The Migos are in a tough spot right now; trapped between hip-hop’s traditions and its possible future, the way forward grows murkier the longer they face their current situation. Receiving backlash for reportedly refusing to perform alongside a troupe of drag queens for their appearance on pop singer Katy Perry’s “Bon Appétit” for Saturday Night Live, the Atlanta Versace aficionados were handed a puzzle with no solution and told to figure it out on their own.
Yes, they have landed in hot water already for comments they previously made with regard to fellow trap entertainer Makonnen’s recent coming-out as gay, and for turning down the possibility of a performance with him at a gay venue. Look, no one is excusing the things they have said. This is not a defense of Migos’ rights to say offensive things with regards to marginalized groups. They absolutely have to face consequences for their actions, whether that be a hit to the pockets or a potentially embarrassing article on a popular rap blog.
However, the way we box artists in — especially black rap artists — with respect to their slip-ups in the social media era, is concerning. There are any number of reasons Takeoff, Quavo, and/or Offset may have felt uncomfortable with the performance, yet their past comments, even the ones that weren’t so disparaging, have come back to haunt them and continue to fuel speculations of the group’s supposedly homophobic leanings.
For one thing, The World of Wonder site — one of the major sources for the speculation about their reticence to perform with the queens — pulled their story last night, and a representative from Capitol Music has called it “completely false and fabricated.” So, while it could be considered a story of “he said, she said,” from the start the grounds for accusations to fly are shaky at best.
Now, this could all be label damage control, but you have to ask yourself, “If Migos hadn’t already been caught up making iffy comments about the subject of LGBTQ individuals/lifestyles, would I be so inclined to believe it?” Furthermore, according to the anonymous sources in the original article, Migos may have been uncomfortable with performing with the queen troupe, but there are any number of legitimate reasons why they might be, before anyone has to resort to thinking that clearly they’re just bigots and deserve to be, ahem, dragged to the high heavens.
Anyone who’s been to a drag show can tell you, those girls can work. The routines are intricate and rehearsed to perfection. It’s honestly kind of intimidating, even if you’ve had stage experience, and let’s face it: Even the most seasoned vet of the rap game never approaches anything remotely near the level of stagecraft exhibited by a professional group of queens in full makeup when the lights go on. Could you imagine Quavo trying to figure out how to slot himself into such a production, on such short notice as is provided for a live broadcast performance?
A couple of run-throughs might be enough preparation for Brenda Dharling, Lil Miss Hot Mess, and Bryant Dorean to nail down the choreography cold, but Takeoff is just a dude from Atlanta’s Zone 6, more accustomed to moving birds out the trap house than pretending to fly like one. In all honestly, such a thing is so hard to pull off in general, it’s possible that the majority of the troupe (a few remain on the very outskirts of the table Katy and Migos performed atop) were excused from performing was simply due to the complexity of pulling together such a feat in such a short amount of time.
Meanwhile, seemingly little thought is being put into extrapolating exactly how the drag queens would fit in the performance in the first place; while this group is a far cry less weird than those dancing sharks from Katy’s Super Bowl performance, there is still an element of “WTF” associated. Why does she need drag queens as part of the set, other than for shock value? In that case, the presence of the troupe could be read as exploitative; certainly if Katy were absolutely intent on appropriating marginalized cultures for visual effect, just having Migos or the queens on stage would suffice.
Both just seems like overkill, or worse, it just seems — along with the ridiculousness of the singles themselves, and her awkwardness and unpreparedness on televised performances of late — a little tacky. It, like the featured song, has been the subject of ridicule across the internet. Certainly Migos don’t earn any cultural cachet from making the appearance,just ask Desus and Mero.
Now, take a look at the video of the performance itself. The rappers — especially Quavo — seem disinterested in being used as Katy’s street cred props, showing up to secure the bag, and mailing in their verses while she gyrates arrhythmically next to them, playing up the “white girls can’t dance” stereotype. Mind you, when she’s committed to performing choreo on her own, she’s proven to be at the very least serviceable. Turning on the corny, “aww shucks,” routine just because there are “cool black guys” around doesn’t make the black guys look any cooler, or make her dabbling any more endearing.
If it seems harsh, so be it. There are plenty of ways to display appreciation for a culture, style, or sound other than playing up stereotypes for the camera. That’s when you lean a little too hard on the line of satire, which is mockery of the stereotype itself, into parody — outright mockery of the subject of the stereotype. It’d be no wonder if the Migos were uncomfortable with the set as a whole, to say nothing of the occasional bout of stage fright that affects even major stars when attempting to step out of their established element.
Now, let’s say that Migos were uncomfortable with the idea of drag queens themselves. Again, there are considerations and calculations that they are making as artists in a genre that has shown itself to be remarkably recalcitrant in embracing other marginalized people over the years — an association that undoubtedly contributes as much to the backlash as anything Migos have said or done in the last couple of months.
Much of mainstream, label-promoted, corporate-backed rap is misogynistic and homophobic and has been almost since the genre’s inception, so of course those guys, black guys, guys from the hood, thugs, would be anti-gay everything. Except that these are guys who insist on wearing high-end Italian fashion (not to put too fine a point on it or engage in stereotyping here, but like 99% of Italian designers are definitely hanging out closer to the queer of the spectrum); they’ve been derided at times themselves for wearing slippers with no socks, extremely fitted slacks, and silk blouses unbuttoned to their navels.
If rap vets like Joe Budden and Lord Jamar regularly blow their stacks at Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert, and Young Thug for just wearing decidedly un-masculine apparel, imagine how bad the backlash would be from within hip-hop toward Migos for prancing around onstage with a gaggle of extras from To Wong Foo and RuPaul’s Drag Race. They push the line in so many ways already, from their unconventional delivery of their rhymes, to their sartorial presentation, to the fact that they seem pretty willing to work for anyone whose checks clear.
Just appearing on SNL with Perry is enough to put them on thin ice with a certain segment of the “real hip-hop” crowd. They’ve been walking a tightrope ever since “Versace” catapulted them into the national spotlight, it’s doubtful they’d want to unbalance themselves now, just as they’ve secured their highest level of exposure since — especially as they nearly lost it all due to Takeoff’s incarceration right when they were initially pulling away from the terminal, so to speak.
It’s ironic then, that the backlash from hip-hop and pop’s more progressive quarters is exactly what threatens all the progress they’ve made so far. Migos have become a prime example of the precarious footing every public figure finds his or herself on in the digital age. Cater too much to any one group, and you risk alienating all the other record-buying, binge-watching, ticket-copping demographics. But fail to cater enough and you incite the nonstop, seething rage of the beast known as social media, ravenously hunting for the next hapless entertainer to commit a faux pas and become dinner, dissected, desiccated, and defecated into the graveyard of dreams. It’s enough to make anyone uncomfortable, especially if they have to perform a song called “Bon Appétit” on network TV, while standing on a damn dinner table. Migos isn’t the first to fall into this trap, and until we all find more mature ways to talk about these complex topics, they won’t be the last.