One big reason HIV/AIDS remains a deadly crisis despite the existence of lifesaving drugs is stigma: Fear of shame and ostracization discourages people from accessing testing, preventive measures, and treatment. In other words, a factor causing needless suffering is people like DaBaby, one of the hottest names in hip-hop. Performing in Miami this past weekend, the rapper asked fans to raise their phones if they didn’t have AIDS or “any of them deadly sexually transmitted diseases that’ll make you die in two to three weeks” and also weren’t “fellas … sucking dick in the parking lot.”
The comments were nonsensical—no one dies of any STD in three weeks—and brought backlash from listeners, celebrities, and businesses. On Instagram, DaBaby then made things worse by explaining that he had been trying to show that his gay fans “got class,” unlike the “nasty … junkies on the street” who get AIDS. He also tweeted that he knew his comments were insensitive to people with HIV and AIDS but that he’d meant no offense. He insists, too, that he’s not homophobic. But the reactions he’s kicked up, and some other recent developments in hip-hop, have outed bigots and underlined the cognitive dissonance they live with.
DaBaby’s speech did not mention Lil Nas X, hip-hop’s new, openly gay superstar. Yet tellingly, the 22-year-old hitmaker has been drawn into the ensuing storm. The rapper T.I. said in an Instagram comment, “If Lil Nas X can kick his shit in peace … so should DaBaby” and added “#equality.” Another rapper, Boosie Badazz, defended DaBaby in an openly hateful rant that directed slurs, threats, and the label “disrespectful” toward Lil Nas X. Of particular concern to Boosie was Nas musing that he might re-create the nude scene from a recent music video onstage at the VMAs. In a music video released on Wednesday, it’s worth noting, DaBaby looks as naked as Lil Nas X did.
It feels intuitive that DaBaby’s comments, or at least the defenses of them, are on some level pent-up reactions to Lil Nas X’s trajectory. The young artist came out as gay in 2019 when his single “Old Town Road” was on its way to becoming the longest-running No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 hit in history. Since then, he’s twirled and given lap dances to the devil in the video for his smash “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)”; worn pink and danced in all-male shower scenes for his new single, “Industry Baby”; and kissed guys at the BET Awards. Hip-hop—and popular music generally—has slowly become a more tolerant place than it was when, say, Snoop Dogg rose to fame while rapping the word fag repeatedly. But Lil Nas X has clearly set out to test the bounds of such progress, and we’re now seeing the results.
Message-laden art such as the “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” music video is part of that testing: It playfully dramatizes the way that gay people have to wrestle with being told they’re damned to hell. But to follow Lil Nas X’s Twitter feed is to see him work on a more micro level, as an activist. There, he spars with people who express many of the logical inconsistencies that underlie homophobia. He’s playfully shot down the notions that queerness is a modern Western invention; that he promotes looser sexual ethics than straight rappers do; that he acts gay for fame; that previous generations of queer stars have stayed closeted because of tastefulness rather than because of repression; that his art turns viewers away from heterosexuality; and that femininity undermines male strength. His indefatigability is remarkable—and so is the fact that he never comes off as self-serious, or even particularly bothered. The quest to change minds is part of his entertainment.
The DaBaby fallout highlights another way that Lil Nas X is putting bigots on the defensive: by showing the difference between being provocative and causing harm. At the end of DaBaby’s new music video—in which, for some reason, he makes another AIDS joke—text reads, “My apologies for being me the same way you want the freedom to be you.” This sentiment echoes T.I.’s “#equality” post, which sought to excuse DaBaby’s AIDS talk by positioning it as a counterweight to Lil Nas X’s existence. Here was classic false equivalence: Gay gyrations onstage might annoy some viewers, but they’re different from espousing the exact rhetoric that contributes to the AIDS crisis (not to mention to the problems of depression and suicide in the queer community). The truth, of course, is that DaBaby has the freedom to be himself. Sponsors also have the freedom to drop him, and collaborators have the freedom to condemn him.
The plain dishonesty of people who use the language of tolerance to cloak dangerous ignorance and repressive ideology is familiar across cultural arenas lately, and it can be hard to feel hopeful that anyone involved will learn or evolve. But the way that Lil Nas X has turned the ridiculousness of his haters into part of his public spectacle feels innovative. Reacting to Boosie’s rant, the basketball player Nick Young posted an Instagram comment that read, “Freedom of speech.” Writing to his 6.7 million followers, Lil Nas X had a typically sharp reply that earned thousands of retweets in the few hours between when he posted it and deleted it. Someone “saying he will ‘beat my fggot ass,’” the rapper wrote, “is not ... what we meant by freedom of speech.”