Alright, so maybe I’m a bit out of touch with the current rap world, but I have never heard of this rapper Lil B. Have you? Correction, I hadn’t heard of him until yesterday. I read an article that discussed his decision to name his album “I’m Gay” and the onslaught of publicity (and death threats) he received because of it.
(Is this a new trend in the gay community that I'm unaware of?)
“Great”, I thought, “a ‘cool’ black male representing the gay community, what courage.”. As far as gay black men go, there aren’t very many of them who are out and vocal enough to support each other and the few that I know find it very hard to assimilate their culture with their sexuality. Not that I have any idea about the plight of a gay black man, but I can imagine that in a world that champions hip hop and rap with heros such as Kanye West and Jay-Z, it’s probably a little hard to come out to your friends. Don’t get me wrong, I love these musicians, but they sweat testosterone.
Anyway, I was totally wrong. This kid is pulling a complete and total publicity stunt. I think it’s rude and (bottom lining it) ignorant. Lil B (original name, btw) claims that he is not coming out, but simply using the word “gay” for its original meaning: “happy”. He’s just a real happy guy and apparently only strict definitions of words matter to him, connotations are for losers. As he put it so eloquently, “Some people worried about [...] the definition of words and shit. First of all, gay means happy.” Thanks, Webster. Wonder how good his raps are.
What Lil B did do, completely by accident, is draw attention to how our nation still reacts to the gay community, and how words (definitions and connotations) carry a lot of weight. Which brings up an intriguing question...to what extent is it our responsibility to choose our words based not on what we intend by them, but how they are perceived and understood?
First off, it’s ridiculous but unsurprising that Lil B received death threats for his “I’m gay” claim. Granted, the forum for his unintentional “coming out” is similar to Sarah Palin sporting an “I love Kucinich” sticker at a Tea Party rally, but the fact remains that there is still a whole lot of hate in our country. In my opinion, we encourage and allow this behavior by not allowing equality in marriage and by letting it slide that political leaders like Michele Bachman (click that link, it's hilarious) and Newt Gingrich support groups like The Family Leader.
(side note: The Family Leader is a group that has stated it is proud to be a “hate group” and considers Matthew Shepard’s death a necessary victory for their cause).
It is our responsibility as individuals and as a community to speak out against hate. All kinds of hate towards are fellow citizens, or better yet, our fellow human beings. We live in a time where hate should be unacceptable. I am not talking about taking away freedom of speech and disallowing people to voice their concerns, but speaking out as an individual against violence and hate can go a long way.
(can't we all just get along?)
Moving on, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about words and their meanings (nerd). There are plenty of words that have developed in their meaning from a banal definition to an incendiary and hurtful connotation. Faggot, retard, nigger (are you offended yet?) even the word gay went through a period of negative connotation. However their level of offense is certainly different. For example, it took me awhile to decide if I would even type the word n***er or whether I would star it out, as I did here. The word is so inflammatory, and so hurtful and offensive that I personally am not comfortable saying it in any scenario. The many times I find myself quoting Chappelle Show, I tiptoe around the word, avoiding it at all costs. I know in the black community there is a lot of debate as to whether the word should be used at all. The fact remains that the word, while still maintaining it’s power in most settings, has developed another connotation meaning “friend”.
I also find the word faggot extremely offensive, I personally chose not to say it and would prefer not to hold company with those that do. I do not however, find it has quite the same effect as the “n” word.
While still offensive but not quite as incendiary is the word “retard”. Tim Shriver’s recent campaign to end the use of this word has brought a lot of attention to this one. Now I can’t pinpoint why exactly this word packs less of a punch than the others. Is it because the connotation and denotation are essentially the same? Shouldn’t that, in theory, make it more offensive? Is it because the group that is being offended is not the target of vehement hate?
Whatever the case my be I believe that we are responsible for our actions and we are well aware of the connotation of these word. If we use them, we use them with the intention to hurt, we use them with hate behind them. At the extreme end of this spectrum we have complete responsibility for our words, but as things get more unclear, our level of responsibility becomes questionable. For example, I remember in college signing a line to a rap song that consisted of referring to someone as “boy”. I was immediately informed by my friend that I shouldn’t use that word because it contained connotations of slavery. Who knew? Well not me in my sheltered little world, anyway. So without the knowledge and intention behind the word, how can it possibly contain the same amount of offense?
Let’s bottom line it. Unfortunately we are not judged by our intentions, but by our actions. Whether Lil B was trying to draw attention to the plight of the gay community is ultimately irrelevant because his actions implied that he’s just trying to garner publicity. All we can do as individuals is choose not to use language that promotes hate. Where language gets hazy and connotations blend into each other, it comes down to your decision as an individual how you would like to be perceived.