on word usage in hip-hopAn essay by Dessa on sexism/racism in hip-hop (taken from her facebook page):
“…I received an email recently from a reporter who asked, “Isn’t it an exercise of artistic license and freedom of speech for rappers to call females ‘bitches’ and ‘hoes?’”
My answer follows.
Rappers can say ‘bitch’ and ‘ho.’ They can say ‘faggot.’ Rappers—like artists working in most media—can say almost anything. That right is legally protected. When it’s working, the right to free speech shelters our dissenters (a group, incidentally, that includes a bunch of talented rappers).
The question isn’t whether or not to censor artists who espouse misogynistic views. The question is whether or not we support them as listeners and consumers.
But before delving into the particulars of the debate, I’ll divulge my bias. I am not a scholar or an expert. I am a practitioner: I make my modest living as a rapper. As such, I am not tender-eared or puritanical. I do not have a swear jar at home. I have a bottle of inexpensive whiskey at home. I also happen to enjoy pretty dark music—about melancholy and anger, sex, love, and loneliness. Most of those themes are best addressed with at least one cuss word.
Nonetheless, some rap music does trespass basic standards of human decency. The problem is bigger than sexual objectification—it’s real misogyny. Mainstream hip hop artists, with notable exceptions, have come to treat women with an institutionalized attitude of disrespect. In lyrics and videos, a rapper’s cache as a baller is determined by how fine his girls are and how badly he dares treat them. The implication here is that the rapper is confident that the girls will continue calling—or he can easily replaced them with in his rolodex with the next set of girls. Women aren’t just hyper-sexualized, they’re expendable.
The big artists and the major labels deflect this criticism with the retort, “The slurs and the violence are fictitious, don’t get so sensitive. It’s not personal, it’s entertainment.” This kind of response makes any rap fan who does feel degraded seem thin-skinned. In hip hop—a movement that celebrates resilience with a flourish—nobody wants to come off as a shrinking violet.
“Besides,” the mainstream spokesperson continues, “hip hop is made out of rough talk. Most of the best rappers use words like ‘ho’ and ‘faggot.’ And you can’t say you love hip hop without loving the classic artists who use the terms.” In this way, the industry presents a subtle accusation: if you’re offended by misogynistic content, you’re not real hip hop. At best, you’re crashing the party. At worst, you’re soft—with no business being here at all.
This kind of messaging amounts to a deliberate suppression of dissent that seems, by my read, antithetical to hip hop’s ethos. The implication that you’re a traitor to the cause for questioning the status quo does not support a culture of self-expression through art, music, and dance. An all-or-nothing unconditional pledge of allegiance is not what rap should ask of listeners. It is, rather, the signature tactic of witch hunts and totalitarianism.
Moreover, the industry refrain “It’s just entertainment” has worn itself thin. If rap music didn’t affect public opinion and behavior, advertisers wouldn’t pay for product placements. Corporations wouldn’t buy million-dollar artist endorsements. If music didn’t move us to action, repressive governments wouldn’t devote the time, money, and personnel it takes to censor activist artists. Chile wouldn’t have wasted bullets on Victor Jara or broken the fingers that fretted his guitar. Is rap sometimes the soundtrack to a party? Yes, of course it is. Is it obligated to provide moral instruction? No, of course not. But to deny that music powerfully influences our beliefs and conduct is either ignorant it’s a deliberate lie. Anyone who listens to music has been moved by it, sometimes profoundly. It’s music, that’s the point.
Given that music has agency, and that it does inform our popular culture, what would happen if we re-examined industry rhetoric, swapping ‘racism’ for ‘misogyny’? The tone of the entire argument would change. Serious slurs, issued against members of a marginalized race, do not generally fly with hip hop audiences. Even as part of a pulp narrative. The openly racist lyrics in some of Scandinavia’s black metal are not well defended by an argument as flimsy as: “It’s just a song.” The prejudice is serious and the insult is personal. At their core, misogyny and racism are very similar modes of thinking. Both diminish and disrespect a class of people based on an arbitrary trait that is wholly distinct from their ideas, their carriage, and their conduct.
Rappers can talk about women in any way they please. And they do. But they can’t insist that it’s inconsequential. And they can’t proclaim feminism and hip hop to be mutually exclusive. We can’t be forced to buy their rhetoric—or their albums. The question posed by my reporter friend boils down to one of deliberate consumerism. If your conscience wouldn’t let you say it, don’t buy it. Leave your wallet in your pocket and keep your money off a mic you wouldn’t put your mouth to.”