Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A brief interlude for music and words.

"I'm packing heat like the oven door." -- Jay Z

I'm attempting to look at rappers as poets, in the fashion of Tupac, if that makes sense. On my way in this morning I was listening to one of the many mixes that a Yelper put together of tunes that members of the Yelp-o-Sphere were listening to. Among these are lots of hardcore angry metal tunes, which to be frank I can't even bring myself to listen to. I don't see any musical value in them, nor can I really muster the patience to try. There's some Dragonforce and Dolly Parton ("Jolene") not to mention plenty of new "indie" rock and classic indie music. And then there is plenty of rap and I guess what you'd call hip hop by artists like Jay Z. I find it hard to listen to a lot of that type of music because of the prevalence of the "n" word.

Listen, as a grammarian and amateur etymologist, I don't believe in this whole "reclaiming words" business. Yes, language grows and changes and words take on colloquial meanings. New words are added to the lexicon and old words fade away. There's the old adage that "When I say a word, it means what I choose it to mean," or something to that effect, and my father used to spout that off frequently. Yet when I would say a word without knowing its meaning and dad would ask me what I thought it meant and I replied "I don't know," he'd insist I go look it up. I usually didn't, though. It was a rebellious act of a young wordsmith. But in my experience, in a single generation or two, words don't change their meanings.

In 500 years, the "n" word might fade into oblivion, left in old dictionaries never to be seen, read, or heard again. In truth, I'd prefer this route for the word, not to mention for words like "k*ke" and "c*nt" and "d*ke." The latter two, of course, have been embraced by the women's movements and the lesbian community. They've "reclaimed" the words, making them empowering -- not harmful or derogatory. But aren't there still those who use these words in the very way that ARE hurtful? The words themselves can be found in the dictionary with general definitions, but the colloquial usage has transformed them into words of hate and words of empowerment. It's like the word "queer" -- the GLBT community embraced the term, they say, and are proud to call themselves queer. But there's most definitely a difference in the types of people who call themselves "queer" versus those who call themselves "gay" or "lesbian." There's still a stigma with the word, and in many circles the word is still derogatory and full of hate.

The word "k*ke" is not used so much anymore, and it is said to have derived from Ellis Island. The story goes that Jews were supposed to sign with an X, like all new arrivals, but since it resembled the cross too much, they'd draw a circle. The German word (I think it was German) for circle is kikel or something of the sort, and thus the officers at Ellis Island began calling Jews "k*ke." It evolved, hate fell behind it, and now it's a word of oppresion. I'm reading the book "Generation J," and I have to say I find the book pretty distressing and self-centered. The author discusses the reclaiming of words and thinks, Why can't Jews reclaim the word? What a stupid idea.

So back to where I started -- the "n" word. I can't even type it. I find it easier to type the other words than I do the "n" word. I'm not sure why, but when I hear it, or see it, it says to me "HATE" in big, bold, angry, black letters. It screams of slavery and oppression and hate; pure, vile, violent hate. I've never understood the desire for the black community to "reclaim" the word. I don't know why you wouldn't just want it to fade away, to be left to the annals of a horrible time in history like slavery. For there is a difference between remembering and reliving and in my mind, everytime the word is uttered, it's reliving that anger and oppression. It's better to remember; it's wiser, at that.

But I'm giving Jay Z a shot. And it's phrases like that which I wrote above -- "I'm packing heat like the oven door" -- said with a rhythm and poetry that strikes me as worth listening to. It's a simple phrase, but it's quite beautiful in its poetic quality. So for now, I'm giving rap a chance, though I cringe at every utterance of the "n" word. I just can't help it.

On a different, yet related note, thanks to Melanie, here's a new video from Mates of State, who have an album coming out in May. It's good stuff, so give it a watch.