Don’t we get it yet?
In hip-hop, which, despite its mainstream success still primarily targets black youth and culture, it’s only okay if your lyrics degrade and debase your own society, or the main audience being targeted by record labels. Offend another one and you’ll have a penance to pay.
This past week, two young rappers – who happened to be black and Latino – learned that the hard way when they were forced to apologize to two different communities for what were considered racial epithets.
In the most notable instance, Atlanta rapper 21 Savage, whose new album will debut at No. 1 on the next Billboard chart (dated Jan. 5), apologized for what were considered anti-Semitic lyrics in one of the album’s tracks. In the song “ASMR,” the rapper offered “We been gettin’ that Jewish money, everything is Kosher…” The lyrics came to light after NBA superstar LeBron James tweeted them a few days after the album’s release (James was also forced to apologize for sharing the lyrics).
The infraction? Well, the association of Jewish people with old money – and lots of it – is a common stereotype that has been used by some to promote anti-Semitic viewpoints. It has a history that dates back to 1930s Nazi Germany and continues to the present with hate groups like the “Alt-right” white supremacist movement.
The other offending statement came a week earlier and involved Miami rapper Lil Pump (who is of Colombian heritage). In a video preview of his new song “Butterfly Doors” on Instagram, the 18-year-old rapper highlighted the lyrics: “Smokin’ on dope/ They call me Yao Ming ‘cause my eyes real low (ching chong).” Following the reference to the Chinese NBA baller and during the “ching chong” bit, Pump pulled back his eyelids to form narrow slants, and instantly offended anyone of Asian descent who paid attention.
Lil Pump issued an apology on Instagram saying “I got Asian homies, you know. I fuck with everybody and I don’t got nothing against nobody.” He has since pulled the offending video post.
Both instances have re-raised the issue of gimmicky racial and gender stereotypes being used in hip-hop – rappers have done this for decades by the way – and the public outrage that they cause.
But these two incidents are interesting on several other fronts. For one, neither of the songs’ lyrics became an issue until they were exposed on social media, although they both were approved for release by the label execs for whom both 21 Savage and Lil Pump record their albums (and the offending lyrics will not be pulled from those albums).
In other words, had LeBron not tweeted the “ASMR” lyrics, it would have been business as usual as we reported 21 Savage achieving his first No. 1 (a feat which, by the way, would be impossible without the label’s support and which was likely boosted by all the negative publicity… which is still publicity, mind you).
Secondly, 21 Savage is hardly the first rapper to ever rap about “Jewish money.” In fact, most rappers who use the reference do so as a compliment or a comparative analogy, as it is usually likened to them having financially arrived after pulling themselves from impoverished beginnings. I’m not offering that as an excuse or saying it is acceptable, but rarely have I heard it used in the context of “We hate Jews because they have so much money and they run things.”
Does their use reflect a limited world view perpetuated by the financial stereotype? Indeed yes. But is also a view informed by the fact that the most influential Jews that young black rap artists are likely to encounter are the ones signing their paychecks. It is a well known fact that many of the record companies to which rappers are signed are or have been run by men of Jewish upbringing (e.g., Clive Davis, Jerry Heller, Lyor Cohen, to name a few). And none of those moguls or any other record company executives will be held publicly accountable for the above infractions while the rappers (and LeBron James) continue to be flogged by the media and others.
Which brings me to the most appalling aspect of this issue. The community that is being targeted the most by record company executives has yet to collectively take issue with the racial and sexist epithets spewed daily in rap lyrics (and by extension on social media).
In fact, few people of any community take issue with rappers’ constant use of the n-word, the b-word, the h-word or any other word that degrades blacks and particularly black women in hip-hop lyrics. What’s worse is that all the misogyny and self-defilement has been accepted as the norm – a part of hip-hop culture – and anyone who challenges its use either is just “old” or “doesn’t get it.”
Or worse, they’re part of some federal conspiracy to “get” rappers or shut down hip-hop. (Who remembers rappers’ reactions to activist C. Delores Tucker for the stance she took during the last years of her life during the 1990s/early 2000s?)
In October 2017, djrobblog did a study of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and found that – of the 32 hip-hop songs listed by black artists during a particular week – all 32 used at least one and sometimes as many as five of the following terms in their lyrics: “nigga,” “bitch,” “ho,” “pussy,” “dick” and “fuck.”
Two of the biggest offenders, “bitch” and “nigga,” were used in 26 and 23 of the songs, respectively.
Interestingly, when I published that article last year, several of the Facebook and Reddit commenters – mostly hip-hop fans – challenged its premise by either claiming I was old or not part of the culture. In one instance, I was even challenged for not probing further into the context of the words being used – as if that would somehow absolve the perpetrators – rather than simply pointing out numbers and statistics.
Really? Is that what it’s come down to for us? We have to explain why it’s not okay for us to be called “nigga” or “bitch” repeatedly in rap lyrics?
How much context was needed to explain this year’s “I Love It,” on which Lil Pump joined Kanye West to deliver the following lyrics:
“I’m a sick fuck, I like a quick fuck
I like my dick sucked, I’ll buy you a sick truck
I’ll buy you some new tits, I’ll get you that nip-tuck
How you start a family? The condom slipped up
I’m a sick fuck, I’m inappropriate
I like hearin’ stories, I like that ho shit
I wanna hear mo’ shit, I like the ho shit
Send me some mo’ shit, you triflin’ ho bitch (bitch, bitch, bitch)”
As recently as 2015 in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, rapper/actor Ice Cube – who was 46 at the time – vehemently defended using the words “bitches” and “hoes,” saying “If you’re a bitch, you’re probably not going to like (rappers). If you’re a ho, you probably don’t like us. If you’re not a ho or a bitch, don’t be jumping to the defense of these despicable females.”
He continued, “I never understood why an upstanding lady would even think we’re talking about her.”
I’m sorry, but as much as I like Ice Cube and respect his work, it’s that kind of rationalization that makes him and others like him tools for others to use to continue our devaluation.
Yet we’d rather take on those who dare stand up for or defend our integrity as a people than address the big ass elephant in the room. If we’re not coddling the young rappers who’ve gone astray, we’re seen as part of a conspiracy to take them down and rob them of their livelihoods?
Never mind that their money is already short money to begin with and that the likelihood of them being in the rap game a decade from now is slim to none (unless your name is Jay-Z, Nas or a few other exceptions), while the long-standing record execs – mostly white (and yes, Jewish) – continue to tote the carrot while making money off rappers’ backs.
Hip-hop has long disrespected our own race and reduced us to being things that no other community would find acceptable. If one rap lyric is perceived as a Jewish slight, the rapper is flogged as an example. If one rap lyric is seen as homophobic, it will be called out as such. A lyric embracing an Asian stereotype? Don’t even go there.
But the thousands upon thousands of rap songs that have called us bitches, hoes and niggas, or that have reduced us to drug-peddling robbers or gangstas? Well, that’s just part of the culture.
Don’t look now, but those negative stereotypes that Jewish people claim are being used as propaganda against people of their faith? Stereotypes about black and Latino people are being used the same way, except to much more dramatic effect. You need look no further than at the people who’ve defended the actions of corrupt police in our own communities – those who’ve justified it based on their impressions of young blacks largely informed by the images they see and hear daily in hip-hop. Or, to a lesser extent, those who defend the building of “the wall” at our southern border based on stereotypes about Latinos perpetuated by elected officials, which are steeped in images reinforced by hip-hop.
This article is not meant to blame hip-hop for all our society’s woes. It’s simply to point out the double standard that is applied to cultural offenses in America, particularly when it involves rappers.
But don’t expect that double standard to change anytime soon. After all, hip-hop has been a self-debasing tool for decades. And as long as we don’t see it that way ourselves, it will always be okay to offend us.