How language reproduces inequality and how it is used to challenge it
Language has the ability to reproduce or challenge inequalities. As a lyricist and as a senior project worker, I use language creatively and subversively to challenge social injustice and inspire change. The speed and power at which information is spread around the world, led me to write the following piece.
The truth is wildfire, despite the media quagmire,
Enquire, beyond the dictated empires,
Inspire with insuppressible wisdom,
Rip through the ecosystem of their fiction,
Ignore the nonsense,
I’m awake more than conscious,
Question the aim if its only to conquest,
What we believe is often a concept,
Meaning that fact is merely a notion,
But often enforced to instil devotion,
Conditioned emotions can lead to explosions.
High alert like a bomb threat,
Keeping us trapped like flies in a cobweb,
Freedoms a must so born was the dark net,
Know what it is or become a target,
Regardless, liberal or marxist,
When viral combust its a hard thing to harness,
Try as they might push it under the carpet,
It can’t be stopped like trade on black market,
So watch when they censor you,
Temper you, threaten you,
Next they’ll discredit you,
Remove or just edit you,
When weak we impressionable,
Which makes us susceptible,
To lies and dilution,
Its why it’s confusing,
What to believe in, when so many scheming,
Beware of the demons, exploring the reasons,
Searching for the feeling, your chapter revealing,
Unveiling apocalypse, It seems preposterous,
Lost in abyss, Or bring forth your consciousness,
The truth sets you free, but there’s often a consequence,
Don’t be deterred, be heard, speak with confidence,
Boldness has power, and brings with it providence.
Hip Hop culture has a major influence on language in society today, yet in the current climate Hip Hop and other Urban music genres are still frequently portrayed in particular (often negative) way. Many music genres of black origin are maligned as evil, just as jazz was once described. My personal belief and observation is that rappers and emcees are not given the same artistic license as their musical peers. Ice T once said “I’m no more a cop killer than David Bowie is an astronaut” yet for many artists it is literally trial by tracks. Sentenced to actual time, based on paragraphs and bars.
Recently in the British media, two stalwarts of the UK Grime scene (Skepta and Wiley, both of the Grime crew BBK) were given the tabloid treatment, which set about reinforcing stereotypes and racial discrimination.
Thankfully freedom of speech through the internet and social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram allowed immediate discourse and challenging of these stereotypes and prejudice.
My day job now involves working as a senior project worker and a counsellor. Working in schools, secure units and in the community delivering 1–1 support, I have a keen interest in equality which led to my involvement in MVP : mentors in violence prevention – which explores gender based violence.
As a MVP trainer I frequently use a gender box exercise to explore language and gender roles. This is snapshot of how the the exercise works:
The Gender Box Exercise
Background: The male and female box exercise explores the role stereotypical gender roles play in dominating relationships and social interaction.
The box highlights the potentially damaging role these stereotypes have on both women and men that can lead to unhealthy behaviours and attitudes.
The Goals of the exercise:
- Illustrate how society constructs gender roles that have a negative impact on human behaviour, development and interaction.
- Illustrate how language is used to control gender identity and practice.
- Empower participants to identify and resist gender policing and to develop their own identity.
Introduction: Participants look at the social factors that can play a role in instigating violence and abuse. More specifically exploring the stereotypical messages we receive from our culture about what it means to be a man / woman – not what they personally believe.
The Exercise: During the activity the group is asked, “How do we learn to be men / women?”
It’s explained that we want them to create a list of ‘stereotypical’ messages we receive from our culture about what it means to be a man / woman.
The group is then asked to think about the impact of media, music culture, and computer games. They must consider what roles men and woman usually perform in and what expectations are placed on men and women.
It’s emphasized that it is not what they personally believe as many will resist creating a box that largely reflects negatively on them.
On the outside of the boxes the group write down words that are used to describe both men and women who do not conform to these expectations
So what do the words outside the box have in common? Often they are used with a negative slant and degrading. For men the words and language used often have feminine connotations and of a negative context. For many men, probably the most harmful insult is equating him to a woman.
As a result, how do some men / boys interpret these messages about women? What language do they use regarding women, and how do they interact with them? I would argue that a large degree of misogyny is grown from these seeds of ignorance.
For the female exercise, many of the words often carry a masculine or sexual connotations. Sadly the policing of the boxes is perpetuated by all genders. The putdowns and pressure people receive confirms stereotypes and archaic attitudes.
The painful messages we are sending to men and women, is that females are of less importance, they are weak. From the qualities given in the women’s box (e.g. submissive, carer, emotional) we can see how this language contributes to women being degraded and devalued.
The boxes we create are harmful to both men and women, and are continually reinforced by society, social media, family and friends. We often act in these ways because of a pressure to conform rather then something they want to do.
So what can we do about these boxes? As difficult as it is, trying not to participate in the gender policing of friends, family, colleagues and teammates is perhaps a good place to start.
How can Language be part of an active movement for social change?
For me Hip Hop culture and rap has been a medium to address inequality. For years Hip Hop has been labelled with a range of negative connotations, leading many to equate the culture and genre only with negativity (violence, misogyny and crime).
There’s no denying that the lyrical content of hip-hop is often challenging, and in many instances, it can be perceived to glorify violence, reinforce gender discrimination and celebrate materialism.
However, whilst this is often the narrative pushed in mainstream rap, i do not feel this should totally reflect the contribution of Hip Hop culture. Hip Hop was born out of community, social enterprise, entrepreneurial endeavour, respect and realness. I have frequently used Hip Hop as a vehicle to inspire and empower young people through language. Simply put by Jay-Z,
Rap is poetry!
The lyrical content can be a tool for building self-reflection, learning, and growth. Through analysing existing songs, or making new material, the plethora of themes found in hip-hop songs can enable people to access topics that they may otherwise never explore.
Rap Genius is a great resource to investigate the hidden meanings and explain the language behind many Hip Hop tracks.
GZA ft. Killah Priest – B.I.B.L.E
Off the GZA’s Liquid Sword album, ‘B.I.B.L.E’ provided me with an alternative description of biblical scripture. Hearing that,
The white image of Christ is really Cesare Borgia
opened my eyes to the many fabrications we are fed. Whilst I don’t agree with all that is said in the track, I valued the alternative perspective to challenge my ideas and ask important questions about what I believe.
Given the current social and political climate, I think words can be a vessel for justice, tolerance and critical discourse in society; we need to challenge our preconceptions about hip-hop culture and of course language.
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