Bitch Please: Race, Class & Linguistics. Where Does The “Bitch” Stand Today?

Important read right here.  Hip Hop Journalist  Mina Jasarevic examines the usage of the “B” Word along with music, politics,economics, history, and love within the context of hip hop.

Bitch and Society: Racism, Sexism and Power
Perhaps one of the most ignored – yet prevalent – misdemeanors in mainstream Hip Hop music is the blatant objectification of women. It is manifested through music videos where the female gender is solely portrayed as the object (never the subject), a tool, a prize, or a possession for the male rapper and his ego. There is often a cookie cutter script most of these videos adhere to, and it is fashioned with alcohol, cars, jewelry and women. Such women are rarely fully clothed, while possessing body types (real or not) that are surely not a representation of an ordinary woman. The female body is portrayed as a sexual commodity, and consequently, so is the woman herself. With the physical objectification comes the question of moral treatment of women, and at the center of such discussion lies the analysis surrounding the usage of the word “bitch.” Such discussion can be viewed as both obsolete and essential to our culture, depending upon the glasses through which one perceives the word. Below, we address a number of vital arguments surrounding the usage of the infamous expression.

Much of recent media attention surrounding the B word arose in August of 2007 when the New York City Council attempted to ban its usage, calling it “deeply sexist and hateful.”1 The attempt at a legal ban followed April’s airing of Oprah’s highly publicized panel discussion on Hip Hop and misogyny2, where the talk show queen enlisted opinions of label executives, rappers, and NAACP leaders to discuss racism, sexism, marginalization, and morality. The panel discussion precipitated after the highly publicized Don Imus controversy, which instigated academic and media-led debate surrounding present-day racism and sexism in America. Each of these measures lobbied around the usage of expletives, with bitch leading the cause with both New York City and Oprah.

Despite the media attention the B-word received, banning its usage, by many, equates to a band-aid effort at masking sexism by censoring language. That is, even if the word itself was barred from public use or the mainstream media, sexism and gender inequality remain a social reality. This view is shared by many, including Talib Kweli, who views Hip Hop music as an eternal reflection of society. “Hip Hop takes its cues from the larger society. The problems are amplified and exaggerated for the stage, but that almost makes the expression more honest. While women are institutionally discriminated against, there are certain Hip Hop artists that put that attitude on [the] front street.”

Activist and rapper KRS-One shares a similar view with the Brooklyn rapper, while painting the socio-economic reality behind the need for hyper-masculinisation in rap and mainstream Hip Hop: “Most of us were raised without fathers, even our daughters.  And the society in which we live demands that we be strong and aggressive or we will not survive.” For many academics, activists and artists themselves, this aggression is often expressed through art. “Hip Hop is the expression of young people who have nothing. To focus too much on the word used [B] and not focus on the conditions that create offensive language and images, is working backwards,” says Kweli. Slaughterhouse emcee Joell Ortiz adds to the argument: “We should be worried about the fact that in Brooklyn, they’re kicking all the tenants out of the projects, raising the rent, putting up buildings and condominiums and moving us out of the neighbourhood, and not hiring people to work on some of these new buildings that lived in the buildings for years…buying out the little moms and pops – the little grocery stores – and making them into big supermarkets – we got to look at what’s going on in our neighbourhoods before we’re worried about little words in Hip Hop.”

As KRS, Kweli and Ortiz indicate, Hip Hop in itself is a mirroring tool that reflects historical and present-day socio-economic conditions – specifically within the black community – illustrating the chain of power. In this socio-economic chain of order, black women are forced into the lowest economic strata. The socio-economic status of the Black America is a pivotal point of analysis for prominent authors and speakers on Hip Hop, class, race and sexism. Some of these include Joan Morgan, (When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip Hop Feminist Breaks it Down), T. Sharpley-Whiting (Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women), Patricia Hill Collins (From Black Power to Hip Hop: Racism, Nationalism, and Feminism).

Malleable Meanings: Can Words be Reclaimed, Reused, and Recycled?

The argument that Hip Hop language is a reflection of the socio-economic conditions of the communities is juxtaposed with the view that language is malleable, and its meaning, connotation, and usage evolves and changes through time.

Many proponents of this approach argue that without a particular meaning attached to them, words are immaterial. Furthermore, proponents of this view argue that there is not a universal meaning to diction. That is, those utilizing the language are responsible to properly convey the particular meaning they wish to express with each word. In short, individuals, communities and groups decide on the meanings words carry. In our panel of contributors, Ras Kass is perhaps the most potent proponent of this position: “I don’t understand why you give the word more power than it really has. […] The power of words is what you make it. Words evolve in meaning. That’s the power of you defining [words] yourself,” explains the west coast rapper.

Perhaps the most obvious example – and one pertaining to this article – is the act of reclaiming the B. “Reclaiming” language means to adopt what was once a negatively loaded term, and affirm positive meaning to it. The word remains within the community it was initially bestowed upon – albeit in degrading connotation – but its meaning changes. Hence, it is reclaimed.
“Bitch is also used as an empowering term for women. For example, “B.I.T.C.H.” can mean “Because I Take Charge Here.”3 I suspect that women enjoy being the ‘bitch’ when they are in charge. Often we hear references to women who have to make tough decisions as being bitches,” explains KRS as Ortiz further elaborates: “If you go to the bottom, if you go to the gutter, and you hear another female say ‘that’s my bitch right there,’ that just means it’s a dear friend; that’s someone I grew up with, we been through a lot together, and things of that nature.”

Nonetheless, the act of reclaiming words is not without difficulty as it rests within the notions of acceptance and non-acceptance. For example, while some women may reclaim the B word through a progressive and positive implication, other women do not want to be associated with what once – and for many continues to be – a derogatory defamation of sex and gender. As a result, meanings attached to words become matters of personal preference. One of leading Rap ladies explains: “I liked it when Missy re-appropriated the term to mean something powerful. So it depends on who is using it and in what context. On a personal note, though, I don’t like to be called a bitch by anybody,” says Eternia.

The act of reclaiming the B word reaches further intricacy. It is not just women who have reclaimed it, but it is also men who decided to claim it. In Hip Hop music today, men are often the victims of the nasty meanings behind the B. “The bitch does not necessitate being female. Anybody can be a bitch. I’ve done some bitch shit before. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander – you do some bitch shit, you get called a bitch,” explains Ras Kass. However, the mere act of assigning the B to men is not without difficulty. The most obvious question then becomes, is it a male’s right to claim the word that is historically and presently used – albeit not by all – to demean women? For even when referred to males, the B continues to imply negative, destructive, and ignorant connotations, always directed toward women, even when used against men. As rappers call other rappers Bitches, the sexist message is clear: one is compared to a (bitchy) woman, and there is nothing more demeaning than being compared to a woman.

More than Bitch: Parts of Speech and Alternative Meanings

While the B may be referred to both women and men, its meaning does not stop at personal pronouns. It extends to general nouns, adjectives, verbs, and includes various meanings, such as the state of hardship. “[B is] also associated with a difficulty: ‘this is a bitch’, ‘that’s a bitch’; bitch is also associated with cowardice” ‘look at his bitch ass’, ‘he bitched up’. All of these usages of Bitch imply that its meaning is fluid within our culture based upon who is using the word, and in what context the word is being used. Bitch does not mean the same things to everyone,” explains KRS.  The B can be adopted, defined, and utilized in different respects. As stated above, its meaning then becomes defined by the individual, group or community who adopt the B to their vocabulary. Yet another Brooklyn icon, MC Lyte, explains: “The word has been around way before Hip Hop, and it still can be just as insulting and degrading; but, it is also the language we speak when in the hood, and when you come from the bottom. Ortiz adds: “If you didn’t grow up in the projects, in the gutter, in the ghetto, it would be hard for you to relate to our lingo, to our slang. If you grew up on Wall Street and you came into the projects – where I’m from – you wouldn’t know what we were talking about if you sat on the bench with me for five minutes.”

Where the Ladies At?

Amongst the plethora of different approaches, opinions, and definitions surrounding the B – at least in Hip Hop – one important factor remains. The women are largely missing from the discussion. The female rappers are there, yes, but they far from balance the male-dominated status quo within the industry. “[the Hip Hop game] is built off competition and ego – everyone wants to be the best at it. And the bottom line is that it’s dominated by men up to this point; that’s how we are – for good or for worse,” explains Cypress Hill’s B-Real. An arena in which women outnumber the men is in the on-screen music video business, and even then, they are merely treated as sexual objects without much voice pertaining to anything, and particularly not to the questions of morality, dignity and sexism.

And even when we do hear female rappers getting their shine in mass media – and using, or reclaiming the B – the question then lurks on the spectrum of right and wrong. That is, just because a female rapper uses the word ‘bitch,’ to attack or describe – or even empower – another woman, does that make it right? If knowledge is power and its transfer is conducted through language, does language then not become a powerful tool for empowerment – or disempowerment – of human beings? MC Lyte refers back to contextual importance. “I used [the word] on my first album. Back then it was used to create a picture and tell a story. I think the usage has been worn out and now it helps those who have no creative ability to come up with an alternative.”

The Painless B

Cuss words carry connotations, but they may also relieve pain. A neuroscience research journal, NeuroReport3, published a study  in August of 2009 asserting the connection between swearing and reduction of pain. “Cursing can trigger the body’s fight-or-flight response, which masks pain,” says lead study author Richard Stephens, Ph.D.” There is something attractive about the B after all: “The context and connotations shift and bend but it remains popular because of the strength of the sound. The hard ‘B’ with the bluntness of the ‘cth,’ plus the fact that it is one syllable, makes it almost perfect as an exclamation. It is documented that cursing reduces pain,” explains Kweli.

Guilty or not, majority of people have uttered the B at some point. “It’s a word we can all relate to as men and women because at some point or another, we’ve used it,” states B-Real. Is it wrong however? You be the judge.

Compliments of HipHop DX

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~ by rthoas on January 26, 2010.

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