I love Outkast. Everyone should. I don’t trust people who don’t love Outkast. If you don’t love Outkast, stop reading this. You aren’t welcome here.
not really kidding!)
So I, like many others, was incredibly excited to find out that the duo of Andre 3000 and Big Boi would reunite this spring/summer, after not performing on stage together in 10 years, to play Coachella. I was highly disappointed that I’m too poor to be able to actually go to Coachella and see them, but modern technology is great in that huge events like this get livestreamed on the interwebs and then saved for posterity.
I watched. Not live, but the next day. I got excited. I danced all by myself to “B.O.B.,” “Gasoline Dreams,” Skew it on the Bar-B,” “Elevators,” “Aquemini,” “Da Art of Storytellin’ Pt. 1,” “SpottieOttieDopaliscious.” All of it. And I was deeply disappointed.
Not so much by the performance, which was kind of weird, as 3000 noted toward the end. Their chemistry seemed…off. Andre appeared uninterested at moments that should have been crowd pleasers. Big Boi looked frustrated trying to pick up the slack. There were glimpses of the ‘Kast we all know and love, to be sure, but they faded in and out, apparently alongside Andre’s ability to hear himself in the speakers.
But that wasn’t what disappointed me most. Nor was it the full ten minutes of the set that was dedicated to album promotion for Future (but seriously, as much fun as Future song can be, what the fuck was he doing there?). My disappoint came during 3000′s solo set. He was preparing to perform “Behold A Lady,” and he asked the crowd, “Are there any bitches here tonight?” Look, I’m under no illusion that Outkast is perfect. They dabble in the same misogyny the rest of the world does. But something about the way he asked that question so directly hit my eardrum like a dirty q-tip.
Then he asked, “Are there any hoes?” It got worse. “Don’t act surprised, if you a hoe, you know you a hoe.” To his credit, I suppose, he didn’t sound judgmental. But…harsh. Then: “Are there any ladies out there?” I hate this. I hate it so much. Outkast is probably the greatest duo/group in hip-hop history. Andre 3000 is one of the best emcees ever. But the shortcomings are real and incredibly disappointing.
The idea isn’t new — that there’s a difference between “bitches” and “women” and “ladies” and “hoes,” and it’s ok to call a “bitch” a “bitch” or a “hoe” a “hoe” if that’s how she’s acting. Just be a lady and everything is fine. I feel like this was popularized in hip-hop by Tupac and has become the prevailing wisdom. I criticized Lupe Fiasco for buying into this a few years ago when he released the song “Bitch Bad.”
It’s simply another way of controlling the behavior of women, deeming some more respectable than others based on arbitrary rules around (mostly) the expression of sexuality. Who counts as a “bitch” or a “hoe” changes with each person attempting to define these terms. A woman who’s assertive may be labeled a “bitch,” or it might just be someone who has hurt a man’s feelings. There’s no real rhyme or reason to it, except the logic that maintains a man’s right to call women “bitches.” Same goes for “hoe.” There’s no clear line for what constitutes a “hoe,” except in my experience it really just means “woman who refuses to have sex with me” or “woman I’ve had sex with and now don’t respect because she had sex with me.” This shit seriously doesn’t make any sense. This stratified womanhood, in which “lady” is the pinnacle and everything that is good, is an intellectual fallacy that a good number of men have convinced themselves exist in order to justify their misogyny.
What’s most disappointing in hearing 3000 do this is that throughout their career, Outkast has explored definition and re-definition of self. They have sought to expose the limits of labels and boxes that people have attempted to put them. They’ve stretched our perceptions of black masculinity, black southern masculinity, black hip-hop masculinity. They’ve embraced the contradictions of the pimp persona, gangster, philosopher, dandy, revolutionary, nerd, and alien, without missing a step or allowing one idea or action to be the only one to define them. And they, more than a lot of other rappers, have emphasized female pleasure in their music (peep Andre on “So Fresh, So Clean” when he says “I do suck lips ’til hips jerk, in double time, the boy next door’s a freak” or the entire “I’ll Call Before I Come”). I just wish they could see as many possibilities for the expression of womanhood as they see for themselves.
Maya suggested to me that maybe that was at the heart of what 3000 was getting at when asking about bitches/hoes/ladies — that he was suggesting it was OK if you claimed any of those labels. And…maybe. Again, he wasn’t that judgmental toward the “hoes.” But it’s hard to reconcile with the contempt he and Big Boi expressed toward the fictitious “Caroline” at the end of “Roses” when they call her any number of different types of “bitches,” as well as the reverence they have for the “ladies.”
But, ’tis the lot of any feminist consumer of popular culture, the push and pull of the things that bring you immense pleasure but fly in the face of your politics. Here’s to hoping one day we don’t have to play that game.
People who don’t like Outkast are allowed to come back now.
Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute.