Hip hop, misogyny and the media: why ASAP Rocky’s diss is damaging much more than Rita Ora’s self-esteem

ASAP Rocky, Rita Ora collage, BS, FG, 2015, AL (1080x608)We’ve been here before: egoistical, 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 ASAP Rocky* has called UK pop singer, Rita Ora, a “bitch”, and much worse, in a song from his newly released album, At Long Last ASAP.

Right now, you might be thinking: “big deal, hip hop artists do this all the time”. Or, perhaps: “ha ha ha, the bitch deserved it”. I’m no fan 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 be, solely about narcissism, hatred and misogyny.

Well, 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 hip hop. Period.

ASAP Rocky: he’s a gentleman, you know
It starts with the language itself and the symptomatic and widespread disrespect for women that it breeds.

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”.

Does that 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 ALLA: “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.”

Rocky’s music has got swagger, wit, and vats of appealing attitude. But even if you respect the performer – as this writer does – you cannot deny that ALLA echoes many of the same derogatory tropes aimed at women that we’ve heard time and time again in mainstream hip hop. Chief among them is the constant spitting of the B-word to dehumanise and objectify Rocky’s harem of women, and those he has already tired of (Rita Ora, Iggy Azalea).

Bitch: the word that breeds disrespect
The B-word is intrinsically pejorative and is designed to undermine and polarise women. It should not be used so eagerly, but, despite our collective knowledge of the word’s negative connotations, it seems culture, and society, has adopted it wholesale.

Rap popularised it as an insult in the 1980s and, since then, its usage has ballooned. “Bitch” shows up more in books and in the media. A generation of celebrities told everyone its “cool” to refer to women as “bitches”, and the gossip rags, that love to inform you how “bitchy” so-and-so has been, regurgitated their views. Some famous faces decided they wanted to subvert the label: Roxanne Shante (The Bitch is Back) and Madonna (‘Unapologetic Bitch’). Others chose to embrace it: Rihanna (‘Bitch Better Have My Money’) and, again, Madonna (‘Bitch I’m Madonna’). And, of course, nowadays, it’s not uncommon to find women and teenage girls who gleefully profess to roll with their “bad bitches”, or self-identify as their man’s “bitch” (blogger Kee Bella has strong views on both instances). Oh, and not forgetting xenophobic mouthpiece, Katie Hopkins, who proudly brags she’s “the biggest bitch in Britain”.

This bizarre love-hate relationship we have with the B-word is a complex issue in itself. And I can’t solve that debate here. But, so far as hip hop goes, artists spitting the B-word without cause or thought owe listeners much, much better. Mainstream hip hop treats listeners like nursery-age children, talking down to them instead of raising them up (a recent sample of the lyrics in popular songs, by US data blog, SeatSmart, found that hip hop had the least difficult reading level, compared to rock, pop and country music, the latter topping the list). If mainstream rappers are so fearless, they would stop serving predominantly dumb lyrics and sharpen up their craft. They would challenge themselves to express their burning emotions in a manner that uses words and phrases other than inflammatory curse words and objectifying labels.

A tired media narrative with no room for alternative voices
Such a thing would be a blessing. Because then music lovers, like myself and others who adore music in all its forms, would not have to keep defending hip hop. Because the second part of any diss verse controversy, like ASAP’s, is the part when the media reports it and another host of tired discourses get put into play.

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 my favourite 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 ‘ASAP 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, narcissistic, et al. We are not, I am not, and neither are the fine black hip hop artists who this commenter, and others like him, is sadly completely unaware of. Artists such as Ghostpoet, Essa, Neneh Cherry, Estelle, Jneiro Jarel and Diggs Duke Manifest – eloquent wordsmiths who remind us that hip hop can be powerful and expressive with not a curse word to be found.

Just another misogynistic diss verse? Think again
ASAP Rocky may have stirred up the hornets’ nest this week, but another rapper will do exactly the same in a matter of weeks/months, and the cycle will just continue. Because, like I said at the beginning: hip hop’s got 99 problems, and “bitch” is just one. (Piers Morgan and the N-word, anyone?) 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, “a gangster’s paradise” is 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 prejudice, normal to preach hate, and we can do both just as well as the people who persecuted our ancestors. Lack of major label and mainstream media interest in 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 hip hop back.

When is it ever “empowering” for a man to be called a “bitch”? Would you call your mum a “bitch”? Your sister or girlfriend? Use of the B-word, and other misogynistic hate speech, is deeply ingrained to the point where artists, such as ASAP Rocky, feel it’s their creative right to pepper their songs with derogatory language and no one should question it.

The poet, JJ Bola, has on more than one occasion. He didn’t mince his words when, in response to Rocky’s Rita Ora verse, he said: “If, as a rapper/MC, you can’t get out of using the B-word/N-word in your raps, your artistry is rubbish. Your expression is conditioned.” And he’s right.

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 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 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.

* If you’re reading this post from the future, simply replace Rocky/Rita with whoever the current culprit/victim is this time.

** I would argue that the likes of Doom, De La Soul, Root Manuva, Stahrr, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, A Tribe Called Quest and many other conscious rappers and rap groups fall under the category of well-spoken rappers, who the media should hold up as an alternative more often. But I can see how, despite their exceptionally poetic bars, their own occasional use of negative language would tar them with the same brush as mainstream gangsta rappers in this context.

An edited version of this article was also published on PressPlay.

Image: collage by Aaron Lee; Flickr-CC/Brennan Schnell; Flickr-CC/Fitore Gashi

3 thoughts on “Hip hop, misogyny and the media: why ASAP Rocky’s diss is damaging much more than Rita Ora’s self-esteem

  1. Speak the truth! So glad there are those who still keep this discussion going rather than a) dismissing it as passé or worse still puritanical and ‘censorious’ b) throwing your hands up in exasperation and considering it a lost cause. Thank God there are those, especially men, who don’t accept misogyny in Hip-Hop as simply axiomatic. As much as I’m not a Hip-Hop head, it unfairly shoulders a lot of the umbrage when contemporary R&B and dance music (at least judging from some of the 2000s videos) are just as culpable. The booty-shaking of the pop/R&B queens in the name of so-called ’empowerment’ is every much as damaging, especially for women of African descent, as marginalised from mainstream society as we already are. It’s even more infuriating when those who should know better justify it such as author Chimamanda Adichie (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LkeCun9aljY).

    ‘…They would challenge themselves to express their burning emotions in a manner that uses words and phrases other than inflammatory curse words and objectifying labels…’

    * Sigh * Thank goodness I’m not alone. The amount of times I’ve used this argument in regards to profanity in general, not just in Hip Hop but in comedy as well…The sad thing is it suggests a certain creative laziness on the part of the artists. Their craft displays levels of intelligence that demonstrate they could meet your challenge and then some. And as you said, they seem tied to it. It’s a question of ‘conditioning’ as JJ Bola rightly observed. Like all social conditioning it needs to be de-constructed and challenged if we’re ever to evolve from what seems to be a stalemate. As you pointed out, even the ‘conscious rappers’ are at it which is one reason I find it hard to engage with the genre as a whole. One exception is one of my favourite artists, K-Os. People assume he’s a Gospel rapper because of his biblical references and absence of profanity although he does not make any such claims himself. I’m sure he’s not averse to some expletives in every day conversation but he generally doesn’t see fit to go on record with it. His stuff is some of the most profound to grace wax in the donkey years he’s been knocking about.

    PS does Diggs Duke count has Hip-Hop? He’s alternative soul no? Never heard him rhyme.

    That Swiss song was an eye-opener. He’s grown up a lot since the SSC days, evidently (not that I remember him specifically out of the cast of thousands the group once was)

    Shalom x

    • So good of you to have the patience to read this mammoth comment piece, Tolita. And thank you for such encouraging words.

      This is a topic which is rarely discussed as closely and sensitively as it should be, partly thanks to the culture of acceptance/status that’s behind it. Certainly, I wish more black people, and black men especially, thought more about it, because its affects are real.

      And you’re certainly right about contemporary R&B and dance music being full of over sexualisation.

      Many of the justifications behind rapper’s derogatory language or women using their bodies as a means of ’empowerment’ have to be taken on an entirely individual basis, I think. Words have power. Men and women’s bodies have power. But, in the modern music industry, both are being used and abused – to a greater extent than ever before – without thought to how such things are affecting how we view each other, and how we view ourselves.

      This subject will continue to be debated and argued about. But you can rest assured that I won’t let those that deny its existence off without pointing out a few things first.

      Oh, and you’re quite right about Diggs Dukes. When I wrote this, I was racking my brain for conscious hip hop artists, and somehow came to the conclusion of leaving Diggs Duke’s name in. I’ve struck it out and put African hip hop artist, Manifest, there.

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