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For hip-hop and gay rights, a transformative moment

AMARILLO, Texas — It’s well after midnight in a parched corner of Texas known as the buckle of the Bible Belt, down the road from the Jesus Christ is Lord Travel Center, which is just what it sounds like: an evangelical truck stop.

In the back of an empty strip mall, an up-and-coming hip-hop artist with the self-assurance and billowing locks of Samson is shooting a video. His hair is up in a tidy bun and he’s enduring a second hour of makeup transforming him into the likeness of a gender-bending woman, all of which makes more sense once you know that Adair Lion began his career by destroying it.

Hip-hop has been described as the heartbeat of urban America, but for years, it had an open secret — that heart was brimming with hate. Rap was one of the most reliably homophobic arenas in American pop culture. Its stars casually tossed off references to stabbing gays in the head or shooting them in the crotch. Rappers felt compelled to devise a catchphrase to give themselves cover while saying something nice about another man — “no homo,” as in: “That’s a cool shirt. No homo.”

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It was not exactly a world where an aspiring star would break in with a song declaring that gays should be out, proud and embraced — while calling out the industry’s biggest names for failing to say the same. Earlier this year, that’s what Lion did. On “Ben,” a single from his upcoming album, he rapped: “The Bible was wrong this time. … Gay is OK — the No. 1 thing a rapper shouldn’t say. I said it anyway.”

Friends told him he was committing career suicide. He feared they were right. Then, a strange thing happened — nothing. Nothing bad, anyway.

Across the board, hip-hop is having a change of heart. Either in song or in interviews, one headliner after another — the mogulJay-Z; Jayceon Taylor, better known as Game — has thrown his support behind the gay community.

Last year, Calvin LeBrun, a noted hip-hop figure known as Mister Cee, pleaded guilty to loitering after he was caught receiving oral sex from another man in a parked car; 50 Cent, who once suggested in a Tweet that gay men should kill themselves, stood publicly by his side.

Most notably, Frank Ocean, a member of hip-hop collective Odd Future, released a letter in July declaring that his first love had been a man. Ocean’s stock soared. Among those who supported him was the rapper and producer Tyler, the Creator — who had, a year earlier, released an album that disparaged gays.

As for “Ben,” the song went viral, racking up tens of thousands of hits on YouTube. Lion’s songs have landed on taste-making radio stations and websites. His calendar of live performances is filling up — and now includes appearances at gay pride festivals in Memphis and his hometown of El Paso.

Lion, who is not gay, believes his song lives up to the finest tradition of rap.

“What hip-hop does is talk for people who don’t get to talk,” he said one recent morning in his studio. “And if you think about it that way, ‘Ben’ is the most hip-hop thing I’ve ever heard.”

***

Long before he became known as the rap star Murs, Nick Carter grew up on the hardened streets of Mid-City Los Angeles. There, he experienced a curious phenomenon. Amid all the problems — violence and addiction, substandard education, a rotten job market — “you’d rather be a lot of things other than gay,” he said.

“Some people would rather their son be in jail, or a drug dealer, than be gay,” he said.

The relationship between urban communities and homosexuality is complex and sometimes secretive. Murs, who is not gay, believes it began in church pulpits — sometimes the only “positive centers” in the communities, he said. In many of those churches, the message is clear and absolute: Homosexuality is a sin.

In May, after President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, some of the most vociferous criticism came from African American and Latino religious leaders. California’s black and Latino voters delivered heavily for Obama in 2008 — while providing crucial support for the state’s same-sex marriage ban.

Those same communities were the bosom of American hip-hop; homophobia had become entrenched in rap music.

Rap stars tried to explain it away. They were just storytellers, they said, rapping in the voices of characters. Calling someone gay, they insisted, had nothing to do with sexual orientation; it had merely become a synonym for weakness. The protestations were difficult to reconcile with the reality of the music.

The late Eazy-E, known as a godfather of gangsta rap, had one song about raping a woman at gunpoint, then discovering the woman was a cross-dresser. “Put the gat to his legs,” Eazy-E rapped, “all the way up his skirt.” A Tribe Called Quest referred to gays as “filthy,” “weak” and “gross” — in one song, devoted entirely to rejecting a gay friend.

“Hate fags?” Eminem sang. “The answer’s yes.”

But in recent years, the wall between the insular hip-hop world and the rest of pop music began to crumble. Rappers traded in baggy jeans for skinny jeans and skateboards, and started collaborating with indie artists. Kanye West ditched the “gangsta” business for thoughts on consumerism and religion, and reached the pinnacle of the rap world while wearing pink and brown argyle sweaters and speaking out against homophobia.

Rap was still laced with violence and misogyny, but in some regards attitudes were shifting. Many hip-hop artists, too, noticed when Jamaican dance hall artists such as Buju Banton, whose lyrics are violently anti-gay, saw lucrative tour dates canceled as a result.

“It’s becoming more cool to show your openness — and you’ve got a business to run,” said Cheryl L. Keyes, UCLA professor of ethnomusicology. “We’re looking at a whole new climate. Why would hip-hop artists now turn and go against the grain? I’m not saying it’s all about business. But that’s part of the picture.”

Then, in May, Obama announced his position on same-sex marriage — followed by a rousing endorsement from Jay-Z. In urban communities, it was a watershed moment, Murs said.

“So you’ve got the president of hip-hop and mainstream rap and the president of the country,” he said. Murs said there was a growing sense of: “Who would choose this? You’re already black. Who would choose to be black and gay?”

The wave of support from a most unlikely corner of culture came too fast for Murs. In July, he was putting the final touches on his “Animal Style” video, which depicted the struggles of a gay couple and showed Murs kissing another man. At that moment, he learned about Ocean’s declaration of love for another man.

In this world, nobody likes to be second on anything new.

“I thought: ‘I don’t want to be seen as following this,’ ” Murs said with a laugh. “But it’s all just happening — it’s natural. You can’t stop it.”

***

Adair Lion, 28, was raised by a single mother and a grandmother at the base of a mountain that cleaves El Paso, Texas, in two, separating the haves from the have-nots. He was on the wrong side of the hill. Homophobia was commonplace in the neighborhood, he said.

A gifted athlete, Lion went to the University of Texas, walking onto the football team and majoring in music. In college, one of his closest friends came out to him. Lion’s feelings about homosexuality began to shift with the tide of hip-hop, his life’s soundtrack.

After college, Lion taught music and science at a shelter for children. He saved enough money to give music a try full-time, and his grandmother sent him a chunk of her savings. But by last year, Lion was ready to pack it in. He’d written powerful lyrics, paid for pro-grade videos and lost money traveling to gigs just for exposure. Now he’d burned through the savings, and was sleeping some nights in his truck.

“He was tired,” said his personal manager, Cyndie Koetting.

But a few of his songs started to get traction on local radio. Then “Ben” helped put him on the radar — what would have been career suicide not long ago effectively saved his career.

“I’m proud of it,” he said. He shared a host of messages he received in the wake of the song. “It’s about time someone in the hip-hop world stood up for us,” one woman wrote to him on Facebook. Another woman said her faith had made it difficult to accept her gay son, and said she wept when she viewed the video. “I do believe we should love one another no matter what!”

This fall, Lion plans to release his first album, “Michael & Me,” a hip-hop homage of sorts to Michael Jackson.

On a recent night in Amarillo, Lion went to work on the video for “Another Part of Me,” a song that will appear on the album. The video called for him to be transformed into the likeness of several music icons; strapping on a prosthetic nose, he “became” Lady Gaga — but dressed as a man, as Gaga does occasionally in concert.

“That looks tight,” he said, flexing his muscles. “I look just like her.”

Earlier that day, Lion dropped by the studio of 93.1 The Beat, a hip-hop radio station that has given Lion regular play after the release of “Ben.”

“Hip-hop is a train — that’s how I look at it,” said DJ Sedrick “Spade” Knowlton. “He had the guts to start the engine on the train. Now the heavyweights are driving the train. Now everybody’s riding that train. They might not stay on board, but they’re sure going to ride it to the next city.”

scott.gold@latimes.com


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