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Peace Out 

The members of gay act Rainbow Flava don't want to change hip hop -- they just want some respect

Wednesday, Jan 3 2001
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The first thing the members of San Francisco hip hop group Rainbow Flava want to make clear is that the outfit isn't an anomaly. When Dutchboy, the act's founder, declares that the four members "represent the 10 percent," he doesn't mean that they're outsiders attempting to assimilate into the larger community. He means that they're queer, they embody hip hop culture -- and they aren't the first or only ones to do so. End of novelty factor.

"What concerns me is that when the [members of the] hip hop press decide they're going to take on the issue of gays in hip hop, they always talk about it as this abstraction," Dutchboy says. "Even when the gay press tries to cover this, there are certain [supposed] truisms that are thrown around, and one of them is that there are no queer rappers."

Indeed, the last five years have seen the proliferation of openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual acts like Rainbow Flava, Oakland's Tori Fixx, New York's Morplay, and St. Louis' Dyamond Theory. Hip hop's hypermasculine party line has never been able to excise the subtext of sexual nonconformity that has existed since the music's prehistory. The artists who founded gangster rap on the pimp fantasies of '70s author Iceberg Slim tend to overlook his later book, Mama Black Widow, the story of a gay transvestite struggling to survive in urban black America. Many people also forget that rapping evolved directly out of disco, a musical style produced and consumed largely by inner-city gay men. As Rainbow Flava MC Juba Kalamka points out, "If you just went aesthetically through the history of hip hop, it's so queer. Like Grandmaster Flash and that new wave style, all the leather, Run-D.M.C. ... or even look at Method Man or Outkast -- they look like banjee boys" (the roughneck urban style taken to the point of camp by Harlem drag queens).

Despite the existence of out hip hop artists and the music's occasional flamboyance, it's still safe to say that gay pride is about as welcome in front of an Eminem audience as within a Jerry Falwell congregation. Hip hop represents the last mainstream forum in America besides the military that widely tolerates the word "faggot" and allows vivid depictions of gay bashing. Not surprisingly, no one in the straight community has welcomed groups like Rainbow Flava with open arms -- or for that matter, even bothered to notice them. Such acts survive at the very deepest levels of the underground. Dutchboy, in a 1997 e-mail response to an essay on the invisibility of gays in the industry by local hip hop activist Davey D, drew the battle lines: "If we can't get the mainstream to back us up, fine -- we'll do it ourselves, the same way Sugar Hill, Tommy Boy, and Def Jam found a market for hip hop back when the major labels weren't interested."

Admittedly, no one in the queer underground has flexed microphone or production skills on par with the music's avant-garde. Just as white rappers weren't able to shake the Vanilla Ice specter until an artist emerged so unquestionably proficient that the rest of hip hop was forced to acknowledge him (Eminem), no queer group will get props without developing a style or sound that's anything short of revolutionary.

Still, it's only a matter of time until the rhymes of a gay, lesbian, or bisexual MC rise above the white noise of hip hop's overcrowded ranks. Openly queer artists have been visible for only a handful of years now -- given more time, the members of Rainbow Flava could prove to be the leaders of a new school. Dutchboy came up with the idea for his group only five years ago, at a time when "as far as I knew, there wasn't anybody who even thought it was a good idea." Nevertheless, he put the word out, and soon a collective of queer MCs and DJs began gathering at his house every Sunday to exchange beats and rhymes. When Dutchboy set up the group's Web site, www.rainbowflava.com, the outfit gained even more momentum.

"I started getting these bizarre messages from people all over the planet saying, "I'm in Houston and I'm a gay MC,' "I'm a lesbian in New York and I DJ,' or "I'm gay and I collect hip hop records.' I became aware that even if there weren't a lot of people doing this, there were an awful lot of people wondering the same things I was. Like, "Why hasn't it happened yet?' and "Where [can I] find it?'"

One of the e-mailers was the gay DJ from Schonheitsfehler, a popular German-language group in Austria that was putting on an event to raise awareness about homophobia in March 1998. Since Rainbow Flava was the only queer act the Austrians could find, they offered to fly the group overseas to play, even mentioning the possibility of a little payment. "For a minute I was wondering if the whole thing was some kind of massive translation error or something," Dutchboy writes on the group's Web site. "Maybe he'd meant to say "fruits and celery' instead of "flights and salary.'"

In order to have some product to sell at the event Rainbow Flava members Reh-Shawn, Tori Fixx, DJ Monkey, and Dutchboy hurriedly recorded the songs they were throwing around on weekends. While preparing for the trip, Dutchboy received warnings from friends about how dangerous Austria could be, with its skinheads and ultra-right-wing Freedom Party leader Jörg Haider, an alleged Nazi sympathizer. But Vienna turned out to be receptive to Rainbow Flava's music and ideas. Ironically, the people Dutchboy met in Austria had a similar view of the U.S. "They'd tell me, "I can't believe you can get away with doing a gay group in America when it seems so religious and conservative.' I think there's something about being under a really old, really fucked up system that almost generates more action than if you're in a place where everyone agrees."

After returning to the States, Rainbow Flava released its first full-length, Digital Dope. Other than the occasional line about cruising the Castro or claiming status as a "gypsy queen," the subject matter on the album doesn't deviate widely from standard hip hop fare -- including the word "bitch." There's an obvious tension in the group's poetics between policing language that might offend other oppressed groups and staying true to hip hop's ethos of unapologetic self-expression. The question becomes: Can one keep it real and keep it right?

"The issue certainly has come up before," Dutchboy acknowledges. "I think there are two things happening there. First, we're figuring things out as we go along and we've done some growing lyrically since then. But the other thing is that we're not just doing this to put ourselves and our reality in the best possible light. This is how we talk -- it comes very naturally to us -- and rather than pretend to be something that we're not, we let it hang out there.

"That doesn't mean we don't take responsibility for what we say," he adds. "I even listen to Digital Dope and wince at some of the things I've said."

Soon after the album's release, Juba Kalamka came across a review of it in the bisexual magazine Anything That Moves. Tired of ignoring his own bisexuality in his music, he moved to Oakland from Chicago and got a job writing and illustrating for the magazine. Through another staffer he eventually crossed paths with Dutchboy, then joined the group just as Reh-Shawn and Fixx were leaving it. Soon after, lesbian rapper N.I.Double-K.I. began performing with Rainbow Flava as well.

Over roughly this same period, the lyrics of artists like Eminem and DMX became increasingly hostile toward gay men, while the style's adolescent male audiences encouraged tales of lesbian sex. The already supercharged sexual politics of hip hop culture balkanized even further, prompting Dutchboy to start Da Dis List, an Internet database of anti-gay lyrics. Journalists began to write of hip hop as the last bastion of straight male dominance. In an essay titled "Will You Stand Up for Hip Hop Or Bend Over?" published in underground hip hop magazine Elemental, Jamarhl Crawford asked, "The floodgates of racial integration in hip hop have already been opened, but are we ready for the closet doors to fling open like "See me, love me?' Can hip hop handle a sexual revolution, especially a homosexual one? ... Somehow I don't think MC RuPaul would go over too big and I think the leap from backpackers to fudgepackers might be extreme."

In the essay, which was e-mailed throughout the hip hop community, Crawford specifically mentioned Rainbow Flava and Kalamka's other crew, the Deep Dickollective, as signs of the "duplication and assimilation" that gays encourage. Until the article, Rainbow Flava had been getting hate mail sent to the site and the occasional threatening voice mail after a show, but nothing so offensive in a public forum. "Compared to what we get in e-mails, that article was actually pretty well thought out, and that in a way is what made it frustrating," Dutchboy says. "This was a person who clearly looks to this medium for ideas about people and relationships, and he's still finding a way to dismiss a whole group of people because of how they relate sexually. He also made some odd connections -- he'd be talking about why there'll never be a gay rapper and then how much it sucks that Sisqo is parading around in bleached hair, as though those two points have anything to do with each other. It's like, "I'm not frilly, I don't have platinum blond hair, so does that mean that you're cool with me? Oh no, wait, but I sometimes sleep with men, so I guess that means that I'm still on your out list, but I'm still not quite sure.'"

Kalamka, who grew up attending Pan-African schools and celebrating Kwanzaa, sees such bristling as a reflection of a deeper socio-historical current in the African-American experience. In an essay he wrote for Anything That Moves titled "We Are Family?," he argues, "Despite most posturing to the contrary, much of American black culture centers around being accepted and validated by the mainstream. More often than not, this means divorcing yourself from anything that the prevailing culture says is abnormal -- in this case, anything not heterosexual."

Kalamka and Rainbow Flava's other members don't harbor any illusions about the likelihood of straight hip hop accepting them anytime soon. But neither are they looking for it. Hip hop isn't about being sanctioned -- it's about grabbing a piece of territory, claiming it for your people, and defending it at all costs. For Rainbow Flava, it's all about the 10 percent.

"Some of this stuff -- the homophobia, or more accurately, the erotophobia -- is so ingrained that I don't see my mission as ending it, but making people cognizant of it," Kalamka concludes. "Maybe your attitude isn't going to change, but you're going to have to be confronted about it."

About The Author

Darren Keast

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