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Free speech and hip-hop: When talk is cheap

  • Article by: DESSA WANDER
  • March 2, 2012 - 11:42 AM

I received an e-mail from a reporter who asked, "Isn't it an exercise of artistic license and freedom of speech for rappers to call females 'bitches' and 'hoes?'"

My answer follows.

Rappers can say "bitch" and "ho." They -- and other artists -- can say almost anything. That right is legally protected.

When it's working, the right to free speech shelters our dissenters (a group, incidentally, that includes a bunch of talented rappers).

The question isn't whether or not to censor artists who espouse misogynistic views. The question is whether or not we support them as listeners and consumers.

But before delving into the particulars of the debate, I'll divulge my bias. I am not a scholar or an expert. I am a practitioner: I make my modest living as a rapper.

As such, I am not particularly puritanical. I don't have a swear jar at home. I have a bottle of inexpensive whiskey at home.

I also happen to enjoy pretty dark music -- about melancholy, anger, sex, love and loneliness. Most of those themes are best addressed with at least one cuss word.

Nonetheless, some rap music does trespass upon basic standards of human decency. The problem is bigger than sexual objectification -- it's real misogyny.

Mainstream hip-hop artists, with important exceptions, treat women with an institutionalized attitude of disrespect. In lyrics and videos, a rapper's cachet as a baller is determined by how fine his girls are and how badly he dares treat them.

The implication is that the rapper is confident that the girls he debases will continue calling -- or can be easily replaced by the next set in his Rolodex. Women aren't just hypersexualized, they're expendable.

Big artists and major labels retort, "The slurs and the violence are fictitious -- don't get so sensitive. It's not personal, it's entertainment." This kind of response makes any rap fan who does feel degraded seem thin-skinned. In hip-hop -- a movement that celebrates resilience with a flourish -- nobody wants to be a shrinking violet.

"Besides," the mainstream continues, "hip-hop is made out of rough talk. Most of the best rappers use words like 'ho' and 'faggot.' And you can't say you love hip-hop without loving the classic artists who use the terms."

In this way, the industry presents a subtle accusation: If you're offended by misogynistic content, you're not hip-hop. At best, you're crashing the party. At worst, you're soft -- with no business being here at all.

This kind of messaging amounts to a deliberate suppression of dissent that seems, by my read, antithetical to hip-hop's ethos. The implication that you're a traitor for questioning the status quo isn't consistent with a culture of self-expression through art, music and dance.

An all-or-nothing unconditional pledge of allegiance is not what rap should ask of listeners. It is, rather, the signature tactic of witch hunts and totalitarianism.

Besides, the industry refrain "it's just entertainment" has worn thin. If rap music didn't affect public opinion and behavior, advertisers wouldn't pay for product placements.

Corporations wouldn't buy million-dollar artist endorsements. If music didn't move us to action, governments wouldn't bother censoring songwriters.

Chile wouldn't have wasted the bullets on Victor Jara or broken the fingers that fretted his guitar. Is rap sometimes the soundtrack to a party? Yes, of course it is.

Is it obligated to provide moral instruction? No, of course not. But to deny that music powerfully influences our thoughts and conduct is either ignorant or a deliberate lie.

Anyone who listens to music has been moved by it. It's music, that's the point.

Given that music has agency, and that it informs our popular culture, what would happen if we reexamined industry rhetoric, swapping "racism" for "misogyny?" The tone of the entire argument changes.

Serious slurs, issued against members of a marginalized race, do not generally fly with hip-hop audiences. Even as part of a pulp narrative.

The openly racist lyrics in some of Scandinavia's black metal are not well-defended by an argument as flimsy as: "It's just a song." The prejudice is serious, and the insult is personal.

At their core, misogyny and racism are very similar modes of thinking. Both diminish and disrespect a class of people based on a trait that is wholly distinct from their ideas, their carriage and their conduct.

Rappers can talk about women in any way they please. And they do. But they can't insist that it's inconsequential.

And they can't proclaim feminism and hip-hop to be mutually exclusive. We can't be forced to buy their rhetoric -- or their albums.

The question posed by my reporter friend becomes one of deliberate consumerism. If your conscience wouldn't let you say it, don't buy it. Leave your wallet in your pocket and keep your money off a mic you wouldn't put your mouth to.


Dessa Wander is an essayist, a rapper, and a proud member of the Doomtree collective. She will present at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum at Augsburg College. For details, visit

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