VH1's new season of "Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood" is full of the bickering, drink-slinging and backstabbing that made the docuseries a guilty pleasure after it premiered last year. Unexpected, however, is the new story line of two black men — both aspiring rappers — in a love relationship.
Depictions of same-sex couples and gay culture are becoming more and more common to television, yet documenting a relationship between two men in the historically homophobic world of hip hop may be a first.
Milan Christopher and Miles Brock hope their story will help affect change in a community that's been largely resistant to it.
"It's hard because there is no prototype to follow," said Christopher, 29, over drinks in Hollywood. "If we had some successful model before us we could follow those footsteps. But we don't."
On Monday, an anticipated episode in which Brock comes out to his ex-girlfriend will be followed by a special roundtable discussion regarding homophobia in hip hop.
"Long overdue," said Mona Scott-Young, the franchise's executive producer and CEO of Monami Entertainment. "We've had same-sex relationships happening around us since the beginning of time. But somehow we tiptoe around the subject and we never want to give it the same prominence and visibility as we do heterosexual relationships. Here was an opportunity to do something that was reflective of our time."
The new season of "Love & Hip Hop" kicked off last month with episodes in which the men are trying to keep their relationship a secret. Brock, who was raised in the church, is fearful of how his family, the industry and an ex-girlfriend might react.
Christopher, a model who has appeared in videos for Kanye West, the Game and Beyoncé before pursuing rap and producing, and Brock, a rapper and former member of R&B group Marz Boiz, have been dating for more than two years after meeting at a party for Lil Wayne.
Secrecy has been a major point of contention for the couple. Christopher is openly gay but Brock's family didn't know about his sexuality before the show premiered (some of his family members are no longer speaking to him, he said).
"It's a bit overwhelming," said Brock, 27. "Knowing every rapper, singer or anybody that's linked to entertainment knows my business, I'm still getting over that. I'll never be looked at as 'normal.'"
"But you are normal," Christopher stressed, resting a hand on Brock's knee.
"In this world we are a minority and [some people] don't like it," Brock continued. "It's hard. Being a black man, in hip hop and religious, I have so many strikes against me … all these hurdles."
Though still a small minority, LGBT men and women of color have become more visible on TV and with more nuanced story lines than ever before. Last year "Empire" broke ground by featuring a black gay character for its drama that takes place in the world of hip hop. But unscripted programming has been slow to evolve.
Historically, reality series have relegated gay men to the sidekick/best-friend role; characters who orbit around straight counterparts. Black gay men have been further sidelined, limited to stereotypical roles such as stylists or personal assistants.
One docuseries, "Tha Life Atlanta," bucked the trend by showing myriad black gay men living and loving, but it was only seen online after multiple networks passed on it.
Even a show as groundbreaking as MTV's "The Real World," responsible for showing some of reality television's earliest images of queer life in America, experienced a shock a decade ago when a black man came out in a season where it had already cast a gay roommate (it was the first time the show featured two gay men in its cast).
Christopher and Brock's presence on a high-profile platform such as VH1 could help chip away at least some of the misogyny and homophobia inherent in rap culture.
Artists in the queer rap scene such as Mykki Blanco, Big Freedia, Le1f and Zebra Katz have made waves beyond their small pool, while female MCs Azealia Banks and Angel Haze, who frankly discuss sexual fluidity, have grabbed some mainstream attention. Still, the idea of a gay male breaking mainstream rap seems unheard of. "I want to do hardcore rap," Christopher said, "but I've had friends say you shouldn't because you're gay."
In rap's early days, N.W.A and Public Enemy made no qualms about their disdain for gay men in their lyrics. By the late '90s, the Beastie Boys had formally apologized for homophobic lyrics in its seminal 1986 debut, "Licensed to Ill" (which was originally supposed to be titled "Don't Be a Faggot"). Tyler, the Creator has repeatedly argued his usage of gay slurs. 50 Cent once publicly denounced gay men "but women who like women," he said, "that's cool."
Birdman and Lil Wayne, who share a father-son relationship, were skewered by rap fans after a picture of the two greeting each other with a kiss surfaced. Rappers were continuously asked if they'd work with Frank Ocean after he bravely revealed his acclaimed "Channel Orange" was inspired by unrequited feelings for a man. And years after famously aligning with Elton John at the Grammys, Eminem, long criticized for his use of gay slurs, snagged a rap album Grammy for a record that had multiple slurs on it.
In past installments of "Love & Hip Hop," viewers watched female models Erica Mena and Cyn Santana fall in and out of love, and a handful of female cast members identify as lesbian and bisexual. Those women, however, did not generate the sort of attention — negative and positive — that Christopher and Brock have.
For every person heralding them as trailblazers there are just as many, if not more, spewing vitriol. There was even a rumor that the show's straight male cast members — which include R&B singers Ray J and Omarion and rapper Soulja Boy — refused to film with them, a claim Christopher called "ridiculous."
To address the mixed reactions, VH1 is airing its hour-long roundtable discussion, "LHH: Out in Hip Hop," back-to-back with the episode in which Brock comes out to his ex-girlfriend.
"Moments like this don't happen often for black gay men, even in scripted television," said Drew-Shane Daniels, founder and editor in chief of Mused magazine, a news and culture site for black gay men. "For so long black gay characters could not stand on their own. They would often be tokenized and cast alongside their good girlfriend for fashion tips and giggles. Or they would push the myth of being the scary 'down-low' brother with AIDS."
"Miles and Milan's appearance on the show normalizes sexuality between two black men," Daniels continued. "We are dimensional, exist and function in real life. It's great to see more nuanced characters."
More than 3.6-million viewers tuned in to the show's premiere last month and saw Christopher and Brock given equal billing as their straight counterparts. They have arguments, share tender kisses and have morning bed talk like any couple, but for many viewers it was the first time they'd seen this display from two black men.
Young hopes Christopher and Brock's involvement on the show can shift LGBT perceptions within the black community.
"It's been abundantly clear that there's a certain openness to the expression of displeasure of the gay community. What you have is a lot of miseducation," she said. "Having moments within platforms like 'Love & Hip Hop' and 'Empire' and more mainstream places, it's only going to continue to break down those barriers. And we're happy to play a role in that."
The couple just hope they get a real shot at making careers in music, regardless of their sexuality.
"I don't want this to just be a reality-show thing and that's it," Christopher said. "I want people to hear our music and respect it. People might not want to hear it, but at least people are looking."
'Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood'
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Monday
'LHH: Out in Hip Hop'
When: 11 p.m. Monday