By Terrance Dean; Atria; 320 pages
By now, the term “on the down low” has become a part of everyday language. Beginning with J. L. King’s 2004 book, On The Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of “Straight” Black Men who Sleep with Men, the term has defined our perception of Black men’s lives.
Men sleeping with men while acting straight isn’t, of course, restricted to the Black community. And yet, public talk of the down-low phenomenon stands in for any kind of sustained discussion about homosexuality in the Black community. The high rates of HIV infection among Black women foster a further demonization of Black men, who are portrayed as deadly carriers of the virus. The result is a lack of systemic analysis of the causes of the spread of HIV among vulnerable populations, such as inequality or the high numbers of incarcerated black men—and women—who spend lives in jail without access to condoms or any HIV prevention resources.
Terrance Dean’s new book, Hiding in Hip Hop: On the Down Low in the Entertainment Industry—from Music to Hollywood, is about the down-low phenomenon in the music industry. It’s also a memoir of growing up in Detroit and Dean’s flight out of there. One of his earliest memories is of waiting while an intruder repeatedly raped his mother after threatening the four-year-old Dean with a gun.
Dean made it into the entertainment industry, where he found a community of people on the down low, including studio executives and musicians. According to Dean, the community in L.A. was cohesive enough to meet for regular social gathering s as well as the requisite sex parties. There are torrid, if sometimes fanciful, descriptions of sex that are a bit Harlequin Romance-ish.
The book doesn’t reveal who’s gay/bisexual in entertainment, but discusses the social and economic conditions that foster the down-low phenomenon. Hiding in Hip Hoptells us what we may already suspect about the implicit and explicit practices of racial exclusion in the entertainment industry. At one point, Dean worked as a production coordinator on The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show, fresh on the heels of the comic’s hit In Living Color. He describes the cluelessness of white executives—who wanted Wayans to appeal to “middle America”—about the existence of Black actors: “it was always like pulling teeth to get the talent bookers to understand who some of the most prominent [B] lack actors were.” Under these circumstances, where most white gay actors are compelled to be closeted, Black actors must remain even more so.
The book’s sometimes confusing in its chronology, and latter parts, where Dean writes about founding various organizations to enable, first, Black entertainers to speak about race in the industry and then about sexuality, read a bit like resumes listing his professional accomplishments. That said, this is far less sensationalist than it could have been—and actually provides some insights into the operations of the industry outside of the questions about sexuality.
The question is: what function will this book perform in a culture always eager for yet another reason to demonize Black men as dangerously duplicitous? What are the power differentials in the entertainment world where white lesbians like Ellen are more out than Black lesbians or gay men? Does simply being out solve the problems of an industry that makes enormous profits while paying pittances to some? Ellen’s at the height of her popularity and lauded for her outness. But we forget that she was among the first to cross the writer’s strike picket line—that fact should matter more to us than the fact that she’s out.
Dean isn’t accountable for all these issues. As Hiding amply demonstrates, the phrase “We are everywhere” means empowerment for some. When applied to queer Black men in the entertainment industry, it could be construed as a threat to those who’d like to continue demonizing their presence. But as we read and discuss his book, we might consider the larger economic and political context in which sexuality operates.