Over the weekend, Kanye West took to Twitter to have a philosophical conversation about whether it is ever acceptable to use the B or N words in music or conversation. "I usually never tweet questions but I struggle with this so here goes… Is the word [expletive] acceptable?,” he wrote on Twitter (h/tThe Atlantic Wire).
“To be more specific, is it acceptable for a man to call a woman a [expletive] even if it’s endearing?” he asked. (For an uncensored version of these tweets, click here.)
He’s not so sure. His next tweet was a rhetorical question of sorts: “Even typing it in question form it’s [sic] still feels harsh?”
Why is West waxing philosophic about these issues? According to one of his tweets, he “was recently questioned about the use of the word [expletive] in my music and initially was offended by anyone questioning anything in my music.”
This brings up a larger issue. Misogyny and sexism have been a part of hip hop and rap culture for a long time. Rappers depicted themselves as sexist in order to authenticate their manufactured identities as gangsters and pimps. They freely use the N word for the same reason.
The language used to describe women by rappers like West, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne and others is studded with violence and sexual innuendo. Here is a compilation of Lil Wayne lyrics describing women in overtly sexual and demeaning terms. Rap lyrics from a decade ago, by artists like Dr. Dre and Eminem, were even worse (click here and scroll down to the section “misogynistic themes” to see what I’m talking about).
Though the lyrics are tamer now, the same themes remain. Jay-Z and West’s song “No Church in the Wild” also has a pretty misogynistic bent to it, especially in the second half of it, which is sung by West:
Coke on her black skin
Made a stripe like a zebra, I call that jungle fever
You will not control the threesome
Just roll the weed up until I get me some
Another song they collaborated on is called ”That’s My [expletive].”
It seems like West is having second thoughts about the type of language that he uses in his songs–maybe he’s even worried about the messages that his music–and that of his hip hop peers–sends out. Another thing to worry about is the type of behavior such extreme language could encourage in listeners (mostly young men) who would otherwise suppress their more violent impulses. I can’t help but think here of hip-hop singer Chris Brown and Rihanna, whose relationship ended after Brown beat up Rihanna so badly that she ended up in the hospital.
Toward the end of his trail of tweets, West has two pretty insightful points. The first is a litmus test about how we know if it’s ok to use these vulgar words:
Here’s the age old question, would we refer to our mothers as [expletive]? Would’ we call our fathers [expletive] or better yet [expletive]?
The answer is obviously no. He goes on to ask:
If [expletive] is such a positive word, why do we feel so uncomfortable for white people to say it, even with a hall pass?
The implicit answer is that it’s not such a positive word. Though he then asks whether the United States should allow profanity on the radio, he concludes by appealing to a higher standard of both music and manner–the great Stevie Wonder.
“Stevie Wonder,” West writes, “never had to use the word [expletive] to get his point across.”