Apparently, veteran gangster rapper Snoop Dogg still enjoys defying all the rules of so-called authentic black masculinity found in mainstream hip-hop culture. After reinventing himself as a devoted father and Snoop Lion – the reggae-infused advocate of black consciousness and universal love – he is now using Instagram to promote his fierce, duo-chrome French manicure, complete with marijuana leaf and dollar sign.
Do real Gs get manis?
The news has left hip-hop fans debating whether Snoop is "gay" or mind-controlled by the "Illuminati," while rapper 50 Cent has questioned Snoop's sexuality. In response to 50 and the haters, Snoop replied that he is still a gangster: "Real playas keep they nails fly fresh n dipped at the tip." A few days later, 50 Cent posted photos suggesting that P. Diddy, Steve Stoute and Rick Ross are in a gay love triangle. In the mind of a hip-hop homophobe, "something ain't right (#smsaudio)" when black men get their nails done, wear pink and/or hug each other.
We could dismiss 50 Cent's antics as a misguided marketing stunt for his new line of SMS Audio headphones, were it not for another style-centered controversy surrounding Omar Epps in a man-skirt. The back and forth shows how black men's passion for fashion has become the new battlefield over definitions of acceptable masculinity.
Last week, Epps, wearing a black leather skirt over his jeans, appeared on "The View" to promote his new show, "Resurrection." Lord Jamar, of the legendary rap group Brand Nubian, took to Twitter to denounce Epps as a new member of "the skirt gang." According to previous rants by Lord Jamar, the gay mafia – a group of queer white men – have feminized hip-hop and have pressured artists like Kanye West and Trinidad James to wear skirts.
On Twitter, Marlon Wayans attempted to defend Epps' fashion choice by arguing that it is time for black men to move beyond the 1990s ghetto style of baggy pants, hoodies and Timberland boots. Lord Jamar fired back that Wayans was a "sell out," whose movies encouraged homosexuality among black men. A retweeted photo of a bare-chested Lord Jamar wearing a kufi with tassels only escalated the Twitter beef over fashion and sexuality.
The prominence of hip-hop's antigay lyrics has been debated for decades, but this string of online controversies surrounding French nails and man-skirts highlights how black men's fashion has been surveilled and reprimanded by hip-hop culture. Despite claims that hip-hop empowers black men, sexism and homophobia have severely limited the fashions, styles and expressions deemed acceptable within the narrow boundaries of heterosexual black masculinity.
Looking back over the years, it would seem that every fashion-forward trend has at some point been attacked as "gay" and a threat to hip-hop's realness. Remember those glittery suits and punk-rock chains worn by the Cold Crush Brothers and Dr. Dre (of the World Class Wreckin' Cru) during the late 1970s and early 1980s? A few years later, the disco-funk-R&B outfits became the homophobic punch lines in Easy E's beef with former NWA group member Dr. Dre.
Hip-hop's changing definitions of authentic black masculinity can even been seen in the treatment of stereotypically urban street wear, including sagging pants.
Public-service announcements against sagging pants and visible male underwear have attempted to scare youth into pulling up their pants by associating the style with male prison sex. Born-again Christian rapper Dooney Da Street Priest reinforced this point with the lyric, "I think it's rude, but some of y'all think it's cool. Walkin' around showin' yo behind to other dudes."
Perhaps the most well-known response to the sagging phenomenon is the "Date With the Booty Warrior" episode of "Boondocks" that portrayed black youth who are "scared stiff," providing a satire of the homophobic rhetoric.
When Triple XXL white tees became the uniform of choice, Andre 3000 of Outkast told black boys to "look like a man," stop wearing "night gowns."
Hip-hop artists are increasingly courting the high-fashion industry, a move that might help the culture become more accepting of diverse fashion choices. Pharrell's Vivienne Westwood hat and sequin shoes show that artists are moving beyond the T-shirt and urban-wear market. However, the advent of social media may also work to further ridicule and restrict their fashion experimentation. In 2011, Lil Wayne's leopard-print women's leggings at the MTV Video Music Awards became the laughing stock of the Internet with the @Waynes_Leggins Twitter account, while Wiz Khalifa suffered a similar leggings scandal in late 2013.
Instead of the haterism and homophobia, Snoop Dogg and Omar Epps should be celebrated for pushing the boundaries of what fashion-forward black men can rock in public. In fact, Epps' reply to Lord Jamar should serve as a warning to the ignorant. What appeared to be a skirt was really African tribal gear, according to Epps: "The uninformed couldn't understand my contemporary ode to the Zulu warrior roots. The Maasai, Fanti, etc ... it's all tribal, study our history."
Is this the beginning of a tipping point in hip-hop? Can we foresee a time in which black men can wear actual dresses and be hashtagged #fierce and #yougoboy? Or would that still be too real for hip-hop?
(Travis L. Gosa, Ph.D., is assistant professor of Africana studies at Cornell University, where his research focuses on racial inequality and African-American youths. He has written for Ebony, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Fox News and a number of academic journals.)