In January, we hosted an interview and preliminary discussion of some pressing issues in rap and hip-hop. We wanted to investigate the fact that, in Bill Adler’s words, hip-hop has never been “a model of civil discourse”. We did that by talking to two queer Black women rappers, BL Shirelle and Bates, to get their takes on the matter. Now we follow that up with a roundtable of scholars, each reflecting in their own way on what BL Shirelle and Bates had to say.
[Warning: This discussion contains explicit language, including a variation of the n-word.]
Our contributors are:
- Bria Gambrell, MPP and MA candidate in Gender and Cultural Studies at Simmons University
- T.M.G., PhD student in Philosophy at Dalhousie University [website]
- Charlotte Henay, lecturer in Women’s and Gender Studies at Brock University
- Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, assistant professor in Philosophy at Georgetown University [website]
- Michael Thomas, assistant professor in Philosophy and coordinator in Africana Studies at Susquehanna University [website]
Bria Gambrell is a Graduate student in Simmons University dual Masters program in Gender and Cultural Studies and Public Policy.
Her research areas include Black feminist thought, social policy, gender and racial inequality.
The power of rap traverses space and time. In 2020, radios are still playing Trina, and listeners are still rapping along to iconic hits produced before most of them were even born. Considering the influential role rap has played in raising the next generation of Black excellence, it goes without saying that it has also been instrumental in producing some properties of toxic, hypermasculine culture. Both BL Shirelle and Bates discuss how these spools of toxicity have only reeled us in more as listeners and consumers and have changed the very ways we communicate with one another.
I have to start this discussion by noting that as a young Black woman with a couple heartbreaks and years of fuckboy nonsense under my belt, I find it incredibly affirming to rap along to lyrics about being a bad bitch that doesn’t need/want a man. As BL Shirelle says, “I also partake in the fuckery.” For myself, like BL Shirelle and Bates, a healthy way of partaking in it typically means engaging from the comfort of our own spaces with the people we have chosen to let listen. Understandably for BL Shirelle and Bates, the other edge of that sword is not opening the floodgates for unwarranted and culturally appropriative behavior from non-Black folx that specifically debase Black women. Both BL Shirelle and Bates understand that while rap is a powerful tool for self-expression and freedom, mainstream hip-hop has historically reinforced stereotypes that listeners soak up. They then inevitably project these onto Black women in attempts to create a monolith of perceived Black womanhood. Bates notes this when talking about the ownership of terms like ‘bitch’, stating that “Black men dominate this sport and have created a culture. Black women don’t have a history of degradation, until the industry got a hold of them”, and since the industry has gotten a hold of them, ‘bitch’ has become a term used to degrade and belittle other Black women.
When Bates discusses recognizing the people who have taken ownership of words, I’m reminded of Cathy Cohen’s call to recognize the “role that race, class, and gender play in defining people’s differing relations to dominant and normalizing power,” in her work “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics.” Cohen’s call mirrors Bates’ reflection of ownership and liberation in hip-hop: We can’t identify oppressive language without recognizing first the oppressor, then the identities that are being oppressed. BL Shirelle uses the phrases “human-to-human wounds” and “system-to-human wounds” to identify the complex experiences Black women in hip-hop have endured because of the toxic masculine culture that hip-hop has bred. Both BL and Bates are asking us to think critically about consuming hip-hop in a way that does not demand we police language, but rather how we recognize the multiple identities of Black female rappers as told by Black men and other Black female rappers. Whether they’re a bearded lady, a sexy seductress, or masculine presenting, the request is that we begin to actually humanize Black women and not demonize them into becoming monolithic ‘bitches’. Once we do this, we become able to call out the intersection of oppression that has systematically exploited and marginalized liberated Black women.
Tiffany M. Gordon is a fourth-year PhD. student in Dalhousie University’s Philosophy program. Her research areas include social and political thought,
philosophy of race and feminist philosophy. She is particularly interested in the criminal justice system in North America,
and the disproportionate effect it has had on black and Indigenous people. Her interests also include gender inequality and misogynoir.
I come to hip-hop not only as a distant spectator and consumer (I am Jamaican-Canadian and have lived most of my life in the suburbs outside of Toronto) but as someone whose relationship to it has been fraught. When I was in my early teens, I would religiously watch BET’s 106 & Park (back when A. J. and Free were the hosts), Rap City and The Basement. By my mid-teens, I began to doubt whether hip-hop culture had anything to offer me, a young black girl trying to figure out her place in the world. Why did there have to be so many half-naked women in the music videos? Weren’t we good for more than just sex? Nicki Minaj’s Beam Me Up Scotty mixtape, and her subsequent work, reeled me back in. There was certainly liberatory potential in this: being heard and not just seen; and when seen, showing up as more than just the sexy furniture.
Given that Nicki Minaj is my starting point for empowering female rap, I clearly do not enter this discussion as a hip-hop connoisseur or someone who has extensive knowledge of the underground rap scene. What I can speak to is how this discussion of the word “bitch” in hip-hop culture expands upon what many philosophers have had to say about how women navigate conditions of misogyny. Two key themes seem to be present. First, the importance of context and social location for determining whether a word should be used. Second, the complex nature of identity and how this complexity impacts our ability to morally evaluate people’s decisions.
Bates returns to this point throughout her interview: “it is really about who is saying it [bitch] and for what…. it wasn’t introduced by women… It was introduced by men and… it turned into something that we started using.” Paying attention to context when making moral evaluations has been a theme returned to by many feminist philosophers. Margaret Urban Walker, for example, agues that theories that pay little attention to context tend to be disconnected from the moral challenges that people actually face. One of the consequences of this disconnection is that “human and social conditions” begin to seem natural and oppressive circumstances end up being hidden from view. Once hidden, they become difficult (if not impossible) to change.
We need to know who is saying “bitch,” and the circumstances in which it is being said, to understand whether its use is morally suspect. To return to Bates, “So far, men have been benefiting from calling us bitches and making us seem devalued. They are the ones cashing the checks. They are the ones getting the big deals.” Yet even though industry men may benefit the most from its use, female rappers can still appropriate it for their own purposes. Bates goes on to argue that even though “we [female rappers] never use ‘bitch’ for empowerment or to eradicate any hate or any of that,” some “try to make it not hurt” by saying it with attitude.
But does occupying a social position less powerful than men absolve women of social responsibility? While Bates takes her responsibility to consist in not using the word “bitch” in her music, BL Shirelle takes a different approach to the use of the term:
As far as ‘bitch’, I do believe it does some of the damage Bates is talking about. But with that being said, if I was going to take that stance across the board, I would kinda feel that way about a lot of things that we say. But because I love this art and because ignorance is bliss in my art, I can’t start picking and choosing language. This is freedom of speech. This is hip-hop.
When she uses the word “bitch” in her music she is not, then, just using it to be accepted in the hip-hop world. Her art encompasses the good and the bad of the human experience and reflects back to society the conditions it has played a part in creating. BL Shirelle also admits the role she plays. As stated elsewhere in her interview, she partakes “so much in the fuckery” – and she knows it.
Maria Lugones’ logic of “curdling” explains the kind of complexity evident in the discussions between Bates, BL Shirelle, and Skitolsky. Lugones does not view the oppressed as victims but as resisting subjects. Lugones’ key insight, described well in this essay by Alison Bailey, is that our identities are multiple. To illustrate this, she turns to the process of making mayonnaise and the Spanish verb “separar (to separate).” When making mayonnaise, there are potentially two kinds of separation at work. There is a clean separation of egg from yolk and a curdling, in which there is “yolky oil and oily yolk.” The clean separation of egg from yolk describes “split-separation” in the realm of identity. In the realm of social and political thought, we are thought of as unified beings who possess the universal traits of autonomy and freedom. What is essential to these beings is rationality while all other traits are thought of as accidental (race, gender, etc.). In actuality, we are fragmented and multiple and this fragmentation is more readily applied to non-white persons. Unlike the logic of curdling, the logic of purity holds up the central character traits of rationality, autonomy, and freedom. In doing so, it implicitly separates out non-white people, identifying them instead as fragmented and multiple, as impure.
Lugones argues against the “split-separation logic,” the logic of purity, and embraces instead a logic of curdling. This logic recognizes the multiplicity of our identities and realizes the contribution that our experiences (of oppression and domination) make to shaping our subjectivity. And so, curdling stands in direct contrast to the purity of split-separation and describes subjects as “oppressed↔resisting” (see again the Bailey essay for more detail). While both logics are always at work, it suits us who are concerned with resisting oppression to listen carefully to the curdled parts of our identity. We can, then, “partake in the fuckery” while recognizing the moral cost that comes along with it.
I continue to listen to, and enjoy, hip-hop music. My relationship to the genre also continues to be fraught, as I wonder whether it can offer a space of genuine empowerment for women. However, as a standpoint theorist I am inclined to defer to the views of the women whose experiences are central to this discussion. If female rappers can find a space of liberation within the genre, there must certainly be liberatory potential within it.
Charlotte Henay is a Bahamian diasporic storyteller, researcher, and Faculty member in Women’s and Gender Studies at Brock University.
She works with poetry, lyric and visual essays as Black and Indigenous womxn’s witness, in making Afro-Indigenous futurities.
What’s it like to be a woman, a lesbian, a gender non-confirming artist in hip-hop culture? There are key differences between making work, and critiquing it. I think we often forget this. I began to think through this response near where BLS and Lissa ended their exchange. I read BLS saying she can’t even grasp the question of how she came to hip-hop, or articulate a singular representation of how hip-hop and experience intersect because they have always co-existed for her – the very real shit she goes through in her life, and rap. They are inextricable.
Although the interior is not for public consumption, it is not withholding either. We must consider ascension and the underground as they relate to Black interior life and design. Interiority is not of the underground but advances the underground as a strategy of radical self-making and placekeeping. A way of seeing in the darkness and through the blues; the blue of Black. The underground as interior sight, grip, and creation in the blue of Black. The deep space of multiplicity, plurality, possibility, and hope; a modality of experimentation.
I grew up a biracial kid with a Caribbean Jehovah’s Witness mother whose zealousness for my soul made sure I stayed closeted, and whose respectability politics meant rap was to be listened to only with headphones. Bitch was nonetheless a word my mother used often, and with impunity. She owned it. There was never a question of how she could go from swinging the word around as a compliment, a slur, an expression of surprise, or a refusal—to complete silence, or a stinging backhand at the use of the word ‘nigga’. It was paradoxical. It still can’t be explained neatly, without contextualizing everything she was and had known, across times, spaces and places. As Bates says, it comes down to context. I’m not going to engage further with the prompts or the undisputed (at least it should be) impact of the commodification of hip-hop that soft-pedals misogynoir, and the genocidal reality of anti-Blackness in the still-Jim Crow Americas. As a poet I understand the power of word, and the abiding question of whether we can dismantle white supremacy using its language. I’m not so concerned with legibility. I am interested in how we, Black folx, get free. What does that look like, both in process and actualization? How do we build Black futures with hip-hop and how is hip-hop at the same time a mirror? I am here for all of that fuckery. I loved the way BLS names her use of language in rap – what she calls the vocabulary – as fuckery. She claims it, owns it and says she has stopped self-censoring around white folks. This says a lot about rap as an expression of Blackness, which is never only one thing or happening at one time. I’m reminded of Toni Morrison’s response to a Black Ph.D. student’s question, about whether or not white writers should be writing Black characters, at a public talk I attended in 2002. Morrison quoted James Baldwin back to the student saying, “Your crown has already been bought and paid for. All you have to do is wear it.” I was initially mortified for the student, because that is ALL Toni said, but I’ve never forgotten that affirmation. What we worry about, where we set our attention, how we do the work – shapes us, and shapes how we think. This can be determinative, or liberating.
I don’t believe we can disentangle music and lyrics from experience and actions. BLS and I diverge here. I try not to listen to Kodak Black or Kanye (anymore) because I can’t separate their music from their actions, and I believe that everything is political. There is so much going on in this interview, and undergirding it, the question of whether any experience can be deemed more representative of the relation between Blackness and gender in hip-hop than another. From the get go, BLS rewords, turns and reformulates Lissa’s statements and questions. This is its own critique, and reclamation. It both engages and exemplifies a refusal of legibility. I wondered about why the interview was structured the way it is – with BLS responding to Bates and Lissa’s pre-existing conversation, and then Bates having a retroactive say. I would love to hear a real time conversation between all three – a retroactive on this piece in a few years would also be dope (hint, hint).
I read BLS’ statement of hip-hop as having different functions (back to Bates’ context) in the now and the future as actualized, in some ways, by Bates’ critiques of the words ‘bitch’ and ‘nigga’. BLS’ differentiating between how hip-hop – and maybe the intention behind it – functions differentially across timespace incorporates Bates’ critique, affirms it. They work together, to become a reimagining of Black futures.
BLS’ critical point about folx who listen to underground hip-hop being in the struggle, where the music isn’t necessarily a call to arms but a reflection, makes me think about how, in a white supremacist world where anti-Blackness is genocidal, Black womxn don’t have the luxury of being angry outside of stereotype. This makes BLS’ expression of collective rage very powerful. Think Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage, which pays attention to how Black womxn’s anger is vilified – focusing it to think of the ways it makes us powerful, clear, and forces for change. I see this as a convergence of Bates’ collective harmonies and personal-as-political stance and BLS’ being in the fuckery. Both artists centre the afterlife of enslavement in Black folx’ existence, where hip-hop is an impetus for a consciousness shift and an expression of Black joy, because they create it and take what freedom is in the moment from this. There is this assumption – in less-than-critical whitestream culture – that it is Black folx’ job to explain their expressions, to debate their politics, to educate. There’s a great Audre Lorde quote (when is there not?) about society’s affinity for teachable moments:
[People of color] are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions.
This critical commentary from inside the culture is a glimpse into Black radical imagination; where we create space to talk about violence in Black community and an abolitionist agenda, through rap that interprets Black life beyond mainstream heteronormative and paternalistic hip-hop.
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò is assistant professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University. His research interests include meta-ethics and
social/political philosophy, especially as they intersect with post-colonial thought and the Black Radical Tradition.
“I’m wondering if I caused it and I couldn’t be certain /
The truth can break a lot of hearts, so I wonder if it’s worth it /”
—Bates, “An Open Apology to a Little Girl”
Should we celebrate problematic art?
I think so, but I’ve never been all that comfortable with this. In a sense, I have to think something like this, at least if I’m going to continue openly enjoying the music that I love: as Bill Adler points out in the earlier post in this series, hip-hop has never really embodied a model of civil discourse.
On the one hand, the flip side of the fact that hip-hop is so easy to criticize is that it’s really easy to defend in the wrong ways. It’s easy to say what the Tucker Carlsons and Tipper Gores are getting wrong when they hold hip-hop to standards that they ought to hold the wider society to. If these sneering elites preferred a nicer world where working class people of color had the sort of experiences that inspired sonnets about butterflies and rainbows, maybe these same people should have spent their considerable social power making the world nicer for them and everyone else. That art, after all, comes out of the very exploitation that these folks regularly cheer on and support: whether they’re supporting mass incarceration or cheering on more and more cuts to social programs people depend on.
But that’s them. The problem with defending hip-hop by focusing on the mistakes of its critics is that we lose track of what’s going on with us. Bates doesn’t make that mistake, connecting the language used in hip-hop to the erosion of healthy relationships between Black men and women, and organizing events to combat it in St. Louis. BL Shirelle makes a similar point about the word “nigga” and violence. There’s something wrong here, and roasting Tucker Carlson’s bowtie won’t address it.
I myself am with BL Shirelle here. As she points out, Bates is just right that these words and the attitudes they promote are a problem. That’s already good enough reason to want something better. At the same time, we all have to take honest stock of how much of the fuckery we ourselves participate in, and that’s much bigger than bad words.
Music and art in general reflects reality – at least, somebody’s reality. Trends that start somewhere get picked up elsewhere – white people yelling “yaas bitch,” to use BL Shirelle’s example, or Minnesotan Amy Klobuchar’s recent use of the term “receipts”. This is the thing that goes wrong, I think, when we condemn art as problematic that comes from someone else’s reality: the scope of culture that can reach and affect us is different from the scope of culture that is reacting to moral and cultural circumstances that resemble ours. When we condemn problematic hip-hop, are we standing in solidarity with the forces within a community like Bates arguing for change? Or are we standing alongside elite fingerwaggers like Tucker Carlson and Tipper Gore? Is it even possible to do one without doing the other? Beats me. But here’s where we are: problematic art is problematic, but then, maybe condemning art as problematic is too.
Maybe this is just the maximally unhelpful perspective of an academic philosopher – I plead guilty. But maybe it’s also just the right description of the complicated moral world we live in, noticing that either way we slice it, we are active participants in so much of the fuckery. But if we want to change that, we have to change the reality we’re all responding to, not (just) the art.
Michael L. Thomas is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Coordinator of the Africana Studies program
at Susquehanna University. His research explores the social aesthetics of race, including
an interest in Hip-Hop as an interpretive lens for racial phenomenology, politics, and sociality.
Where some would claim that hip-hop is not civil discourse since it is “rough, rude, and heedless,” I would argue the exact opposite. Our conflation of citizenship and civility, in the sense of polite “rational” debate between opposing parties, is a threat to societies that claim to be civilized. Bates and BL Shirelle show that the discourse of hip-hop, particularly in the underground, is both a space for openly interrogating the uses of oppressive language and a means of cultivating forms of sensibility that are attuned to the rough, rude, and heedless violence that continues in our so-called civil society.
Xavier Wulf’s “Philosopher’s Throne” is three minutes of brash, confident, braggadocio, littered with references to blunts, guns, 90’s rock, and anime… and it’s one of my favorite songs to blare on the highways of central Pennsylvania after a day of back to back academic meetings. Wulf’s chest-thumping rhymes come from a long tradition of tall tales delivered by blues men (see: Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy”) and provide an antidote to hours of administrative double speak. The language of conference rooms (measured, anti-aggressive, and polite) requires a violent denial of the reality of the experiences of “university citizens” in their struggles with the hypercompetitive, market driven, branding-oriented university environment that commits many of the harms we ask our students to critique.
Wulf’s direct call-out to all challengers and acknowledgement of his own demons is, in BL Shirelle’s terms, reflection. While listeners may not always think critically about their lyrics, they do have moments where you say, “Damn, I feel this somewhere deep.” That deep feeling ties the listeners’ experiences to the world of the artist, creating a connection that acknowledges their reality. Hip-hop is “human-to-human,” putting us in contact with others to bring to the surface wounds and joys that are felt as simply data or “something to think about” in predominately white, bureaucratic spaces of civil discourse. It’s the same reason why Shirelle listens to “junk-food” rap when she gets home from her “business casual” type of job. “Different sounds have different effects.” Sometimes we need to be taken somewhere else and sometimes we need our truths validated by others who know the struggle.
This isn’t to say that hip-hop nation is a utopian civilization. Shirelle is conscious of the fact that sexism exists in the industry and her experiences differ from Bates’ based on their self-presentation and position in the entertainment world. Bates’ genealogy of women rappers (which I mean in the largest sense) is incredibly important, as it highlights the eroticization of female empowerment in the rap marketplace. Women rappers positioned as bosses are known for their free sexuality, which inverts the misogyny of hip-hop sexuality back on men. If you check out album covers from Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Cardi B, and others, you see a clear marketplace standard of empowerment through sexuality. This emphasis on sexual empowerment often hides the fact that all of these women are both excellent MCs and have narratives that go above and beyond their sexual focus. It’s just that those aren’t the singles.
Beyond issues of representation, there are problems of language as rappers often reproduce oppressive structures in their rhymes. Shirelle and Bates both acknowledge that hip-hop, born out of a human world, comes to us with that world’s sins in tow. At the same time, Bates reminds us that hip-hop also redefines language to reshape that world. Tupac uses “Thug Life” to call attention to the forms of systematic oppression that produce reactionary response to those circumstances. Both artists in their interviews discuss how they adjust their relationships to language to address the issues present in hip-hop nation and world culture. The uses of “n*gger/a” and “b*tch” shift with their context. Sometimes it expresses the sins of the world, other times, it’s a term of empowerment. It depends on who’s using it, when, and why. This attention to the uses of language requires more of listeners than critics often extend to the music. It means granting complexity of experience to hip-hop artists and the people connected to that society. This complexity is more civil than the abstract individuality of bureaucratic civil society as it grants individuals a kind of depth that can’t be captured in an emaciated view of social life.
Listen to Shirelles’ Restricted Movement and Bates’ Strange Woman and ask yourself a question. Which gives me a better sense of life in so called civil-society: Two women testifying and struggling with the world, or a measured debate between competing perspectives in an office, boardroom, or auditorium. I side with Bates and the Bearded Lady.