Like the two-dimensional world they inhabit, most TV and movie characters are all surface, no depth. Scratch off the thick brush strokes and nothing's there. Hip-hop suffers a similar malady as most of its mainstream players elbow for attention on a narrow corner, where they once ran the whole block.
For some, the rise of the queer hip-hop community — or homo-hop, as rapper Tim'm West once jokingly dubbed it — promises to help lead rap back to its big-tent golden age, when it welcomed everyone from N.W.A. to Salt-N-Pepa to De La Soul and the Beastie Boys. It threatens to overthrow the built-in preconceptions and hypermasculinity at hip-hop's foundation, though West is quick to point out that the problem is sexism as much as homophobia.
"When you put down a man, it's by comparing him to a woman, and that's problematic," West explains. "The reason someone puts me down for being gay is because they somehow see that as emasculating [as though] women are so horrible, and that's the worst thing you could be."
West grew up in Taylor, Ark., longing for broader horizons. He found solace in reggae, rap and house music. "I was this strange, eclectic, heady black boy who couldn't wait to escape," he says. "Those forms of music for me represented a new space."
He attended Duke University, which echoed the progressive and Southern aspects of his personality, then ended up at Stanford for graduate school where he was deeply involved in literary theory. In 1999, West discovered he was HIV-positive. It threw his life into tumult.
"Faced with a mortality situation, I asked 'What do I want to be remembered for. What do I want to leave behind?' That gave me the courage to look to the arts – the work I had been doing 'on the side' and putting that front and center of my experience, translating some of those ideas, philosophies and theory into songs and poetry," West says.
West poured his life into the poetic memoir Red Dirt Revival, and founded the hip-hop group Deep Dickollective, which sought to do for gay men what the Vagina Monologues did for women. Part parody — isn't most commercial hip-hop about the size of one's dick, figuratively or literally? — and part affirmation, its razor wit and seriously skilled crew helped captain the burgeoning movement. Self-described "bourgie-boho post-pomo afro homos," they sought to disarm and explode expectations, forging precepts like "never trust a rapper with dreadlocks," a dig based on their bohemian backpacker appearance.
"We were critiquing people who would trust our authenticity solely based upon the fact that we have 'locks," West says. "People would come up and say, 'You guys look very deep.' That's so stupid. Dreadlocks don't make you deep."
It was around this time that West coined the phrase "homo-hop" in jest, and it took a life of its own.
"It's a blessing and a curse," West admits. "We needed something to call it to kind of mobilize people. But then the media got a hold of it, and it got presented as a new genre of music. So people in hip-hop didn't have to take homo-hop seriously; like it was this really weird parody, or some new trend or fad that's an outgrowth of hip-hop but not really hip-hop. For those of us who have been doing hip-hop before our coming out, it became offensive because people would discount your skill as a hip-hop artist because you're associated with this term."
In addition to DDC, West has continued to publish books and release solo albums, somewhat in tandem. Just as 2002's Red Dirt Revival was accompanied by Songs from Red Dirt two years later, last June saw the release of Blakkboy Blue(S) and his third book, Flirting, a meditation on attraction and connections.
Last year he moved to Atlanta from Washington, D.C., to recover from the end of a relationship. While he hasn't made many inroads into what he sees as a highly fragmented underground hip-hop scene, he did bring his Front Porch artist series to town in January. West has previously hosted these get-togethers in D.C., Oakland, Chicago and Brooklyn, bringing together soul, hip-hop and spoken word artists who can't be characterized by gender, class, race or sexuality.
"I'm not so much about putting together gay shows. I support them. I think they're important. But for me, I like to see the connectiveness between those whose experiences are presumed to be different, and being in a space with a broad diversity, because people would have you think those places don't exist," West says.
For a child once beguiled by the possibilities rap seemed to embrace, this weekend's MondoHomo festival — billed as an alternaqueer culturefest — represents what drew West to hip-hop in the first place.
"People who come to MondoHomo are going to see a conscious African-American rapper like myself right alongside some crunk rappers from the South. We don't have the luxury, because it's a fringe movement, to make some of those distinctions," West says.
Indeed, he sees a lot more profit in acknowledging and embracing those on the outside.
"Our experiences on the margins — be it racially or sexually, and in other ways — these experiences of race and class and gender, you can't define America except through those points of tension," he says. "That's the sort of beautiful/ugly thing about it."