Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg

Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg
Justitia, Old Bridge of Heidelberg © Gernot Keller, 2007
Blinkered Justice articles also appear on CrimeTalk and Government In The Lab

Friday, 20 January 2012

Jay-Z and the (dis)empowering language of hip-hop

Jay-Z (c) i am guilty

The post below will discuss how language is used in hip-hop. It will discuss words, lyrics and song titles that are not appropriate for the workplace, or for a less mature audience. Please navigate away now if concerned.

The rapper Jay-Z and his wife Beyonce recently had a daughter, Blue Ivy Carter. The NME reported that Jay-Z had written a poem indicating his unwillingness to include the word “bitch” in his lyrics again.

Time pondered whether Jay-Z would be able to avoid using the term in his public performances, given that it appeared in just over 50% of his previously recorded work. As it happens, Jay-Z has denied that the poem is his, and so, there is no suggestion that he will no longer use the term.

The Guardian published this article by Tricia Rose who writes from a feminist perspective on the harms associated with the use of the word “bitch”, especially for black women. The piece raises issues that hold true of hip-hop and society at large, but it omits the way that female hip-hop artistes use the word “bitch.”

Lil' Kim is one such artiste who has widely used the word “bitch” in her music. Please note that I do not have access to Lil' Kim's official lyrics, but her website referred me to the elyrics.net site when I clicked on the 'lyrics' tab.

She has written tracks called “Queen Bitch” and “It's Kim Bitches (Get That Money),” and has peppered other cuts such as “Suck My Dick” with the word. Take the chorus from the latter:
(Ay yo, come on here bitch) 
Who you talking to? 
(Why you actin' like a BITCH?) 
Cause y'all niggas ain't shit 
And if I was dude 
I'd tell y'all to suck my dick 

Lil' Kim (c) Emillio
Just as hip-hop has adopted the word “nigga,” remoulding it away from its original racist form. Lil' Kim is reconstituting the word “bitch,” through her use of vocabulary that is contextually relevant to her background and industry. I am not saying that I agree with her take on empowerment, but she is repossessing “bitch” within the sphere of hegemonic masculinity, thereby blunting the hostility associated with it.

Moreover, to portray hip-hop as one homogenous genre responsible for sexism and a perceived hostility to woman is to ignore the many levels on which hip-hop is being played out. It is of the social, the cultural, the historical, the local, and (increasingly) the global, because of the commercial.

In their paper, “Misogyny in Rap Music: A Content Analysis of Prevalence and Meanings,” Ronald Weitzer and Charles E. Kubrin (2009) note the difficulties that male artists have offering alternative takes on hip-hop. They refer to a documentary, Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes:
Byron Hurt (2007) asks one aspiring rapper why rap artists focus on violence and misogyny. The rapper freestyles a verse about whether he could have been a doctor, a father, or police officer. He then says, ‘‘That’s nice, but nobody wanna hear that right now. They don’t accept that shit.’’ When Hurt asks, ‘‘Who is ‘they’?’’ the rapper answers, ‘‘The industry. They usually don’t give us deals when we speak righteously.’’ (p. 6, Weitzer and Kubrin, 2009)
This begs the question as to whether some hip-hop artists are 'for real'? Have they become actors playing a part? Do their lyrics genuinely portray their lives, or is it a script given to them by their directors?

As hip-hop has become more mainstream, so have the demands to meet a market that is more profitable than ever. It is the larger record companies that have the funds to perpetuate these negative stereotypes, in their plugging and marketing of their artists to mainstream commercial radio stations. As DJs have set-lists that they have to adhere to, this means that the listener is only listening to a narrow version of hip-hop culture.

In their analysis of misogyny in rap, Weitzer and Kubrin (2009) broke their findings down into 5 separate themes. In the songs that they identified as misogynystic (22% of a total of 403 tracks analysed), the use of the term “bitch” was characterised within 'naming and shaming'.

Beyonce Knowles (c) Asterio Tecson
Whilst 'naming and shaming' occurred in 49% of those tunes found to be misogynystic, the 'sexual objectification' of women appeared in 67% of them. This theme is relevant to the whole of society, not just hip-hop, and contributes to hostility against women.

Jay-Z's wife, Beyonce, is a successful mainstream pop/R&B artist. Within the music industry, she is considered influential. Have a look at her website; I would argue that the sexual objectification here, and in her videos, is just as harmful to female equality as the overtly masculine lyrics used in hip-hop.

Hip-hop is not to blame for hostility towards women. This existed long before hip-hop. True, hip-hop has not helped portray women in an equitable manner, but some females are contesting and renegotiating this negativity, by taking ownership of words such as “bitch.”

In societies with an apparent abundance of choice, equally it seems that we are constricted by it, left with little option but to consume what we are fed. Similarly, it appears that we try to narrow down our options when seeking to explain social ills, apportioning the blame to particular 'problem' people and/or cultures.

The roots of hostile and negative stereotyping of women are manifold; cultural, sexual objectification and mainstream commercialism, amongst other issues not discussed here. Furthermore, as consumers of it, we too are to blame.

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