After reviewing two albums which liberally threw around the word “faggot” for this week’s update, one for shock value and one with seemingly pure malice at heart, I’ve come to question why we as a hip-hop community are so blithely dismissing the unnecessary level of homophobia in hip-hop. The way some rappers talk you’d think they were members of the Westboro Baptist Church, standing on street corners waving “GOD HATES FAGS” signs at all the listeners.

A culture of fear and misunderstanding predominates the discussion of this topic and keeps us from understanding it at an intellectual or metaphysical level. The wall of silence is built up brick by brick on album after album where rappers diss their rivals on the mic or enemies in life with as a “faggot,” putting so much emphasis on the word that it implies there’s literally nothing worse in the world you could be. If you try to break through this stone wall to have a rational discussion of the subject you’re branded a “faggot-ass punk” too, with the implication being you can only care about homophobia if you are yourself a homosexual. Apparently it’s not enough to simply be human and find the idea of hating other humans reprehensible.

As someone who has spent the better part of three decades archiving and studying rap lyrics, I’ve become just as unfortunately nonchalant about the homophobia in hip-hop culture as the majority of the artists and listeners I’m speaking to right now. The prevailing attitude doesn’t always manifest itself in blatant ways that are easy to distinguish – the hatred runs deeper and is far more subtle most of the time. The slang takes many different turns and twists. Everything is about being “hard” and not “soft” – and the implication is that “soft” is “weak” or “fruity.” It manifests in the way we talk about our favorite emcees as “going hard on the beat” and many rappers take it a step further and imply metaphorically that music is a woman they must conquer sexually – presumably that’s as “hard” as you can possibly be.

In recent years American society has taken a positive turn away from homophobia, and our court system has routinely struck down state laws that discriminate against the homosexual populace. Why should hip-hop music and culture lag behind? I’m willing to take the chance of someone responding with a vitriolic diatribe because it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve heard it. In college I wrote an editorial suggesting that rap fans should try heavy metal, metal fans should try country music, and country music fans might just relate to the misfortunes rappers talk about. My phone rang off the hook and not in a good way – it was scary. The F word filled up my answering machine. I was cowed into silence by a rage I didn’t understand then and still don’t to this day.

In hindsight I was right – rappers, rockers and country crooners all started doing crossover songs together. 20 years later it’s commonplace. It wouldn’t shock anybody today to hear Toby Keith or Brad Paisley on a rap song – in fact the latter did a duet with LL Cool J called “Accidental Racist.” It was corny, and not very good, but they can’t all be home runs like “Over and Over” by Nelly and Tim McGraw. The point is crossovers are now commonplace where at one point they were so unthinkable I got threats and hate mail. Things change a lot in 20 years.

It shouldn’t require anything more than a willingness to discuss the issue – what does throwing around the word “faggot” or “gay” in a song repeatedly really prove? It’s far from a definition of manhood, or for that matter heterosexuality, to declare what you’re not and do so in a hateful way. Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that hatred in all forms isn’t evil or that there’s some law of equivalent exchange that makes it okay to hate because you’ve experienced hatred yourself. Somebody has to rise above it at some point. The phrases “PAUSE” and “NO HOMO” had comedic value on The Boondocks, but only in pointing out the absurdity of hating gay people to begin with. Let’s take an actual pause and ask ourselves what abusing the word “faggot” or “homo” really proves. It doesn’t make any rapper more of a man to say it or any less of one if he doesn’t.

This is not a call to censorship, or a plea to the rappers of the world to clean up their language. One of the reasons I’ve embraced hip-hop since youth is the unbridled and unrestricted freedom of expression found in the elements of the culture. Freedom of speech by its very nature means you have to embrace the good and the bad – the hate speech along with the magnificent poetry. Once you decide something is distasteful and needs to be censored, it’s a slippery slope downhill to burning books and steamrolling records. We don’t need to censor our language, but we do need to understand it. Let’s think about why homophobia is so prevalent in hip-hop and whether or not the casual unintentional bigotry of calling things you don’t like “gay” really serves your best interests or that of society as a whole. It’s time for a better definition of manhood.