When Baltimore rapper DDm began writing the songs for his new mixtape, he looked to Omar Little, the ruthless-yet-honorable stickup man from "The Wire," for inspiration.
A small but growing number of city artists are helping challenge hip-hop's homophobia
Omar, like DDm, was raw, aggressive — and gay. DDm saw enough in common with Omar that he named his mixtape, which drops next month, "The Omar Tape."
"Omar was, of course, homosexual — but was respected and feared in a lot of cases, and I feel such a correlation in terms of that," said DDm, who performs on the main stage at the Baltimore Pride Block Party on Saturday. "Because there are a lot of artists here who talk about me behind my back, but they have yet to battle me. They have yet to try me."
Homosexuality has long been taboo in hip-hop. Many of the references to gay people involve slurs and other derogatory terms. On the song "Heidi Hoe" from his first album, Common, considered a "conscious" rapper, said "Homo's a no-no so f------, stay solo." And around 2005, rappers started saying "no homo" after anything that could be construed as gay.
Even today, 30-odd years after hip-hop debuted, there are virtually no mainstream gay rappers. But the 24-year-old DDm, whose given name is Emmanuel Moss, is one of a small but growing number of gay Baltimore hip-hop artists hoping to change that stereotype.
Much of rap is about expressing masculinity in a heterosexual way, said Lester Spence, an assistant professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University and author of "Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-hop and Black Politics."
"You have people using homosexual epithets to refer to MCs they don't like or even terms that loosely could be thought of as homosexual epithets like 'punk' or 'sissy,'" Spence said.
But that could be changing. Last month, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to endorse gay marriage. In the wake of Obama's comments, Jay-Z, one of hip-hop's biggest and most influential stars, likened anti-gay marriage to discrimination against blacks. Fellow rappers T.I. and 50 Cent later said they weren't against the idea. It was a bold stance, and an important step for a genre that has a history of homophobia.
According to Spence, it's only a short matter of time before a song from an out artist crosses over and becomes a mainstream hit.
"We're probably five years from that," he said. "The reality is people are already doing it, there's already hip-hop that deals with this stuff. But it's just a matter of if it hits the radio and becomes popular."
But those milestones, however significant, are only small gains in what is still an uphill battle for LGBT hip-hop artists. For several local rappers who are out, there are still stereotypes — boxes they are placed in because of their orientation. There are lingering stigmas and other obstacles to being accepted by some of their peers.
When appearing in music videos, DDm remembers instances where people have walked away from him on the set because they don't want to be seen or associated with him. He said rappers have asked him to contribute to tracks in the studio, only to cut his verses from the final record, which he suspects has more to do with other people coming in and questioning his inclusion than the quality of his rhymes.
While DDm has found an audience with women and younger men who are more progressive and forward thinking, he thinks his style may be threatening to old-guard rappers and hip-hop fans.
"Being a black, gay, male hip-hop artist who is aggressive and who can stand next to his straight counterparts, that is very intimidating to a culture that is obsessed with hyper-masculinity and a very misanthropic view on homosexuals [and] women, as well," said DDm, who lives in Mondawmin. "When you have somebody who can bust through those stereotypes and can kind of put you on your toes, that's scary, and they don't want to deal with that. It's not that good homosexual acts don't exist; they don't want them to exist."
For TT the Artist, a 27-year-old lesbian rapper who dabbles in hip-hop and Baltimore Club, among other genres, (her new mixtape, "Money Monsta," is mostly produced by Murder Mark, one of the hottest producers in club music), it took time to convince her management team that a lesbian artist could have broader appeal.
"Internally, with the team I work with, early on when I started doing it, it was very difficult — trying to get them to understand, because most of them are straight," she said. "Trying to just get them to open their eyes more to a broader audience, that our music shouldn't be singled out to hip-hop or just straight crowds."
If hip-hop has traditionally been a tough field for female artists to break into, it's even more challenging for lesbian artists. TT, born Tedra Wilson, was able to rattle off a spectrum of male artists in all shapes and sizes: big Rick Ross, geeky stoner Wiz Khalifa and Kanye West for the metrosexuals, Lil Wayne for the gangsters and Jay-Z for the street boys. Women, she said, don't have much representation beyond Nicki Minaj.
"Even though I have no problems with Nicki Minaj, I respect her as an artist, but there's so much more out there," said TT, who lives in Station North. "And I just don't understand where the disconnect is happening."
Beyond having their gender already stacked against them, lesbians encounter a side of hip-hop that glorifies girl-on-girl sexual situations, TT said. While this may make lesbian artists more likely to be accepted than their gay counterparts, it also creates a stereotype that all lesbian women are really just bisexuals who can be switched if they sleep with a man.
That point was echoed by Karis Baker, a 19-year-old singer in the rap/rock/soul fusion band and self-identified "anti-girl group" Mzery Loves Company, who said even when she is with her girlfriend at shows, men will approach her and say, "Oh, you don't know what sex is."
"I just know that a lot of men, they feel as though women are not as capable musically, that we're not as powerful. And we are ... It just comes on more when they try to get at us because we are lesbians," Baker said.
The best way to shed these labels and stereotypes can be to create music that is universal, TT said.
"I think that me being out was never a big topic for me, because it just was me. I never separated the two, like I never was like, 'I am a homosexual artist,'" said TT. "I just said, 'I'm an artist.'"
TT raps about sexuality in a broader sense, but DDm (which stands for Dapper Dan midas) addresses it directly, in songs such as "High School." On it, he raps about striking back at bullies: "If you want to hate with us, I got a Smith & Wesson that will call your bluff."
While DDm says he looks up to singers like Queen front man Freddie Mercury for the way he was able to convey feeling to large stadium crowds, he hopes to speak more to his experiences as a gay man in future releases, and that those songs will serve as guidance.
"I really want to reach my kids — when I say my kids, I mean especially my young, gay black kids. I have to reach them. They have no real representation. Even in a medium as small as hip-hop, there's no real model they can look at," he said. "They're not represented. I have to say something and make a statement for them."
"And until I do that," he later added, "I'm not going to be satisfied. I'm just not."
Baltimore Pride 2012
The annual Baltimore Pride Festival officially begins with Friday's Twilight on the Terrace, a cocktail party and benefit that runs from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. at Gertrude's, 10 Art Museum Drive in the Baltimore Museum of Art. Tickets are $100.
The main Pride festivities are Saturday, with the Pride Parade and Block Party. The activities are centered on Charles and Eager streets. The High Heel Race is at 3 p.m., followed by the 4 p.m. parade, which runs along Charles Street from Mt. Vernon Place to Chase Street. The rowdy Block Party is 6 p.m.-11 p.m.
On Sunday, the free Pride Festival — a much more laid back time — is 11 a.m.-6 p.m. in Druid Hill Park. For more information, go to baltimorepride.org.