Jay-Z, ‘Bitch,’ Forgiveness, And Mentorship

It seems likely that the poem in which Jay-Z, theoretically swore off use of the term “bitch” to describe women to mark the birth of his daughter, apparently writing: “I rapped, I flipped it, I sold it, I lived it now with my daughter in this world I curse those that give it. I never realized while on the fast track that I’d give riddance to the word bitch, to leave her innocence in tact…No man will degrade her, or call her name. I’m so focused on your future, the degradation has passed,” is a fake. But I’m curious about the reaction to the poem for the moment when it seemed like it might be true, which ranged from cautious optimism to intense anger that Jay-Z would profit from the degradation of women and have a late conversion only when he finally had a baby girl to be responsible for.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the question of prior bad acts and conversions lately (more on this to come later this morning), and as much as I understand the frustration that it takes a big change like a birth to get important men to recognize obvious sexism. But when it comes to hip-hop and misogyny, I think it would probably take someone who is not only famous, but has a lot of market influence, having a late and profound conversion to make a difference. It’s very hard to change norms, particularly around the use of language and representation. Given how normalized a word like “bitch” is, whether in hip-hop or comparatively anodyne network television, you’d have to convince people that the term was degrading before you could even start a conversation about moving beyond it.

I’m also not an absolutist about language — “cunt” may not be my favorite term of all time, but Deadwood could back up its use of the word like nobody’s business. And I don’t think that a total ban on any particular terminology makes sense given the demands of artistic license. But if someone like Jay-Z could, through Roc Nation or through personal relationships, begin a conversation about whether terms like “bitch” and misogynistic narratives are the best, most creative things artists can put out, that would be a useful conversation. The depth and repetition of prior bad acts should determine how willing we are to forgive and give folks credit for trying to do the right thing. If Jay-Z or someone else of his stature whose sins against women were essentially limited to terminology, announced an intention to do better, I’d be curious to see what they’d do next, but entirely open to welcoming them to the conversation.