The Language of Hip Hop
Bill Cosby at this point in his career is not just internationally famous; he has become an icon in the black community as a successful, inspiring individual who did not let his color get in the way making his mark on society. So when this highly recognizable and well-loved entertainer came out two years ago with a tirade against the black community, citing hip hop and the language associated with it as part of the problem with today's black youth, people paid attention. His rant, delivered at a NAACP event honoring the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education caused quite a stir.
As founder of Def Jam Records Russell Simmons aptly put it, "pointing the finger may not be helpful -- we still have more struggle as a society and more work to do to reform it." (Debate Continues as Cosby Again Criticizes Black Youths, by Hamil L. Harris, Washington Post)
True, there is in fact a negative connotation to some of the language in hip hop, but conversely this same language has been adopted and assimilated into modern culture. How can you have politicians, parents and critics lambasting the same language that is used to market anything from cell phones to Subway sandwiches? As the oft misquoted line from Shakespeare's Hamlet states, "Ah there's the rub."
Many in the hip hop world would tell you that language of hip hop is the language of the street -- the lexicon of the day-to-day struggle in urban life.
Love And Hate
It's hard to imagine a music culture that has evolved economically and culturally and has become so widely accepted to still suffer such censorship and harsh criticisms.
Love: Hip Hop group The Fugees won 5 grammys in 1999 essentially confirming what everybody knew all along -- the music is not only popular but is also highly profitable.
Hate: Negative stereotypes and objectification of women dominate the lyrics of many popular hip hop songs and artists. Adding more ammunition to the hate revolver, The Rand Corporation recently did a study linking promiscuous sexual activity in teens to sex-laden (primarily hip hop songs) lyrics. (Rand Study Finds Adolescents Who Listen To A Great Deal of Music With Degrading Sexual Lyrics Have Sex Sooner, www.rand.org).
Love: As a recent Time.com article mentioned, the love affair between hip hop and advertisers continues to stay strong. In fact hip-hop's power to direct tastes in everything from malt liquor to SUVs is constantly being wooed and courted by the advertising industry. ('Hip-Hop Nation 'Is Exhibit a for America's Latest Cultural Revolution, www.time.com)
Hate: Writer John McWhorter cites that the language of hip hop reinforces the same stereotypes that have hindered blacks in this country for decades by glorifying a "thuggish" adversarial stance that is the "proper" response to an allegedly racist, never changing white society that continues to oppress them. He firmly believes that this in essence, retards black success. (How Hip-Hop Holds Blacks Back, John H. McWhorter, The Manhattan Institute's City Journal). For an example he cites several snippets from recent rap songs including this one from one of hip hop's iconic figures, the late Tupac Shakur
gotta know how to shake the snakes, nigga,
'Cause the police love to break a nigga,
Send him upstate 'cause they straight up hate the nigga.
For every positive someone can make a valid point for a negative aspect to this music. There is no right or wrong here. If you put both sides of this debate in a room you might as well make it a round room because that's how the argument will go.
Breaking the circle
The language of hip hop isn't going to change anytime soon. For every reference to the N word, guns and sex there are just as many references to empowerment, being strong and standing up for what you believe. Not everyone who plays a videogame shoots up a school. Not everyone who listens to hip hop will abuse women and join a gang. Understanding, interaction and communication is the key rather than focusing primarily on the negative aspects of hip hop.
It's like being a part of that brotherly bond. And that's the thing that feels good about it. It's your people, and you hear other people using it, it's kind of flattering, you know what I'm saying? Even if they don't give the recognition like they are supposed to! It feels good to hear people out there 'biting' [using] your slang, basically. It's communication, you know what I mean? It's communication." (Ameen, Oakland California youth talking about the impact of the language of hip hop to an NPR reporter).