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19 June 2007

Don’t shoot the messenger

Characterising hip-hop by the rhymes of a few foul-mouthed rappers is giving them more credit than t

By Matilda Egere-Cooper

In recent weeks, the age-long debate about controversial lyrics in hip-hop has re-ignited to the delight of the rap antagonists who’ve campaigned for its censorship since its very birth.

There’s definitely concern this time around when even the founder of legendary hip-hop stable Def Jam is adding his weight to the dissension. In April, Russell Simmons announced that phrases such as “nigger “,”ho” and “bitch” within hip-hop songs should be removed for the greater good of the listening public.

It’s my guess that Don Imus’s ‘nappy headed hos’ jibe towards Rutgers university women’s basketball team a few weeks prior might have been behind his change of heart, considering Def Jam have long invested in some contentious rappers and their equally contentious ways.

But this moral panic has only sought to unfairly prosecute the entire hip-hop movement, where dodgy rappers such as 50 Cent only make up a minority.

There’s no condoning some of these rappers’ words use, as I do find the liberal use of the N-word distasteful. But a ‘ho’ for instance, is a ‘ho’ – in other words, the very promiscuous-looking women who aren’t forced to star in music videos with their rap idols and turn the bodies into internationally-known objects of desire. Yet if one was to refer to Oprah Winfrey as a ‘ho’, then we have a problem.

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The reality is some of these rappers are delivering songs which are merely recollections of their social upbringing or their everyday realities, often executed with sheer literary brilliance.

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The assumed correlation between the rise of crime and hip-hop music has never made sense. If we examine every national playlist and evaluate the rappers who are likely to be broadcast to a majority, it’s doubtful Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Nas and other mainstream artists would suddenly inspire a collection of children in Britain to take up arms and rob Sainsbury’s.

Take Jay-Z for example – the former drug dealer turned millionaire who recently made it into the top ten of the Forbes 100 list. His last single, Show Me What You Got, was one of those club sing-a-longs which people enjoy knocking back glasses of champagne to while having a blast on the dancefloor.

In his early days, his music brimmed with tales of his illicit exploits, as he glamourised his lifestyle with reckless abandon. But any real hip-hop aficionado took the art for what it was – tantalizing tales from an extremely proficient storyteller.

Today, Jay-Z has proven to not only be far removed from his past, but to be a widely successful artist who’s used the hip-hop vehicle to entertain and educate collectively.

Hip-Hop is such a broad medium that fans are spoiled for choice and have the option to not listen to artists who they feel might offend their sensibilities, just as haters of Marilyn Manson can always change the channel.

Personally, I advocate a contingent of ‘conscious’ MCs who are more concerned with criticising the Bush administration, encouraging positive attitudes in impoverished communities and finding solutions to help third-world poverty.

Just check out rappers such as Common, Mos Def and Somalian immigrant K’Naan. Rather than point the finger at the entire genre, the government should take the time to really establish the problems with the disaffected youth of today.

If it’s the negativity within music, than the responsibility should lie with the particular artists – even though an artist is only going to do what a record company is happy to pay him for.

Of course, that’s another discussion altogether, but to suggest young people are passive consumers who lack the inability to distinguish between reality and entertainment would really be giving foul-mouthed rappers a lot more credit than they deserve. Censorship, I’m afraid, is only a shallow solution.