Illustration by Erin Taj

Listening to Hip-Hop Might Make You Homophobic at Work

Heterosexist lyrics make men uncomfortable around gay men, a new study has found

Kanye West has been a hip-hop pioneer in many ways — not least in his repeated, public denouncements of the genre’s widespread homophobia.

“Everybody in hip-hop discriminates against gay people,” West said in an August 2005 interview with MTV. “Matter of fact, the exact opposite word of ‘hip-hop,’ I think, is ‘gay.’ You play a record and if it’s wack, ‘That’s gay, dog!’ And I wanna just come on TV and just tell my rappers, just tell my friends, ‘Yo, stop it fam.’ ”

Eleven years later, a new study published in The Journal of Sex Research suggests that the same homophobia may affect how we view job candidates and interact with colleagues.

Listening to hip-hop with “heterosexist content” — lyrics that disparage homosexual and bisexual men — might cause men to be less accepting of homosexual male colleagues, the study found. In the study, a group of male undergraduate students were asked to evaluate resumes for an associate math professor position from two similarly qualified job candidates. The one major difference between the resumes was that one showed the applicant was involved in LGBT organizations. (There was no indication of the applicant’s own sexual orientation.)

Some of the study participants were exposed to heterosexist hip-hop songs “Where the Hood At?“ by DMX and Brand Nubian’s “Punks Jump Up to Get Beat Down” before assessing, while others heard hip-hop songs without heterosexist messages. A third group heard no music at all. “They rated the two candidates the same on how much they should be paid, how much they would like to take a class with this professor, and how interesting this professor’s research was,” says Kevin Binder, the study’s lead author and a former researcher at the University of Michigan. But those exposed to heterosexist songs were less likely to want to attend office hours with the candidate involved in LGBT organizations, a finding that speaks to the discomfort some straight men feel in the company of gay men.

MEL spoke to Binder about the study, how beer commercials make men sexist and the subconscious ways media affects our behavior.

This was an unusual study. What was the inspiration for it?
I was definitely a fan of hip-hop growing up, but I was not completely comfortable with the level of heterosexism I found in the genre.

I was thinking about that when I was getting into psychology research, and I came across a couple of studies about media and behavior. There’s a study by Laurie Rudman and Eugene Borgida from 1995 where they say down, again, a bunch of undergraduate men, and showed them sexist magazine advertisements, and then put them in a room to see how they interacted with a female job candidate. [Men were more likely to objectify and sexualize the candidate after seeing the ads.]

I thought it would be very cool if I could recreate a similar thing with hip-hop music and the LGBTQ community.

What do the results of your study suggest?
It suggests that the content you find in hip-hop music has an effect on listeners — specifically, how much distance they would like to place between themselves and gay and bisexual men. But it has less of an effect on abstract judgments of gay and bisexual men, such as how good they could be at a job.

These findings made sense to us because a lot of the content in these songs disparaging gay or bisexual men, they don’t say, “This guy can’t do a job well.” It normally says something like, “That’s disgusting. I’m not getting near you.” It has bad social ramifications. It could’ve been worse.

What does this study speak to on a cultural level?
It follows what’s been found in similar studies, which suggest a sort of “monkey see, monkey do” response to disparaged minorities. If rappers say, “I’m not getting near a gay person,” listeners will be more likely to unconsciously echo the same thing.

Is this indicative of a workplace problem or a hip-hop problem?
It’s a little bit of both, although the amount of heterosexist content in hip-hop seems to be declining based on my familiarity with it. But all genres face this problem. All genres, for a long time, have been prevalently heterosexist in assuming that love is between a guy and a girl, or that’s always going to be what a partnership is.

In terms of the workplace, it shows that, in some ways, gay and bisexual men are affected if their colleagues consume this kind of content in the office. If there’s a situation where a colleague had to work closely with a gay or bisexual man, it could impact job performance.

Or how they select candidates, right?
That’s certainly possible.

Do you think heterosexism in hip-hop is reflective of it in the culture at large, or vice versa?
It’s kind of chicken-and-egg. If people consume media that normalizes heterosexism and treats homosexuality or bisexuality as the other, then they’re going to think that way. If wider society thinks a certain way, then that influences what artists say because they’re products of their society. So it’s definitely a self-reciprocating cycle.

Why did you exclusively test men?
There was a prevailing hypothesis that men would be more responsive to heterosexist comments, especially within hip-hop music, a lot of ideas about heterosexism are tied to ideas of masculinity and what it means to be manly.

Did the men in the study cop to being homophobic?
We didn’t ask them, because we didn’t want to cause them any psychological distress by making them think about whether they were homophobic.

Does heterosexism bring out latent homophobia, or does it cause homophobia?
It’s more likely these message activating beliefs that lie dormant, more or less, in our minds. We’ve all heard these heterosexist sentiments before, either from these musicians or the people around us. We know these ideas exist, but we’re not always thinking about them.