Def Jam Co-Founder Russell Simmons Seeks Voluntary Ban on “Bitch,” “Ho,” and “Nigger”

With a war in Iraq, a genocide in Sudan, and a health care crisis, it's interesting how some white dude named Don Imus could overshadow it all with his shock-jocking "nappy-headed ho" comment. Suddenly, hip-hop lyrics once again became the center of attention, resulting in high-profile forums, intense debates, and a media shitstorm all framed in terms of racial responsibility. In this complex web of productive and ignorant discussions, here are two reactions that I found particularly interesting:

- "Don Imus is not a hip-hop artist or a poet. Hip-hop artists rap about what they see, hear and feel around them, their experience of the world... Sometimes their observations or the way in which they choose to express their art may be uncomfortable for some to hear, but our job is not to silence or censor that expression. Our job is to be an inclusive voice for the hip-hop community and to help create an environment that encourages the positive growth of hip-hop."

- "[Hip-Hop Summit Action Network] is concerned about the growing public outrage concerning the use of the words ‘bitch,' ‘ho,' and ‘nigger.' We recommend that the recording and broadcast industries voluntarily remove/bleep/delete the misogynistic words ‘bitch' and ‘ho' and the racially offensive word ‘nigger.' "

Believe it or not, both quotes are actually from Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam Recordings, and were released on behalf of Hip-Hop Summit Action Network on two different occasions (1 2). To be fair, he does say the ban should be "voluntary" and that it's "not about censorship," but what is this really about then? Out of respect for "African Americans" and females? Or is it because people are suddenly demanding accountability for a white person's comments by looking to hip-hop, a style of music dominated by black artists? Public relations?

It's hard to shake the feeling that Simmons (who everyone seems to call a "rap mogul") is changing his tune because talking heads like Rev. Al Sharpton have been so vocally insistent that labels and artists crack down on hip-hop lyrics (Sharpton plans on buying stock in Time Warner and Universal Music Group to earn rights to go to shareholder meetings and complain about hip-hop lyrics). That and, of course, the influence of the private HSAN meeting that was held between record executives, industry leaders, and community activists at the home of Warner Music's Lyor Cohen. Yeah, a private meeting. In this context, if hip-hop lyrics are reflections of the artist's experiences, as Russell Simmons says, would a sudden absence of, say, the word "nigger" reflect a cultural progression or a cultural imposition?

Speaking of cultural impositions, in February, the New York City Council passed a resolution that symbolically bans the word "nigger" and asks that any album with "nigger" in its lyrics be excluded from Grammy considerations. But if the word is being used as a term of endearment, why should artists feel pressured to self-censor, and why should the album be exempt from the Grammys? I mean, does the appropriation of the word "nigger" by African Americans mean anything anymore? Sounds like a big ball of power and control to me. Misogyny and racism extend far beyond radio broadcasting and hip-hop, and the effectiveness of banning certain vocabulary in hip-hop lyrics to eliminate such deep-rooted problems with such widespread manifestations is, to this particular writer, misguided.

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