Hip Hop has been a culture birthed from a genre of music that used its platform to shine a light on political and social injustice within the Black and Hispanic communities in the 1970s. Hip Hop in 2016 continues to serve as an activist based platform through the works of Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, and many other writers, producers, and performers. Conversely, Hip Hop also has undertones of misogyny, rape culture, and hypermasculinity. In the documentary Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, director Byron Hurt encapsulates the entire masculine culture within Hip-Hop in fifty-five minutes. Hurt emphasizes on the levels of violence, misogyny, and homophobia in both Hip Hop and the Black community holistically. Hurt begins by saying “Men need to take a look at themselves…we’re all in this box, in order to be in this box you have to be tough, strong, have money, be a pimp, have women, and dominate other men”. Hurt references a metaphorical box, and in order to be in this box one must acquire all the materialistic accolades and hyper-masculine values; this box is a stamp of achievement within Black hyper-masculine culture.
The good news is that contemporary hip-hop is telling men that it is okay to feel vulnerable. It is telling men that it is okay to talk about feeling vulnerable. It is telling men that it is okay to be human. Hip-hop’s challenge of masculinity is profoundly liberating, particularly for those feeling constricted or poisoned by toxic masculinity.
In 2009 with Man on the Moon, Kid Cudi explores depression and suicidal tendencies:
‘My heart’s an open sore that I hope heals soon/ I live in a cocoon opposite of Cancun/ Where it is never sunny, the dark side of the moon’
He ostensibly feels no obligation to hide this vulnerability due to some vague allegiance to masculinity. In 2011, J Cole followed Cudi with his song ‘Lost Ones’:
‘I ain’t too proud to tell you/ That I cry sometimes, I cry sometimes about it.’
The ability to talk openly about vulnerability challenges an essential trope of the masculine construct, but unfortunately, other masculine ideals remain largely unchallenged. Contemporary hip-hop is telling men that it is okay to feel vulnerable. It is telling men that it is okay to talk about feeling vulnerable. It is telling men that it is okay to be human. Hip-hop’s challenge of masculinity is profoundly liberating, particularly for those feeling constricted or poisoned by toxic masculinity. Ocean challenges stereotypes of genre just as he challenges stereotypes of sexuality. His music is layered with unpredictable twists, picking up as soon as you think a song is over, and masterfully executing the non-gendered love ballad. But most importantly, Ocean is a storyteller.
In his music, he tells of pouring his emotions out to a taxi driver he’s never met before, of his time at the University of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit, and of that summer he spent with his first love as a gay man when he was 19. Ocean acts both symbolically, as being a black queer man in hip-hop culture, and substantively, by weaving his experience as a black queer man into his music. His display of courage in sharing his story, in the face of a genre that shames him for it, carved out a space in rap music for other queer people to do the same.