Does Jay-Z’s gay marriage endorsement matter in the black community?

Opinion

The backlash was inevitable. When President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to voice his support for the right of same-sex couples to get married, there was no question that even though the country as a whole is mostly in favor same-sex marriage and has been waiting on the president to complete his “evolution,” he was fanning the flames of an intense debate. His announcement came only one day after the state of North Carolina voted to add an amendment to their constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage, where it was already illegal for same-sex couples to get married. The president was stepping into hostile territory.

Perhaps it was also inevitable that one of the first questions to arise in the aftermath was with regards to how the president’s stance would affect his standing in black America. Since the 2004 election, when President George W. Bush and his chief campaign strategist Karl Rove made a federal ban on same-sex marriage a platform issue, much has been made about the socially conservative politics that could be used as a wedge issue and divide the black vote. Bush managed only 11 percent, but it was enough to make a difference in a tight election.

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Black voters were also blamed for passage of Proposition 8 in California in 2008, which banned same-sex marriage in the state. Because of Obama’s ability to turn out a record number of black voters, and because those black voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of Prop 8 (70 percent), it was held that part of the reason for its passage was essentially black homophobia. But the black population in California is only 6 percent and in that year when voters turned out in record numbers only accounted for 10 percent of the total vote.

Despite any real evidence to support the claim, the narrative was born that black folks prevented marriage equality. With North Carolina still fresh in everyone’s mind, Obama’s decision to back same-sex marriages became political dynamite with his most loyal constituency.

But he has found support in seemingly unlikely places, the most surprising of which may have been in the form of world-renowned hip-hop mogul Jay-Z. In an interview with CNN on Monday (May 14), the Brooklyn born rapper and entrepreneur was asked for comment on Obama’s same-sex marriage and shocked many by saying, “I’ve always thought it as something that was still, um, holding the country back. What people do in their own homes is their business and you can choose to love whoever you love. That’s their business. It’s no different than discriminating against blacks. It’s discrimination plain and simple.”

Jay-Z comes from the world of hip-hop, and if there is a place that catches more flak for its homophobic rhetoric than the black church, hip-hop is it. In his own rhymes, Jay-Z has been known to use the volatile and offensive “f-word,” the one that rhymes with maggot, and suggest that other rappers were gay and therefore weak and inferior to himself. With this statement, we may have witnessed an evolution even more genuine than that of Obama’s.

He isn’t the only prominent black person to come out and offer his endorsement. Megastar Will Smith told reporters in Berlin, “If anybody can find someone to love them and to help them through this difficult thing that we call life, I support that in any shape or form.” Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina is seeking a national policy to legalize same-sex marriages.

And Georgetown professor and MSNBC analyst Michael Eric Dyson has gone on a tear, excoriating the black church and its leaders, members, and supporters for not standing on the right side of history or theology, referring to them as bigots and “sexual rednecks.” In that way, it’s not so strange that Jay-Z has also voiced his favorable opinion of same-sex marriage.

What makes his “coming out” such an important one is his persona. Smith has been a Hollywood staple for nearly two decades, and liberal politics are expected among movie stars. He also played a gay character in one of his first film roles, 1993’s Six Degrees of Separation. Had he come out against same-sex marriage, it would probably be seen as hypocritical.

Rep. Clyburn is an elected member of the Democratic party, and though he represents one of the reddest states in the country, Democrats overwhelmingly support same-sex marriage, so statistically speaking, it was unlikely he was against it. Dyson has been known for his liberal politics and sharp tongue throughout his public career, so again, no surprise there.

As for Jay-Z, he has long represented the sort of hyper-masculine idea of black manhood that lends itself toward homophobia, even if only casually. He comes from a world that has been openly hostile toward homosexuality. He has embodied some of the most perilous virtues of what it means to be a man. From the pimp to the gangster, Jay-Z has mastered each hat, and as such, positioned himself as the a macho hero. Now, that persona also includes being for basic equality along the lines of sexual orientation. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

Obama is not likely to lose black supporters because of his public proclamation on same-sex marriage. It won’t cost him the election. He doesn’t need major public figures to come out and shore up his base. But what happens when a person like Jay-Z does speak up is it helps dispel the myth that black people are uniquely homophobic, and shows those among us who are still wrestling with an internal conflict regarding same-sex marriage that a true evolution and another world are possible.

Follow Mychal Denzel Smith on Twitter at @mychalsmith