Why do we forgive homophobia in music?

As Pride month draws to a close, we ask: are we failing the LGBTQ+ community by moving on from the bigoted behaviour of our favourite musicians?

XXXTentacion recalls the time he almost killed a gay man with a strange kind of nonchalance; as if he’s talking about an animal he’s hunted down, rather than a person.

“Do you think I should tell that story about that f*ggot I beat up?” he asks fellow rapper Ski Mask the Slump God, sitting next to him and laughing as he recorded an interview with the LA-based podcast No Jumper back in April 2016. He uses the slur a few more times, before clearing the air: “I am not homophobic. If a homosexual man is around me, I won’t act like a fucking prick”. He’s spurred on by the equally homophobic co-host; his well-meaning sentiment rendered useless by the bloodthirsty and chilling vitriol that follows it.

This week, XXXtentacion’s ‘Sad’ topped the Billboard Hot 100, a direct reaction to the rapper’s murder. For any other artist, it would be a fitting memorial to a musician who’d inspired a generation – sometimes multiple generations – with their work, but it’s a crushing loss, both for women (XXX’s notoriety extends to allegations of domestic abuse) and the LGBTQ+ community. They had to watch an artist who proudly beat up a gay man he suspected of being predatory towards him – an act that was wholly based on his victim’s sexuality, with no real evidence otherwise – achieve one final moment of success.

Instances of homophobia in music aren’t rare, nor part of the industry’s past. Just his week, Atlanta and Get Out star Lakeith Stanfield was forced to apologise after he released an impromptu rap verse on his Instagram feed, titled ‘Offensive Freestyle (not for the easily-offended)’. In it, Stanfield spat the lines: “That’s some gay shit” and “F*g, I don’t really like to brag/ But I’m straight, rich“. The fact that anybody with an influential platform would consider that fine is strange enough, but he followed it up with an apology that made no sense considering the rap he’d evidently written and performed: “I’ve never been homophobic,” he claimed. What, apart from that time you used gay as a pejorative remark last week?

Migos are some of the most prolific users of homophobic language in hip-hop right now. Who could forget the time Offset rapped the line, ‘I do not vibe with queers” on 2018’s ‘Boss Life’, and then claimed he meant it in the archaic, “odd” sense? Or when Quavo scoffed at ILoveMakonnen coming out as gay, calling it “whack” as Makonnen had been “talking about trapping and selling Molly” in the past? Of course, Quavo pulled the classic ‘I know someone who is/have worked with/have a family member who is gay’ card, claiming his link-up with Frank Ocean for Calvin Harris’ ‘Slide’ is definitive proof he could have never expressed homophobic thoughts – and meant them – in the past.

Then, to top it all off, you have tone-deaf comments from 47-year-old Kid Rock, who still uses ‘gay’ in interviews as a synonym for ‘shit’ – the same way a nine-year-old schoolkid does.

Often, all the general public are looking for is an apology, no matter how insincere it may seem. Once they know that their favourite artist has ‘made a mistake’, they’re happy enough to move on, continuing to purchase gig tickets and their music. But that can be a temporary cop out for artists and their publicists, especially when it arrives at a time when they’re at the point of making it big.

That’s why it’s hard for me to believe apologies like Migos’ are genuine. It can be easy to bash out an apology to post on Instagram if it will save your career from a downward spiral, but if you really felt that way, surely it wouldn’t have been a sentiment you expressed in the first place. Homophobia is seldom a learned behaviour; something about the way it manifests – in song lyrics, or in momentary bursts of honesty in interviews – shows that it’s more than likely a subconscious thing that’s built into people’s mindsets from an early age.

This is where it get’s complicated. In November of last year, Stormzy apologised for a series of homophobic tweets that were unearthed from his timeline when he was a teenager. In that case, his comments were part of his childhood; a time when most of us were woefully immature and willing to spout anything online, not considering the consequences later down the line. But Stormzy back then was a kid; he wasn’t a multi-millionaire in his mid-20s sitting opposite a Rolling Stone journalist, or a famous rapper yet. He didn’t know any better and has learned the concept of decency since.

In comparison, XXX never showed remorse for what he did to that man in jail. He was never formally charged for it, either; it’s just a story he felt comfortable bringing out of the closet to tell to prove he wasn’t someone worth messing with. It’s further testimony to the man’s mindset, but his fans don’t want you to dwell on that fact; they want you to focus on the four words that are so easy to say, but impossible to fully prove: “I am not homophobic”.

Behaviour like this, however harmless it may seem, is salient in society. It’s casual: concerned glances at outwardly effeminate men, or trans people; a change in demeanour when people find themselves engaging in conversation with a queer person. The idea that the Pride movement has served its purpose and is no longer needed is ridiculous, and you’ll struggle to find a member of the LGBTQ+ community who disagrees with that. For every progressive pop star releasing music the masses enjoy, there will always be another artist out there making a greater impact, regardless of their attitudes towards the queer community.

So what can we do to change? Well, it starts with the people whose voices we listen to in times like these, and who earns the right to properly pardon musicians who step out of line. When anybody shows signs of homophobic behaviour, however insignificant it may seem, it shouldn’t be the role of a heteronormative person on a pedestal to ‘cancel’ them or not. Queer, front-facing voices are lacking as it is, and that’s a huge reason why musicians like Migos, XXXTentacion and (god forbid) Kid Rock have been let off the hook. When that imbalance changes, the idea of separating the art from the artist will soon become a thing of the past.