Culture can’t be copyrighted

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.

 

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10 thoughts on “Culture can’t be copyrighted

  1. I see something similar to the process described in these items happening in gay culture. In the 80's we worked very hard to start using the word "queer" ourselves in order to take its power away.Now, the word "faggot" has become the functional equivalent of "nigger". Only gay people are allowed to use it and straights have to apologize profusely if it passes their lips in public.I don't see that making such a big deal out of either of these words or the word "ho" serves any useful purpose.

  2. So because 50 Cent said it, that makes it okay? I don't follow the logic. Wrong is wrong no matter who says it. We can sit around and pretend that issues such as race, sex, class, and gender were not in play in Imus' comment. or we can come back to reality and not apologize for a man who admitted that he "went over the line." We can also look back and see what the Constitution says. In it, we'll see that 50 Cent's words, the Ku Klux Klan's words, Michael Richards' words, and Don Imus' words are all using fighting words. These words are not protected by the 1st amendment as they incite hatred. So, would you rather dismiss the complicated reality of the situation or sing and dance in Bizarro World, wherein there are no racists, sexists, bigots, or the ignorant?

  3. I beg to differ, 7:25.The first amendment says quite clearly that Congress shall pass "no laws" infringing on freedom of speech. This doesn't mean "no laws except those against speech that some people might find hurtful", or "no laws except against the use of 'obscenities' on TV or radio". It means no laws period. Any other intepretation is an example of judicial activism, that great evil that the GOP hates when the ruling is inconvenient for them, but loves when it extra-constitutionally appoints their candidate to the Presidency.FoE

  4. I wish that those calling on MSNBC and CBS to fire Imus for saying "nappy-headed hos" would have the same outrage for the media leading lights who pimped for the war in Iraq. Imus' words hurt some people's feelings. Tom Friedman's, Richard Cohen's, et als killed.

  5. If you let the dog off the chain, don't start acting like "Oh my God" when it bites people. Blacks who enthusiastically introduced, or re-introduced, so-called forbidden words into the cultural zeitgeist cannot now insist that they alone have exclusive rights on those words as a means of supposedly defusing their power to harm. Whether it should or shouldn't work like that don't frost the cake; if 'nigger' and 'ho' get put out into the daily parlance, then a whole spectrum of people are going to use them, be they old white guys like Imus or young gangstas like Fifty Cent. Arguing about the context in which those words were used by either party is beside the point, once the culture has sanctioned their use. The First Amendment can (and in fact does)guarantee us the right to say whatever we choose; what it can't (and doesn't) guarantee is the idea that certain words can only have a special province for certain groups, or that any of us will use sensitivity or intelligence before using these words.

  6. Sam, they may be using the same words, but the context of 50 Cent & Don Imus couldn't be different. I don't just mean that one is a black rapper and the other a white radio personality. 50 Cent's lyrics aren't describing anybody in particular, but Imus's comments were aimed directly at a small identifiable group of young women: the Rutgers women's basketball team. It's the difference between saying "men are assholes" and "Sam Smith is an asshole." What I can't fathom is why Imus took the potshot in the first place; could he just not stand having a group of young black women be heroes for five minutes? Had to knock them down to size? I say he deserves everything he's gotten so far, except the extra publicity.

  7. Imus is a professional clown. He was making a stupid and insulting joke in the heat of the moment because that's what he does and has been doing without being fired for 40 years. You're giving him way too much credit if you think his intention was to take a group of black heroes and knock them down to size.And I don't see how 50 Cent maligning all women (which means each individual named woman in the world all at once) can be considered less out of line than what Imus said. If anything it's more out of line by a factor of however many women there are in the world divided by the number of members on the basketball team.

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