|Co-founder of Def Jam Records and Founder of Phat Farm Clothing.
What the industry is
"Black women in hip-hop are portrayed,
in songs or videos, as either silent, willing strippers or complaining, troublesome meddlers. Female rappers are either boy
toys (Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown) or tomboys (MC Lyte, the Lady of Rage), both of which are personalities constructed around
a masculine norm rather than a female norm."
Russell Simmons, cofounder of Def Jam Records and now chairman of Hip-hop Summit Action
We live in a very sexist society. Popular culture exaggerates everything, including this kind of sexism, for
profit. That’s the nature of capitalist society and entertainment. There is no question that the sexism that’s
in our hip-hop videos is a reflection of how sexist men are in the world today. It’s just that in the past things weren’t
so obvious. Men were holding doors for women, but then they’d do things privately that kept women from being equal citizens.
Now when you watch videos and you see the girls dancing, it’s a more raw expression of the same sexism. Although these
records and videos are offensive, young girls can learn a lot about the mind-set of the young guys they’re going to
school with. Now that the truth is out there more, young girls can learn how to deal with guys.
Moya Bailey, senior, Spelman College;
campus activist who participated in a student protest against Nelly
Black women are often depicted as hypersexualized,
and music videos exacerbate the problem&mdashand that becomes people’s perception of Black women everywhere. I know
people who’ve been on exchange programs to another country, say South Africa or Brazil, and they’ve had experiences
in which people have approached them, thinking that they were prostitutes or that they were sexually open just because of
the images that they have of American Black women. People don’t have access to other images of us because videos are
really what go out to the rest of the world. There aren’t really pictures of us in school textbooks or things that counter
the images that are seen in music videos. With White people, you have a wider range of depictions. You might have Roseanne,
which represents a low-income White family, but then you also have Frasier and Friends, which represent wealthier White
people; so there’s a range. 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
Melyssa Ford, former video model
and cohost of new show BET Style
When I started doing videos, it was to help pay my tuition. It wasn’t
a way to meet rappers. That was the farthest thing from my mind. We’ve become trophies. We’re like the equivalent
of a platinum chain and a pendant. It’s one of the reasons why I took control of how I was seen. 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.
Jay "Icepick" Jackson, senior
vice-president of A&R, Ruff Ryders Records
I have a 7-year-old daughter, and she can’t listen to my music.
She can’t listen to it in the car, not in the room, and she can’t watch videos. Right now she loves Usher. His
music is good, but the lyrics are a bit much for her—especially once she starts to understand what he’s saying
about adult relationships. So I went and bought her the Hip-Hop Bears CD, and we listened to it together, and she loves
it. I gave Usher’s CD to her mother.
Talib Kweli, hip-hop artist
can be art, but the video didn’t start out as art. It started out as a promotional tool to get an artist seen without
having to fly him around the country. So what’s the easiest way to sell something? When you drive down the street you
see titties selling you all types of things, from clothes to cars to alcohol to everything. So why not use ass and titty to
sell music? It makes perfect sense. Whether it’s right or not, I feel that as a man, when I see it, I’m going
to look. It’s going to catch my attention. I believe an artist’s responsibility is not to uphold the morals of
society. An artist’s responsibility is to speak honestly about what’s going on and what people are going through.
Debra Lee, president and COO,
BET Holdings, Inc.
BET gets beat up for playing what is selling in stores and getting played in constant rotation on
the radio. Many times the sexual aspect is gratuitous. You can’t have women hardly dressed and men fully clothed and
say it’s not one-sided or problematic. It is an issue BET has to deal with. Years ago the concern was violence. Now
it’s sexuality, and some artists go too far. I hope this is a phase, and we do have to work with artists on it. But
if more people are asking for it and like it, who’s to say that’s wrong? If artists put out videos like this,
and people don’t like it, they should vote at the record store. Our Uncut show enables us to offer the industry
an outlet. If something is adult-oriented, we can say it is going to Uncut.
Ludacris, hip-hop artist
my videos I try to be versatile: Sometimes I have women dancing, and then, for example, in my Stand Up video, there
are no naked women. I don’t mean to depict women in a certain way. The ones who want to shake what their mama gave them
are going to do that whether they’re in videos or not. As artists, we explore our creativity through videos. Who sees
those videos on BET, or whatever music channel is showing it, is not always up to us.
Part of the
reason rap artists come under fire more than any other group is because people don’t respect what we do as art. When
actress Halle Berry appears in Monster’s Ball, people separate the character from the real person, and she wins
an Oscar! A rapper couldn’t use a line describing what she did in the movie, let alone film it in a video, without getting
heat for it. So I accept my role and my freedom as an artist. I respect women and I’m not a misogynist. I’m an
artist. Hip-hop videos are art and entertainment. Videos tell stories; some are violent, some are sexy, some are fun, some
are serious. As for how women are shown in the videos, I don’t have a problem with it because it is entertainment, whether
it’s Dilemma or Tip Drill, Mos Def or Terror Squad. Women are in the videos by choice. No one knows what
a particular woman’s situation is, what her goals are. Being in that video may help her further those goals. 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
Kevin Powell, activist and author
women, dating back to slavery, have always been depicted by this society as sexually loose, as whores, as objects to be used,
then discarded. What is new about this mind-set is that there seems to be no boundaries, no coded language in the way men—Black
men—rap or sing about and relate to Black women nowadays. Factor in music videos running all day every day depicting
Black women in compromising positions, and you have the double insult of the visuals reinforcing what have essentially become
a reckless disregard and, in some instances, hatred, for the lives and psyches of Black girls and women. In my work as an
activist and a speaker, I ask Black boys and Black men this question all the time: What other men on the planet are allowed,
or even encouraged—for the sake of keeping it real or making a profit for their record labels and themselves—to
refer to the females in their lives as bitches, hos, chickenheads, skeezers, sluts or what have you; have it put on CD; have
it depicted in their music videos in the most pornographic ways possible; and have all those horrific sentiments shipped all
over the globe? No one but us.
Fatima Robinson, video director
Videos have to come out of the strip club. Someone needs to start being honest about it. Black people
often tiptoe around what is really going on. We see girls shaking their ass 50 million times in every video. As African women
we love to shake our tailfeathers; it’s a part of our culture. I love to dance and drop it like it’s hot as much
as the next girl, but there has to be a balance. The fact that every video is based on that is ridiculous. The reason they’re
putting it out there is because folks are playing it, and it’s selling. If it were not being played and not selling,
artists would not be making this music. There are so many artists out there who are not getting their proper due because of
what’s going on. And that’s it plain and simple. As a music-video director, I have problems all the time getting
work, because I refuse to write the treatments that record companies want—hot girls, cars, palm trees and so on. At
some point you have to give in and do something, and try and do it in a stylized way, so it doesn’t depict us as even
crazier than what’s out there. After getting the songs and listening to them over and over and over, I just say, "No,
Danyel Smith, author, and a former editor-in-chief of Vibe
Now that I’m
not editor-in-chief of a magazine or a full-time music journalist, I’m more of an average viewer of videos. I used to
watch with a business mind-set. How much money did they take to make this? Who is the director? Is it going to help sell the
album? Now I think, Do I like this? Is it fun for me? When I watch it, my reaction to the video depends on how I’m
feeling about myself. If I’m having an insecure day, I’ll probably feel angry at this narrow idea of women that
is being shown over and over on the screen. But if I’m not feeling insecure and watch videos, I’ll probably just
be bored. Sex sells; there’s no other way to say it. It’s the journalism equivalent of "If it bleeds, it leads."
For rhyming, it could be something like, "If it’s not naked, it’s not a hit record." When I was an editor, I was
trying to sell magazines. When I put women on the cover, it was always my goal to make it interesting. With women the easy
thing is to put someone in a sexual pose or in an outfit that shows off her body. I would have to do what I had to do sometimes
and find my balance somewhere else. There’s nothing wrong with showing off a Black woman’s body, but we need the
balance; we need other images as well. It’s bad when there’s only one thing or when sex is the constant focus.
Jessy Terrero, video and motion-picture director
I had an experience at the end
of a video shoot. The record label brought strippers in at the last minute because they wanted to shoot two scenes with them.
It was the label’s marketing department’s decision; they wanted a version they could service to BET’s Uncut
and places where people play raunchier stuff. In that situation, it wasn’t my doing. I was hired to deliver a certain
product to the label, and they’re like, "You’re going to shoot these two girls in this scene," and it was what
Datwon Thomas, editor-in-chief of King magazine
In the hip-hop industry,
we get so competitive and do what will win and what will sell and go to any ends to make that happen. You get so caught up
in competing that you may drop your guard and do something crazy. For example, if Smooth or Maxim has a hot
girl that we featured or wanted to and they get her in a swimsuit, I think I want to show her topless in a thong. Or they
photographed her with body paint, I have to put a vanilla wafer over her chest. I don’t want to get locked into that.
Eventually you’ll have a butt-naked woman just standing there. I’ve been able to not let it engulf me. I’ve
been a victim but haven’t been engulfed. I have two daughters and a wife; I can’t just give in to this.
Touré, pop culture correspondent for CNN and author
Hip-hop is primarily a male
preserve, a world where men talk about what they’ve done with or to other men. The massive success of a White man like
Eminem shows that White males are more accepted within hip-hop than Black females. Black women in hip-hop are portrayed, in
songs or videos, as either silent, willing strippers or complaining, troublesome meddlers. Female rappers are either boy toys
(Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown) or tomboys (MC Lyte, the Lady of Rage), both of which are personalities constructed around a
masculine norm rather than a female norm. This means the women are defining themselves in reaction to what men want, rather
than what they want. This is obviously the wrong message to send to young women and young men who will have to create relationships
that become the families of the next generation.
Carolyn West, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, University of Washington, Tacoma
adults are quite ignorant about what’s out there. We can’t afford to pretend it doesn’t exist. We live in
America, and people have a right to produce those images, so I’m not talking about censorship. But even if artists won’t
be responsible, the community has to hold them accountable. My fear is that girls don’t even see their own victimization
anymore. They say, "I’m a bitch, I’m a ho, I’m a tip drill." As porn moves more into the mainstream, it
only normalizes the behavior and how we deal with sexual assault and violence. I get concerned when I see girls mimic the
X-rated clothing that Lil’ Kim wears or the X-rated lyrics of songs like Kelis’s "Milkshake." It puts young girls
in positions that they can’t handle once the attention is drawn to them.
Comments? Email: Dtape@interchange.ubc.ca