New Internationalist

Hip-hop: sexist claptrap or revolutionary verse?


‘Hip-hop doesn’t enhance society, it degrades it’. Do you agree or disagree? It’s a pretty black and white allegation, and it was up for debate at Hip-Hop on Trial earlier this week.

I’m a hip-hop fan – it takes up about 60 per cent of my Mp3 player. I decided to go along, and, as I walked into the auditorium, was asked along with the rest of the 1600-strong audience, to say whether  I was  ‘For’ or ‘Against’ the motion, or as yet undecided.

I chose to sit on the fence. Hip-hop isn’t a uniform genre – even someone with no knowledge of the music could tell you that. Ludacris – one of the first artists cited by the pro-camp for his degrading lyrics – probably isn’t enhancing society much when he raps that he has ‘hos in different area codes’. But there are also rappers like Lowkey, an underground, recently retired UK artist, who spent his hip-hop career using music as a medium for political expression.

Hip-hop is about the lyrics, it is about words – try debating ‘words don’t enhance society, they degrade it’ and you might encounter similar arguments. It stands to reason that the group tasked with this debate was bound to range widely. The panel at the contest, which was hosted by Intelligence Squared and Google+ and streamed live online, was vast in both size and personality. There were no less than 19 opinionated speakers fired up and ready to row. Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson sat alongside hip-hop artist KRS-One, David Cameron’s advisor on youth and crime Shaun Bailey and hip-hop journalist dream hampton (lowercase by choice, not omission).

In the end, the debate honed in on three words: ‘bitch,’ ‘nigger’ and ‘ho’. KRS-One focused in especially on the etymology of the word ‘nigga’. He argued that this differed from ‘nigger’, which hip-hop artists don’t use, claiming it comes from the word ‘neggus’ which means king. 

KRS-One also offered the insight that when Kanye West raps ‘you know how many hot bitches I own’ he is actually referring to cars not women, a claim that his adjacent panelist dream hampton, for one, was not buying.

Meanwhile, rap group Slaughterhouse seemed to help out the pro-camp when they answered the question ‘Who gave you the right to call our women bitches?’ with the response that not all women are bitches. Unfortunately UK female artist Estelle used a similar argument, making a distinction between women who are ‘bitches and hos’ and women who aren’t.

Benjamin Zephaniah and Egyptian rapper Deeb briefly managed to bring up the relevance of politics, with the latter stating that in Egypt many young people trust hip-hop artists more than the news.

I personally go for songs with a social message. One of my favourites is How I Got Over by The Roots, a song increasingly relevant in the US and Britain where the gap between rich and poor is widening and shows no sign of reversing: They all got a sales pitch I ain’t buyin’/ They tryin’ to convince me that I ain’t tryin’/ We uninspired / We unadmired / And tired and sick of being sick and tired.

Holding up hip-hop as a form of political resistance helped make the debate more relevant a British audience. Take the powerful songs of Lowkey or Logic or the Andrew Lansley Rap by MC Nxtgen. Lies by Lowkey came into my mind where his lyrics reference Benjamin Zephaniah’s point that it was corrupt politicians who should be examined as the real degraders of society, not hip-hop:‘You ain’t gangsters, Tony Blair’s the real gangster, everyday we pay him to stare at his propaganda.’ These British artists are considerably younger than most of the American hip-hop contingent chosen for the panel, who were making music in the 90s.

And, so, who won? The final result saw the opposition clinch victory with 70 per cent of the vote,  and 24 per cent approve the motion. No surprise, perhaps, in a hall of self selecting hip-hop enthusiasts, although it’s worth noting the pro-camp won over more swing voters, managing to double their support from the pre-debate poll result of 11 per cent, while the opposition camp only added 3 per cent to their pre-debate majority.

As for me, found myself voting for the motion despite my appreciation of hip-hop. The pro-camp had  better arguments, and the opposition failed to persuade me that hip-hop isn’t misogynistic or socially problematic.

But while I know that sometimes hip-hop is degrading, I also know that sometimes it isn’t. In fact sometimes hip-hop can inspire the oppressed to resist, helps make sense of a unjust world and challenges the status quo.

The debate was definitely entertaining and sparked further discussion. But next time let’s start with a better motion.

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