Monday, February 20, 2012

Responding to Common Arguments About What Is or Isn’t Offensive

So you’re out to dinner and your friend’s friend just said something offensive. Maybe it was a sexist remark to the waitress, a homophobic slur under his breath or a racist joke. Whatever it was, you decide to say something, because you’re a decent person.

A: (something offensive)

B: Whoa, come on, man; there’s no need for language like that.

A: Oh great, here comes the PC police.

B: Really, the “PC Police?” What are you, a hacky stand up comic from ten years ago? I just think saying things like what you said is unnecessary. If you’re upset, there are a million different ways you can express that; choosing one that is offensive to a lot of people is just needlessly mean-spirited. Political correctness doesn’t mean censoring your thoughts or emotions; it just means trying to express those thoughts or emotions like less of a jackass.

A: Whatever. I didn’t even mean it in an offensive way.

B: It doesn’t matter what you meant to say. That’s what you said. You don’t get to dictate whether or not other people are “allowed” to be offended. If you set a house on fire and people get hurt, you don’t get off clean because you thought the house was empty. You are responsible for your actions, and your words.

A: It’s okay, I offend all groups equally, I’m an equally-opportunity offender.

B: So you’re someone who likes to participate in the oppression of all kinds of different people? You think that excuses you? That’s a hundred times worse!

A: It’s just a word. You should care more about the real problems in the world.

B: That’s assuming that language doesn’t impact the “real problems” in the world. It does. It’s also assuming that I don’t already care about the “real problems” of the world. I do. It’s possible to care about big issues and little, everyday issues, and the real key is seeing how they’re all intertwined.

A: But it’s freedom of speech!

B: I’m not trying to make it illegal for you to say stupid shit; I’m trying to talk to you directly about why you shouldn’t. That’s a big difference. It’s legal for you to commission a painting of yourself riding a unicorn across the Grand Canyon, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it. It’s legal for you to cheat on your partner, eat jellybeans for every meal and listen to the Black Eyed Peas, but that doesn’t mean you should do any of those things. And it’s not like you’re saying offensive things to make some larger point or comment on some grand, radical idea. You’re just being offensive for no reason. To hide behind the “freedom of speech” argument is pretty cowardly.

A: Why are you being so sensitive?

B: Why are you? Why can’t you just apologize for saying something hurtful? Why do the people who say or do offensive things always get so defensive? Why can’t you just admit that you said something you shouldn’t have, try not to do it again and move on? Why do people like you cling so desperately to your “right” to be an insensitive jackass and cry so readily when anyone tries to call you out on it?

A: Fine. But explain to me why it’s offensive.

B: Do I owe you an explanation? It’s not like anyone is arguing that you shouldn’t use the letter “H” or that all proper nouns are racist. That would be inconvenient. The language that the so-called “PC police” want people to avoid is stuff you probably don’t say that much anyway. For example, do non-Black people really need to use the n-word? Like, are you just DYING to use it all the time? Does it offend or sadden you that you’re not “allowed” to use it? Probably not. So don’t use it, ever. Believe it or not, it’s incredibly easy to live your whole life without ever calling someone a “fag” or saying that you “got jewed.” A person kind of has to go out of their way to be offensive, and that’s part of why it can be so frustrating to deal with.

A: Okay, okay. I’m sorry. But I’m really not a bad person.

B: Most people aren’t “bad people.” We all make mistakes, we all have issues to work on and we all could do better. The important thing to remember is that the impact of your language/actions is always more important than your intent. Friendly, decent people can still take part in oppressive systems, and language is one of the most common potentially oppressive systems that we have to deal with. We have to take responsibility for the impact of our words and actions, no matter what the intent behind them may be.

A: Thanks for the lecture, Professor Buzzkill.

B: You’re welcome.

(RELATED: "Invalid Pop Culture Arguments")

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

10 Responses to the Phrase "Man Up" (Spoken Word)

UPDATE: This is the newest version of this piece. The Button Poetry version has a million+ views (plus 10 million more on Facebook, which maybe speaks to how these ideas are striking a chord with people right now), but I think this one captures a more polished performance.

If you like it, here's a good intro to ALL of my work.


New piece. I really hate those Miller Lite commercials, but it's definitely bigger than just that. Felt good to talk about it on stage.

On a side note, I know there are a ton of spoken-word pieces out there about masculinity.  I've got this one too.  But I think it's important to keep talking about these issues, especially if you can do it in a creative way, or at least have a new angle or hook.  I think there's a bad tendency in spoken-word circles to dismiss any poem that covers well-trod territory (like "here's another hip hop poem," or "here's another domestic violence poem") and while I completely understand where that's coming from and agree that we should be pushing ourselves in terms of subject matter, I ALSO believe that certain topics deserve the attention.  Especially as someone who works with young people--particularly young men-- I like to have three or four of these kinds of poems in my pocket.

Anyways, hope you like it.  Might be a bit of a "preaching to the choir" piece in some ways, but that all depends on with whom we all share it. Any FB posts, tweets, tumblr posts, re-blogs and whatever are much appreciated, as always.

UPDATE: A few more thoughts:

I see a lot of comments informing me that the phrase "man up" actually means "to take responsibility and handle your business." And it's like, yeah, I know that. The point of the poem is less to question that advice (although there are times when it should definitely be questioned), and more to question why we *gender* that advice, why we don't just literally say "toughen up" or "handle it" instead-- why we always seem to equate competence, strength, and resolve with maleness.

It's also about what the implications of that are.

Because there's a bigger point here about the inability of so many to make connections, to see beyond the specific. This is not a poem about one specific phrase that I happen not to like. It's a poem about language, and habits, and how the "little things" we don't always think critically about connect to larger realities of harm and violence. If to be male means to always be strong and in control, what happens when we aren't? Or what happens when are, but that "strength" and "control" become violence? What percentage of mass shooters are men? What percentage of killers, abusers, warmongers, and exploiters are men? Why is violence so often associated witih masculinity-- in pop culture, in policy, and in everyday experience?

The poem doesn't have room to answer all those questions, but it's trying to point in a particular direction, and trying to make some connections. It's also trying, if nothing else, to encourage us all to think a little more critically about the messages we receive about gender-- where they come from, who benefits from them, and what kind of world we might be able to shape without them.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

How to Read About Hip Hop

This is the companion piece to my “How to Write About Hip Hop” essay.

A huge part of finding success as an artist today is crafting your narrative. It isn’t enough to just be good— you need a compelling story. And if you don’t have a compelling story, you have to make one the hell up. And it’s not just the artists themselves— publicists, music writers, bloggers, talking heads on Twitter and fans all play this game too and usually go unquestioned. Here are a few examples of how it plays out:

Great Ear for Beats = This is the hip hop equivalent of “he’s got a nice personality.” Of course, production is important, but to describe an MC using this phrase instead of just saying “the beats were great” is like saying “the best part of the movie was the theater’s clean bathrooms.” It’s also another way that hip hop producers go unheralded.

Versatile = Can make horrible club songs, horrible street songs, horrible love songs and horrible filler tracks, all on the same album!

Edgy = Sex and drugs oh no!!! The word “edgy” almost always refers to subject matter that is absolutely shocking to 11-year olds. Artists who try to maintain an aura of edginess very rarely present any real threat to the powers-that-be, or to the status quo, or to anything. Real edginess comes from pushing the audience out of their comfort zone and toward something greater, not just saying naughty words.

Relevant = Relevant to 14-year old white girls.

Emo = Used pejoratively 99% of the time, this word refers to any expression of emotion at all. All earnestness is “over-earnestness.” All drama is melodrama. I hate to use the h-word, but the hipster movement was and is so anti-sincerity that it’s created an incredibly hostile climate for artists who, you know, have feelings. If you’re not a fake heroin kingpin, ironic joke rapper or soulless rhyme-scheme technician, you’re probably “emo.”

Futuristic = OMG synthesizers!

Hungry = This can either mean “hard-working” (see below) or “this MC raps loudly and at an above-average tempo.” It’s easy to fake hunger. It’s also a handy word to use when you’re describing an artist who has no real accomplishments, experience or talent. For example, most good bios talk about concrete things like who you’ve opened for, what awards you’ve won, where you’ve been written up, etc. But if you don’t have any of that stuff, just say that you’re “THE HUNGRIEST RAPPER IN THE GAAAAAME.”

Organic = OMG no synthesizers!

Poetic = Most often refers to lyrics that don’t make any god damn sense. Maybe it’s just because I actually am a poet, but this one irks me. For example, I feel like most people would say that Lupe’s “Dumb it Down” is more “poetic” than, say, “Kick, Push.” But by my definition, “Kick, Push” is a million times more poetic. Poetry isn’t fancy talk and big words—it’s creating work that functions on multiple levels, that says something deeper than the literal meaning. It’s not just abstract, stream-of-conscious babbling. Good poetry doesn’t use complex language to say simple stuff; it uses simple language to express complex ideas.

Amazing/Awesome/Incredible = (vomits) These words fundamentally DON’T MEAN ANYTHING. Stop using them.

Great Flow = Here’s the thing about flow… it’s a foundational element of rapping. 95% of rappers have at least a “good” flow, or they wouldn’t be rapping. And while there are rappers out there who have legitimately great flows—Elzhi, Kendrick Lamar, Gift of Gab, etc., I would argue that most music writers and fans don’t really know enough about hip hop aesthetics to separate “okay” from “good” from “great.” A lot of the time, “great flow” translates to “this rapper knows how to rap on beat,” which is kind of like saying “that truck does a great job spinning its wheels and moving forward.”

Doesn’t Fit into the Traditional Rapper Mold = Usually, this is a euphemism for “this rapper isn’t a scary black guy.” And it’s always presented as both extremely positive and mind-blowingly novel, as though no rapper has ever rapped about anything other than guns and drugs.

Literate = I have no idea what this means when it’s used in hip hop reviews, and it’s used a LOT. I guess it’s good that the MC isn’t just saying “GOBBLE GOBBLE BEEBOO MAGAAAAAA!” over the beats. I mean, I know that “literate” can refer to knowledge and skill (and not just the ability to read & write), but I think words like this perpetuate the whole “this rap over here is smart, and this rap over here is dumb” stereotype that, while sometimes true, is often a gross oversimplification.  I mean, "literate" to whom?  It's a pretty loaded word, in terms of race, class and culture.

Chill = This doesn’t come up in actual reviews as much as it does in breathlessly positive blog posts and show recaps. “Chill” is every underground-rap fan’s favorite fucking word. Your talent doesn’t matter; as long as you’re “chill,” you can build an enormous fan base.

Pretentious = Now, this word has a real meaning and sometimes does apply to hip hop acts.  But it's way overused.  The rap bloggerati know what they like, and anything outside of that narrow, traditionalist range is often called "pretentious."  6/8 time signature?  Pretentious.  Overarching metaphor or concept song?  Pretentious.  Dropping out the drums for four bars?  Pretentious.  Trying to say something new and original?  Go polish your monocle, college-boy.

Hard-Working = Two things here. First, who cares? You could be a brilliant songwriter and not be hard-working, or you could be the best hustler in the universe and still be a wack MC. Secondly, when a writer says that an artist is “hard-working,” it usually means “I’ve seen that artist on a lot of blogs.” That’s what hustle has evolved into—record a million disposable songs, send emails to as many bloggers as possible and hope to get a couple of posts.

And sure, that does take work. But as an artist “hard work” needs to mean something more than that, something beyond the internet, beyond handing out flyers, beyond networking and schmoozing. What’s almost always missing from conversations about hard work is the end goal. What are you actually working for?

I guess it’s a matter of perspective, something that applies to every one of these points, not just the last one. Hip hop writers, publicists and bloggers can get away with a lot of spinning because the average hip hop fan (not to mention artist) doesn’t have a genuine relationship to the culture and won’t pick any of this stuff apart critically. Maybe that sounds harsh, but I think it’s true (and isn’t exclusive to hip hop). So it’s good to keep writers (including me) on their toes.

Did I miss any?