Strong Words

Although last week’s class readings revolved primarily around the blues and blues singers, the first part of our class discussion revolved around domestic abuse towards women.  We reviewed the exhibit photos of Donna Ferreto’s documentary Living with The Enemy which depict women in violent situations.  We questioned, and I still do, how Ms. Ferreto was about to take these photos and release them to the public without repercussions.

Bessie Smith, February 3, 1936
Bessie Smith, February 3, 1936; by Carl Van Vechten; Library of Congress; reproduction number LC-DIG-ppmsca-09571 DLC

We also brought music into the discussion and explained how the dialogue on domestic abuse has come forward in society through the medium of music.  Originally these lyrics were heard lyrics to songs sung by the early blues singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.  These women were not afraid to sing about being abused by their men.  They sang directly about their experience. They were making the private, public through their songs.  These blues songs made me think about the rap songs and lyrics that are sung today and the difference in how we perceive these songs versus those from the past.

Photo by RJ Shaughnessy (photography), 2006; Wikimedia Commons

Many of the songs on the radio, particularly rap songs, contain lyrics that can be particularly offensive towards women.  Songs that do not just describe women as objects, but crime and violence persist as well.   Violent and suggestive lyrics sung by artists like Lil’ Wayne and others are often lauded as reflective of their harsh perceptions, experience and exaggerated persona.   Like the original traditions of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith who both sang of real experiences while utilizing the sexual and blues woman persona that further spurred their popularity.

It is evident that songs with lyrics about experiencing abuse have brought the issue forward in our society, but unlike the blues singers of the past, rap is censored and artists are chastised severely for their songs.  Were the female blues singers of the past censored as well?  Why or why not? Is it because the songs are about Men enacting violence against men (or women) that artist are denounced today? Have the lyrics become more explicit or has society become more censored?  I’m sure that Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey experienced censorship for their lyrics while enjoying praise for the boldness of their lyrics as well.  Should we give artists who use raw lyrics the same consideration? What is the difference if their work comes from a place of experience no less real than that of their predecessors?

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