Since hip-hop artist Murs released the video for "Animal Style," in which he plays a character dating a guy on the DL and then kisses that man, reactions have been polarized. In many online forums and venues, hip-hop fans have hurled homophobic rants at the rapper, while on more sympathetic websites, people have expressed their support.
In the video for the single, from his 2011 album, Love & Rockets Vol. 1, Murs plays a closeted guy in a relationship with another man that ends in a chilling image of murder and suicide. "Boyfriend Roderick kept his secret closeted/ Scared to come out into this world of zero tolerance," Murs raps. "Wanted Roderick to follow him/ He see him in the halls/ But Rod would never acknowledge him."
When we spoke to Murs, he said he intended the video to stir up feelings of empathy and remorse. "We spent very little on the video," Murs explained by phone from Tucson, Arizona, where he currently lives. "The song has been out since November and no one paid any attention to it. It's not about me, it's about starting a conversation. If two people were arguing over whether Murs is gay or not, or what the point of the video is, that was the point. I'm not here to promote an agenda. The song speaks for itself, and I didn't take a stance. But I guess, yeah, the video was me advocating for marriage equality."
We asked Murs about his wife's support in making the video, the reaction from producers and other hip-hop artists, and who the guy in the video is that he kisses. And whether he would do it all again. He says of course he would, "But I would want to make the kiss more believable."
You wrote on the YouTube page for the video that you felt it was important to show that same-sex love wasn't that different from "the love I have for my partner of the opposite sex," which seems pretty profound for someone in the hip-hop community to put out there. What was the process that you went through when discussing, scripting, filming the video?
The reaction is kind of strange. I don't really read the comments, and I would never look to some of these media outlets for approval. My main concern is with the LGBT community, that they have responded favorably. Being a straight male, and stepping into that role, I was nervous about the reaction from the gay community.
But the way straight people have reacted? I could really care less. Oh and how my wife would react. That matters.
Oh, how did your wife handle it?
She's all for it. Her grandmother is gay, or was: She just passed. It was really important to her; we have friends and family that are gay, so it was important to make a statement. You know, it's cool to be liberal and say people should be able to do what they want to do. But then when your husband is in a video on the Internet kissing another man. That's different.
So were you nervous how she would react to it?
I was nervous. She seemed open-minded, but she could freak out about it. The guy in the video is her personal trainer, Armando. He's a boxer. We were friends, and we both trained at the same gym. He heard the song, and he was comfortable with it. But I wanted to make sure, you know, I said, 'I don't want to assume that you want to kiss me. You could find me completely unattractive.'
After hearing his story, of him being gay, and as a boxer, being in this very macho sport, in a small town in Arizona, and what he had to deal with... He was happy to do it. He said his boyfriend saw the video and cried. I just thought, I didn't think it could be such a rewarding experience that way.
Anywhere along the way you were like, wait, maybe this is too intense? Maybe I don't want to do that?
I felt like I had to do this. I had to commit. My goal was to, as a rapper, to bring some legitimacy to the art form. You know, Straight Outta Compton was jarring, because America didn't want to see or hear these things. Now it's been sensationalized, and now it's the status quo. Public Enemy said some jarring things initially, too. But no one is using rap as a vehicle to shake things up. I initially wanted to play the other character.
The one that Armando plays?
Yeah, but I thought that could be more offensive. As it got closer, I thought, I don't think I could do it. I don't think I could make it believable.
Then the producer said, "Why don't you just play the other guy." I hadn't thought of that. I didn't think it was going to be difficult. But as it got closer, I thought, "Holy shit, I'm going to have to kiss a man." It wasn't Mondo, we were friends, but I was nervous about making it believable.
So where was it shot, some place in Los Angeles?
It's all filmed in Tucson, that's where I live now.
But isn't Arizona considered pretty conservative? Why live there?
Tucson is probably the Berkeley or Austin of Arizona. The rest of Arizona is very anti-Obama. The only thing they are pro, is pro-Jesus and pro-gun. But I just always liked the people here [in Tucson]. I grew up in L.A. and everyone is always networking all the time. People here just wake up, go to work, and go home. They drink a lot of Bud Light. I grew up with people who were going to be actors, or legitimate drug dealers or legitimate killers. Here people are living and enjoying life.
That scene where you pull out a gun and shoot the young man in the face is pretty intense. There's a long history of gay characters being depicted in popular entertainment, as long as they die at the end, to sort of pay for their sins. Did you think about how that shooting would play out to a gay audience?
I guess the idea is that he hated himself, so he hated his [boyfriend]. He loved him so much, he didn't want to live with all the bullshit they were going through. That idea that you love someone so much, and if you can't live in this society comfortably, that you wouldn't want to live in this life.
I try to not go too deep about it in my personal life because there are people in my personal life who haven't come out. I can tell the strain they are in when I see them at gatherings. I can tell how horrible it has made them feel. Some of them have picked up a lot of bad habits. You know, it's like when you eat more than you should or drink more than you should because you are dealing with issues.
But some people seem to think that scene is just shocking or exploitative. Was the intention to show how bullying and violence are actually taking place in many schools and in tense environments?
It might be sensational or extreme, but I think it's horrible to live on a planet where people feel so bad about themselves they think about killing for nothing other than being themselves. I don't think it's a common or everyday occurence. But I think the feeling that you want to do that can be common among gay teens. Especially in hip-hop.
Although the song was out for a while, with the timing of the video's release after Frank Ocean's revelation, people are obviously making that connection. Do you think hip-hop and R&B are ready for this evolution of thought?
I think it's a very imporant that Frank did that. I mean, on a personal level, I think it was liberating for him. For culture, for hip-hop, for R&B, for urban culture. I think it's great, everyone loves this kid, and he's a very talented person. I don't think it has affected his sales. I don't think anyone went out and bought his album because he made that statement or came out. And it hasn't hurt the sales.
I think it should have no more significance than the color of his shoes or his eyes. He's a musician, not a teacher. It's like, no one asks me what my wife looks like. It's so funny to me that's the way hip-hop is. We know certain individuals have never lived the criminal lifestyle, but they rap about it like they have and people by their albums, with no problem. Then what someone does in their personal life should make a difference. Or I kiss a man in a video; I'm playing a gay person? That should make a difference about the music? There's a message behind ["Animal Style"] of peace and love and acceptance. As long as I'm lying, singing about destruction and death and illicit sexual encounters, then it's OK?
I wonder, do you think having a black president who spoke positively of marriage quality helped with this change in the black community?
I think it has. I think it's been a slow change. Frank Ocean, myself, President Obama, I think if all these things were happening without the president, the community may not have been as accepting. I got to perform at Obama's party at the Democratic National Convention, and he said something about marriage equality then. My jaw dropped. I mean, I remember: no president, black or otherwise, has said that. It didn't change how I felt, but it made me want to do something.
Finally, now that you've seen/experienced the reactions to the video, would you do it all again?
No, I wouldn't take back anything. If anything, I would try to make the kiss more believable. I did it for the few people who have reached me personally and thanked me. It's meant a lot to hear that and that it made people feel more comfortable with themselves.
You know, when I first started dating my wife, she sent me the Harvey Milk movie, and I was so impressed at his message and bravery. Even if I reach one person, I'm willing to take everything else that comes my way. If I get called a couple of names on the Internet, or some people don't like me now, if I can help one person, it's worth it.
This was a song I tried to do with other producers, and they were just like, we're cool, but you can't do that.
I don't know who will want to rap with me live or who won't shake my hand now. I don't know if there's certain labels or producers who will not work with me. But I can handle it.
I'm impressed that you're being so bold and saying that you might have damaged your career in some ways but you wouldn't change it. That's pretty brave for a straight guy to do and say. I hope you do get support.
You know, this was my opportunity to speak to the gay community. And I'm sorry if I offended anyone. I'm just thankful for all the love and support that I've received.