There’s more to hip-hop than the n-word

Offence-seeking critics should get over the swearing, and see hip-hop as one of the most vibrant musical genres.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

Topics Politics

Last month, a poem credited to rap superstar Jay-Z caused quite a stir in the blogosphere. Emerging soon after the birth of his first daughter, Blue Ivy, it claimed that he would abstain from using the word ‘bitch’ in honour of his offspring, stating: ‘Before I got in the game, made a change, and got rich. I didn’t think hard about using the word ‘bitch’. I rapped, I flipped it, I sold it, I lived it. Now with my daughter in this world I curse those that give it.’

It was soon revealed to be a fake, but not before a rabble of bloggers and newspaper columnists jumped on the story, hailing it as a small step in bringing hip-hop to bear for the role it has played in degrading women. Writing in the Guardian, Tricia Rose stated: ‘Through the power of black music, style, swagger and lyrical creativity, Jay-Z and many other highly successful rappers have expanded the visibility and value of aggressively sexist lyrics.’

Even after Jay-Z revealed he had no intention of dropping the word, Lisa Belkin, senior columnist for the Huffington Post, insisted that as the rapper is such a ‘maestro with words,’ he should ‘probably come up with some better ones rather than the lazy, vulgar shortcuts [he’s] gotten into the habit of using’.

Remarks like this seem to underline the peculiar position hip-hop finds itself in, as the most embraced and yet most underestimated genre in modern popular music. While we all must, however begrudgingly, insist that we recognise the artfulness of what Jay-Z does, many nevertheless find it impossible to believe that he could be using such abhorrent language in any kind of artistic way.

Even those who came to the rapper’s defence seemed to do so only in terms of free speech, conceding that much of rap music is mindlessly misogynistic, while arguing that we should still defend their right to label women ‘bitches’ and ‘hoes’. This necessary outcry from proponents of common sense was valiant, but still seemed to hinge on a critical misunderstanding of rap music which has dogged the genre since its inception.

Hip-hop has its origins in the block parties of The Bronx in the 70s, in which a Jamaican DJ called Kool Herc found that playing the best segment of a track over and over again, by physically moving the record back and forth, was the best way to hype up an audience. The break beat was born, and soon became the soundtrack to an entire culture of graffiti writers, break dancers and rappers, who were later brought in to rhyme over the beats the DJs laid. This new genre was lighthearted, funky and unlike anything the world had ever heard before, but it was invariably dismissed by music journalists as a harmless novelty and a fad that would soon pass.

Rap developed into a range of different styles and alongside the upbeat music of the old school, grew a darker, hard-edged sound that was to take the mainstream by storm. In the late 80s, hip-hop incorporated street realism and blunt ghetto vernacular into its oeuvre. Yet even as it became a lot more serious, critics and moralisers refused to believe it had anything worthwhile to say.

As groups like NWA and Public Enemy began to infiltrate the walkmans of suburban kids, groups like the Parents Music Resource Centre (PMRC), led by Tipper Gore, argued for consumer regulations that would shield feeble minds from rap music’s corruptible content. Gore railed against artists like California rapper Ice-T, whose lyrical tales she saw as being degrading to women and promoting criminality.

As has been seen with the latest backlash against Jay-Z, the PMRC protests seemed to be based on the assumption that the language rappers used was needlessly profane. Although Ice-T was similarly criticised for his use of the word ‘bitch’, this too failed to take into account the fact that these men were lyricists and understood the words they were using. In his autobiography, The Ice Opinion, Ice-T writes, ‘Tipper Gore is the only woman I ever directly called a bitch on any of my records, and I meant that in the most negative sense of the word’. This statement refers to his 1989 track ‘Freedom of Speech’, in which he rapped: ‘You’re bitchin’ about rock ‘n’ roll. That’s censorship, dumb bitch.’ This line may not pull its punches, but clearly uses the b-word to mock her as a censor, and not as a woman.

This tendency to ignore the content as a whole and focus on the profanity itself has patterned out the criticism of rap ever since. In November of last year, the hip-hop collective Odd Future were banned from playing New Zealand’s Big Day Out Festival after an email circulated insisting the group were homophobic and, therefore, unsuitable to perform. This was all due to the fact that a few of their members use the word ‘faggot’ quite frequently in their verses. Sydney ‘Syd tha Kid’ Bennett, a lesbian herself and a founding member of the group, spoke out against the decision, deeming it ‘ignorance at its finest’ and insisting that ‘if they really knew what Odd Future was they wouldn’t have pulled us from the bill’. The group’s leader, Tyler, the Creator, does indeed use the word in his 2011 hit single ‘Yonkers’. Yet seeing that it is uttered in and among cartoonish descriptions of dinosaurs having threesomes and Stevie Wonder playing American football, the claim that it is inciting homophobic hatred seems a bit of a stretch.

Easily the most controversial word in hip-hop’s vocabulary is the racial epithet ‘nigger’. Its use in innumerable rap songs has brought the genre under fire from prominent members of the African-American community. The rapper Nas was heavily criticised when he announced the title of his 2008 album would be, ‘Nigger’. Eventually his record label Def Jam caved in to the pressure and he was forced to rename it Untitled.

Chat-show host and entertainment mogul Oprah Winfrey was one of many who urged Nas to drop his original title. Winfrey is someone who, from the very beginning, has expressed concern that rap music may inadvertently popularise hate speech, yet her criticisms of the Queensbridge rapper seemed tainted by a certain snobbishness. Although Winfrey starred as the feisty Sophia in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, a film which explored racism in the 1930s south and made use of the epithet, somehow when spoken by a rapper, this word became endlessly more problematic.

However, while the likes of Oprah Winfrey would deem Nas under-qualified to deal with such a weighty subject, the album engages with it in an intelligent and artistic fashion. The track ‘Y’all My Niggas’, celebrates the power hip-hop vernacular now has, and the extent to which it has allowed black youth to transcend adversity by transforming the term into a symbol of black empowerment.

As Nas explains on Untitled, hip-hop has grown into a powerful global phenomenon, yet even though the mainstream has accepted it, many are still suspicious of its content. In 2008, President Barack Obama’s embracing of the genre helped him to secure the youth vote, but he still made a point of distancing himself from it. In an interview, he said that while he liked rap and felt it had ‘the potential to deliver a message of extraordinary power’, in its current state it only encouraged negativity because of the need to ‘keep it real’ and act tough. As with the few who spoke out in defence of Jay-Z last month, Obama is one of the many who claim to accept rap, but fail to see past its brash exterior.

Over the last few decades, we’ve continually refused to take hip-hop on its own terms and this has only fuelled the agendas of groups like the PMRC. While it’s ridiculous to suggest that there is no such thing as an exploitative rap song – Jay-Z’s ‘Big Pimpin’ is pretty hard to defend – we should remember to give hip-hop its due. We should criticise it in terms of the quality of the picture it paints, rather than the language that it uses. Hip-hop is one of the most unique and vibrant musical genres the twentieth century ever produced. It’s about time that censors and free speech campaigners alike recognised its worth.

Tom Slater is a writer and journalist, and spiked‘s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

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Topics Politics


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