Dealing with Jay Z’s 100th problem: ‘bad rap’ and the Bitch
Interviewing popular rapper ’50 cent’ for ‘Oprah’s Next Chapter‘, talk show icon Oprah Winfrey questioned “I dont know why the women are dancing when they are being called bitches and ho’s.”
It was bell hooks in her series on cultural criticism focused on rap music who noted that although
“rap music is diverse in its themes, its style, its content, but when it comes as a vehicle to be talked about in mainstream news, the rap that gets in national news is always the rap that perpetuates misogyny that is most obscene in its lyrics”.
This is the rap music that makes the most money in terms of album sales, which energizes both men and women who consume its its message of misogyny, hyper sexuality and often obscene content.
The 7th of June 2012 marked Blue Ivy’s 5th month birthday. Blue Ivy Carter is the daughter of mega-star Beyonce Knowles and Sean Carter (most commonly known as ‘Jay-Z’). Reports quickly surfaced after the birth of Blue Ivy that Jay Z would allegedly not be using one of raps foremost offensive but common word ‘bitch’ which has characterized so much of his craft, more famously his ’99 Problems’ song where he boasts
“If you’re having girl problems, I feel bad for you son/I’ve got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.”
Much social commentary has noted that while Jay-Z was raised by a single mother, with his father having left them when he was just aged 9, and that he has been in a seemingly very long and loving relationship with Beyonce, that both his wife and nor his mom whom he claims a deep love for, were enough to make him reconsider the sexism of his lyrics.
TIME magazine writers counted through the lyrics to Jay-Z’s 15 solo and collaborative studio albums and astoundingly they found that 50.2% or 109 of 217 of Jay-Z’s songs contain the word ‘Bitch’. Meaning over half of his musical output thus far contains this derogatory word. Claire Suddath of TIME notes that
“While I appreciate this newfound feminism (if it is indeed true), I don’t know how Jay-Z’s going to avoid using the word if he wants to keep performing his old material. He could just bleep it out, I guess, but that’s not very helpful; we’d still know what he meant. No, Jay-Z will have to find an apt replacement to fit every lyric. That must be the 100th problem he’s been trying to avoid.”
This is not something that seems to bother his wife. In her evidently hyper sexual 2008 song ‘Ego’ which some have said is about Jay-Z’s genitals she sings “Ego so big, you must admit/ I got every reason to feel like I’m that bitch”. Jay-Z however has not officially confirmed or denied his commitment to ‘de-bitch’ his lyrics.
What is notable is that in the past few years as an aging rapper losing the cool of youth in the entertainment industry is that Jay-Z has been trying to rebrand his image from a “tatted up” rapper to an executive power house (as the Former President of Def Jam records), a married man, author, and now father: in other words he has been trying to claim back the dignity he threw out the window to build his net worth, which Forbes estimates at $460 million.
The struggle to remove sexism from rap music is not new, and is one that many public intellectuals and civil society members have been fighting for years. I want to here draw attention bell hooks series on cultural criticism on rap music which offers much intellectual orgasms as to the commercial and cultural (re)production of rap music. It is here that hooks notes that
“the young men who create a lot of rap music are not naïve, and they know that if they can make a million dollars talking about how they want to fuck a woman and that they will make tonnes of money, the kind of capitalistic and market forces that are driving young female and male artists who produce rap would suggest [sic] that they are going to go for the gutso, they are going to go for millions”.
More importantly hooks notes that
“There has been this demand that somehow that rap musicians be more moral and more ethical than anybody else in American culture as they approach the business of creating a product and making money, and for me this is not to condone the sexism and misogyny of rap but is to say this has to be seen in the larger framework of cultural production within capitalism in our society and that far from being different from from multinational corporations and their processes of gaining greater and greater wealth, one might argue that musicians, especially the success of a certain kind of misogynistic anti-feminist, anti-women rap is probably in line with, if you find a product that gives you the maximum profit and reward then push that product whether you actually believe what you’re saying or not, it seems to me that we must first acknowledge that they [rap stars] are making strategic choices and we must then critique both those choices and their impact, the damage in the long run to black life” (emphasis added).
Jay-Z is important because whether we like his message or not, he sits amongst the top rappers and global icons of our time, and has a wide reach in terms of the message that he sends out into the world. His alleged plan to de-bitch his lyrics are important because they come from inside the mainstream rap arena. But what I want to argue is that as hooks notes, while rap might be full of misogyny, the rap stars who perpetuate the message or no less guilty as both the female and male consumers who rush to the stores to purchase the mainly vile mainstream rap. They are no less guilty as the corporate heads who cash in on rap at the expense of sending our patriarchal messages to the world.
It shouldn’t have had to take the birth of Jay-Z’s daughter for the world to have the conversation about misogyny in rap music. This is the conversation that should have started in the home with a parent saying to a young boy/girl ‘you are not going to buy that music with my money and bring into my home’. It should have to started with a young man saying ‘I am not going to buy this music with my hard earned money that will tell me my sisters/mothers/grandmothers/female friends… are nothing but nagging bitches’. And more importantly it should have started with females themselves not encouraging that language in the music they consume.
We need the courage shown by the young women of Spelman College who in 2004 effectively and successfully stopped and deligitimized rapper Nelly from performing at their college until he cleaned up his misogynistic lyrics. They would courageously state
“we can’t continue to support artists and images that exploit our women and put us out there as oversexed, non-intelligent human beings.”
Often times we receive the treatment we tolerate. Jay-Z’s daughter is born into an extremely harsh world, especially for women. But she will probably never have to suffer the indignity of having a rapper swipe down a credit card down her ass, or unwillingly enter into an abusive relationship for economic reasons or be called a ‘bitch’ without any possible recourse for her to take.
It is the ‘ordinary people’s’ daughters who are going to live with the reality of misogyny against women promoted by hip-hop stars, and these are the same people who continue to enrich rap-stars like Jay-Z. Until ordinary men and women take a stand, be it a small step as not buying a CD with sexist lyrics, or organizing a march to prevent sexist musicians from performing in your area we are going to continue to see what the likes of Jay-Z articulate verbally, manifest in the physical treatment of women. Jay-Z’s 100th problem, will unfortunately be most womens number one problem, every day for many years to come.