The idea of Isaiah Rashad sitting down with Joe Budden to discuss his sexuality made me uneasy, to say the least. I had hoped that that conversation (should he chose to have it with us, and he really didn't need to) would happen in a space that was safer than what I believed Budden could facilitate.
An underrated rapper turned polarizing cultural raconteur, Budden eased into the role of sage elder statesman and built a remarkable presence in the podcasting space. He’s one of the few influential voices in today’s rap media with a massive reach. But he’s a complicated figure. He’s said problematic things about women and trolled queer folks to make a point on his show (resulting in him going viral as people wondered if he came out as bisexual). And then there are the allegations of domestic violence that have followed him for years, all of which he denies.
Regardless, the reality here is that Budden is one of the few people working in rap media that stars and their teams will turn to for “the big sit down.” His reach is massive. His following is loyal. His brand moves the cultural needle far beyond what many of us writing about hip-hop could ever imagine. And though I was worried he didn’t have the range to handle the nuance that the conversation required, the truth is it wouldn’t have mattered much.
Turns out, I was mostly wrong.
“This is not the hip-hop that I came into,” Budden tells Rashad early into their hour-long conversation. The two were discussing the reason this conversation was even happening in the first place. A few months back Rashad was the target of revenge porn, an act of violence that also outed him to the Internet. Though the clip was widely disseminated—our curiosity of watching celebrities having sex on camera (with or without their consent) will always get the best of us—the widespread support shown to Rashad from rap fans and the industry felt entirely new.
As Budden pointed out in the interview Rashad’s story is abnormal for hip-hop and fans of it. It’s a culture that has gotten away with refusing to embrace queerness for decades. Rap was built on a rigid view of Black male masculinity. There’s no space for softness or queerness or anything that goes against a rigid image. Look at how casual gay slurs were in the music, or the fact that slang like “sus” and “pause” and “no homo” became common vernacular used by straight men to distance themselves from any semblance of deviating from a rigid view of masculinity. Even eating a hot dog has been turned into a gay sex act.
I’ve been writing about homophobia in hip-hop for over more than a decade now. I didn’t grow up believing I’d ever see the day where men like Lil Nas X, Frank Ocean, Tyler the Creator, Kevin Abstract or Saucy Santana became cultural phenomenons. The idea of Black men freely creating mainstream rap and R&B records with a queer lens never felt possible to me. And it still somewhat doesn’t. Black gay men are able to break into the mainstream here and there. But they are tolerated so long as they don't really talk about having sex with another man. Straight male desire has been centered in rap from the jump. There can be record after record on the radio about how they like to fuck, but god forbid Lil Nas X tongue kisses a guy onstage without also preaching about the dangers of men having sex with men. DaBaby can walk onstage and spew homophobic nonsense that shows his lack of sexual education and gay folks get tasked with giving him remedial health lessons as part of the insincere image rehabilitation his team cooked up. Boosie Badazz works himself up into an aneurysm everytime Lil Nas X coughs and every rap media reposts his violent rantings as news.
Sex between two men is ridiculed and reviled in rap music for longer than I’ve been alive, so when the clips of Isiah Rashad leaked to the Internet I braced for an implosion. We had reached new terrain. Rashad is a young rapper who presenting a version of Black masculinity that is in step with his peers in mainstream hip-hop and their fanbase. He wasn’t outed through a leaked text thread or conversation. Nor was this a leak of a Grindr profile or a couple of dick pics. He was on video giving head in one clip and relishing a blowjob from two pretty men in another. He’s talking into the camera, shouting out a connect that may or may not have arranged for the threesome. there’s a bottle of poppers in one hand. A Tim Tale’s scene is playing on a TV nearby. This isn’t the scene of someone with an unfamiliarity about gay sex culture. This was fun casual sex being enjoyed by men, one of whom happens to be a popular rapper.
Though I do not believe Rashad owed any of us a conversation—or explanation—about his sexuality, this was an unparalleled opportunity for open dialogue in hip-hop about queer sex. A real conversation. And when the clips appeared on social media, I wondered what that conversation was going to be. And who would be the one who gets to have it. Rap media is by and large powered by heterosexual men. Rarely do you see queer men or women writing about rap at major outlets, let alone invited onto these podcasts to hold space that didn’t burden them with the task of teaching. It hurt me to not see one of the few of us who write about rap and have the perspective of being queer rap fans as there's a nuance to this particular moment that felt necessary to explore if "the big sit down" was going to happen.
But in watching Budden’s interview with Rashad, I saw two men learning and processing in real-time while holding space for one another. Rashad spoke openly about wrestling with feeling responsible for how his family and his label would be impacted by all of this, and how being triggered by the exposure led to an emotional tailspin resulting in an attempt on his life. I was most moved by seeing a conversation between two men who are still sorting out their personal understanding of the spectrum of sexuality. It's a heavy conversation, and there were a few clunky moments in the conversation, like Budden conflating sexual fluidity with monogamy or wondering if him being under the influence played a role in him exploring his sexuality. There was also a lighthearted conversation about kinks.
This isn’t something we get to see often. Two Black men in mainstream hip-hop candidly discussing sexuality beyond a very rigid lens of heterosexuality. It turned out to be far more revelatory than my old jaded queer heart was willing to admit. I wasn’t able to stop and consider the benefit of Rashad extending himself to have this conversation with someone like Budden. Yes his reach includes those who share the problematic views of queer folks that has kept a culture of homophobia going in rap. But Budden's reach also includes young Black men in hip-hop, and beyond, who are coming into an understanding of their sexuality and looking for a path of sexual freedom and liberation—just like Rashad is.