Following Don Imus’s rabid rant, a number of pundits and politicians have apparently decided on a consensus culprit to cleanse the national soul: hip-hop. Somehow, an aging cowboy-hatted shock jock has become a symbol for all that is wrong with an art form dominated and shaped by young people of color.
The idea that the black community in general and hip-hop in particular are to blame for Imus’s rant is gaining currency across the political spectrum. From Oprah to Obama, the “teachable moment” on Imus has become a public meditation on racism and sexism not by whites in the media but by blacks. The anti-hip-hop furies fly far beyond the usual right-wing suspects. Even the great Bob Herbert of the New York Times compared Snoop Dogg with Imus and Michael Savage. And in the Los Angeles Times, civil rights attorney Constance Rice excused Imus as a “good-natured racist,” guilty only of mimicking “the original gurus of black female denigration: black men with no class”–in other words, rappers.
Ironically, this was Imus’s defense on the Today show, where he said, “I may be a white man, but I know that…young black women all through that society are demeaned and disparaged and disrespected by their own black men and that they are called that name.”
Joan Walsh of Salon took issue with that argument: “I hate the misogyny of some rap music–it’s not all misogynistic–but rappers didn’t invent sick notions of black women as sexual objects in America; those ideas have an old, old history here, going back to the days when the chains black men wore weren’t bling…. In my opinion, hundreds of years of the racist misogyny of white men like Imus and [Imus producer Bernard] McGuirk are far more responsible for misogynistic rap music than the reverse. And as I type this I’m thinking, is that even up for debate? Fellas, please.”
But Walsh has been a lonely voice. There are questions we need to ask: Was CBS President and CEO Les Moonves concerned about “young women of color trying to make their way in this society” when he was co-president of Viacom and able to help shape programming on MTV and BET? Is Snoop Dogg’s rap really equivalent to Michael Savage’s rap, who has said that the Voting Rights Act put “a chad in every crackhouse”?
The current national monologue about demeaning language and imagery is an exercise in scapegoating. What’s being challenged here? Not the media monopolies that twist the proud art form built by artists like Public Enemy, Rakim and The Roots into an orgy of materialism, violence and misogyny. Not the CEOs who aggressively market demeaning music. Not the radio stations that play the same sexist drivel. They are the ones who need to be held to account.
As Byron Hurt, creator of the PBS documentary Beyond Beats and Rhymes, told Women’s e-News, “Hip-hop has always been hyper-aggressive, homophobic and sexist, but there was more diversity before. In mainstream hip-hop right now there’s a more narrow vision of masculinity and manhood than in 1989, when hip-hop wasn’t mainstream.”