America is taking a deeper look at the misogyny and bitter language of rap lyrics in response to last week’s firing of radio talk-show host Don Imus for calling the Rutgers University’s female basketball players as “nappy-headed hos.” Now the debate is focusing on hip-hop music and the genre’s controversial use of profane language as a lucrative yet destructive cultural force. Critics have singled out performers such as Snoop Dogg, Ludacris and 50 Cent, who they say have built lucrative careers based, in part, on calling black women “bitches” and “hos,” fueling the public discussion on what’s been a private, long-debated issue in the black community.
“We have lost total contact as to why the culture was started, what it stood for and the whole positive movement,” according to Lady B, host of the old-school hip-hop show “BackSpin 43” on Sirius Satellite Radio. “It was supposed to be the total opposite of what we have now. Afrika Bambaataa and native New Yorkers from the Bronx started hip-hop as a way of healing the community, not destroying it. Its initial dream was to stop drug abuse and gang violence in the ‘hood, in the Bronx. It was a great thing for many people, [inspiring them to] put down their guns and knives and choose to battle with a turntable and microphones instead.”
Those says are indeed dead, she says.
“Now, we’ve totally flipped it,” Lady B told BlackAmericaWeb.com. “Now it’s totally nothing but violence. It’s nothing but degrading to women, and it’s nothing but a cash situation now.”
As one of the earliest female rappers in hip-hop history, Lady B says she feels that Imus’ use of hip-hop culture to defend his comments was hypocritical.
“We’re paying attention to the (hip-hop) lyrics because some prejudiced fool decided to call some sisters out of their names, and don’t even know why the two are connected,” she said. “It’s been this way, so why are you guys angry now?”
Philadelphia talk radio host Reggie Bryant told BlackAmericaWeb.com that black folks engaged in debate about any link between Imus and hip-hop have been hoodwinked.
“It is a calculated attempt to offset the venal specificity of this active racist by other part-time racists to deflect away from the real issue,” said Bryant. “The Imus thing has nothing to do with hip-hop, misogyny and gangsters calling people bitches and hoes. Nothing! White folk always find a way to deflect away from the point.”
The two issues are “mutually exclusive,” Bryant said.
“They start it off with Imus himself and his absolutely, totally unacceptable bleating about the incidental comment. The thing that’s so sad is that black folks, plus some Negros and a couple of colored folk, bit into it and became completely distracted,” Braynt maintained. “There is nothing at all [in the Imus controversy] that has any relevance to what hip-hop folk have been doing. Everybody knows that, for a long time, there have been people dealing with the lyrics and all that. And its white folk that make the lyrics available.”
Some observers have suggested that the national gag-reflex response to Imus’ venomous statements should not be used as an attempt to censor or silence hip-hop, but to instead examine our individual and collective behavior. Has the “CNN of the ghetto” — as Public Enemy’s iconic Chuck D. famously referred to rap — aired not only African-American socio-political stances, but our linguistic dirty laundry as well?
“We’re our own worse enemies in this case,” former talk show host Dave Warren told BlackAmericaWeb.com. “The fact is that a lot of us don’t take into consideration the things that we say.”
Cultural critic, author and columnist Stanley Crouch, a longtime foe of rap music, suspected the Imus ordeal would galvanize young black women across the country. He said a key moment was when the Rutgers players appeared at a news conference following the outrcry — poised, dignified and defying stereotypes seen in rap videos and “dumb” comedies.
“When the public got to see these women, what they were, it was kind of shocking,” Crouch said. “It made accepting the denigration not quite as comfortable as it had been for far too long.”
Some defenders of rap music and hip-hop culture, such as the pioneering mogul Russell Simmons, deny any connection between Imus and hip-hop. They describe rap lyrics as reflections of the violent, drug-plagued, hopeless environments that many rappers come from. Instead of criticizing rappers, defenders say, critics should improve their reality.
“Comparing Don Imus’ language with hip-hop artists’ poetic expression is misguided and inaccurate and feeds into a mindset that can be a catalyst for unwarranted, rampant censorship,” Simmons said in a statement Friday.
But even longtime members of the hip-hop community suggest the time has come for some introspection.
“It’s out of control right now, and I don’t like where it’s going,” said an exasperated Felicia “The Poetess” Morris, president and CEO of Poetess Media. The Los Angeles-based former rapper and BlackAmericaWeb.com contributor says it is not the words, but the images that are most sinister in hip-hop culture.
“Don Imus as no influence on young Black youth. None! Zip! Zilch! The rappers have got all the influence. So, my initial thought was if they’re get on Imus, (these videos) are really what influences these young girls,” Morris told BlackAmericaWeb.com. “That’s more influential and more hurtful to us than anything Don Imus could say to us. Our own music is more harmful to us that anything Don Imus or anybody else could say.”
According to Philadelphia-based music producer Docta Shock, the language used throughout the Imus debacle is all wrong. The first correction Shock makes is Imus’ intent when he refers to hip-hop.
“The 10 people that are playing all the time are not hip-hop. Three 6 Mafia or 50 Cent are just a couple of groups out of the thousands of people pitting out records,” Shock told BlackAmericaWeb.com. “When they say hip-hop, they’re really talking about a whole culture: Deejays, breakers, writers, rappers, photographers, clothing people. I hear great songs everyday that don’t have a shot to get on the radio, but then they want to blame the rappers. And they don’t make those decisions.”
But in rap music’s beginnings, most of its most successful artists did indeed have more control because the music was independently created, produced and distributed by the artists themselves — and not focused on widespread commercial consumption or radio airplay. Embracing new technology, Lady B says, would enable hip-hop to regain its independence and original artistic message.
“Maybe now, with what Chuck D and other intelligent hip-hoppers are doing — selling their own stuff on the internet and taking back the distribution — would work,” she told BlackAmericaWeb.com. “Maybe we can cut out the middle and just address our people directly.”
Shock concurred, adding that “the difference between old and new rap music is that we lost the support, and we don’t own all those little labels like Sugar Hill and Profile anymore.”
The good old days of “underground” radio airplay, the forum in which rap music delivered its goods years ago, may well be lost on current music lovers, especially younger radio listeners who endure the same limited, daily airplay.
“The general public is generally programmed by radio because they’re playing songs over and over,” said Morris, “so you can’t help but sing along and kind of get stuck on the song. I think if radio programmers put that same energy towards offering rap music that is enlightened or positive, than people would be programmed to like that and that would succeed as well. Radio should give the same opportunity for good music that’s out there as it does the inappropriate stuff.”
Associated Press contributed to this story.