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The Portrayal of Women in Rap Music.


The following are excerpts and articles from noted writers on the topic of the portrayal of women in rap music.  The reading of these articles will greatly ease and aid your reading of my conclusions.  By reading these excerpts and articles you will be able to examine different views held on the topic and also see how communities are actively fighting against the negative portrayal of women in rap.

Sexism and Misogyny: Who Takes the Rap?

Misogyny, gangsta rap, and The Piano

By Bell Hooks

For the past several months white mainstream media has been calling me to hear my views on gangsta rap. Whether major television networks, or small independent radio shows, they seek me out for the black and feminist "take" on the issue. After I have my say, I am never called back, never invited to do the television shows or the radio spots. I suspect they call, confident that when we talk they will hear the hardcore "feminist" trash of gangsta rap. When they encounter instead the hardcore feminist critique of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, they lose interest.

To white dominated mass media, the controversy over gangsta rap makes great spectacle. Besides the exploitation of these issues to attract audiences, a central motivation for highlighting gangsta rap continues to be the sensationalist drama of demonizing black youth culture in general and the contributions of young black men in particular. It is a contemporary remake of "Birth of a Nation" only this time we are encouraged to believe it is not just vulnerable white womanhood that risks destruction by black hands but everyone. When I counter this demonization of black males by insisting that gangsta rap does not appear in a cultural vacuum, but, rather, is expressive of the cultural crossing, mixings, and engagement of black youth culture with the values, attitudes, and concerns of the white majority, some folks stop listening.

The sexist, misogynist, patriarchal ways of thinking and behaving that are glorified in gangsta rap are a reflection of the prevailing values in our society, values created and sustained by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. As the crudest and most brutal expression of sexism, misogynistic attitudes tend to be portrayed by the dominant culture as an expression of male deviance. In reality they are part of a sexist continuum, necessary for the maintenance of patriarchal social order. While patriarchy and sexism continue to be the political and cultural norm in our society, feminist movement has created a climate where crude expressions of male domination are called into question, especially if they are made by men in power. It is useful to think of misogyny as a field that must be labored in and maintained both to sustain patriarchy but also to serve as an ideological anti-feminist backlash. And what better group to labor on this "plantation" than young black men.

To see gangsta rap as a reflection of dominant values in our culture rather than as an aberrant "pathological" standpoint does not mean that a rigorous feminist critique of the sexist and misogyny expressed in this music is not needed. Without a doubt black males, young and old, must be held politically accountable for their sexism. Yet this critique must always be contextualized or we risk making it appear that the behaviors this thinking supports and condones,--rape, male violence against women, etc.-- is a black male thing. And this is what is happening. Young black males are forced to take the "heat" for encouraging, via their music, the hatred of and violence against women that is a central core of patriarchy.

Witness the recent piece by Brent Staples in the "New York Times" titled "The Politics of Gangster Rap: A Music Celebrating Murder and Misogyny." Defining the turf Staples writes: "For those who haven't caught up, gangster rap is that wildly successful music in which all women are `bitches' and `whores' and young men kill each other for sport." No mention of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy in this piece, not a word about the cultural context that would need to exist for young males to be socialized to think differently about gender. Staples assumes that black males are writing their lyrics off in the "jungle," away from the impact of mainstream socialization and desire. At no point in his piece does he ask why huge audiences, especially young white male consumers, are so turned on by this music, by the misogyny and sexism, by the brutality? Where is the anger and rage at females expressed in this music coming from, the glorification of all acts of violence? These are the difficult questions that Staples feels no need to answer.

One cannot answer them honestly without placing accountability on larger structures of domination and the individuals (often white, usually male but not always) who are hierarchically placed to maintain and perpetuate the values that uphold these exploitative and oppressive systems. That means taking a critical looking at the politics of hedonistic consumerism, the values of the men and women who produce gangsta rap. It would mean considering the seduction of young black males who find that they can make more money producing lyrics that promote violence, sexism, and misogyny than with any other content. How many disenfranchised black males would not surrender to expressing virulent forms of sexism, if they knew the rewards would be unprecedented material power and fame?

More than anything gangsta rap celebrates the world of the "material, " the dog-eat-dog world where you do what you gotta do to make it. In this world view killing is necessary for survival. Significantly, the logic here is a crude expression of the logic of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. In his new book "Sexy Dressing, Etc." privileged white male law professor Duncan Kennedy gives what he calls "a set of general characterizations of U. S. culture" explaining that, "It is individual (cowboys), material (gangsters) and philistine." Using this general description of mainstream culture would lead us to place "gangsta rap" not on the margins of what this nation is about, but at the center. Rather than being viewed as a subversion or disruption of the norm we would need to see it as an embodiment of the norm.

That viewpoint was graphically highlighted in the film "Menace To Society" which dramatized not only young black males killing for sport, but also mass audiences voyeuristically watching and, in many cases, "enjoying" the kill. Significantly, at one point in the movie we see that the young black males have learned their "gangsta" values from watching television and movies--shows where white male gangsters are center stage. This scene undermines any notion of "essentialist" blackness that would have viewers believe the gangsterism these young black males embraced emerged from some unique black cultural experience.

When I interviewed rap artist Ice Cube for "Spin" magazine last year, he talked about the importance of respecting black women and communication across gender. He spoke against male violence against women, even as he lapsed into a justification for anti- woman rap lyrics by insisting on the madonna/whore split where some females "carry" themselves in a manner that determines how they will be treated. When this interview was published, it was cut to nothing. It was a mass media set-up. Folks (mostly white and male) had thought if the hardcore feminist talked with the hardened black man, sparks would fly; there would be a knock-down drag out spectacle. When Brother Cube and I talked to each other with respect about the political, spiritual, and emotional self- determination of black people, it did not make good copy. Clearly folks at the magazine did not get the darky show they were looking for.

After this conversation, and talking with rappers and folks who listen to rap, it became clear that while black male sexism is a serious problem in our communities and in black music, some of the more misogynist lyrics were there to stir up controversy and appeal to audiences. Nowhere is this more evident that in Snoop Doggy Dogg's record "Doggystyle". A black male music and cultural critic called me to ask if I had checked this image out; to share that for one of the first times in his music buying life he felt he was seeing an image so offensive in its sexism and misogyny that he did not want to take that image home. That image (complete with doghouse, beware the dog sign, with a naked black female head in a doghouse, naked butt sticking out) was reproduced, "uncritically," in the November 29, 1993 issue of "Time" magazine. The positive music review of this album, written by Christopher John Farley, is titled "Gangsta Rap, Doggystyle" makes no mention of sexism and misogyny, makes no reference to the cover. I wonder if a naked white female body had been inside the doghouse, presumably waiting to be fucked from behind, if "Time" would have reproduced an image of the cover along with their review. When I see the pornographic cartoon that graces the cover of "Doggystyle," I do not think simply about the sexism and misogyny of young black men, I think about the sexist and misogynist politics of the powerful white adult men and women (and folks of color) who helped produce and market this album.

In her book "Misogynies" Joan Smith shares her sense that while most folks are willing to acknowledge unfair treatment of women, discrimination on the basis of gender, they are usually reluctant to admit that hatred of women is encouraged because it helps maintain the structure of male dominance. Smith suggests: "Misogyny wears many guises, reveals itself in different forms which are dictated by class, wealth, education, race, religion and other factors, but its chief characteristic is its pervasiveness." This point reverberated in my mind when I saw Jane Campion's widely acclaimed film "The Piano" which I saw in the midst of mass media focus on sexism and misogyny in "gangsta rap." I had been told by many friends in the art world that this was "an incredible film, a truly compelling love story etc." Their responses were echoed by numerous positive reviews. No one speaking about this film mentions misogyny and sexism or white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

The 19th century world of the white invasion of New Zealand is utterly romanticized in this film (complete with docile happy darkies--Maori natives--who appear to have not a care in the world). And when the film suggests they care about white colonizers digging up the graves of their dead ancestors, it is the sympathetic poor white male who comes to the rescue. Just as the conquest of natives and lands is glamorized in this film, so is the conquest of femininity, personified by white womanhood, by the pale speechless corpse-like Scotswoman, Ada, who journeys into this dark wilderness because her father has arranged for her to marry the white colonizer Stewart. Although mute, Ada expresses her artistic ability, the intensity of her vision and feelings through piano playing. This passion attracts Baines, the illiterate white settler who wears the facial tattoos of the Maori--an act of appropriation that makes him (like the traditional figure of Tarzan) appear both dangerous and romantic. He is Norman Mailer's "white negro," seducing Ada by promising to return the piano that Steward has exchanged with him for land. The film leads us to believe that Ada's passionate piano playing has been a substitution for repressed eroticism. When she learns to let herself go sexually, she ceases to need the piano. We watch the passionate climax of Baines seduction as she willingly seeks him sexually. And we watch her husband Stewart in the role of voyeur, standing with dog outside the cabin where they fuck, voyeuristically consuming their pleasure. Rather than being turned off by her love for Baines, it appears to excite Stewart's passion; he longs to possess her all the more. Unable to win her back from Baines, he expresses his rage, rooted in misogyny and sexism, by physically attacking her and chopping off her finger with an ax. This act of male violence takes place with Ada's daughter, Flora, as a witness. Though traumatized by the violence she witnesses, she is still about to follow the white male patriarch's orders and take the bloody finger to Baines, along with the message that each time he sees Ada she will suffer physical mutilation.

Violence against land, natives, and women in this film, unlike that of gangsta rap, is portrayed uncritically, as though it is "natural," the inevitable climax of conflicting passions. The outcome of this violence is positive. Ultimately, the film suggests Stewart's rage was only an expression of irrational sexual jealousy, that he comes to his senses and is able to see "reason." In keeping with male exchange of women, he gives Ada and Flora to Baines. They leave the wilderness. On the voyage home Ada demands that her piano be thrown overboard because it is "soiled," tainted with horrible memories. Surrendering it she lets go of her longing to display passion through artistic expression. A nuclear family now, Baines, Ada, and Flora resettle and live happily-ever-after. Suddenly, patriarchal order is restored. Ada becomes a modest wife, wearing a veil over her mouth so that no one will see her lips struggling to speak words. Flora has no memory of trauma and is a happy child turning somersaults. Baines is in charge, even making Ada a new finger.

"The Piano "seduces and excites audiences with its uncritical portrayal of sexism and misogyny. Reviewers and audiences alike seem to assume that Campion's gender, as well as her breaking of traditional boundaries that inhibit the advancement of women in film, indicate that her work expresses a feminist standpoint. And, indeed, she does employ feminist "tropes," even as her work betrays feminist visions of female actualization, celebrates and eroticizes male domination. In Smith's discussion of misogyny she emphasizes that woman-hating is not solely the province of men: "We are all exposed to the prevailing ideology of our culture, and some women learn early on that they can prosper by aping the misogyny of men; these are the women who win provisional favor by denigrating other women, by playing on male prejudices, and by acting the `man's woman'." Since this is not a documentary film that needs to remain faithful to the ethos of its historical setting, why is it that Campion does not resolve Ada's conflicts by providing us with an imaginary landscape where a woman can express passionate artistic commitment and find fulfillment in a passionate relationship? This would be no more far-fetched than her cinematic portrayal of Ada's miraculous transformation from muteness into speech. Ultimately, Campion's "The Piano" advances the sexist assumption that heterosexual women will give up artistic practice to find "true love." That "positive" surrender is encouraged by the "romantic" portrayal of sexism and misogyny.

While I do not think that young black male rappers have been rushing in droves to see "The Piano", there is a bond between those folks involved with high culture who celebrate and condone the sexist ideas and values upheld in this film and those who celebrate and condone "gangsta rap." Certainly Kennedy's description of the United States as a "cowboy, gangster, philistine" culture would also accurately describe the culture evoked in "The Piano". Popular movies that are seen by young black males, for example "Indecent Proposal, MadDog and Glory, True Romance", and "One False Move", all eroticize male domination expressed via the exchange of women, as well as the subjugation of other men, through brutal violence.

Contrary to a racist white imagination which assumes that most young black males, especially those who are poor, live in a self- created cultural vacuum, uninfluenced by mainstream, cultural values, it is the application of those values, largely learned through passive uncritical consumption of mass media, that is revealed in "gangsta rap." Brent Staples is willing to challenge the notion that "urban primitivism is romantic" when it suggests that black males become "real men" by displaying the will to do violence, yet he remains resolutely silent about that world of privileged white culture that has historically romanticized primitivism, and eroticized male violence. Contemporary films like "Reservoir Dogs" and "The Bad Lieutenant" celebrate urban primitivism and many less well done films ("Trespass, Rising Sun") create and/or exploit the cultural demand for depictions of hardcore blacks who are willing to kill for sport.

To take "gangsta rap" to task for its sexism and misogyny while critically accepting and perpetuating those expressions of that ideology which reflect bourgeois standards (no rawness, no vulgarity) is not to call for a transformation of the culture of patriarchy. Ironically, many black male ministers, themselves sexist and misogynist, are leading the attacks against gangsta rap. Like the mainstream world that supports white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, they are most concerned with calling attention to the vulgar obscene portrayals of women to advance the cause of censorship. For them, rethinking and challenging sexism, both in the dominant culture and in black life, is not the issue.

Mainstream white culture is not concerned about black male sexism and misogyny, particularly when it is unleashed against black women and children. It is concerned when young white consumers utilize black popular culture to disrupt bourgeois values. Whether it be the young white boy who expresses his rage at his mother by aping black male vernacular speech (a true story) or the masses of young white males (and middle class men of color) seeking to throw off the constraints of bourgeois bondage who actively assert in their domestic households via acts of aggression their rejection of the call to be "civilized. " These are the audiences who feel such a desperate need for gangsta rap. It is much easier to attack gangsta rap than to confront the culture that produces that need.

Gangsta rap is part of the anti-feminist backlash that is the rage right now. When young black males labor in the plantations of misogyny and sexism to produce gangsta rap, their right to speak this violence and be materially rewarded is extended to them by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Far from being an expression of their "manhood," it is an expression of their own subjugation and humiliation by more powerful, less visible forces of patriarchal gangsterism. They give voice to the brutal raw anger and rage against women that it is taboo for "civilized" adult men to speak. No wonder then that they have the task of tutoring the young, teaching them to eroticize and enjoy the brutal expressions of that rage (teaching them language and acts) before they learn to cloak it in middle-class decorum or Robert Bly style reclaimings of lost manhood. The tragedy for young black males is that they are so easily dunned by a vision of manhood that can only lead to their destruction.

Feminist critiques of the sexism and misogyny in gangsta rap, and in all aspects of popular culture, must continue to be bold and fierce. Black females must not be duped into supporting shit that hurts us under the guise of standing beside our men. If black men are betraying us through acts of male violence, we save ourselves and the race by resisting. Yet, our feminist critiques of black male sexism fail as meaningful political intervention if they seek to demonize black males, and do not recognize that our revolutionary work is to transform white supremacist capitalist patriarchy in the multiple areas of our lives where it is made manifest, whether in gangsta rap, the black church, or the Clinton administration.

Source: http://eserver.org/race/misogyny.html

Essence Takes On Rap Music

Jan. 20, 2005 -- A black women's magazine has launched a campaign to address the explosion of sexism and misogyny in rap music.

By Camille Jackson | Staff Writer, Tolerance.org

Essence magazine has kicked off the new year with a campaign to combat the explosion of hypersexual images of women in rap music videos.

The monthly magazine for women of color is offering a platform for readers to discuss depictions of women in rap music videos.

There's plenty to discuss. Successful rap videos these days seem to require half-naked women, in the words of Snoop Dogg, dropping it like it's hot.

Charges of sexism erupted last year when St. Louis rapper Nelly appeared in a video swiping a credit card down a woman's backside. The charges again surfaced when Atlanta rapper Ludacris appeared on his album cover about to bite into a woman's leg. The degradation crossed color lines with an old, underground tape of white rapper Eminem raging about a "black bitch" he used to date.

"An entire generation of Black girls are being raised on these narrow images," Essence editors write on the Take Back The Music website.

"And as the messages and images are broadcast globally, they have become the lens through which the world now sees us. This cannot continue."

In response to Essence's call for feedback on sexist and misogynistic images, one respondent, named Lisa, wrote: "I've given up on hip hop. It happened a few years ago. I just stopped waiting for the next song, the one that wouldn't insult me, bring me down, or just plain hurt. It never seemed to come. So I stopped listening to hip-hop stations, bit by bit."

Using a critical lens
Besides offering a platform for public discussion, Essence Editor-in-Chief Diane Weathers plans to address sexism in hip-hop music in regular features throughout the year.

An article in the March issue, for example, will profile women who appear in videos and research the impact of these videos on teenagers. There also are plans to distribute a guide that will help parents protect their children from harmful images and offensive lyrics.

For starters, Essence editors suggest listening to music with a more critical ear, paying attention to lyrics. Watching a music video with the sound muted also may help viewers catch sexist images.

As issues are addressed, Weathers says she'd like to provide "readers and friends with e-mail addresses and phone numbers of some of the major music video programmers. We want to let the public know how to air their concerns and how to complain."

Essence editors have declared the last week of February as "Take Back the Music Week," when they will co-host a panel discussion at Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga.

Last spring, students at the historically black college objected to rapper Nelly's visit to their campus, challenging him to participate in a discussion of sexism in his music. Nelly declined to appear.

Later, he told Essence, "I respect women, and I am not a misogynist. I am an artist."

The editors at Essence hope their campaign will change attitudes and change how women of color are portrayed in the media.

Source: http://www.tolerance.org/news/article_tol.jsp?id=1141


Girls Stand Up to Hip Hop

By Diane Taylor 


 Sick of being called ho's and bitches, a group of young women in Boston has set up a new radio station to fight rap's misogyny. 

In the poor Boston neighborhood where 18-year-old Stephanie Alves grew up, words such as bitch and ho are part of everyday male conversation. This slang is not used to pass judgment on a woman engaged in a particular activity but to describe any female.

Rap has been criticized for its negative portrayal of women right from the start. Artists such as Snoop Doggy Dogg and Ja Rule have attracted particular criticism - both were charged for use of indecent language back in 2001 at the SunFest festival in Jamaica. Lyrics such as "Game is the topic/ And what's between your legs is the product/ Use it properly/ And you'll make dollars bitch," from Ja Rule's Bitch Betta Have My Money, continue to incense women.

As Alves puts it, some rap music has tapped into feelings of male powerlessness as a result of poverty, racism and fractured families and made it not only fashionable but also empowering for young men to demean women in this way. "At school, guys go around saying things like, 'She gave it up to me in two weeks, she's a ho'," says Alves. "They disrespect women; all that matters to them are the guns and sex and money that feature in so much rap music."

Scantily clad 24/7 sexual availability is the gold standard for womanhood. And yet this is the same quality that earns women the derogatory labels, viewed at worst as lowlife sluts and at best as fashion accessories. "Things got so bad that even the girls were going around calling each other bitch and ho," says Alves.

So Alves got together with a group of like-minded girls and young women in Dorchester, a Boston suburb with high levels of crime and deprivation, with the idea of setting up the first radio station dedicated to countering the negative way women are portrayed in rap. They approached a local head teacher, Larry Mayes, who recalls, "They came to me and said: 'We have a serious problem, we're tired of being referred to as bitches and ho's and we want to do something about it."

"The criticism of the way rap music portrays women is nothing new," says Alves. But instead of just talking about the problem we decided to take positive action."

The mayor of Boston loved the idea. "When we went to him he jumped out of his chair he was so enthusiastic," says Mayes. "He promised to get the most powerful women working in media in Boston to be advisers to the girls - and he did."

Private funding was secured and a couple of weeks ago, broadcasting from a women's center in Dorchester, the radio station hit the airwaves. A sign pinned to the studio door reads: "Only positive attitudes beyond this point."

For now, the station, called Radio Log, is on air on weekday afternoons in the Dorchester area but Alves hopes that both the amount of time the station is on air and the area it covers will expand. Eight teenage girls between the ages of 13 and 18 are involved. Over the next few months more will be recruited and trained. The girls are African-American and Hispanic and they hope to get white and Asian girls involved too.

To promote an alternative, positive image of young American womanhood, they play a range of carefully vetted music - rap, hip-hop, reggae, soul and country - along with interviews and phone-ins open to both sexes to discuss music, relationships and burning issues of the day.

"We don't ban particular artists but select music on the basis of the lyrics," says Alves. "For example someone like Ashanti has some music that reflects women positively and some that reflects women negatively. We don't play the negative stuff." Artists who have so far made it on to the playlist include Mary Mary, Alicia Keyes, Faith Evans, Usher, Boyz-II-Men and B2K. Banned are certain songs by artists including Snoop Doggy Dogg, Lil Kim, Juvenile and Tupac Shakur.

Choosing which music is on the playlist and which is off can lead to animated discussions. "There are lots of grey areas," says Alves. "We like to play love songs but so many of them have derogatory references to women when sex is mentioned so we have to be careful."

Female African-American rapper Ife Oshun is sympathetic to their cause. "What sort of personal values do little girls in our hip-hop nation develop when they are constantly bombarded with images of their future selves as little more than rump shakers? What do our little boys learn when a disproportionate number of rap videos portray their sisters, mothers, future wives and future daughters as little more than eye candy?" says Oshun.

In the UK, young women are feeling just as bruised by the fantasy world of their male peers and are now looking to emulate their American peers. Gemma Gibson, 22, from west London, is trying to get funding to set up a similar radio station here. She is involved with Yes Studios, a music charity that gives socially-excluded young people hands-on experience in all aspects of music production.

"I've always loved singing and I think it's time to show young people there is another perspective out there. Gun culture in London is so big at the moment and I'm tired of guys calling us just a piece of ass. Music is so influential and it's made this stuff very fashionable, but now it's time for a different fashion."

Back in Boston, Radio Log has so far received nothing but praise. "I haven't had any negative comments from guys about it but they know better than to speak in a disrespectful way around me," says Alves. While there are no plans to take on the offensive male rappers directly, Alves hopes that word will reach them via the radio station of the errors of their ways.

She is optimistic that the rap that has led popular culture for the past 25 years is going to change. "We've been hearing about sex and drugs and money for so long. How much more is there to say? Surely now is the time for something new and positive to take over." all.

Excerpt from:

The Evolution of Rap Music in the United States

by Henry A. Rhodes


Before concluding my unit, the role women are playing in the rap industry must be discussed. As rap music evolved and became popular, women tended to be the targets of male rap lyrics and generally were not portrayed in a favorable light. Rap music producers also seemed to be hesitant to produce female rap artists. David Thigpin in his article, “Not for Men Only; Women Rappers are Breaking the Mold with a Message of their Own”, offers two reasons for this reluctance. One being, rap producers were apprehensive about signing female rappers because they feared tampering with their proven formula of success of producing macho male rappers. The other being, rap producers did not feel that female voices could supply the requisite loudness and abrasiveness that they felt was a major feature of rap music.

Nothing can bring about change quicker than a financial success, especially in the music industry whose main motivating factor seems to be profit. A New York City female rap trio by the name of Salt ‘N’ Pepa would provide the rap music industry with the incentive to produce more female rappers with the success of its debut album, Hot, Cool, & Vicious, which sold over a million copies. Besides the fact that people like what they heard, Russell Simmons who was quoted in Thigpen’s article offers another explanation. Simmons stated, “There are more women buying rap records who would like to relate to women artists and there are more guys who want to hear a women’s point of view.”

With advent of female rappers also came new rap messages which transcended the boasting that was so common with male rappers. For example, Salt ‘N’ Pepper rapped over soul-tinged R&B melodies with teasing, street-savvy raps about maturity, independence from men, and sexual responsibility. Another female rapper, Monie Love, tried not to be too serious with her rap messages. While Queen Latifah raps were about women being optimistic and having pride in themselves and tended to counter male rappers’ lyrics which tended to express a poor opinion of women. However, there are some female rappers like BWP (Bytches with Problems) who voice a vengeful brand of radical black feminism. BWP’s raps dealt with such issues as date rape, male egos, and police brutality. BWP showed that they could be just as boastful as male rappers with their lyrics on the record ‘In We Want Money’ when they stated, “Marry you? Don’t make me laugh! Don’t you know, all I want is half!” Another female rapper who deserves mentioning because of her forceful attack on misogyny is Yo-Yo with her record ‘You Can’t Play with My Yo-Yo”. David Thigpen concluded his article on female rappers by stating that female rappers beside offering a different attitude, have shown that rap can be far more significant and flexible than its critics have admitted. This also illustrates, contrary to what David Samuels holds to be true, that rap music can endure the influence of groups other than its creators and still survive and flourish.


Source: http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1993/4/93.04.04.x.html

Women say rap videos demean, not define

Black women have had it with misogynistic raps and lewd images. Treat us with respect, they say.

Published June 14, 2005

Only in a rap video can somebody swipe a credit card down a woman's thong-clad backside.

Black women are tired. Tired, they say, of being portrayed as everything but a woman.

"If there was a line," Cori Murray says, videos such as Nelly's 2003 Tip Drill, with the card swipe, crossed it. "It's just really blatant. Just in your face."

After years of letting rap videos define them as skin-revealing sexpots, black women have decided enough is enough.

From a historically black women's college in Atlanta to the nation's largest black women's magazine, the generation that grew up listening to, dancing to and loving rap is now challenging it. An intervention, Murray calls it.

At Atlanta's Spelman College last year, students protested Nelly's scheduled appearance at a campus bone-marrow drive, prompting a nationwide dialogue on rap and misogyny.

In April, a conference on feminism and hip-hop drew thousands to the University of Chicago.

One of the most sweeping movements is Essence magazine's "Take Back the Music" campaign. The initiative started in January as a yearlong effort, but now editors say until they see more positive images of black women in rap, the magazine will write monthly articles, hold town-hall meetings and urge readers to participate in telephone, letter and e-mail campaigns to cable, radio and record company executives.

"We do not believe in censorship," says Murray, the magazine's arts and entertainment editor. "What we're asking for is different images, balance. There are black women in different lights, different body types and just different venues."

The mainstream, however, may not know it.

"There's not a countermessage," says Tarshia Stanley, who teaches a course on images of women in the media at Spelman. "It would be fine if it were projected as a small part, but it's projected as all that we do, everything that we are."

Unlike the Spelman protest, the Essence campaign does not take aim at specific rappers. "For us," Murray says, "it is across the board."

If that's the case, why then did black women excuse the hypersexualized women in rap songs and videos for so long?

Stanley has a theory.

"We're dealing with a generation who's been raised by this kind of music and raised by this kind of imagery," she says. "They know something is wrong. They maybe don't like it, but it takes a moment for them to get a critical consciousness, for them to articulate what's wrong and why it may be detrimental in our community."

Murray can testify to that.

"I was one of those people" who said, " "Oh, it's the beat. They're not really talking about me,' " she says.

Even as a key player in Essence's campaign, she still has a hard time criticizing rap. "It's my music," she says. "I just want to see it grow in a different way."

Another reason for the delay? Black women did not want to sell out their black brothers - even if they sold them out.

"We didn't want to spank their hands, especially publicly," Murray says. "As a community, we have this thing about airing our dirty laundry."

But as rap became racier and offered more of a one-dimensional view of black women, "we realized we had to say something," Murray says. "Yes, it's going to hurt. Yes, we're putting these guys on blast. But you know what, we gotta do it because it's our lives. It's our souls.

"It's hurting us too much."

Murray has seen the impact the images have had on her niece, and the girl still wears diapers.

Once, she says, the girl gyrated and cooed, "Dip it low, make your man say oh."

The way the toddler moved and sang, like the women in the Dip It Low video, left Murray dumbfounded.

"She's 2," she says. "If she's doing this now, I can't imagine what kind of songs are going to be out when she's 5 or 6."

A group of Atlanta's Emory University professors found rap videos had far greater implications for the more than 500 black teenage girls it followed from December 1996 to April 1999. According to the study, published in the March 2003 edition of the American Journal of Public Health, the girls who watched hours of videos were morett likely to have had sex, drink and use drugs than those who did not.

"Exposure to rap music videos, which is explicit about sex and violence and rarely shows the potential long-term adverse effect of risky behaviors, may influence adolescents by modeling these unhealthy practices," the study's authors say.

It is not just the impact on black girls that worries black women. It is black boys, especially those who "get raised by the television and by music," Stanley says.

"Young men of color," she says, "get their idea of masculinity . . . from the media."

"The videos are showing young men how to treat young women," Murray says.

For all the damage rap videos may have done, Serena Kim, features editor of Vibe, a hip-hop magazine, says there is a flip side.

"Hip-hop in effect popularized female beauty and size," she says. "You don't have to be a Barbie doll to be attractive. These videos show that women come in more curvaceous sizes."

At a cost.

Most hours of the day, you can flip to MTV, Fuse and Black Entertainment Television, and see men (fully clothed) with half-nude women in videos. BET, a channel that has been criticized for showing too much skin, even has a program devoted to adult-oriented rap videos.

Michael Lewellen, BET's senior vice president of corporate communications, says any movement that generates dialogue and forces people to think about the choices they make is a good thing.

But the Essence campaign, he says, "has given people a reason to point a finger to the entire hip-hop industry," his employer included. "And that should not be the case."

"The most nominated artist for the Grammy Awards in 2005 was Kanye West and his lyrics aren't violent," Lewellen says. "We are talking about a small percentage of the artists whose content has fueled Essence and other campaigns going on right now."

Moreover, he says, the "thing that's important to note about any rap music video is what you see and hear is nothing more than that individual artist's (interpretation) of his or her world. It's not meant to be a blanket descriptor of black culture. It's not meant to be indicative of the lives of all black people."

Maybe so, but that is a naive assessment, Stanley says.

"It's not what you see one time," she says. "It's what you see 1,000 times. It begins to make inroads into your thought processes. It becomes life for (consumers) because they try to live out these things that they see and that they hear."

Murray agrees.

"It's a copout," she says. "Just because they're not saying your name doesn't mean they're not talking about you. They're talking about you collectively."

If people have such a problem with the music, stop buying it, Lewellen says.

"Let's remember the bottom-line factor: The industry responds to market conditions," he says. "As long as consumers are willing to buy the CDs, go to the concerts, listen to the songs of the more controversial artists, they will continue to make the kind of product that they will make. If the market conditions change, I guarantee you the the product will change.

"Do you really think Starbucks would charge $5 or $6 for a cup of coffee if consumers didn't pay for it? It's a similar analogy when it comes to music."

According to Lewellen, BET UnCut, the show that broadcasts adult-oriented videos at 3 a.m., has had double-digit viewership increases in the past two years.

"Someone is watching that show at 3 o'clock in the morning," he says. "Otherwise, we wouldn't get the numbers that we get.

"If there's a movement to get the attention of these artists, you . . . do that by not consuming their product and that's an individual choice."

Murray acknowledges that some of the very people who are now attacking the music are fans of it.

"It's a conflict," she says. "But we also recognize that it's time to step up and say no to it. We were a little late getting to this party, but we're here now and believe us, we are gonna make some changes."

Comments? Email: Dtape@interchange.ubc.ca