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7 July 2015

From Nina Simone to Azealia Banks: female singers who aren’t afraid to swear

The new documentary What’s Happened, Miss Simone makes an interesting point about the power of women singers using swear words.

By liv constable-maxwell

In 1963, Nina Simone changed the course of her career with two words: “Mississippi Goddam”. The first alluded to the recent murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi; the second, a curse that evoked Simone’s ever-growing resentment towards white supremacy.

Until this point, Simone had been on the fast track to stardom. But what the biographical documentary What’s Happened, Miss Simone, which has just hit Netflix, draws out is how her extraordinary creative force was underpinned by a violent depression that stayed with Simone throughout her life.

Despite achieving huge commercial success under the management of her husband Andrew Stroud, these conflicting energies seemed to spring into dynamism after she had uttered the crucial line: “Alabama’s got me so upset/Tennessee’s made me lose my rest/But everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam“.

By detaching Simone from the commercial sphere, Mississippi Goddam marked the beginning of a militant involvement in the civil rights movement, which gave a new-found purpose to her music, as well as engaging a generation of activists in a way that felt truly urgent.

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The power of Mississippi Goddam largely stems from her use of the word “goddam” – then a daring exclamation. Speaking in the film, Dick Gregory, the comedian and activist, says: “We all wanted to say it, but she said it: ‘Mississippi Goddam’”.

Typical of Simone, she said what was on everybody’s minds, but nobody’s lips. The “goddam” evoked the frustration and fury felt by all those involved in the civil rights movement, and broke conventions not only about what should be sung, but what a woman should sing.

“It was revolutionary,” comments Lisa Simone Kelly, Simone’s daughter. “They didn’t used to have cursing on the radio, and boxes of the 45 used to be sent back from the radio station cracked in two”.

By sacrificing commercial stability, she gave voice to an ever-growing movement, which was largely losing patience with its non-violent approach.

The power of swearing is evoked by Robin Lakoff, in her seminal essay “Language and Woman’s Place”. She writes:

Women’s speech differs from men’s in that women are more polite . . . [they] are allowed to fuss and complain, but only a man can bellow in rage.

Mississippi Goddam is Simone’s “bellow of rage”, and by pushing such linguistic boundaries, she made a song that, in its controversy and political relevance, demanded to be heard.

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In pop music today, one of the most notable examples of women using swear words is, of course, Azealia Banks’s 212, which came to fame largely on account of the refrain, “I guess that c**t getting eaten”.

Dancing through the video, she approaches the line with a smirking grin that feels cheeky, and somehow challenging. She seems to be saying, “I’m not afraid to say this word, you just watch”.

The instant popularity of the song, which has now reached almost 100,000,000 hits on YouTube, demanded a radio edit that reduced the song in response to a stuttering mixture of Banks’s rapping and blank space (similarly, Simone’s sweary offer was banned from the airwaves at the time).

The radio-friendly version of 212 challenged its listeners, splitting the public into those who would acknowledge the censorship, and those who would sing that word regardless.

In an age where “goddam” no longer holds the same level of blasphemy as it did when Nina Simone first sang it, “c**t” remains one of the few apparently unspeakable words left in the English language.

Caitlin Moran, in her book How To Be A Woman, writes, “I like how shocked people are when you say c**t. It’s like I have a nuclear bomb in my pants, or a mad tiger, or a gun”.

The word’s taboo as a derogatory term for female genitalia appears to make the shock two-fold when it is a woman who uses it. This begs the question: if women are no longer offended, then who has the right to restrict the word “c**t” in the hazy and ever-diminishing world of the unspeakable?

When asked in an interview with Channel V what she thought of the word’s widespread use, Banks’s typically blunt reply works to reclaim the word from the catalogue of controversy: “Who cares?”

212 is an extreme case of a much more general issue: there is still a taboo generally surrounding women swearing in music. Nicki Minaj summed this up during an interview with the Guardian when she said, “Why do people ask me to lose swear words? Do people ask Eminem to lose swear words? Do they ask Lil Wayne to lose swear words?”

You only need to Google “swearing in music” to see the sense in Minaj’s complaints.

Of course, there are a few memorable instances: Lily Allen’s F**k You is one. Or Gwen Stefani’s Hollaback Girl, where the video shows the singer and friends with hands on mouths in mock shock every time they sing the word “sh*t”. But even this highlights the issue in question, where the girls feign cheeky guilt for having used a “naughty word”.

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Clearly, Simone and Banks’s political agendas are largely different, but both singers were able to cause a huge amount of fuss through breaking expectations of how they are supposed to speak; expectations which are largely gender-centric.

Banks’s lyrics deploy a word perceived as so outrageous that it drew her straight out of Harlem and onto the mainstream music scene for its sheer shock factor; Simone’s lyrics used a word that alienated her from the mainstream, but, in doing so, placed her as a major figure in the civil rights campaign.

Both women demonstrate a fearlessness towards breaching existing language taboos, and in doing so demand to be heard.

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