose only contact with gays might be the occasional stylist.

Of course, ignorance doesn't quite adequately explain why people would need to trade in the degradation of people they know nothing about. Cazwell clearly does what he does without apology; rhyming about how to give a good blowjob and doing a pair of brothers, in an off-handed way and with a casualness that puts the ball in your court. If you have a problem with it, it's your problem. He eschews the gay label, and not just for its limitations or its inaccuracy when applied to his sound. "The problem is if you become the gay anything people start saying you do gay rap. Does that mean Rupert Everet does gay acting?" he says.

Listening to transgendered rapper Katastrophe is like listening to Eminem without the Oedipal casualties: Katastrophe has a fresh, combative sense of politics. Taking on the gay community's own closet, Katastrophe, explores the sticky thicket of being transgendered in a world where categorical ambiguity invariably freaks out even the outlanders. His flow has a sinister edge, a liquid quick bitterness that gives his rhymes the heaviness of a potential threat. Katastrophe sees the gay bashing in hip-hop as a simple case of a braggart's fallback, since the worst thing to lose in a war of machismo is your stereotypical manhood.

At this point, I can't help but wonder aloud how funny it is that aggressive masculinity needs to prefaced on this sort of fearful policing — a united front against individuality. But then I've always believed it takes more courage to be a drag queen in our culture than it does to be a typical man any day, in any way. Katastrophe definitely sees his music as a response to the hostile terrain of hip-hop, noting that "I think it is impossible to be a queer creating hip-hop and not somehow reflect on the fact that as of yet we have no place in hip-hop. Just the act of me being openly queer and rapping about it is absolutely, directly going to respond to the blatant homophobia that goes along with hip-hop and its culture." Far from coming off as a victim amongst victims, Katastrophe carves out a ferocious space of critique with a morbid sense of humor and a bulls-eyed rage.

When I began trying to set up an interview with queer hip-hop goddesses, Scream Club, I knew they were gonna be rowdy fun. Their answering machine sounds like a slumber party in the wee hours of the morning when all everyone can do is roll around on the floor and laugh at absolutely nothing. Bridging the missing link between Salt n Pepa and Peaches, Cindy Wonderful and Sarah Adorable rip through tracks about girl on girl love and sexual politickin'. If you can't have fun listening to Scream Club, you're probably Mel Gibson, and that's sad.

"We're down with queers!" Cindy shouts and both of them start laughing. They seem to have given much thought to the questions of genre and bigotry, to an even broader extent than I had. When I asked them about being "lesbian" rappers, Sarah piped in with "I prefer queer because lesbian is too rigid. It doesn't leave room for including trans people and it doesn't question categories like 'girl' and 'boy. Basically, it doesn't leave much room for many different kinds of gender expression." Cindy definitely wants to counter what she sees is wrong with hip-hop, "I'm really aware of it (homophobia). Not only is hip-hop really homophobic, it's also very sexist. I didn't use to think of what I was doing as a response to that. I was doing what I liked. But recently I've really wanted to make music that directly responds to that."

The idea that they might be pigeonholed doesn't faze them. Sarah replies, "We're definitely queer, that's who we are, so if we're described that way, that's awesome to me." To be frank, this was the most heartening gesture of solidarity I heard. While I fully understand the desire to steer clear of the queer artist box, the effect of that avoidance can sometimes be premature gentrification; like queer people moving too quickly to the deluxe apartment in the sky without acknowledging a debt to a struggle. I'm not accusing anyone I've interviewed of that, but I do believe that there has to be a more nuanced, halfway mark for gay artists making their way in the world. There has to be a way to identify to the civil rights of gays and lesbians while simultaneously asserting the autonomy of their creativity.

* * *

It's too early to test the hypothesis that it's queers that are going to take hip-hop to some next level shit, since none of these artists have garnered the ink they deserve, though all of them are more than capable of that "hit record" vengeance Cazwell mentioned. I've never supported censorship, even when it comes to hate speech, because I don't believe anyone has the right to be pampered out of the beautiful and ugly reality of difference. But I fully acknowledge that on an unlevel playing field, the speech battle can be a bit like trying to flood the world by taking a piss.

When all is said and done, I came away from these conversations with a huge sense of hope about the evolution of hip-hop as well as a greater commitment to calling out people who traffic in homophobic, king-of-the-hill cheap shots. These are just a few of the people out there mapping out a wholly new and innovative artistic homeland. It's a shame that hip-hop's cultural ascendance has come with such short-changed introspection. Perhaps it's just a phase that will soon be superseded by people with mad skillz and no baggage — people who won't need the dubious prop of an underfoot Other. People who will make incredible music without becoming the master's tools.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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