Can Azealia Banks really say "f-ck n-ggers and f-ggots"?
What’s in a name?
Shakespearian musings about words and meanings often invite romantic recollections of prose or poetry. But these days, some of the more “profound” conversations about words, meaning, and intimacy are generated on social networks, and have more to do with politics than poetry. Rapper Azealia Bank’s most recent use of “faggot” in a Twitter exchange with producer Harry Rodrigues (aka Baauer) and then blogger Perez Hilton has ignited a conversation about what exactly is in a “name.”
Banks has previously explained that her use of the word “f-ggot” is not an attack on male homosexuality, but rather she notes, “A faggot is any male who acts like a female. There's a BIG difference.” Even if we discounted homophobia, the misogyny and transphobia in this statement is palpable. She has since elaborated that she uses the “F-word” to mean lying, cowardice or backstabbing. Is this meant to be better?
Banks continues to insist that her use of the “F-word” is not homophobic, and has attempted to analogise it with the use of “n-gger” in some rap communities:
“For some reason this word f-ggot is still so offensive, it's just strange to see why. There are all kinds of people who are against the N-word in hip hop music, there are all kinds of people who are against hip hop music in general because they see it as a negative influence on African American culture, you know what I mean?”
In one sense, Banks aptly identifies that words have varied usages depending on their context. From the “SlutWalk” to “Queer Nation,” words that were once used to deride or demean have been “reclaimed” in various political or cultural movements. Banks makes reference to the “N-word” as a term that has been redeployed in hip-hop. Whether it can be an emancipatory word or not, Banks implies the word itself can be disconnected from its history and made usable in all contexts. This seems to forget the way the “N-word” is still mobilised in racist violence across the US.
So how can we distinguish between “creative” and “offensive” language?
It all depends on the context. To crudely paraphrase the insightful work of feminist philosopher Judith Butler: words do not carry inherent meanings or intent. It's the way a particular statement is perceived that determines whether the words used are injurious or not. Starting a sentence with “No offence…” or ending one with “just kidding” doesn't eliminate the possibility that someone could be offended.
We find ourselves constantly circulating through texts. Whether it is listing to “Harlem Shake” or reading the latest Perez Hilton blog, words and images cement and construct our perceptions of the world. If we hear someone shout “fag” from a car passing by on the road we may feel threatened. If we see the term used in a drag performance, we may find ourselves amused or entertained.
Banks claims that we should focus less on the “f-cking bullshit” and more on “the bigger problems in the world.” In a scathing critique of the Gay and Lesbian Association Against Defamation (GLAAD), she says:
“I mean let's look at it, it's gay and lesbian alliance against defamation, or whatever…. that's what it stands for, right? I mean would you agree that homosexuals, and the homosexual community, have bigger problems than the word faggot, you know what I mean?”
Banks seems to presume that words are innocuous. She is not alone. We often counterpose speech with physical acts – with the latter viewed as potentially violent or coercive. Indeed, we need only think back to our childhood when our parents urged us to speak to bullies with the following: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” While we were encouraged as children to embrace our ability to rise above “the little things” like speech, this obscured the fact that words “do” things to us as well. Words shape our psyches and press upon our bodies in visceral ways.
We need only look at the history of homophobic vilification here in Australia to be bitterly reminded about the corrosive effect of speech. Insults like “fag” or “dyke” or “tranny” have been combined with religious, psychological, and criminal interventions to police the behavior of those who refuse compulsory heterosexuality or challenge binary ideas of gender.
On February 18th 2013, the word “f-ggot” was tweeted over 50, 000 times. Writing Themselves in 3, a national study pioneered by psychologist Lynne Hillier, released in November 2010, identified that over 60 percent of same-sex attracted or gender questioning young people experienced verbal abuse. Of those who experienced vilification, 40 percent thought about self-harm and suicide.
Banks has appealed to freedom of speech as an unencumbered right of expression. Asking people to think more carefully about how we use language in pop culture can be met with accusations of “political correctness.” Banks passionately exclaims:
“The fact that we're even having this conversation means that it's gone on too long. It's just like, no. You know what I mean? Let's talk about something else. This is just going to go in circles, you know what I mean?”
Censorship is limited when challenging the harmful use of words in pop culture. If we are committed to stop “going in circles,” then we need to think more critically about what words we use, why we choose to use them, and how we use them when we talk.
Some argue that since Banks herself is a self-identified bisexual African American woman, her use of the words cannot be discriminatory. However, this obscures the fact that the effects of speech do not always correlate with their intent.
More broadly, Banks’ statements remind us that casual analogies between race and sexuality are problematic. Not only do they ignore the different histories of racist and homophobic violence, but also when cleaved apart from each other, they erase the experiences of people who are victimised on the basis of both their race and sexual orientation.
Banks is not unique in her embrace of the “F-word.” Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ latest hit, “Same Love,” makes reference to the fact that homosexuality is often construed in rap music as something to be shamed or condemned. Though, given the nostalgia for traditional gender roles, sentimentalising of monogamy, and the erasure of same-sex desires in many of our cherished power ballads, we should remember that rap is not the only musical genre responsible for using language that excludes or marginalises.
Words, like Banks implies, can be pushed back or mobilised in creative ways to displace their pejorative connotations. That said, this is not as easy as Banks would believe. Words are slippery. We often “slip” on them without noticing. If we want to escape the “media bullsh-t” (or the political kind), we should start by using our words a little more responsibly.
Senthorun Raj is a Churchill Fellow.
Follow him on Twitter: @senthorun