Jewish World Review Jan. 19, 2005 / 9 Shevat 5765

Clarence Page

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Black women talking back to rap's bad-boy culture


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | This is the time of year when countless orators turn into crystal ball gazers.


In grand speeches across the land, they speculate as to what Martin Luther King Jr., who would have been 76 on Saturday, would think if he were still alive today. I wonder what he would think of today's rap music culture.


I wonder what he would think of a world in which young black poets refer to young black women as "ho's," "bitches," "chickenheads," "skeezers," "gold-diggers" and "hoochie mamas."


I wonder what he would think of the 21st century minstrel show that hip-hop videos have given us with endless portrayals of black women as booty-shaking ornaments accessorizing the macho images of black males dressed-down in a ghetto-centric splendor appropriate for a prison yard.


Not all of rap is weak like that. As my 15-year-old son and personal hip-hop consultant is eager to inform me, today's rap world has swung largely away from the gangster rap of the 1980s and '90s toward the political and social "consciousness rap" of, say, Talib Kweli, Common (formerly Lonnie Rashied Lynn of Chicago) or Kanye West, the producer-turned-rapper whose debut album The College Dropout with the religious hit Jesus Walks scored 10 Grammy nominations.


Despite such occasional glimmers of something resembling intelligence, the vast majority of rap video fare falls back on the same simplistic mother/whore stereotypes against which the mainstream women's movement has crusaded for decades.

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With that in mind, it is encouraging to see a new and remarkably broad-based backlash rising up to cast a critical light on hip-hop's narrow view of black women's sexuality.


Essence, the highest-circulation black women's magazine, has launched a year-long examination of rap's treatment of women under the theme, "Take Back the Music." The project includes articles, a conference and a study of how music videos affect young viewers.


Essence editors say they decided to tackle rap images after protesters at the historically black women's Spelman College in Atlanta told the rap star Nelly not to come to a bone-marrow drive that his foundation was sponsoring on campus because his lyrics were too insulting to women.


The event at a major black college marked an important departure from the silence with which most black students, fearful perhaps of being seen as uncool by their peers, have avoided much public criticism of rap stars.


The criticism from Essence, a major voice for upwardly mobile black women, is harder for the hip-hop industry and consumers to ignore than, say, the complaints of Bill O'Reilly on Fox News Channel. When I checked its Web poll at www.essence.com late last week, more than 72 percent of more than 2,700 respondents agreed that what they hear "about women in most songs played on urban stations makes me cringe."


But what is to be done? The project is "more about conversation than censorship," Michaela angela Davis, Essence executive, fashion and beauty editor, said in an interview.


That's wise. Censorship is not the answer. It only makes the forbidden fruit more desirable, especially to the young and excitable. To change rap, we must change the culture that feeds it. And, to change attitudes, first we have to talk.


"Black women are often depicted as hypersexualized and music videos exacerbate the problem - and that becomes people's perception of black women everywhere," one of the Spelman protesters, senior Moya Bailey, says in the January Essence. "For black women especially, there are not as many choices out there to counteract video images. I think it's deliberate. The media does an excellent job of keeping those more positive images about us away from people."


Deliberate or not, Nelly argues in the same issue that "Women are in the videos by choice. ... Several women who have been in my videos have gone on to do TV appearances and movies. No one can dictate other people's choices and situations."


Indeed, Melyssa Ford, a former video model and co-host of BETs new BET Style, says she made videos to help pay her tuition before she expanded her brand. "People were trying to exploit me, but I decided to exploit myself and make all the money from my images, including those on my calendar and DVD. People may see it as a contradiction, but I don't. I'm eye candy and that's as far as it goes."


To that, I can already hear others saying, "We need to talk, sistergirl."


That's OK. Cultural change begins with conversations, freely expressed and from the heart. We African-Americans too often silence ourselves with politically correct "ghettocentric" notions that black-on-black criticism of any sort is a form of racial betrayal. Quite the opposite, it is our salvation. We betray each other if we fail to warn each other when we appear quite obviously to be destroying ourselves.

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Up

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