Words Are Weapons: Hip Hop's Self-Depreciating Lexicon

"My daughter came up to me after listening to Nicki Minaj and asked me what a menage was. She's three years old."Wow.Words are powerful, aren't they?
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Nicki Minaj accepts the award for favorite artist - rap/hip-hop at the 40th Anniversary American Music Awards on Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012, in Los Angeles. (Photo by John Shearer/Invision/AP)
Nicki Minaj accepts the award for favorite artist - rap/hip-hop at the 40th Anniversary American Music Awards on Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012, in Los Angeles. (Photo by John Shearer/Invision/AP)

Around the neck of rap artist Saigon, you will find a bullet casing with a peace symbol on it.

I had the opportunity to do two shows in Europe with Saigon over the summer and found him to be a very talented and compelling individual. On his latest release "The Greatest Story Never Told Chapter 2: Bread And Circuses" he is open about being in a transition between a life asleep and a life awake. I took advantage of the opportunity to ask him how this transition began when we were in Copenhagen. His answer remains with me to this day.

"My daughter came up to me after listening to Nicki Minaj and asked me what a menage was. She's three years old."


Words are powerful, aren't they?

In How to Build A Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later, sci-fi novelist Philip K. Dick states, "the basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words." Later speaking on the power of media, specifically television, he adds, "the possibility of total control of the viewer exists, especially the young viewer."

It is beyond debate that the words chain, whip, trap, thug, crack, little, young, dog, pimp, bitch, hoe, and nigger are startlingly common in the hip hop embraced by media today. You may find some spelling conflicts between lil' and little, nigger and nigga, dog and dawg, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a single "Top 40" hip hop song that doesn't include several of these words multiple times.

"Nigger" is the one that's gotten the most press, the source of endless controversy. Wise Intelligent, (of hip hop group Poor Righteous Teachers), believes that the word is purposefully given notoriety as part of a ploy to oppress the people who embrace it. Advocates of the word's use claim that in modern times it has transformed into a term of empowerment, (this despite the fact that its use is most prevalent and acceptable among the most disempowered members of society. Guess it's not too hard to figure out which side of the debate I'm on).

There is one school of thought that subscribes to neither belief. They don't think it really matters either way, because it's just a word.

Just words.

Google Scholar brought me to a research paper from the European Journal of Personality, titled "From Adorable to Worthless: Implicit and Self-Report Structure of Highly Evaluative Personality Descriptors." The paper cites sources such as the Journal of Child Language, noting that "young children rely on largely evaluative statements when talking about themselves and others. Furthermore, evidence from cognitive psychology indicates that evaluative judgments frequently dominate over narration and description in informal communication." Meaning, a child told that "the idiot got all of test questions correctly," is more likely to wonder how the idiot pulled that off than to question whether the person is actually an idiot.

The paper then detailed a study performed using a large number of evaluative terms ranging from "virtuoso," "laureate," and "gem," to "scoundrel," "evildoer," and "blockhead." The terms were written on index cards and given to University of California students who were asked to place the words into groups that contained characteristics which were the same or very similar. The results of the study found each word to hold consistent value in regards to distinction, worthlessness, and stupidity.

The word "thug" wasn't included in this study, but if it had been it would have likely rated very low in distinction, and likely very high in worthlessness and stupidity. Dictionary.com defines the word as "brutal ruffian" and lists "punk" and "goon," among its synonyms. We all know what a thug is, don't we? He's the lowest rung on the criminal ladder, the unintelligent bad guy who is too stupid to do anything but use brute force. When someone who bludgeoned a store clerk or set an old lady on fire makes the front page of the newspaper they're called a "thug." "Thug" is never the word chosen for the crook who successfully impersonated a doctor for two years or hacked into a complex computer network.

Try telling that to the entire generation of hip hop listeners who aspire to become someone they fully understand to be unworthy of respect. Here, evaluative contradicts descriptive. Mass media supported hip hop is rich with imagery of thugs in enviable situations. (This thug has lots of money. That thug gets all the girls.) Even should a thug be described as bearing characteristics in complete contradiction to the word itself -- as in, the thug that is a law abiding, intelligent member of society -- the identification as "thug" will likely remain firmly entrenched within a child's mind. Children may mimic behavior out of envy and want for the things and situations thugs are described as enjoying, but envy is very different from respect. It follows that if and when these children come to self-identify as thugs, they will not respect themselves.

Speaking of children, since the late '90s there has been a boom in rappers whose moniker begins with either "Little," "Young," or some spelling variation thereof. During this time, Lil' Wayne (who in all fairness was named before this copycat movement), was catapulted into superstardom. Jockeying with Wanye for the title of world's most famous rapper is Jay-Z. I will doubtlessly be branded a conspiracy theorist if I attempt to note a correlation between Jay-Z's escalation from a well-respected rapper to a global household name with the his adoption of his alias "Young Hova." What cannot be denied is that in recent times popularized hip hop, and the culture that it advertises, are widely endorsed by people who self-identify as little and young.

Who's little and young? Children.

Twenty three "brainwashing/mind control techniques used in schools, hospitals, arm[ies], religious cults, [and] totalitarian states," were listed in an article published on Phinnweb.org. Number six was manipulation of "metacommunication -- implanting subliminal messages by stressing certain key words." Phinnweb is a Finnish electronic, experimental, indie, and groove music site. If certain electronic, or experimental, or hip hop music was specifically targeting children, aiming to take advantage of youthful insecurity, desire for social approval, and underdeveloped sense of self, repetition of and identification with the words "little" and "young" would be an excellent place to start.

That is not to suggest that susceptibility to bombardment and redundancy of negatively charged words is limited to young people.

I'm 32 years old. I remember crack. Thankfully not firsthand, but in '80s New York City its horrors were too great to go unnoticed. Crack was why Lili and Lisa didn't like going to visit Uncle Pablo's neighborhood. It was why Uncle Bobby got deported and why Aunt Tuti lived in a new apartment every month. For years I thought it was why Uncle Pepo and Auntie Florraine died. I was fortunate to enjoy a sheltered, protected childhood. I didn't understand the difference between drugs that people shot and drugs that people smoked.

All I knew was that crack was evil.

It wasn't until later on that I learned that poor people who used or sold crack cocaine were legally mandated to serve much harsher prison sentences than wealthy people who used or sold the exact same amount of cocaine in powdered form. That the ingredients used to make crack weren't actually grown in inner city neighborhoods, but instead brought in and used as a reason to arrest and imprison millions of people. That crack was one of the most powerful weapons of racism humankind had ever known, and the root of so much of the death, and crime, and hate, and sadness in New York City and in cities across the country.

When people attempt to compliment my hip hop music by calling it "crack," I correct them. I like to think that people can find it addictive and powerful, but its purpose is to strengthen not weaken. The hip hop that popularizes the word "crack" is much more suitable for the comparison. People are drawn to it though it is harmful, and it may make you feel better before making you feel worse. People sometimes become offended at my disapproval of their compliment; I apologize. I know that they don't mean any harm. They just so seldom think these words through before adopting them. Usage of the words is so widespread that their appropriateness is accepted as a apparent. That's exactly what makes them so dangerous.

I also remember when DMX was introduced to the world, barking like a dog. Where language used to originate in the actual hip hop community before making its way into mainstream rap, vocabulary now regularly originates in the mainstream, and trickles down to the the society it claims to represent. Lil Wayne said "bling bling" before the world did. I'm not sure who exactly introduced "trap" and "trapping." (Was it TI or Young Jeezy?) And Jay-Z arguably invented "cray." Wildly charismatic, DMX's "dog" spread throughout the hip hop community like wildfire. Far and wide, listeners claimed ownership of the term for themselves and their friends.

I recently read a paper entitled, "Beastly: What Makes Animal Metaphors Offensive," from the Journal of Language and Social Psychology. It argued how dehumanizing victims by referring to them as animals has figured prominently in violent conflicts over the past century. Nazis referred to Jews as "vermin" during the Holocaust. Hutus referred to Tutsis as "cockroaches" during the genocide in Rwanda. At the root is the ideology of human superiority to animals. The paper goes on to speak specifically about referring to humans as dogs. "Certain animal comparisons may be especially degrading to people's humanity. These animals need not be the most reviled: the 'dog' metaphor is insulting but dogs are not disliked."

Think about the most common references to dogs in our society. "Sick as a dog." "Working like a dog." "Dog tired." None of these are very flattering. Equivalent to weary laborers at best. Even dogs' most notable compliment, "man's best friend," is no longer complimentary when assigned to a human. It is implicit in being man's best friend that dog is not actually man. Rather, most useful as man's loyal servant. Not quite human. Subservient. Inferior.

Where my dogs at?

Given its actual definition "female dog," obviously the same analysis holds for the word "bitch." Just as the connotation of the word nigger is as well known (and infinitely more historically insulting) as that of the word thug. "Pimp" inherently implies disrespect for and abuse of women, and a hoe is a tool. Whips and chains are two of slavery's most powerful symbols. Likewise, Phinnweb's brainwashing/mind control techniques number 10 and 13 are "verbal abuse - desensitizing through bombardment with foul and abusive language," and my personal favorite, "chanting or singing -- eliminating non-cult ideas through group repetition of mind-narrowing chants or phrases."

I can go on and on.

All things considered, there appear to be only two possibilities. Either the hip hop community itself became wretched, which in turn influenced its music. Or the hip hop that came to represent the community became wretched and in turn influenced the people. Put another way, have we, the members of the the hip hop community, come to see ourselves as niggers and dogs and thugs because of the music we've been listening to? Or is it because that's what we really are?

I was reminded of Saigon's daughter this weekend as a preteen girl walked by me, headphones on, blasting Nicki Minaj's latest single, proclaiming aloud how she "Beez In The Trap." I wonder if she had any idea how literal she was being.

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