- Category: Commentaries
- Written by Jane Musoke-Nteyafas
Editor's Note: This article contains terms and expressions that some readers may find offensive. Your discretion is advised.
In the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s what caught most listeners’ attention were the lyrics and the sultry voices of the singers. We had a lot of soulful music, mostly songs about love. Teddy Pendergrass, Luther Vandross, Patti Labelle, Gladys Knight, Keith Sweat, Brian McKnight crooned about the intricacies of falling in love, mesmerizing us with their vocal abilities and lyrics. We all knew the words to their songs. Then later on, we were blessed with a lot of conscious Hip Hop, with positive messages of self love and black power.
People like Talib Kweli, Common, Mos Def, KRS-ONE, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest used (and still use) the Hip Hop medium as a form of expression and a voice for people who barely had a political voice. Their words were meant to inspire, uplift, and empower black populations all over the world.
Then something went wrong. All of a sudden, songs glorifiying gangsterism, greed, misogyny and name calling took centre stage. It became more about the catchy beats and the ability of some artists to diss and intimidate harder than others. Enter the words nigger, bitch and ho which would end up being used very dominantly on the Hip Hop scene and permeate onto people’s televisions and radios all over the world.
According to Wikipedia, Nigger, also spelled niger (obs.), nigor (obs. dial. Eng.), nigre, nigar (Caribbean), niggor (obs. dial.), neger (obs. U.S.), niggur, nigga, niggah, and niggar (obs.), is a derogatory expression used to refer to Black people. The perception of the term "Nigger" as derogatory probably came about because of the misconception and widespread lies by slave masters and colonizers in justification of their actions. Back then, the Black race itself was widely regarded as inferior, lazy, stupid and criminally inclined. Blacks in post slavery days went from being called Nigger to Negro to Black American/Black Canadian/Caribbean/African to African American/African Canadian. Many black people fought and were killed in order not to be called ‘niggers’.
So how and when did some blacks go back to calling one another niggas? When and how did that word become a self-referential term of familiarity, endearment, or kinship? How did the expression “what’s up my nigger/nigga” become cool? Some people argue that when spelled phonetically or pronounced as "nigga" or “niggah”, it is simply a synonym for accepted slang words such as “dude”. It’s a sore point of argument which has many people taking sides, with older generations tending to be more offended by the word than teenagers for example. There has been a desensitization and growing indifference over the derogatory nature of this expression, especially among many youth. It’s just a cool word to many of them.
I did not realize just how much the word nigger had permeated in our culture as an okay word to use until two things happened.
First, I read an article about a Hip Hop store in Lilongwe, Malawi (Africa) called simply Nigger. When he came across the store, the writer of the article, David Sylvester asked the guys in Malawi what was up with the store name. After hearing his evident non-Malawian accent and figuring out that he was African American, one of them man thumped his chest proudly and said, “P-Diddy New York City! We are the niggers!” They were proud of the word because they thought it was a term of endearment - as per P-Diddy’s videos and songs. They did not realize how racially charged it was despite being from the continent. The word nigger was not used as aggressively in Africa as it was in North America-seeing that the majority of the population in Africa was black as in opposed to North America, and so there may be several Africans who may not be aware of the stigma it carries.
The other occurrence was when I was watching Oprah a few weeks ago and she talked about going to South Africa to visit Nelson Mandela. One of his guards, excited to see African Americans would greet them with the now famous “What’s up my nigger?” every time he saw them. Oprah originally did not say anything because she was shocked, but the person who accompanied her took the African guard aside one day and explained that the word nigger was not cool and was actually offensive. The guard explained that he had thought it was okay to use it because of how popular it was in the music videos he had seen. He actually thought it was an African American form of greeting!
A bitch is a female dog or other member of the canidae family. It is certainly the most complimentary definition of the word. In colloquial terms, the word bitch is often engaged in a metaphorical sense to either insult a woman, or to portray a woman who is malicious, spiteful, domineering, intrusive, and/or unpleasant. It is also used for women who are considered as opinionated and articulate. The Urban Dictionary defines the word bitch as a woman who sleeps around, a woman with a bad attitude, an annoying and whining female, or modern-day servant- a person who performs tasks for another, usually degrading in status.
It may also be used to refer to an effeminate male-think jail house situations. The usage of the word bitch has become so prevalent in the last few decades that the expression has attained a profane connotation and is considered unacceptable in most circles. So given all this, it begs the question, why is it used by many Hip Hop artists to describe women, especially Black women?
Hip Hop music is one of the biggest American exports to the rest of the world; its clothing style, its hairstyles, its beats, its lyrics and even its expressions and slang are what a lot of youth aspire towards all over the world, especially in “Black countries”.
Some people argue that the word bitch only refers to video vixens and women who wear clothes which advertise sexual availability. But is the number of video vixens justifiable for some people to call women bitches? Besides that argument seems to be loosing its steam as it is more apparent that some boys and men have simply replaced the words woman, lady, girlfriend, mother, niece, daughter - in short anything that is female – with the word bitch. Listen in on some male conversations and you’ll see how the word flies off some tongues with ease. As for the choices that women make with their clothes, some have wondered why women must be limited in their taste of clothes by the fact that some men cannot control their sexual desires and the fact that society will judge them negatively - a lot of societal norms being again dictated by men. But that’s another topic.
Remember the days when ho ho ho was just part of a Christmas song? Well it’s interesting how the definitions of words can change with time. A ho also spelt as whore is slang for a prostitute, hooker, tramp, slut or a person considered sexually promiscuous. It also refers to person of loose morals regarding sexual favours given to others. Originally used of females exclusively, this word can now been used to refer to males as well.
In conclusion, ho is nothing but an insult in the same way that “nigger" and "bitch" are. These words were and still are words of disrespect. It is unfortunate that these words have been accepted by the same people who they were initially meant to denigrate. The words ho, bitch, nigger and their variants have become less offensive and have been adopted more in common language. This is a paradoxical change which must certainly have our ancestors turning in their graves.
So I leave you with the words of writer David Sylvester: “If you don’t like being called a nigger, bitch, faggot, dyke, spic, Jew dog, wop, towel head or anything of that ilk-then think. Think before you speak those words, write those lyrics, support that rhetoric and most of all think before you purchase! Purchasing is akin to compliance. I may like the beats and rhythms of some songs but I can not support it any more. You rappers are intelligent- find another word to describe yourselves. If they call you a nigger, [bitch or ho -added by this writer] it’s one thing but if you answer to it, then there is really something wrong!”
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