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Word Play

I've got a friend who showed up at the bar recently with his arm in a sling and stitches on his chin from an ass-whippin'. I asked him if he'd deserved it, and he said he didn't think so. But some dude bigger than him was talking bad about his...
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I've got a friend who showed up at the bar recently with his arm in a sling and stitches on his chin from an ass-whippin'. I asked him if he'd deserved it, and he said he didn't think so. But some dude bigger than him was talking bad about his girlfriend, so he had to take a swing. Thus, he got his butt kicked.

When I think about all the recent controversy over Don Imus calling those women "nappy-headed hos" and the subsequent grandstanding by Al Sharpton about language in hip-hop, I always conclude that everyone should say whatever the hell they want to say. In person, that may get you punched in the face, which is fine too. In entertainment, however, if you don't like what an entertainer's saying, don't listen to it. Don't buy the records, don't listen to the radio stations, avoid the shit that offends you so much.

I'm pretty hard-headed about the First Amendment, though, and I read it strictly (especially because, besides freedom of speech, this covers freedom of the press). I was disappointed when Russell Simmons, one of hip-hop's premier figureheads, and Dr. Ben Chavis, who runs the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network with Simmons, proposed that three words — "bitch," "ho," and "nigger" — be "removed, deleted or bleeped from the airwaves" by the music industry.

Never mind that from hip-hop's inception, those words have been as prominent in the vernacular as the violence and bling in its subject matter. Personally, I got 99 problems, but saying "bitch" ain't one — nor is hearing Wu Tang Clan rap "Shame on a nigga that tries to run game on a nigga" off the classic 36 Chambers album. I'll grant that those words are just as often used pejoratively, and that's not nice, but freedom of speech includes the right to not always be nice. It's arguable that, because of the history of slavery and racism, it's inappropriate for white boys like myself (and, really, those everywhere), to greet each other by saying, "What up, nigga?" but I also think that there's some merit to taking the negativity out of the word by using it as a term of endearment.

This sort of language isn't restricted to rap music. The subject matter made me think of local hardcore metal band North Side Kings and its song, "Nice Girls Finish Last," where Danny Marianino sings, "Nice girls are overrated, I want a bitch who's gang-related," and "I want a bitch with extensions in her hair." It's a great, funny song that's one of my favorite NSK tracks. So I called up Danny (whom I already knew was a huge hip-hop fan) and asked his opinion.

"I think it's just a word. If you go beat somebody up over a word, that's something that needs punished. A comedian saying 'nappy-headed hos' on the radio? He's a comedian. It might be stupid comedy, but it's comedy," Danny says. "I'll still say what I want. One of my favorite hip-hop albums is Da Lench Mob's Guerillas in the Mist. Ice Cube talks about whitey and killing the cracker through the whole album. I love that album. Do I get offended and cry about it? No. It's entertainment, no different from watching a movie. You tell about the street, you say some crazy shit. Anyone getting butt-hurt about something said in a song is stupid."

A while ago on my blog, Ear Infection, I gave local rapper CBalla shit for naming his album Blacc Hitla and naming the first song "Lyrical Holocost" [sic] as well as just sucking. But don't get me wrong — I don't think he shouldn't be allowed to do that; it's just that you're going to get called a dumbass by people like me when you do. That's what's so fucking great about freedom of speech — it leads to conversations, even if they're confrontational. I'm sure a lot of people will disagree with my opinion that "bitch," "ho," and "nigger" shouldn't be censored from music, and that's cool too. We can discuss it. Shit, that's one of my favorite things about words, and words are how I choose to make a living.

The beautiful thing about the English language is that it's constantly in an amorphous state. When I was a kid, calling homosexuals "queers" was derogatory — that was until gay people took the word back and started referring to themselves as queer. I see the same sort of thing happening with the word "nigger," or the slightly more acceptable "nigga."

My friend D.L. Harrison, who's a musician in the Valley and a black man, agrees. "It's been so used so far, a bunch of folks are desensitized to it," he says. "It's like the power's been taken away from it. I see chicks call each other bitches all the time, and even dudes call each other bitches. It's not just in hip-hop — Elton John might not be where he is if he hadn't wrote 'The Bitch is Back,' and he's gay. I think it's just more silliness in the media and the music industry to sell records. It's censorship and freedom of speech, what can I say? Controversy always creates cash."

Do I think that using those words in an entertainment context should be censored? Hell no. Nor do I think those words should disappear from the English language. Shit, hip-hop invented the context they're used in now — it should certainly get to keep it.

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