The Rap Rhetorics Student Blog Part 3: Obscenity, Parody, and Freedom of Speech
Welcome back to the Rap Rhetorics Student Blog crash of the Rhetorical Roundhouse platform–this is part 3 in a five-part series showcasing various First-Year College writers. Last time they discussed topics including police violence, the “war on drugs,” and America’s mass incarceration problem. All of these topics were first introduced to these students through the genre of Hip-Hop music, by artists ranging from KRS-One and N.W.A to Killer Mike and Lil Baby. In this way, the Rap Rhetorics course exposed students to new texts, ones outside of their cultural literacy, and challenged them to research historical events from a perspective largely different from their own. Students all agreed that Hip-Hop is a powerful tool for revolution, change, and amplifying the socio-political messages of generations of great thinkers who came before.
Similarly, the course explored the ways in which the powerful force of Hip-Hop culture, particularly music, was targeted historically for being licentious, countercultural, amoral, or obscene.
We had a fun time exploring various “obscene” songs in a sweet-sixteen style bracket competition (the Obscene 16) with Cardi B. and Megan thee Stallion coming out on top with their filthy-nasty hit “WAP.”
Would you believe that not one but TWO of the contenders are actually songs from the 1930’s? Don’t believe me? Be sure to check out my personal favorite, “Shave Me Dry.”
Ok, before things get too nasssty in here, let me explain the reason why this discussion ever made it into the course. If I go way way back to when I was teaching at Radford, I remember watching the James Franko movie Howl (2010) and being mind blown. I started teaching about the connections between obscenity trials and censorship of marginalized voices in poetry, literature, and Hip-Hop immediately after.
Flash forward to when I piloted this course at USF and I’ll give you this jewel from my syllabus. Please enjoy "Luke Skyywalker Goes to the Supreme Court." As a teacher of writing, free speech is extremely important to me. I take censorship very seriously, especially when it’s a tool used by the powerful to further disadvantage the powerless. So we have a good time talking about naughty songs to talk about these ideas. But then, inevitably, students start to notice that some issues of free speech and obscenity depend entirely on the positional politics in various rhetorical situations.
I think I’ll let my students tell you more about how today’s topic segues pretty naturally into concepts of gender-bias, misogyny, and homophobia. Thank you for giving their writing your time 🙂
The quality or state of being obscene is used as a justification for censorship, but more often than not, works of art or literature are protected by law. Historically, if texts were ruled obscene, it would be illegal for someone to sell them, thus penalizing book stores, record companies, etc. Those that were ruled to not be obscene set important legal precedents for future cases related to copyright law, freedom of speech, and digital media licensing. Rap group 2 Live Crew made history in the early 1990’s where they defended their lyrics in federal court from the label of “obscenity,” based on the idea that their work was parody/satire and thus protected. This case had huge ramifications for the internet boom and current meme culture as we know and love it today. These cases protecting the profanity and explicit lyrics within Hip-Hop with artistic value likely paved the way for future songs, and ensured the continuation of Hip-Hop.
To this day, Southern Hip-Hop is known for producing some of the most ‘obscene’ rappers continuing a tradition of sexually explicit lyrics extending from 2 Live Crew. Trick Daddy, Juvenile, Ludacris, Nelly, and Lil Jon are just a few of these icons. These male rappers were constantly talking about sex in shocking, overt, and sometimes violent ways–champions of free speech, no? But when artists like Khia, Lil Kim, and Trina stepped on the scene with their obscene lyrics, the Hip-Hop audience (read: men) reeled in shock! There is a double standard on who can discuss sex and sexuality between men and women. Often times when women talk about sex they are told they are being “un-lady like” or “nasty”, but when men talk about it they are just “boys being boys” or it is just “locker room talk.”
Rapper Trina first made her debut in 1998 at just age 19. She featured on Trick Daddy’s song “Nann Ni**A”. In this song she goes bar for bar with renowned rapper Trick Daddy and outwits him, serving up the line, “That don' tried all types of shit/Who quick to deep throat the dick/ And let another b*tch straight lick the clit.” People were shocked by this lyric, and some were even disgusted that a woman would display her sexuality so openly.
Women are constantly criticized for things that their male counterparts would never be criticized for, like the way they dress or their leadership style. The rap industry is no exception to this - female rappers have been criticized for being “too sexual” and “too explicit” for decades. Men, on the other hand, are almost never criticized for their use of sexual content.
“The most common theme we see in the hip-hop industry is seeing women being objectified and sexualized in videos and lyrics, and with this portrayal of women comes views, streams, and thus money.” (Mendoza, 2021). How visually satisfying their bodies are, directly affects the amount of attention they receive in the media and from other male rappers. Not only does this influence future women who want to join the industry to create music, but also the young girls
who watch music videos that come along with the most popular music within the media. “As a result of this phenomenon, we see many women try and alter their bodies to look the way that many rappers want to see women.”
When most people think of female rap artists they think of shaking ass, the repetitive use of the 'P' word, and the degrading of men. These stigmas were created from songs like Cardi B's "W.A.P.," Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda," Khia's "My Neck, My Back," or CupCakKe's "Deepthroat," to name a few. With lyrics describing degrading sex acts towards themselves as well as towards their partner, many find it hard to support female rap. Some may ask 'How did we get here?'
In an interview when Trina was asked, “Do you feel you helped liberate the movement of women being able to display their sexual standards, desires, wants, and needs?”. Her answer was, “I think so, I think I’ve done the part of being expressive, being sexual, being true and being true to myself”. Trina paved the way for today’s female artists and rockstars to express themselves in the way men have been for years.
“Work it” by Missy Elliot discusses how Missy Elliot makes herself look nice and is confident in her appearance in order to get with men. Missy Elliot Describes how it is ok to feel confident and good when men are attracted to you. The song also encourages women to take charge in the bedroom. I think this song has similar themes to Cardi B’s “W.A.P” it is just less explicit. “Work it” encourages women to be confident, and Missy Elliot describes how she is confident in her own skin, and describes how women shouldn't be afraid to take charge and enjoy sex.
I think it is very important, as well as beneficial to hear music coming from women discussing body positivity. Oftentimes in Hip-Hop when the female body is being discussed it is from a male perspective. This can lead to the comments to be objectifying or offensive, leaving women insecure about their bodies. When women hear compliments or body positivity from another women it can help dismantle these appearance stereotypes that have been built up by men.
Lizzo has become an inspiring voice for all types of women. In one of her newest songs “Tempo”
she is talking about the confidence that bigger girls should have and to own what they have.
The message that she tries to spread in almost every one of her songs is the message that, no matter what anyone tells you, you are perfect the way you are both inside and out and to never change for anyone but yourself. Lizzo has been an inspiring voice for girls of all ages and continues to do that with each and every one of her songs. I think the song “Tempo” By Lizzo is a great anthem for body positivity and self love. Although these songs have also had controversy, saying that they are too explicit and vulgar, they still are helping break down the taboo topic of female sex “issues” and topics.
As always, thank you to my student writers for sharing your thoughtful work. Thank you, dear reader, for taking an interest in the Rap Rhetorics class–hope you check out the further discussion of women and LGBTQ+ communities in Hip-Hop in the next one!