Kanye’s Use Of The Word “Bitch” Isn’t A Term Of Endearment In Hip Hop Or Anywhere Else
For all those who are mad about Kanye West's mention of Taylor Swift on his song "Famous" — you know, the line where he thinks they could have sex one day, calls her a b*tch, and takes credit for her fame? — he'd like you to know there's nothing insulting about it. "I did not diss Taylor Swift and I've never dissed her," West tweeted hours after he debuted the track off his latest album The Life Of Pablo at Yeezy Season 3, explaining, "B*tch is an endearing term in hip hop like the word N****." West continued by saying that Swift "thought it was funny and gave her blessings" — something the statement from Swift's publicist refuted the night before. Of course, Swift doesn't approve of West's message, she is a role model for young women everywhere, and, no matter what West says, it's not a societal term of endearment and never has been. But he is right about one thing: the word "b*tch" does have a long history in hip-hop.
The hip-hop community jumped on the word almost from the get-go; it's first known use being on Grandmaster Flash's 1983 song "New York New York" to describe a woman who left a guy cold with the child support bills. Rappers used it so often that "Hip Hop Culture" gets its own section in the Wikipedia page for "B*tch (insult)." The term is synonymous with hip-hop misogyny, often used to describe no-good women who don't deserve respect on NWA's "A B*tch Iz A B*tch" and "B*tches" by Ice T. For a while there, Eminem and DMX seemed to only refer to women with the term, which came into vogue during the 1920s to as a way for men to undermine the suffragettes and other women who were coming into their own power. Meanwhile, Jay Z (2002's "B*tches and Sisters") and Tupac (1996's "Wonder Why They Call You B*tch") tried to defend their use of it by explaining it wasn't how they talked about good women — just the bad ones who deserved it.
As the years have gone by, many in the community have wanted to see a moratorium on the word "b*tch" for so many reasons, but one being that it's just lazy at this point. Others decided, though, that it was easier to take it back by combining it with other powerful words: rich, boss, baddest or "perfect," as West once called Kim Kardashian on his 2012 track of the same name. (Like now, he swore it was a term of endearment.) These compound words seemed powerful, especially when re-appropriated by the likes of Lil Kim, Missy Elliott and Nicki Minaj — women who wore it as a badge of honor. But the problem with that is that it didn't change the definition. Women may have felt powerful using it, but, when men used it, it still reeked of misogyny. It's always been the insult of choice for anyone who wanted to emasculate their enemies, and, later, combined with the word "basic" described a woman who is too boring to even register a descriptive adjective. It's a term that means lesser, so, if you're his b*tch, you're still his, not your own. The power you once had has now been lost.
In 2012, when he announced "Perfect B*tch" to some criticism, Kanye tweeted, "Is the word B*TCH acceptable?," admitting he did struggle with the question. And the question of whether or not this word still has a place in hip-hop is a good one. It was reported that Jay Z said he would stop using the word after the birth of his daughter Blue Ivy, before quickly saying that was never true.
Meanwhile, Lupe Fiasco tried to articulate his feelings with his song "B*tch Bad," which came out after West's initial tweet about Kardashian and had him rapping about the adverse effects the word has on both sexes. On the track, Fiasco talks about how young men aren't yet grown enough to realize that this is disrespectful to women, and young girls don't realize they're being disrespected. He did come up with his litmus test for how men should talk about women in hip-hop: "b*tch bad, woman good, lady better," which unfortunately ends up condescending the women he's trying to help. As the Atlantic explains, in his well-intentioned attempt to break down the trope of the "bad b*tch," Fiasco ends up watering down the much more complicated debate. And, worse, places blame solely on a mother who sings along to a song with her kids in the car instead of calling out the man who made the track.
From West's response over his use of the word, he has come up with his answer to whether it's okay to use "b*tch" in his music. His guiding principle is apparently that censorship is way worse than the word itself, that not using it is somehow going to take away from his artistic vision. It's a tired answer to a debate he's been a part of for years now. West can use the word all he likes, that is the beauty of free speech, but he shouldn't try to pretend it means anything other than what we all know it does. Saying that you don't want to censor yourself lets everyone know you think the word is questionable. That you know your "term of endearment" defense doesn't really hold up so you then need to cast yourself as a martyr for art.
On this track, West is saying he is the reason Swift is famous, and the addition of "b*tch" just adds to the insult. There is no praise here. West can't cite art and then think he gets a pass. He also can't be so daft as to think that saying it's just like saying the N-word, another term that is debated often, means that's the end of the conversation. Kanye prides himself on being the most enlightened rapper, the Steve Jobs, the Walt Disney, the Leonardo Da Vinci of hip-hop. If West was so ahead of us, he would have already known calling out the pop girl next door was going to raise some eyebrows. He would know that the word "b*tch" is tired, and that it, historically, has never been a term of endearment when used by a man. But, most of all, if West was a true champion of free speech, he would take this opportunity to open a thoughtful conversation about the word instead of trying to defend a tired stereotype.