Swearing the truth

Recent news concerning Don Imus and Russell Simmons calls into question language issues in hip-hop

Megan Kadrmas

I would like to extend an invitation to St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Joe Soucheray to join me at the Dinkytowner Café any given Saturday night for The Hook-up hip-hop night.

After reading Soucheray’s April 25 column, “Hip-hop’s contribution to society? Words that aren’t fit to print,” I became dismayed – not with the sketchy argument he laid out in his article, which connected a young comedian to hip-hop culture at large by his excessive use of profanities and his skin color, but because he obviously hadn’t taken the time to investigate local hip-hop.

Soucheray declares, without much supporting evidence other than his own preconceived notions about the hip-hop community: “For too long this language has been used apparently as a prerogative of the hip-hop culture, which is more accurately a criminal culture, a prison culture. It is pathetic. It is not defensible. The clothing of the hip-hop culture is the clothing of a clown. The civility and public manners of the hip-hop culture do not exist.”

If he came to The Hook-up or any other local hip-hop show occurring daily in the cities, he wouldn’t make such sweeping claims because he would hear musicians using hip-hop as a legitimate way to express themselves artistically, not uncivilized gangbangers shooting each other up for fun.

Some (gasp!) don’t even swear to get this message across.

However, many do swear – especially the rappers that receive the most play from MTV and commercial radio. A lot use the three words rap pioneer Russell Simmons spoke out against at an April 23 Hip-Hop Summit Action Network meeting.

Simmons, Sean “Diddy” Combs and Damon Dash called for the record industry and television and radio stations to “voluntarily remove/ bleep/ delete the misogynistic words ‘bitch’ and ‘ho’ and the racially offensive,” N-word.

The whirlwind of media scrutiny over hip-hop culture in general and hip-hop lyrics specifically stem from Don Imus’s ignorant comments about Rutgers’ predominately black women’s basketball team.

One thing missing from a large portion of this discussion is the blatant error in defending Imus by blaming his indiscretion on the prevalence of this term in hip-hop culture.

Last time I checked, Imus isn’t a part of hip-hop culture, not necessarily because he’s white or old, but because he refuses to get involved.

So to defend his actions by somehow claiming it is hip-hop’s fault is majorly flawed. Was Imus listening to Tupac or Three 6 Mafia before going on the air and saying what eventually got him fired? Doubtful, very doubtful. Just as it’s doubtful that Soucheray spends more than five minutes listening to rap before forming his opinions on it.

This blame game does raise an intriguing question that most rappers are consciously avoiding at the moment because the answers are hard and complex.

Who has the artistic license to say these words, and in what context are these words appropriate?

There are plenty of intelligent rappers staying true to hip-hop’s socially conscious roots.

Unfortunately, most of these rappers exist underground. Mainstream, radio hip-hop is a poor example of the genre’s ability to explore class, race, gender and society in an unabashed, honest manner.

It’s dangerous to negate the messages of Brother Ali, Mos Def and Sole because of the irresponsible attitude of (unfortunately) more prominent and less deserving artists. Even Jay-Z and Kanye West, two industry-leading rappers, have important things to say, so completely ignoring commercial hip-hop altogether isn’t the right approach, either.

I’m not the only one saying this. Many of hip-hop’s most influential acts of bygone days are coming out of the woodwork decrying currently popular rap. Hell, Nas even boldly sounded the death knell of the genre in the title to his comeback album.

However, just because a lot of radio hip-hop focuses on the not-so-serious issue of getting busy in the club doesn’t justify a complete censorship of any naughty word for the sake of those in our society who pretend to be culturally innocent and unaware that acceptable terms for one group aren’t OK for other groups to say. Like “fag” is for homosexuals, the N-word is to blacks and “bitch” is to women.

As a woman, it’s more acceptable for me to call a female friend by one of these derogatory terms than for a man to do the same. This might not sit well with the only group of people who cannot really use any of these terms – heterosexual white men. Too bad.

These terms have been reclaimed to some extent by the groups they are meant to demean and are now used as slang terms disconnected to some extent from their original meanings. If Imus and his colleagues don’t realize that these sensitive words mean different things when they come out of different people’s mouths, they deserve just as much criticism as if they intentionally used the words.

There is a flip side to the coin, however. As Simmons explained the necessity for self-moderation to AllHipHop.com, “Children and innocent old ladies can digest our message beyond the objection to language.”

He has a point. After all, the main outcry about hip-hop right now isn’t the larger messages of the songs; it’s the use of specific words to address these issues.

Artists and the industry need to weigh the use of profanities against their help in advancing the song’s meaning. If swear words are placed in a song frivolously, then they are detracting from the song.

Hip-hop has always stuck the middle finger up to “The Man,” whether he is the government, law enforcement, the mainstream media or white, middle-class conservative social standards. It’s dangerous to restrict the dialogue hip-hop has created about class and racial strife in our society for the sake of political correctness and sending the right message to people like Imus who just don’t get it.

The hip-hop community needs to take it upon itself, not to self-censor, but to promote and advance artists who really say something through music. Artists who acknowledge the power and impact of socially charged words and use these words out of necessity, not frivolity, must be popularized.

Middle-aged, closed-minded men like Soucheray and Imus probably still won’t get it, but it gives them one less lame excuse for their actions and, most importantly, their words.