So the story goes something like this. After being diagnosed with HIV over 20 years ago—in what came to be one of the hottest news stories in the country—NBA legend Magic Johnson heroically sidelined himself from the game he loved. His immediate public pledge to ‘battle this deadly disease’ till the end of his life has made him one of professional sport’s most memorable figures.
He has kept himself pretty busy since then. He wrote a book on safe sex, found his way into and around show business and started a multi-million dollar all-purpose company (Magic Johnson Enterprises) which is pretty much involved in everything and anything that is residual with the entertainment business. And of course, when not doing business, Magic’s HIV activism has led him to be one of the most renounced celebrity figures battling the big bad forces of ignorance on the issue.
Now comes the twist. Magic has now decided that he wants to employ rap superstars in addressing homophobia as a way to normalize and de-stigmatize the HIV issue amongst black communities. Now this master plan is worthy of a friendly nod at first, but the whole idea feels kind of ticklish to me. It is true that this approach is rather clever and effective in utilizing rap idols in spreading a message, rightly assuming that people will lend an ear and listen to the people they love. And it also is true that, especially given our exasperated celebrity-driven culture, people’s fame translates into social capital, and that social capital can at most occasions beat any form of political or pure economical capital.
But, though I am not a hip hop expert, the last time I checked, the rap world was built upon those with the most messed up pasts and those that best coloured themselves as the toughest and most badass, driven by none other than their super male egos birthed out of pure machismo! In turn, many gay rappers and personas in the industry have led and are leading secret gay lives as Terrance Dean’s book points out. As former executive at MTV, Dean’s memoir became the first to crack the industry’s hard shell and give exposure to the substantial gay subculture that quietly lives alongside the industry.
But, the juice of the matter is that, as Dean would say, gay personas and values are not welcome (to say the least) in such a hetero-male-aggressive space and will continue to be marginal. All seem to think that penis-driven-values are what inspired the industry since its humble beginnings, and will continue to do so for the time to come. Ticklish, no?
So, Mr. Johnson, your humble attempt at reforming the rap industry might tweak a few muscles here and there while lengthening your HIV activist resume, but the chances are, at the end of the day, the rabbit hole is much deeper than you think.