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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Why not focus on innovating instead of banning?

Words1Caution readers (!): Offensive language is included in this post, but only because it's core to this post's subject matter and reports the facts (otherwise I would never use them).

Prominent U.S. hip-hop executive Russell Simmons has recommended eliminating the words "bitch," "ho" and the "n-word" (I just can't bring myself to type that one) from the recording industry, considering them "extreme curse words." Simmons has called for a voluntary restriction on the words and advocates setting up an industry watchdog to recommend guidelines for lyrical and visual standards.

According to Simmons, "Our internal discussions with industry leaders are not about censorship. Our discussions are about the corporate social responsibility of the industry to voluntarily show respect to African Americans and other people of color, African American women and to all women in lyrics and images."

I find the "n-word" completely offensive but, oddly enough, not the other two. Even though I'm female and they are always targeted at my gender, I know they don't apply. I find them to be sensational, not hurtful. But does banning them...even under the category of social responsibility and done so "voluntarily"...make them more powerful and thusly, more popular? By taking them out of songs aren't we encouraging them to be used even more so in language?

Having "explicit language" labels on CDs is a good move. It makes sense for parents who want to screen their children's music, or even for people who prefer their music foul-language free. It's the "guidelines" and these "industry watchdogs" I'm not so sure about. Whenever anyone uses the words "watch" and "dog" it smacks of censorship. I'm just not sure how an industry "voluntarily" agreeing to ban words isn't the exact same thing as censoring them.

But censorship isn't my point. My point is communicating how one wins--and wins big--in the battle of the bad words (or any battle, really). Why not instead of banning aren't we innovating?

Simmons is, after all, an innovative man (hope he reads this post so he remembers how all his success has been in creating, not banning). How about promoting a new genre of music devoid of derogatory language? Remember, these words don't go away because they're banned...but they might get used a lot less if we gave audiences a really compelling (and yes, cool) alternative.

I believe words are powerful and can be very hurtful. But as professionals we choose what we align with and for whom we work. And, as consumers, we decide what we listen to and what we buy, or don't buy (our biggest show of support or lack thereof is the almighty dollar).

After all, if there wasn't a market to support such songs, these songs wouldn't be produced and distributed. So why not create an entirely new market?

Sure, the marketer in me sides with innovation but I also advocate this practice because, in banning we're giving these words more power...but if we focused on creating we're giving entirely new genres of music newfound (market) power. That's how you win on both the socially responsible and the business fronts. Fight fire with fire, not with bans--that practice is for the (watch) dogs. And that dog don't hunt.


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As a respected mogul in the industry, his message would have carried farther had he encouraged artists to shy away from negative objectification. Granted, there will continue to be artists every year in this genre that will celebrate the glorification of ego, extol material wealth and validate the use of violence. Then again there are many artists that make good songs without any of these themes at all.

Russell should promote this latter group - by focusing on them, he helps dispel stereotypes non-listeners have of the hip-hop genre and gives people an enlightened choice in what's available out there.

At the same time, influential women in hip hop need to speak out about the unacceptability of treating women in such a disrespectful way. Peer pressure can be a powerful disincentive, and when more women show their disapproval of the language to others (men and women) who are listening to the music, that attitude may spread. It has to come from within the hip hop culture, though, or else nothing will happen.

Mario: Thanks much, Simmons should be focusing on the later group...better yet, promoting them and new talent that works to his goal. Placing the energy (and creativity) on them is advancing his agenda. His current play won't go far.

Nedra: Appreciate your comment. I like having the women speak out and I would love to see the women in hip-hop promote a new (improved?) genre. Yes, it must come from within...which is why Simmons is so key. He just, IMO, needs the right strategy.

From an european POV, I feel that banning some words is a way to pretend that problems do not exist. It's not because you ban sexist vocabulary that you solve the fact than women earn less money than men, it's not because you forbid the n-word that you solve racism. My best friend is gay and I sometimes call him fag (and he refers to himself the same way) and it's OK since I love and respect him.

Does an "explicit language" label really make that much difference? Maybe for an eight-year old kid shopping with his mom, but not for the 13-year old at the mall by himself.

Also, how many parents monitor online purchases, as kids buy singles for 99 cents or download them for free?

I would venture to say, "not many."

While I don't advocate censorship in any form, as a parent, I'm not sure where I stand on this. Guess it starts by teaching your kids that it's not okay to accept these words or speak to others using them.

I think the analogy here is dietary restriction. I avoid coffee because I have acid reflux. He's suggesting avoiding words because it's making enough people sick of hearing them. Record company execs have the right to tell artists that we're not putting out your music if it contains the "F" word or the "N" word or the "H" word. If artists decide to embrace that language, they will likely still find a label or distribute it themselves. If they decide to avoid those words and that direction resonates with them, perfect. If enough executives voluntarily say no to N, H, and F, then it will change the language choices of artists and the market will evolve. Because music is a business. And the top labels still control the market. I personally would respect an executive who embraces goodness and puts his values behind his business. My POV comes from years of eastern meditation. I'm not a fundamentalist christian.

This is another chicken and egg question that isn't easy to answer. The words you mentioned are, as Mario pointed out, a means to negatively objectify certain people, for the most part. Do the words precede widespread objectification, or is widespread objectification already occurring before the words are used and the songs purchased?

The use of the n-word in R&B is strange, for its users practically brandish it as a badge of honor... as a way to self-identify with something commendable... like a brotherhood that persevered under harsh circumstances. It's their code word, though, and they guard it vigorously.

As for the other two, I'm all for the industry having a conscience, and I believe people in general and in music should endeavor to lift others up, not put them down. That's not something that can or should be legislated, but we can and should police our own language, behavior, and spending habits, so as not to encourage the negative objectification of entire categories of people.


Here's my disclaimer right up front: I hate vulgarity but hate censorship even more. In America, we have the right to listen to the bombastic crap we call Hip Hop, just as my generation listened to Black Sabbath, which now seems tame compared to today's lyrics.

When the industry says that Hip Hop lyrics reflect their culture, then the problem isn't within the music; it is within the culture. When Black Women and the Black Culture reject this image, and when White Parents take more interest in their teenagers' music purchases using mommy's and daddy's money, the music will change. Let the public decide; not a few moguls.

You're right CK, this will just make the artists that do curse that much more popular. It would have made a much bigger impact if a respected artist such as Jay-Z came out and said that he was CHOOSING to not use these words anymore in his songs. Simmons, while having good intentions, comes across as the nagging parent in this case.

Thanks Mark, Neil and Cam. All very helpful.

Phillipe: I really appreciate a European perspective (my favorite aspect of this conversation is that it's global...just like all the global weigh-in last week over gun control).

Lewis: This line really resonates with me: "When the industry says that Hip Hop lyrics reflect their culture, then the problem isn't within the music; it is within the culture."

I like the idea of having well-respected artists (and, to Nedra's points female hip-hop artists) come forward to promote more positive, advancing language but to effect a change we need to promote a new mindset--and be creative in so doing. In this case, if Russell were to tap his innovative genius and promote a rich, healthy genre it would both focus on the positive and prove how music can be good (and yes, lucrative) even when it's NOT harmful. The strategy is to innovate not dictate certain words be removed. In essence, be the change he seeks by changing the music landscape (instead of being a watchdog, that doesn't work). Get back to your innovative roots, Russell. The artists can make their own decisions to come forward and remove harmful lyrics. But Russell's time (and smarts) are best used in promoting a new genre. A genre that focuses on the positive instead of an initiative that focuses on eliminating the negative.

I can't believe he would be the one bringing this forward. It sickens me, in fact. Now, I agree, the "n-word" is not something I would use, but nor am I offended when I rapper uses it, either.

I guess, my point is, words have power when we give them power. By censoring the word, it increases its power, nullifying the desired effect.

If you really want to censor a word, work harder to change its meaning, or make it so ubiquitous no one cares anymore.

Paul: I agree that words have power and this ban just fuels the power; no question in my mind there. Changing the words meaning is an interesting play. I recommend that instead of focusing on the words, innovate music that uses other words (but don't ban the music as that just gives it more power--and a lot more promotion). Russell and others need to innovate and create a new type of music that, to your point, becomes ubiquitous. Thanks for chiming in.

ck, i read somewhere that hip hop is losing its grip on the audience. 2006 vs 2005 sale was -21% for the first time in 12 years and no hip hop album was in the top 10: i suppose that simmons is just looking for his new source of revenue.
words are words, they can be heavy as stone but it is on us to use them appropriately.

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