However, every now and then I come across a musical group or experience that I find fascinating. One of those unique experiments in queer culture is gay rap, a genre which has been vastly underrepresented by musical artists or uncovered by the media. Until now, hip hop on the queer scene has mostly been supported by artists like Cazwell.
However, I found this gay group, Elephant, quite recently and got the chance to speak with them. They're twin brothers from Oklahoma, Jackson and Coleman, and the first thing you'll notice about these 26 year-old rappers is they certainly are not Cazwell. I watched their first video, below, and was struck immediately with their ability to comment on far more serious topics than other forays into gay hip hop without sacrificing humor or playfulness. Watch (language is NSFW):
Jackson and Coleman were kind enough to do an e-mail interview with me, and we discussed their difference from previous forays into gay rap, HIV, and the stigma of growing up in a small town.
OAQ: The group name Elephant brings to mind certain phallic imagery both on the initial experience with your music and, of course, upon perusing your lyrics. Why Elephant, and what message are you trying to convey?
J&C: We always feel eyes on us when walking down the street together, and un-suspecting crowds tend to look at us like a freakshow as we're walking out on stage, other events, etc. The name Elephant really did come from the proverbial one on the room, saying things people are too afraid to, being impossible to ignore. It seems natural to us.
OAQ: You guys are certainly not the first queer men to attempt to break into the world of rap or hip-hop. Notably, of course, Cazwell has been involved with producing tongue-in-cheek hip-hop for years, however, his style is decidedly different, being a sort of candy-coated commentary on gay culture. You guys certainly don't appear to candy-coat a thing. What inspired you to take this heavier edge? Do you consider yourself a throwback to more traditional gangsta and if so, what in that genre appealed to you?
J&C: We can't really get excited about something unless it's urgent and focused, has a message, etc. Even in our daily lives it's hard for us to candy-coat things. That gangsta throwback sound we have in some our music totally holds true to the way we naturally write, I think. There's something about the attitude and humor of that kind of sound; it makes people instantly listen to you in a different way. It makes people ask more questions than they ordinarily would, and they automatically assume you're not going to take it easy on them, which we don't.
OAQ: Your lyrics are rife with drug references, which some of the more staid, picket fence queers will undoubtedly object to as an unfortunate stereotype of gay culture. I'm a former meth user myself, so I know that it's not necessarily a stereotype, but a very real component to modern gay youth. Why do you incorporate drug themes in your music? Do you consider these references to be central to some of your message, or is it ancillary to a larger one?
J&C: The drug references are a reflection of us. We've both had plenty of problems with drugs when we were younger and even though we have our shit together now, we're the same people we were back then. Drugs consume a lot of people; even the thought of drugs consume people long after they stop taking them. I think poking fun at yourself--or even being self-deprecating--can give your points more impact; it tells someone that you don't hide from anything and you're not afraid to be yourself.
OAQ: While your lyrics have a touch of humor to them, I picked up a strong current of underlying anger and resentment towards what I could classify "haters," which I specifically read as homophobes. Do you think that is accurate? If so, what experiences have you dealt with that inspired this playful rancor towards your detractors?
J&C: Yes, it's completely accurate. Simply growing up in rural America exposed us to homophobia on some level everyday. The general belief among most of our peers in high school, as well as most middle-aged friends of the family, was that gay people are morally beneath and worth less as individuals than that of their heterosexual counterparts. When we came out at the age of 14, we were major targets in school. The specific stories have all been heard before, but I don't think the details remain important anyway.
OAQ: Queer Nation is a song describing (this is how I read it anyway) strength in the queer community through rather explicit discussions of sexual domination. Can you expand on that at all? What IS the Queer Nation?
J&C: You're right, but Queer Nation is really our threat to dominate what the world sees as cool. To inspire people to assume any position or title that they feel rights to, whether the general population can imagine it or not.
OAQ: I listened to your track The Notorious H.I.V. I'm poz, and many of my readers are as well, so a safe-sex message while still giving an impression that safer sex can be hot is a valuable one that I think many people can appreciate. Have you ever had a personal experience related to HIV that inspired this missive?
J&C: Honestly, we've both had experiences with men simply not caring about using protection and assuming that one's word is enough to ward off an STD, and that's never been something we've been careless about. It just seemed like an effortless message to piece together, so we tried to keep the song as simple and stripped as possible. Like you said before, we don't get exposed to messages that sexualize people with HIV very often, as well.
You can find their website by clicking here, where they have additional music to this video, to include The Notorious H.I.V., which we discuss in the interview. While I've never before been much for rap, I'm excited and interested to see what the future holds for Elephant.