Saturday, August 25, 2012

What is "Bitch Bad" All About?

A short while ago Lupe Fiasco came out with a single from his album, Food and Liquor II, called "Bitch Bad". The song,like many of the others on the album, seeks to challenge many of the ideas that have become norms in American, Black, and hip hop communities
. This particular single has drawn a wide swath of feedback from the hip hop community and the wider public. Much of the feedback came from people who are progressive/ radical/ feminist or some combination thereof. To inadequately sum up the general feeling of these people, many of them feel that the song either has a very patriarchal tone to it and/or that its criticism of the word "bitch" is politically backwards in a number of ways. I feel that a lot of these criticisms are based on a poor understanding of the song itself and the context within which it was made.
As a disclaimer, I am not trying to defend the song per se; instead what I want to do is to put the song in its proper context since a lot of people are writing about the song and its artist out of that context leading to a misunderstanding of the message. I'm going to address 3 praticualr points where I think people "miss the point" and give my opinion on it. Of course I'm not claiming any special knowledge of his thought process but making an educated analysis based on the fact that he's a progressive rapper from the projects of Chicago. Also note that none of these criticisms are based on any one blog/article on the issue but reflect a general pattern I see in writing.

1. This Song is Not About the Word "Bitch" or the Feminist Reppropriation of the Word.

I think this point needs to be addressed first because most of the criticisms I have seen have been based on a feminist reading of the song. In them, a lot of the pieces criticize Lupe for trying to de-legitimize the use of bitch by women in a positive fashion, asserting that by doing so he is holding up a patriarchal perspective on female respectability. I agree that there are strands of patriarchal thinking in the song, for instance, the distinction between "woman" and "lady" in the chorus (but I kind of doubt there was much delibrate thought behind that). What I disagree with is that this song is wrong in its attack against the use of the term "bitch" seeing as he's not actually addressing that term, but examining a derivative of it, "bad bitch". People who are not part of the black community or enough into hip hop culture aren't going to make the distinction, but it is an important one to make as I will explain below. 
"Bad Bitch" is a term that has recently (last 10 years or so I would estimate) become common among black women and women of other races who are immersed in innner city culture. Also, because the context of the idea of a bad (or alternatively, boss) bitch, using the flat term bitch tends to lean back to the same meaning as "bad bitch" when used in our community. The idea/ term itself is hard to define in of itself but it can be seen as a female counterpart to the male terms "pimp" or "player". Like the pimp or player, someone who considers herself a bad bitch sees herself as cunning, smart, able to eaisly manipulate the opposite sex, and generally of higher importance or status than regular "bitches". This term lives within the context of the narccistic, egotistical, and materialist hip hop mainsteam. Anyone looking at this term in any context aside from this one is doing it wrong. What this means for analyzing the song is that we must look at it within the space of (mostly) the black community, its gender relations (which have unique qualities to that of mainstream America), and its relation to the hip hop industury.
In the above context "bad bitch" serve the same ends as "pimp" or "player", a term that lionizes the manipulation and exploitation of other human beings and elevating one's self-worth (and ego) at the expense of everyone else. It's a very capitalistic self-perspective and one that is part of the base of modern mainstream hip hop. This is the term that Lupe is addressing in this song. Terms such as bad bitch serve to further negative images of black women and negative relationships between black women and black men in a similar way that pimp and player do. 

2. This Song Is Not Victim Blaming.

One of the recent ideas I have encountered concerning the song discusses how the song seems to place passive blame on the mother, young girls, and the video girl mentioned in the song for the negative conquences that come from the use of "bad bitch". There are "too many to mention" pieces where authors do blame the oppressed for the actions of the oppressor but I dont believe this is one of them. Of course, like with all music, people have their own interperations of lyrics and meanings and this is soley my own for this song. I believe the last verse lays out the closest to reality meaning of the song.
The last verse has the little boy, now grown up, meeting one of the grown up girls who has become (in the video at least) a video chick. She apparently calls herself a bad bitch and because he associates the term with his mother, who used the term in the first verse (who is assumed to be a good upstanding woman and mother to him), he rejects the girl saying she is nothing like his mother aka not up to his standards. I think rhetorically the verse is a mess because he is trying to be too clever but I think the point was to display the rift between how women and men view the term bad bitch.
Women, as I mentioned above, use the term to allude to their supeority over other women and the men who are attracted to them while on the other hand men (and this is from first hand "living in the hood" experience) who use the term to simply allude to the physical actractivness of a woman and by extension her ripeness to be exploitied sexually by him. This rift of meaning means that while women are using the term in an self-affirming way, men are at the end of the logic degrading women when they hear or use the term.
Considering Lupe never really gives "prescription" for this situation in the verse beyond his disdain of the term I would assume he's saying "look here ladies this is what men really think about you when you use this term, just so you know. If you thought they are on the same page when you use it, they aren't". The takeaway would be for women hearing the song to decide how to react to that reality whether it's not using it anymore, using it ironically ("this bad bitch about to show you something"), or go for reappopration. The political relationship can be analogized to the one between black people calling each other niggas as a general or endearing term vs what white people think when they see us do it. We are using it in one social meaning but to the wider, dominate group it repersents only negativity that ought to be exploited or looked down on. The response to this reality is totally up to women (obviously) but I think the assumption is that a lot of women don't know how men look at the use of the term to have any position on it.
As a direct analogy it would be like black people calling each other niggas in a positive way all the time and then at some point encountering a racist white person who uses the term to address one of them. If they only know the word as positive and don't know that when white people use the term it means a poor black person, they could be in alot of danger and not even know it. In the same way a lot of men see a girl call herself a bad bitch and he think "I'm going to bag that one right there!". Regardless of how she wants to respond to this male social indicator, if at all, she should still know about it.

3. To My Knowledge Lupe is Not a Feminist/ Radical/ Socialist.

At the end of the day this song is an attempt to address rampant sexism and egotism in the hip hop/ black community. I think it's disingenious for us to expect too much out of this song though. Lupe is not an activist like many of us looking at this song and nor is it addressed to us or our interests. He's at best a liberal progressive anti-imperialist Muslim Black guy from the projects who is making a record with a major label that he hates with a passion. That alone limits the strength of the analyses he can make about anything. Also he is just now beginning to come into his own in terms of his political thought as seen through songs like "Words I Never Said" and "Around My Way [Freedom Ain't Free]". To look for anything revolutionary in his music at this point would be expecting too much for where he is.
Now to amend that whole last paragraph, I still think we need to criticize public figures, members of our community, or anyone else who has an incorrect view of the reality of any kind of oppression and makes it public. The problem comes in when we look at the mainstream and hold the same kind of contempt for the progressives when they do something wrong as we do the Right. Lupe is not trying to tell women about "legitmante rape" or police their vaginas. He may have, depend on your judgment and reading of the song, royally messed up his take on terms being used to describe the women in our community but that only means he has more developing to do like all the rest of us.
In the final anaysis I think the most useful thing to do with situations where progressive people say things that have bad bits is to focus on the direction vs position of the whole piece. If they are moving in the right direction, let's criticize but not act as if they are the enemy or something because the net result of that piece is still positive. And if we are going to criticize, let's do it in the right context . I think at the end of the day the song is a resonably good attempt to navigate a very choppy sea of ideas and for all the mistakes mentioned in this piece and others, Lupe still needs to be supported for trying to be positive in general because that is more than what everyone else is doing at this point. He has room to grow and hopefully he will. Perhaps I am underplaying the mistakes this song makes (entirely possible simply because I'm a man) but for right now from what I see I'll lean away from giving the overall effort a thumbs down.  

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