It’s an old question that flares up every now and then in battle rap. The question appears in various different shapes and forms, whether it’s people questioning Big J’s choice to say “nigga” in his battle against Uno Lavoz; or Uno Lavoz calling out a transgender woman from the audience. Racism, misogyny and homophobia are rife within battle rap, but when does it cross the line? When do people stop and say, “keep it rap”?
Context is everything in these circumstances and battle rap is akin to comedy. No subject, and rightly so, is off limits in the world of comedy. Comedians tackle everything from paedophilia to racism, mass murders to rape, and everything in between. But that doesn’t mean it’s all funny, nor does it mean it doesn’t sometimes offend.
However, humour is a tool that we can use to move past the evils of the world, we can satirise and parody the dark to bring out the light. But in order to do so, the joke needs to have a few elements.
Firstly, it needs to be making a point. If it doesn’t, it’s not satire, it’s just a commentary. Satire is using comedy and exaggeration to highlight and criticise stupidity within an area or issue. And that’s the important second part, it needs an exaggeration, otherwise it’s not a joke. It’s too grounded in reality. The exaggeration doesn’t have to be major, it doesn’t have to be preposterous, but it needs to be there somewhere. The element that takes it away from reality.
The use of racism, misogyny and homophobia within battle rap is similar. Much like comedy, no area should be off limits. However, what is the point of you being offensive?
If racism is being used simply for shock value, then this serves no point. No one is shocked. We’re bored by the lack of imagination. However, if there is direction, if a point is being made, if there is exaggeration, then this is a different matter. Big J’s use of the word “nigga” is a good example of this, he was calling Uno Lavoz out on his own use of the word and how wrong it was, and then used the word himself as his own element of exaggeration, it shocked some people but the point was made and it was made well.
Conversely, Uno Lavoz calling out a transgender woman served no point. It didn’t breakdown or assassinate Juan’s character. It didn’t highlight flaws or weaknesses in Juan’s skillset. If his point was to be that Juan is gay, being gay isn’t an insult so that’s wide of the mark. And if that’s the point, don’t pick a woman to be the prop within the joke. Uno was aiming for shock value, which he achieved, but it served no purpose.
Here is where the lines start to blur. What one finds offensive is entirely subjective.
At Training Days recently, Ambi went in on Lex over his addiction issues. It touched a nerve with me because I have also struggled with addiction in the past. Intellectually I know he’s making a point, it’s the arena of battle rap where this subject is fair game, and yet I still felt mildly uncomfortable. I don’t feel this way when people make paedophile jokes because it’s not a subject that has any emotional resonance with me.
Big J using the word “nigga” is similar. It offended some black folks because it’s an issue that is close to them, even though his motives for using the word had a clear purpose. It didn’t offend me. However, I don’t get to define the reaction of the entire black community because I’m a quarter-Jamaican. I’ve experienced racism throughout my life, but most of it was aimed at my half-Indian heritage, had Big J said “paki”, perhaps I would have reacted differently?
When we analyse and react to the offensive content in battle rap, we have to ask ourselves why we are reacting. Intellectually I know that Ambi wasn’t targetting me, no one else in the audience probably reacted the way I did. Before we jump on the bandwagon of calling people bigots, we should look at the point that is being made and if it is a reasonable one.
Rappers play with words, and as such no words should be off limits to them. But context is king. Just as we have to question why we feel offended by something. The rappers themselves have a social responsibility to ask if using this language is really necessary. What point are they trying to make? Can it be made in some other way which doesn’t require offending others but still hits as hard?
We can all be guilty of perpetuating certain stereotypes and offensive viewpoints. But there is a reason why racism angles kick up more of a fuss than homophobic or misogynistic angles, and that’s simply because there are more ethnic minorities fans in battle rap than there are LGBT or female fans. That means it’s simply more likely to touch a nerve with people that have a history or emotional connection with the issue at hand.
Battle rap offends, that’s kind of the name of the game. But as battle rap grows, and the fanbase becomes more diverse, maybe it’s time we, both fans and battle rappers alike, start exercising our social responsibilities and begin to question why we use the language we do.
Words by Marcus Bernard
Follow on Twitter at @marcus_bernard