Hip-Hop's E-Z Scapegoats
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."
None of the critics who accuse hip-hop of coarsening the culture think to speak with members of the hip-hop generation, who are regarded as both targets and victims of the rap culture. And if they actually stopped to listen to the hip-hop generation they purport to be saving, they might be surprised at what they hear.
They might attend conferences like the April 2005 "Feminism and Hip Hop" summit at the University of Chicago. Or maybe they would want to check out the annual "B-Girl Be Summit: A Celebration of Women in Hip Hop" in Minneapolis.
They might view short documentaries like Tamika Guishard's Hip Hop Gurlz or Rebecca Raimist's Nobody Knows My Name or Aishah Simmons's film about rape, called simply No.
If the anti-hip-hop crusaders really cared about the generation they want to save, they would support the Youth Media Council and the Media Justice Movement and their outspoken advocates like Malkia Cyril, Moya Bailey and Rosa Clemente.
Most of all, they might learn from young people who are even more put off by the sexist commercial rap shoved in their faces than anyone else.
The gap between what is on Viacom's MTV and BET and what young people really want has never been bigger. According to a study released in January by the Black Youth Project, run by researchers at the University of Chicago, 57 percent of all young people--including 66 percent of black women--believe rap videos portray black women negatively. "While music sales are down across the board, hip hop sales have plunged, which might be attributed to both the cookie-cutter nature of corporate rap as well as the monotonously offensive sexism and violence.
To confuse the commercial rap made by a few artists and promoted by the media monopolies with how hip-hop is actually lived by millions is to miss the crucial good that hip-hop does. There are now more than 300 hip-hop classes being taught at colleges and universities. Hip-hop after-school programs, voter registration groups, feminist gatherings and public forums are just some of the places where the future of real hip-hop is being discussed all around the world, beyond the commercial interest of corporations and the rhetorical interest of many pundits and leaders. This is hip-hop that tries not only to recall the tradition of political artists like Public Enemy but also expand on the art form.
If anti-hip-hop crusaders paid attention to the hip-hop generation, they might find that the discussion has already begun without them. They might also be reminded that you don't heal a people by crushing their spirit; you do it by taking care of it. That's something the best leaders of the civil rights movement understood, and it's a thought that could serve us well now.