We’ve been here before: egotistical, millionaire rapper insults famous female he had a fling with in “gross misogynistic” song lyrics that have “sparked outrage”. But that’s why you’re reading this, isn’t it? Because hip hop’s A$AP Rocky has called UK pop singer Rita Ora a “bitch”, and much worse, in a song from his newly released At.Long.Last.A$AP.
Right now, you might be thinking ‘big deal, hip hop artists do this all time’. Or worse, the ‘bitch’ deserved it. We’re no fans of Rita Ora but, as well as being an unnecessary knock to the singer’s self-esteem, Rocky’s diss in Better Things adds fuel to the already-strong belief that hip-hop is, and should, solely be about narcissism, hatred, and misogyny.
Here’s the thing: hip-hop’s got 99 problems, and “bitch” is just one. The rampant misogyny that’s so common in mainstream hip-hop is bad for women, bad for black people and bad for the genre. Full stop.
It starts with the derogatory language itself. On Better Things, Rocky raps: “I swear that bitch Rita Ora got a big mouth / Next time I see her might curse the bitch out / Kicked the bitch out once ’cause she bitched out / Spit my kids out, jizzed up all in her mouth and made the bitch bounce”.
Do those sound like the words of a “gentleman type” to you? Rocky seems to think so. That’s how he described himself when asked at his recent Red Bull Music Academy appearance in London about how his newfound “respect” for women has manifested on the album: “You gotta think about it. Name one song I’ve ever made for women, except, ‘I love bad bitches. That’s my f*cking problem’? [shrugs] Exactly. So it looked like I was just a regular rapper, bashing bitches and shit all day… so I’m quite the gentleman type, you know. I’m really respectful.” Sure, pal.
Of course, what this “respectful” rapper clearly didn’t think about while spitting his offensive diss verse was the media fallout that inevitably follows. In the face of the same tawdry media narratives, music lovers are left with little room to defend hip-hop.
Firstly, there’s the initial shock headline (‘A$AP Rocky sparks outrage with gross misogynistic lyrics about Rita Ora’ was the Independent’s original online headline, before they removed the “gross” part). Then comes the article itself, which quotes the offending lyrics and may attempt to contextualise things. Usually they’ll be some reaction from the victim or those who have been offended by/like/dislike the lyrics. Follow-up stories continue the narrative. And then comes ourfavourite part: the reader comments, where you find a cesspool of apathy, racial abuse and misguided backslapping.
“Isn’t Misogyny part of Black rap ?? along with narcissism, egocentric, arrogant ,Lack of empathy, sociopathic to name just a few !!” reads one poorly constructed, and even more poorly thought out, comment underneath the Facebook link to one of the many A$AP outrage stories circulating. No, contrary to what you may hear in mainstream hip-hop, these tropes are not “part of black rap”. To say such a thing is to imply that black people are inherently misogynistic and narcissistic – from experience with and from a BAME background, this is absolutely not true. Artists such as Ghostpoet, Essa, Neneh Cherry, Estelle, Jneiro Jarel and Diggs Duke are all eloquent wordsmiths who remind us that hip-hop can be powerful and expressive with not a curse word to be found.
Our relationship with hip-hop today has been moulded by years of commercialisation and promotion of gangsta rap. Make no bones about it: to the mainstream media and billions of casual music listeners, ‘gangster’s paradise’ is the lazily perfect term for what hip-hop is. Nothing more.
For it to grow not just as a genre but as a form of expression, more hip-hop artists need to recognise that the tropes of the gangsta rap subgenre are doing untold damage to women, and non-white people, by repeatedly telling us: it’s normal to be prejudiced, normal to preach hate, and we can do both just as well as the people who persecuted our ancestors. The lack of major label and mainstream media interest in more well-spoken rappers compounds things further, saddling us with a dearth of alternatives to offset the majority, and reinforces the idea that hip-hop automatically equals gangsta rap. Such a thing will continue to hold the genre and its proponents back.
If mainstream rappers feel so bold, so “creative”, in their use of derogatory language, why are they so uncomfortable with the thought of doing without it? It won’t stifle their creativity or censor their means of expression – the likes of Ghostpoet and JJ Bola’s challenging poem ‘I Found Hip Hop’ prove that. It would be an acceptance from rappers, who are paid a great deal for their craft, that their words are extremely influential, and they should perhaps think more before committing them to song. By ceasing to dehumanise women and celebrate hate in their lyrics, purveyors of mainstream hip-hop may finally begin to be worthy of being called ‘artists’ – not just by their supporters and music followers, but by everyone.