A Million and One Questions

Jay-Z and the B-Word

by Sylvio Lynch III

28 March 2012

Could a “hot 16” change black fatherhood for generations to come? If that is the thought, than we’ve forgotten what hip-hop does best: It reflects and narrates.

In the midst of the various controversies around the birth of Blue Ivy, child of pop super-couple Jay-Z and Beyonce, one particular story stands out. Shortly after the birth of his child and the subsequent release of his song “Glory”, pundits, bloggers, and general nay-sayers got all atwitter about a false story stating that the word “bitch” would no longer be part of Jay-Z’s public vocabulary. Days later, it was confirmed that the story was false; marking the first time a rapper has had to formally announce to the public that he did NOT intend to stop using a profane word.

Before the falsity of the story was revealed, some criticized the rapper, wondering why it would take the birth of a child to realize that referring to women as “bitches” was, at the very least, in poor taste. In the aftermath, critics have asked why he isn’t going to stop using the word. Other critics have asked if Jay-Z has a responsibility to use his artistic platform to address and lead other men, particularly black men, into responsible fatherhood through his lyrics.

But perhaps this is wrong line of questioning. Perhaps fans of Jay, armchair quarterbacks of music and people who care in general should be asking other questions regarding the self-proclaimed “Mike Jordan of Rap”.

Is he the first rapper with misogynist lyrics? No. Is he the first rapper to be a father? No. Is he the first rapper to dedicate a song to his child? No. So why do some want so badly for Jay-Z to be a leader? Why is the desire for the Jiggman to be so much more than an entertainer in the lives of the poor and anonymous so prevalent? I ask these questions as a fan, as a black man, and as someone who has used the word ‘bitch’ in a sentence.

It’s already too easy to judge celebrities for their wacky ways, superficial lives, and unconventional moral choices. With rappers, it is even easier. With popular rappers, it’s nearly reflexive. So to some extent, the most recent criticism of Jay-Z isn’t surprising. What is surprising—alarming even—is the child-like idolatry of J-Hova by adults.

Given his evident lyrical prowess, it is clear that Jay-Z has the ability to rap about more than material goods and the exploitation of women. Hasn’t he proven that often enough? And to whom must he prove it? It is also clear that he is successful at making money from businesses outside of his career as a recording artist. Is there something to be admired in that? No more than one would admire any other opportunist, some would say. Others would say given his humble beginnings, his career should be studied as an inspirational example for all youth. But it depends on who you ask.

In America’s love of real-life fairy tales, Jay-Z represents one of America’s favorite tropes: Black man leaves a life of crime (and his community) for riches and the adulation of a wider (whiter) audience. Amongst black males of a certain age, he is a default conversational topic. Whether it is a debate over his best albums, his lyrics, his latest business endeavor, or his influence on other rappers, Jay-Z continues to be a hot topic. Given the recent history of Hip-Hop as it relates to black youth culture, Jay-Z, not unlike others, is being saddled with the proposition of leading black youth. Leading to what exactly, I am unsure.

Do we really think that if Jay-Z raps about fatherhood from now on it will drastically decrease the rate of out-of-wedlock births in America? Could a “hot 16” change black fatherhood for generations to come? If that is the thought, than we’ve forgotten what hip-hop does best: It reflects and narrates. Expecting Jay-Z to rhyme people into responsible behavior is a notion even more disturbing than thinking his lyrics could lead to criminal activity. It is akin to forgoing a movie altogether in lieu of listening to the soundtrack and getting the plot of the movie from there.

Should Jay-Z be ashamed for his occasional use of profane language? I say no. As fans, we should be ashamed of ourselves. The very fact that the Jay-Z /bitch story is believable reflects upon the fact we care more about the dissection of his words than the stories he chooses to tell. We have reached a point where an entertainer could publicly announce that they will stop using a word (see: nigger) and some of us will not see the arrogance in that.

What does Jay-Z owe us? He owes us nothing. Oh, he owes us good music? What is the definition of “good” music? Can’t we always find that elsewhere in this day and age? Or does that matter? Given his apparent fortune, should he have the responsibility, and the cojones for that matter, to guide young black men to something greater through his lyrics?

I don’t think so. The responsibility to improve the use of language and behavior in rap music, along with other genres, lies mostly with its’ listeners. And the responsibility of improving any community lies mostly with that community.

One could point out the always convenient but sparingly utilized power of the consumer in controlling which rap lyrics are elevated for mainstream consumption, but instead, let’s focus on the likelihood that the reader of this has heard someone (man or woman) referred to as a “bitch” recently. Let’s focus on the words we use, not the ones our favorite entertainers use.

Let’s trade in the effort of censorship for the effort of reflection and action. After all, Jay-Z is just a storyteller; a lyrical wizard of the inner-city experience who has been lifted to fame solely by the music industry… Or did we play a role in this?

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