by Fashion and Entertainment Editor Joseph Lamour
*Warning: Strong Language*
So, have you heard about Lil’ Wayne yet? Let me give you the long and short of it: in a collaboration with Future, he used a metaphor to compare sex to Emmett Till’s murder. Lyrics below the cut, if you don’t know the line yet. This, of course, managed to offend the universe. The song in question, “Karate Chop,” features lyrics that stirred Emmett Till’s cousin to hire Jesse Jackson and demand an apology. Didn’t we all learn from Outkast’s “Rosa Parks”?
Now, I feel a little bit like Tyra Banks with what I’m about to say: I can relate to Lil’ Wayne because I’m also a musician. I don’t rap, but in addition to writing about fashion, entertainment–and having a hand in an array of art disciplines–I also compose and sing. In addition to recounting the facts up to this point, I decided to take this time to openly ponder what makes this lyric offend us all so viscerally, while others garner no news reaction at all.
Back to me being just like Tyra Banks: I write alot about issues where the lyrics could cause some discomfort, since I write mostly social change, whether indirectly or directly: for instance, I have a song I’m working on about being gay and the concept that a Christian heaven is by default not for me. Not really much in common with Lil’ Wayne’s music, but, as you would imagine, contains some pretty serious slap-you-in-the-face lyrics, much like his tend to be.
When someone sits down to write a song, he or she searches for those phrases that will draw the audience in, make them smile, cry, or sometimes jolt them out of complacency. Usually, you want the impact of your words in the listener to be a positive one. But that doesn’t always happen. And now, for the NSFW lyrics in question (I included the whole verse, but of course, the third line is what this debacle has to do with):
Pop a lot of pain pills
Bout to put rims on my skateboard wheels
Beat that pussy up like Emmett Till
I don’t think telling a conquest that you’ll take her lady business, gouge out its eye, shoot it through the head, weight it, and toss it into a river with barbed wire tied around its neck sounds sexy.
I do over-think things. But I do so in order to understand why “beat that pussy up like Emmett Till” (I can’t even type it without getting uncomfortable) stirs so much no in just about every heart in America. In typing out the literal translation, I wonder how many people in the studio there were who paid no mind to it when it came out of his mouth. Future, of course, was there, and here’s what he has to say about it:
The line in question appeared on Future‘s “Karate Chop (Remix)” and though Wayne has yet to speak on the controversy, Future assures that the Young Money superstar meant no ill will. “It was a hot song, we did it from a good place with great intentions, just to add some life on to the song,” Future told MTV News on Friday night, while he was out in Houston, Texas shooting a music video with Trae tha Truth. “The record it was done from a good place, good art, he ain’t have no bad intentions when he was thinking about it like that.”
That didn’t help, and it cleared nothing up. What would, though? Even using the just murderer’s name, Roy Bryant, would still invoke the victim. Sullying Till in this way is pretty much like telling a rape victim that they shouldn’t have dressed the way they did: a tasteless re-victimization.
It’s not just that the line was in bad taste because bad taste actually helps some music achieve some memorable lyrics. Especially ones dealing with sex. Look to the opening line of Lana Del Rey’s “Cola” (totally NSFW), and a lot of us are familiar with NIN’s “Closer” (absolutely NSFW)–these are at once tasteless and sexual and largely inoffensive (sexual morality notwithstanding). Lana is talking about her own private parts, and with “Closer”:
You let me violate you, you let me desecrate you
You let me penetrate you, you let me complicate you
You can have my isolation, you can have the hate that it brings
You can have my absence of faith, you can have my everything
Trent makes sure to include permissive words in every line. Whether who he offers it to accept it is another story, but “you let me” and “you can have” contrast with the way Lil’ Wayne invokes the situation of Emmett Till, a moment in history completely absolved of permission.
Some of you reading this may think those songs are pretty problematic as well. Maybe they are; a lot of what I do on this site is thinking out loud, but I personally don’t think they are for the reasons I mentioned. Also, in regards to Del Rey, Reznor, and Lil’ Wayne’s lyrics, I’m trying to understand this need we artists to say something through an image or a lyric that grabs your audience by the shoulders and gives them a shake.
Epic has since profusely apologized and said that they would make efforts to remove the offending lyric. And they did a good job of it, too, because I have been pretty much unable to find a version of the song where that line is clearly audible–that is, until I went to Hot New Hip Hop and found it. This decision by Epic to swiftly delete the lyric from the song may invoke discussions on free speech. I did think about free speech while writing this but, while I did, I also was thinking of Till’s family and his memory.
If this were a broader discussion on the appropriation of our community’s tragedies in music, I would bring the n-word’s tenure in rap into this. After all, so many rappers (and comedians, grumble) toss that word around like lyrical confetti. And “Karate Chop” (again, that version has the line in it) features the n-word no less than fifteen times. But there are plenty of discussions, especially on this site, that deal with that issue. My main goal besides telling you what happened, of course, was to ruminate on the whole situation: the equation of violence to sex, bad taste versus unacceptable bad taste, and the thought process of the artist. Or as I have found out, the lack thereof.