Last week, Kanye West lit up Twitter with an introspective rant about the word “bitch” and the palatability of its use when the motive is endearing. He mused that perhaps hip-hop conditioned us to think about this word differently; defending his own frequent use.
Over the summer, singer Frank Ocean revealed — in a beautifully written letter — that his first love was a man. Ocean is a member of the young, brash hip-hop collective Odd Future, whose frontman, Tyler the Creator, has been widely criticized for his prevalent use of the homophobic epithet “faggot” and its derivatives.
I’m a fan of each of these artists. I own all of their albums without considering myself to be an insensitive hypocrite. At least, most of the time. Well, kind of. It’s something I struggle with myself: coming to terms with whether these otherwise profane lyrics can be construed as “a tool, and not a crutch” for a hip-hop establishment catering to an audience that is more mainstream and diverse than ever.
To ask that, though, is to beg the question — why does it matter? Hip-hop, more than any other genre of artistic expression, continuously faces the burden of responsibility. It seems that outspoken critics can only come to terms with the abrasive nature of the lyrics if the music promotes something they deem to be positive. It’s a unique paradigm that lends itself well to a subculture surrounded by barriers.
Since its outset, hip-hop has been a response to a status quo established to keep these artists silent. Armed with a story to tell and the poetic means to tell it, early artists found their niche by empowering listeners, particularly African-Americans, with a voice.
Hence, to deny the efficacy and purpose of each word is to underscore the “pen is mightier” tenet that hip-hop was founded on. To deny the influence of the people’s voice is to deny hip-hop’s roots and its message.
Words have a tremendous amount of power, and not just those of the four-letter variety. To bridge or divide. To heal or antagonize. Meanwhile some do both. The words “bitch” and “faggot” are heavy — weighed down by a message of hatred. At the same time, these words have undergone a contemporary evolution from surface bigotry to a catch-all personal insult — regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Many do not consider the awful historical ramifications of the slurs when they open their mouths. Which, unfortunately, allows any negative effects from its use to hide behind a curtain of subjectivity.
While merely rapping the word “bitch” or “faggot” does not instill pain in itself, continuous repetition draws the listener to the artist’s intent. And while the words may not always be a perfect find-and-replace for “derogatory term for females” or “hate-filled homophobic slur,” their purpose is nonetheless to demean and assert control in a society where a subjugated view of young women and homosexuals is still pervasive.
Yet I still buy their records. Whether we like it or not, that “Parental Advisory” sticker posted on albums has an awfully attractive quality to it. It seems we’re still in a place where an anti-authority message can only be expressed in language also condemned by those in power. The music entices; it reels me in with its provocation because there is something unruly, almost seditious about it. And so, even as one who rejects some of the message, I listen.
While considering whether Kanye and Tyler are helping to dilute the vitriolic tradition of these words or simply spreading the flames, I’m hesitantly on the side of the latter. In the end, normalization of words with such sexist and homophobic pasts, regardless of how pervasive they are in hip-hop, seems a long ways away. Socially conscious artists, like Lupe Fiasco, have addressed this growing trend in their music. His song “Bitch Bad” confronts the dangers of widespread use, including a dismantling of self-image for women labeled as “bitches.”
So where does that leave me? Am I derelict in my duty as an otherwise responsible listener? I wouldn’t say that. After all, actively working against the societal effects of words that hate is more effective than succumbing to censorship. But assigning blame to a rapper who never asked for the responsibility seems burdensome as well. Some may have an alternate message, an alternate story to tell. And art that shocks as it communicates is no less art. It’s not a black-and-white issue.
Yes, I support hip-hop and basic human acceptance. I just wish being a fan of both wasn’t so much of a struggle.
Chris DiNardo is opinion editor. Email him at [email protected]