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The visitor from New York stopped dead in his tracks. An incredulous look crossed his face as he turned toward Washington Avenue. He eyed an SUV speeding down the strip, pumping out DMX and full of do-rag-wearing boys out for a joy ride.
"Man, I've never been called that before," he said in surprise, also adding he'd been visiting Miami for nearly five years. The group he was with shrugged it off, but the incident raises a troubling question as South Beach struggles with its latest incarnation.
The Beach is changing; it always does. It has to to ensure its survival. But many of Miami's regulars, both residents and tourists, are concerned that the hip-hop wave that is cresting over their heads will eventually crash down and upset the delicate balance that currently exists.
Miami is home to Jeffrey Sanker's White Party and New Year's Eve soiree, the Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, and the Dade Human Rights Foundation's Winter Party -- events that have made South Beach one of the more gay-friendly places in the world. But with the explosive success of hip-hop and its attraction to the Magic City, a confrontation is looming that could spell disaster.
While the gay circuit events do encourage recreational drug use and unabashed sexual behavior, they do not revel in the bad-boy image of thugs and guns that has made hip-hop such a hot marketing commodity.
Can the two cultures coexist? This is the question New Times posed to openly gay nightclub owner Gerry Kelly, whose venue Level hosts the Friday-night gay party Federation and also opened its doors to the Source awards after-parties.
"Well, I've been called a lot worse than that," Kelly says over the phone just days before a slew of police and the Fruit of Islam would form ranks in front of Level to keep the peace. "What people have to understand is that hip-hop music is a trend, and though some may be put off by the image it presents, it must be embraced as a trend."
Trend or not, it's hard to imagine any self-respecting gay man throwing his arms around Eminem or any other rap act who's chosen to punctuate his rhymes with machismo-laced tirades against "fags." Such abrasive lyrics are nothing new to rap, as even old-school MCs such as Ice T and Flavor Flav took potshots at homosexuals. But now, here in Miami, the tribes are coming uncomfortably close.
"Look, I think Memorial Day weekend scared everybody," Kelly says. "But the city just wasn't prepared for the number of people that came. We know better now."
Indeed the city was ready this time around as the Source weekend went off relatively smoothly. But Kelly had the foresight to move Federation over to Salvation for the night, not only to profit from the Source crowds but to keep the gay patrons out of harm's way.
"I did that out of courtesy to both communities," he explains. "Anyone who knows me knows that I've gone out of my way to accommodate all kinds of people."
It worked for one weekend, but if hip-hop truly is intent on making Miami its neutral city (a safe haven from the East Coast-West Coast battlegrounds), a mutual respect must be found. How that will happen is up for debate.
"Not to knock your profession, but I believe the press has been frightened off by hip-hop and has had a lot to do with the problems it has had with image," observes Kelly. "But as more women like Eve and Missy Elliott have songs remixed into club hits, I think the gay community is learning to like it more."
Okay, but will hip-hop return the favor and accept the gay community? That remains to be seen. What is evident is that Miami Beach has gone from a winter town to a year-round entertainment center, and with the good comes the bad. How it adapts to this challenge will chart the course for the next metamorphosis.
"The Beach has become a lot more commercial, absolutely," Kelly continues. "And that's why I've tried to educate with different themes at the club. Hip-hop, progressive-house, trance. Sure, South Beach used to be very gay, but it's not anymore, and we as a community need to learn not to hide in our little corners."
The New Yorker wasn't driven away; rather he laughed it off and made his way toward Lincoln Road. He didn't hide and, hopefully, he won't have to.