We all know Trey Songz didn’t invent sex but you’d have a hard time telling that to a throng of his hysterical fans. It has been long rumored Ne-Yo wasn’t singing directly to us when he crooned out, “I just wonder, do you ever, think of me a-ny-more” but you’d have a hard time convincing the girl who has a flashback, pull-over-to-the-side-of-the-road moment when the single comes on in her car. But what would it mean if you knew these R&B heartthrobs were not much interested in you or any of your girls for that matter? What would it mean for these performer’s audiences if the rumors were indeed true?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you have heard the rumors questioning the sexuality of Trey, Ne-Yo, former Pretty Ricky member Pleasure P just to name a few. As nasty as the gossip can be, it almost seems the “is he gay?” whisperings are a sign of a career on the rise. Maxwell, John Legend and Usher came under blog and tabloid scrutiny about their sexual identities early in their career and even as the men have been seen in heterosexual public relationships through the years, the speculation on their private lives remains the subject of endless debate.
Long before the rise of Superhead (and now even a so-called Supertongue), celebrity expose has been a profitable market. And even though everyone doesn’t have the material to write a book, those who feed the rumor have received their own fair share of press from “spilling the beans.” When Dwight Eubanks of ‘Real Housewives of Atlanta’ appeared on the ‘Wendy William Show’ and suggested Usher was on the down low and his marriage to (then) Tameka Foster-Raymond was a known sham, the reality stars comments were all over the gossip sites the next day. Eubanks allegations were seemingly insider confirmation of what gossip sites had been hinting at for years. When rapper Jim Jones’ altercation with Ne-Yo’s entourage at a Louis Vuitton store in Manhattan ended with police being called to the scene, blogs framed the story with headlines of a supposed gay outing that would be sure to ramp up their site traffic as concerned readers tried to get the scoop as well.
Whether or not the rumors are unfounded, the question matters to fans and haters alike and these performers are fully aware. In a 2005 interview on the cusp of his Confessions album, Usher was adamant about dispelling any doubt that he was a 110% straight man. The star spoke on everything from the rumors of him participating in homosexual orgies saying,
“There was women-on-women but never man-on-man. Shit, nowhere near that! Hell no! No one that I ever roll with or would ever roll with would get down like that.”
Going on to talk about even his discomfort about undergoing regular colonics treatments, Usher worked to make it crystal clear that he 1.) was not homosexual and 2.) uncomfortable with being referred to as such. The Atlanta singer’s trial is not uncommon as both Trey Songz and rapper/singer Drake have both been the subject of the “is he/isn’t he” game that have long haunted R&B acts in the industry. With hearsay and ambiguous photographs being the basis of the evidence against them, the stars have dismissed the rumors as simply hate rather than treating them as PR crises. Not surprisingly, neither have their fans.
The underlying fact of the matter is that the blogs and their readers, the singers and the fans all accept an unspoken truth: it is impossible to be a gay R&B singer and be on the top of the charts. In this genre to be open about one’s sexuality is to gamble away your entire career. Transparency may work for Adam Lambert, but it is hard to imagine that any of our slow jam kings could attempt a stunt like the ex-Idol contestant on the ‘American Music Awards’ and still have a fanbase in the morning.
Our most recent successful, openly gay R&B singer was Sylvester, a 1970s disco star way before my time. Known for being a controversial symbol in the music industry and for the Black gay community, he passed away after having been diagnosed with AIDS. Even with his own noted talent, singer Donnie who was signed to Motown saw his album shelved as the label struggled to find a way to market his music and make his lifestyle make dollars and cents. Famous gospel singer Donnie McClurkin speaks of being abused as a child and struggling with being attracted to men, but uses his story of being a healthy healed adult as a testimony to how his faith has allowed him to overcome his hurt. Being sure to avoid his story being used as a tool for homophobia, McClurkin has been sure to avoid being labeled “cured” but even that shows the delicacy of the subject.
The reluctance to entertain the notion of a star with a less than traditional sexual preference does not mean R&B fans are somehow ignorant or intolerant. However, it does reflect an attitude of dismissal and denial that extends beyond the boundaries of the music we like. While dwelling on the questioning of a stars’ sexuality often makes for a salacious story, it conveniently helps us to avoid talking about why there is no place for anything less than a ultra hetero male voice on urban radio. The issue is not simply explained in our cultural discussion of Black males on the downlow. I dare to say that we would be just as hesitant to accept a gay Robin Thicke or Justin Timberlake if it were not for our assuredness that they are singing definitively to the women in their lives. When we get swept away listening to “Lost Without You” we drift with the melody thinking that the worlds were meant just for us (curse you Paula Patton and Jessica Biel for killing the fantasy).
It is obvious that the question matters to us, but can for a minute, stop and ask ourselves: why does it matter this much? On some level, we care because the questioning of these singers’ sexuality complicates our own relationship to the men who provide the soundtrack to our breakups and our make ups. What would it mean if the man who’s shirtless poster hanged on your dorm room wall was not who you thought he was? As much as it seems silly to think about, we often feel connected to our favorite stars more than we care to realize. Think about it: if you simply go to a blog once a day bored at work, by Friday you could know every outfit Amber Rose wore that week. Put into perspective, our intimacy with celebrity life runs deeper than many of us would like to admit.
So why aren’t we ready to get past the obsession of who our favorite singers might be and start talking about where they would be if they were? Would we be ready for an openly bi-sexual or gay superstar? Over the years, the most beloved musical artists have been those who expose us to the complexity and totality of their lives. It is through their music that we have been able to connect with their truth. What is it about R&B that has us afraid yet prying to see these male singers as a whole? While the unknowns remain unconfirmed, is what we do know about our favorite singers all we can handle?
Even if the rumors are just rumors, our fascination with them suggests for R&B singers coming out would be to career sabotage. From a pragmatist view, there is no way for a homosexual singer in this genre to be open about their preference and stay in the Top 40. With labels and the artists afraid of the damage hearsay alone can cause, will we ever have an openly bi-sexual or gay male R&B star?