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Hip-hop and gays
explored at nationwide festivals

Hip-hop and gays
explored at nationwide festivals

On the second floor of a Manhattan community health center Thursday, poet A.B. Lugo recited a piece called "Hip-Hop Is Dead." In it, Lugo attributes the death of hip-hop culture to "the advent of bling-bling and bad R&B singing." In its afterlife, Lugo continues, hip-hop has become "corny and Top 40."

But Lugo's poem cites another culprit for what he views as the culture's demise: fans' acceptance of derogatory terms for gay males. Fans, Lugo lamented, "accepted it instead of rejecting. Now everyone seems to be expecting it."

Lugo, tall with dark hair and openly gay, performed at the kickoff of the third annual Peace Out East, a four-day event that brings together nonmainstream hip-hop artists, activists, and fans--many of them lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.

They celebrate "Homo Hop," MCs, DJs, spoken-word artists, filmmakers, visual artists, and dancers whose work is heavily influenced by hip-hop.

There has yet to be an openly gay breakthrough hip-hop artist, though some, like Brooklyn's Caushun a few years ago, have tried. No high-profile artists appeared at Peace Out East.

The festival, variations of which are held throughout the year in Atlanta, Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., and London, ran through Sunday in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

"It provides a space where this community of hip-hop heads has venues, has performance spaces," said Shante Smalls Paradigm, the festival's cocreator and organizer. "Many of the spaces and venues that we're in [this weekend] are spaces that the artists couldn't necessarily book themselves."

"It's a way to really let general folks, hip-hop folks, mainstream gay people, and these venues know that there's an actual market for this," said Paradigm, who is an MC and is pursuing a doctorate in performance studies at New York University, one of the festival's sponsors.

In addition to the usual film screenings and performances, Paradigm added panel discussions to this year's program to tackle heavy issues.

"There are issues brought up through the music that people really want to talk about," she said. "There's some very deep and powerful things to be said and done around health issues. Not just HIV but cancer, asthma, environmental racism, wellness. I felt it was really important to address other aspects of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer hip-hop community."

"A lot of the health issues that face people of color and queer people and young people are often disassociated from the art that perhaps they enjoy, or that art even speaks to it," Paradigm added. "It's important to remember that these are whole people."

Lugo's performance at the Ryan Chelsea-Clinton Community Health Center in Manhattan, for example, opened the panel discussion about the intersection of hip-hop, health, and gays. The panelists were mostly health outreach workers who target teenagers and young adults. They explored questions of whether hip-hop was a tool or a barrier in providing health and wellness care. For instance, does hip-hop help or hinder when it comes to trying to get young people to practice safe sex or abstinence while bombarding them with sexual imagery, antigay messages, and strict definitions of masculinity and femininity?

"It has amazing power because so many people listen to it," Leticia Peguero, a community relations manager at the YWCA who attended the discussion, said of hip-hop. "But it can be a barrier to promoting healthier behavior. We have little control over what people do with these images."

Some felt the music's well-defined notions of manhood and often violent indictments of homosexuality contributed to diminished self-worth among many gay youth, that in turn led to risky behavior such as unsafe sex.

Others on the panel, including Jagadisa-devasri Dacus, said hip-hop, for all its blemishes, can be used to reach and better serve young people. For example, some panelists said, understanding the culture's constantly changing argot led to more honest conversations with young clients about their health.

"Hip-hop culture can be used to implement a lot of really fantastic HIV work," said Dacus, director of the African-American Capacity Building Initiative at the Harm Reduction Coalition in New York.

Paradigm hopes the spirited discussion carries over to New York University on Friday, when the second panel discussion will be held. It will address hip-hop and religion. Paradigm said she was inspired to start the festival after attending the Peace Out World Homo Hop in Oakland, Calif. Peace Out East, she said, is in the tradition of "community specific festivals," such as the one in Oakland and the annual Womyn's Music Festival in Michigan.

"It's a place where you can be queer and brown and white" and enjoy hip-hop, Paradigm said. "Not just a space, but it's not violent and it doesn't violate who you are." (AP)

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