Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Sam Smith

DON IMUS used the word 'ho' once and got suspended. 50 Cent used the word 13 times in one number and seems to be doing okay. In the same number he used the word 'nigga' 14 times.

At the heart of the Imus controversy is an interesting misunderstanding about how language and cultures work. In the Washington Post, Eugene Robinson, for example, slaps Imus around a bit and then offers this carefully sanitized linguistic analysis:

"The word is an abbreviation of 'whore' that was introduced to the popular lexicon by hip-hop music and that appears to have become firmly established. We know what the word used to mean, but it's not so clear just what it means now. Rappers use it as basically a synonym for "woman," but their lyrics are so focused on sex that the word retains the connotation of loose morals. The word is often used these days in contexts where that sexual connotation is ignored. It's still there, though."

An actual excerpt from 50 Cent may be more informative, however:

A-yo the bitch useta bring you dough
Useta be your bottom hoe
Now your paper comin' slow
She feel like she had ta go. . .

How you gunna catch some dates lookin like that hoe?
Bitch get off the sidewalk and into the street
Bitch the sidewalk is for pimpin bitch!

50 Cent is a former drug dealer and Don Imus is a former drug addict, miner, gas station attendant and railway brakeman.

At present, however, they live just 59 miles away from each other: Imus in Westport, CT; and 50 Cent in Mike Tyson's former mansion in Farmington, CT. According to Mapquest, it would take only an hour and 17 minutes for one to pay a visit on the other. They are part of contemporary upscale Connecticut culture. In a sense, Imus was just copying something a neighbor had said.

50 Cent has sold 21 million albums using language such as the foregoing. Don Imus got suspended.

At the heart of this contrast lies some truths we either ignore, don't understand or pretend don't exist.

The first is that nobody has a copyright on culture.

As Jim Cullen wrote in the Art of Democracy, Mick Jagger "self-consciously emulated the gruff singing style of black Chicago bluesman Howlin' Wolfe, who himself reputedly got his name trying to imitate the white country singer Jimmy Rodgers. Rodgers, for his part, drew on nineteenth century black traditions -- and on the English culture that later produced a twentieth-century middle-class white youth like Jagger who wanted to sing like a poor black American."

This is a classic story of music but cultural cross-fertilization affects everything else we do as well. You can't live in America today without being multi-cultural. The implicit presumption of Al Sharpton and others that blacks can control the effect on language of words used on 21 million albums worldwide makes no sense. If RIAA can't even control who downloads the records how is the NAACP going to control what effect these albums have on people? Or the phrases they pick up from them?

Imus shouldn't have used the word 'ho' but neither should have 50 Cent, because sooner or later someone like Imus is going to use it whether 50 Cent, Al Sharpton and Eugene Robinson like it or not. That's just the way life works.

You can write about it, excoriate it, and suspend the offender of the day. But when it's all over, words travel without a passport and are impervious any type of security screening.

Fourteen years ago, for example, Michael Marriott wrote a New York Times piece on the revival in black culture of the word 'nigger.' One rapper Kris Parker argued that its use would de-racialize it: "In another 5 to 10 years, you're going to see youth in elementary school spelling it out in their vocabulary tests. It's going to be that accepted by the society."

This, of course, is not what happened. But the debate happily goes on with everyone having one thing in common: futile sanctimony.

Perhaps the best wisdom is that widely accepted by parents. If you don't want your children saying bad things, don't say them yourself. The same principle would work with rappers and talk show hosts.