I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of criticism–including my own–since Lupe Fiasco released his single "Bitch Bad" a couple months back. So that I don’t plagiarize myself, here’s how I described the Chicago rapper’s narrative for another outlet:
Through the lenses of a young boy "maybe 5, maybe 4" and a group of Internet-savvy girls ages 9 through 12, Fiasco explains how adult women’s casual re-appropriation of "bad b#@ch" can scramble romantic communication for their children down the line. For the boy, confusion takes root when he hears his mother–ostensibly the most central female figure in his life who he’s been taught to exalt–sing along to "bad b#@ch" lyrics on the car radio. Meanwhile, the girls are looking at the sex-positive interpretation of "bad b#@ch" via scantily clad "lead girls" in videos who garner the attention of male artists.
Fiasco’s story is complicated and all of the pieces don’t add up. So in what seems to be his attempt to turn a cognitive tightrope into solid ground, Fiasco sums up his fable with a Madonna/Whore hook:
"Bitch bad/Woman good/Lady better."
I wound up that piece by asking that "my Internet community of progressives, feminists, activists, Nationalists, hip-hop fans, academics and other assorted thinkers" be "aggressively constructive in our critique" of this politically flawed examination of the term "bad b@#ch." I’ll admit it was a selfish request. I was happy to hear some semblance of an intra-cultural challenge to the hegemony of the "bad b@#ch" who garners this alleged praise because she can pay her own bills, couture-shame the less fortunate and hypnotize men with her booty-popping prowess. The critique was blowing my high.
When I first heard and defended the song, I visualized all of the little girls I’ve watched on the train calling each other "my nigga," "son" and "bitch" as gender-bending terms of endearment. How they’re struggling to give themselves interpersonal power through male identification and irony but failing because all it takes is for some boy to enter their circle and call the loudest one a "black bitch" or a "nappy-headed bitch" or just "bitch" with the wrong inflection to defang their re-appropriation.
Sure, I wasn’t thrilled with what critic Mychal Denzel Smith has described as Fiasco’s ‘conscious’ condescension to women. But I thought "Bitch Bad" was a decent, well-intentioned attempt at sorting out a complicated dynamic. I also fantasized about how much better the song would be if Fiasco had just tweaked the order of the hook to "bitch bad, lady good, woman better."
Now that I’ve seen the video for the song, which likens modern hip-hop imagery to blackface, I’m even more convinced that Fiasco is on to something much deeper than what "Spin" critic Marc Hogan has dubbed preachy "mansplaining" and his colleague Brandon Soderberg derided as a "muddled, mealy-mouthed missive about rap and misogyny."
First of all, I’m glad that Fiasco is preaching something other than "racks on racks on racks," and that he’s doing it on the same unsubtle frequency as his peers and competitors. You can’t challenge popular, beat-you-over-the-head hooks like, "that’s that shit I don’t like!" with complex wordplay and abstract imagery. And as my colleague and friend Jamilah Lemieux suggested earlier this week, there’s something very fishy about two white male critics being so dismissive of the song because it offends their personal aesthetic.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not OK with respectability politics or black maternal-shaming. If I was able to, I would sit down with the Chicago MC and explain how women, particularly women of color, aren’t solely responsible for gendered slur-prevention and how we’re certainly not the ones who make it so damned seductive in the first place.
Still, I think the key here is a meaningful consideration of a community rather than just the art it produces. Call me preachy, but I think we need to hear more straightforward challenges to the prevalence of "bitch" from black males (yes, black males) who use it in multiple ways with few consequences.
I say this as a black woman who has been called a bitch by men who look like me in the streets; had dudes who look like me throw juice and 40 bottles at me for ignoring their advances; had a man twice my age who looked like me call me a trick-ass ho for daring to hail a cab rather than riding with a stranger; had a classmate who looked like me shove me into a cafeteria conveyor belt because I wasn’t tactful enough when I told him I didn’t want his number; and had another one who looked like me call me an ugly black bitch with no ass just for averting my eyes. That kind of verbal abuse from people you’ve been raised to call "brother" has a cumulative effect. So if Lupe Fiasco or any other black male hip-hop artist takes the time out to say STOP!, I’ll ride for that effort and hope that the fair criticism propels him to another level the next time around.
*The headline has been corrected since publication.