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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  1. #1 Peter L 29 Jun 12

    I was at the debate, and thought that it was very interesting that there was a swing to the 'for' side in the hall, and a swing to the 'against' side on the internet.

  2. #2 Sabi 30 Jun 12

    Where do you even begin discussing an entire genre of music? There were so many interesting points that were raised by both sides of the debate and then rapidly dropped in favour of discussing those 3 words for the majority of the time, which was a shame. Still, giving people a platform to voice those thoughts for other people to go away and think about is an important start.

  3. #3 Rob 05 Jul 12

    Although it would be reductionist to label an entire genre of music as degrading, you can look at what strand of it is most influential at a given time - and at the moment, in Britain and the US, it is undeniably the kind of hip hop that promotes materialism and glorifies violence.
    That's not to say that most hip hop artists do that, just that the ones that do tend to get far more promotion.

  4. #4 Furreal 16 Jul 12

    I agree with your conclusion. I used to be a Hip Hop fan, but I would side with the Pro-camp. The other side was overly concerned with trying to change the subject to the invasion of Iraq, to Hollywood films, to video games. Which doesn't really say anything about rap lyrics. The old underlying question is, does life imitate art or art imitate life.

    I think it's both. There's no denying there was drug selling and violence and sexism before rap. But you cannot tell me that making thuggery and sexism fashionable and danceable and purchasable, doesn't add to the climate of hatred, violence, sexism. And blaming it on the aftermath of slavery is insulting. Blaming it on record company execs or MTV or Radio is childish. They do not write your lyrics for you. Who decides what many write about? Kids who buy the music. Public Enemy was hot twenty five years ago. But they don't sell a thing in 2012. Is that the fault of Viacom? Or the Illuminati? Assume the responsibility for your own words. Assume the responsibility for the music you buy. Why do stereotypes sell much more than conscious music?

    AND KRS ONE DENYING ’BITCH’ REFERS TO WOMEN? KRS CLAIMING ’NIGGA’ MEANS ’KINGS’? Never thought I'd see KRS try to bullshit the crowd in such a clumsy way.

  5. #5 Furreal 16 Jul 12

    Any way, KRS and Q Tip and a million other Hip Hop heads of a certain age complain 24/7 about the current state of Hip Hop. You don't think the prevalence of money/bitches/drugs/violence lyrics have got something to do with it?

    But when it comes to discussing these issues of lyrics expressing self-hatred and sexism and homophobia in public, they turn defensive.

    Sex and violence sells more than moral preaching and history lessons. To deny that's how most rich rappers got paid with their music is being a little disingenuous.

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