CHICAGO - A national protest Tuesday to ban misogynistic and offensive lyrics in hip-hop music renewed the debate over the genre’s role in shaping society, and whether responsibility for that rests with entertainment companies or artists.
In Chicago and a dozen other cities where the National Action Network organized its Day of Outrage, supporters of banning the “n” word, the “b” word and the “h” word in rap music said the issue is bigger than hip-hop - a reference to a song by socially conscious rappers Dead Prez.
“We’re not talking about music that came from the street. We’re talking about music that came from the boardroom,” said Rev. Otis Moss III, vice president of the newly formed Chicago chapter of the network and pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ.
About 150 people, young and old, men and women, gathered at Millennium Park, where Moss and other leaders of the organization, Mayor Richard Daley and others attacked the negative representation of women in rap music. The crowd then marched down Michigan Avenue to protest outside the offices of radio conglomerate Clear Channel Communications.
In Detroit, Rev. Al Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network, rallied in front of the Motown Museum, which chronicles the history of the legendary 1960s hitmaker Motown Records.
“I’m here in Motown in Detroit as a symbol of when music was not denigrating and was entertaining,” said Sharpton, who launched the campaign to combat the use of “bitch” and “ho” in April.
A chorus of criticism has surrounded hip-hop music for decades, from civil-rights veteran C. DeLores Tucker, who campaigned to remove sexually explicit lyrics from rap in the 1990s, to the recent initiative against misogynist words, ignited partly by Don Imus’ derogatory remarks about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. Imus’ syndicated radio show was canceled as a result of the groundswell.
But some hip-hop performers and experts balk at the idea of censorship, saying the lyrics reflect the artists’ communities. Others say the music industry that profits from hip-hop should be challenged. And some caution that banning words doesn’t change sexist behavior. They also say that radio stations play edited versions of their songs, which can also be bought at music stores.
The response to Tuesday’s national action showed the complexity of the debate about hip-hop.
“(The music is) appealing to our culture, and not just black people,” said Lupe Fiasco, a well-known Chicago rapper. “When you look at . . . the violence, misogyny and degradation, it’s there because there’s a market that wants that.”
“They don’t want to hear a synopsis of a social conflict, they just want to dance,” he added.
Fiasco, considered a socially conscious artist, says there is a double standard when it comes to censoring hip-hop performers, and that activists should be focused on more pressing concerns.
“Some of the things on TV, I don’t want to watch,” he said. “If we’re going to (censor things) that are offensive, then were going to have to blind and deafen everyone. Come on, man. Let’s focus on education and literacy and poverty.”
But some argue that removing derogatory words would be a major victory against the negative portrayal of African American women in the media.
“It’s clearly not the root of all of our cultural problems, but if it contributes to just one then we’ve got to clear it up,” said 6th Ward Ald. Freddrenna Lyle, who attended the rally at Millennium Park. “There are children who hear these words from a young age and that’s what they know.”
Experts counter that the simple removal of certain words and content from music would be symbolic and does not solve the broader issue of disrespect toward women.
“Just getting rid of the words that are already bleeped out on the radio does not really get down to the problem of sexual violence,” said T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, a professor at Vanderbilt University and author of “Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women.”
“If you think that if you can get rid of these words, it’s going to change people’s behaviors you’re wrong.”
As a feminist, she said she doesn’t oppose Sharpton’s initiative.
“I think certainly a campaign that aims to eradicate those particular offensive words has some effectiveness,” she said. “But I would also be mindful of the way symbolic victories do not replace victories in practice.”
Sharpley-Whiting says she grew up loving the music, especially “The Chronic,” the classic Dr. Dre album that contained violent and sexually explicit lyrics.
“When I was listening to it, I was quite young. But we have to be very clear that the music that we listen to doesn’t have to be the soundtrack of our lives,” she said. “I think for those who find it offensive, such a move will . . . help to move beyond these words. But in the end, we have to recognize that we are the buying public, so there’s something that’s appealing to us about it.”
But others are more circumspect, challenging the notion of both censorship and the idea that someone like Sharpton, who isn’t a rap artist, is attempting to restrict the genre.
They say the answer isn’t less music, but more.
“For years, people within the hip-hop community have been challenging the music industry to give more balanced representations to artists who are more political, and who aren’t pedaling these representations that people are up in arms over,” said Bakari Kitswana, author of the “The Hip Hop Generation.”
“So now you have people like Al Sharpton getting to weigh in on hip-hop when they never really had anything good to say about it in the first place.”
Kitswana said the discussion about the music has shifted.
“Instead of talking about balanced representation, the conversation has been narrowed down to let’s make these artists be something that they’re not,” he said, “as opposed to let’s bring artists who have been marginalized to the center.”
One reason the industry is reluctant to give more diverse hip-hop artists an opportunity is because music executives are worried that the performer won’t be profitable.
“I think it is the inability of people to take a risk and sticking with what makes money,” he said.
“We can’t dismiss the record industry executives and the people who are deciding playlists on these radio stations,” said Kitswana. “These corporate radio companies have an enormous influence not over only what gets heard but what gets made because they are helping to define the ear of a new generation of artists.”
Fiasco agrees that corporations play a role in what gets produced and played.
“There is definitely a corporate hand pushing certain acts,” he said, “and not pushing other acts.”