It's Just a Beat
In the early ‘00s, the hip-hop controversy du jour was the latest iteration of the debate over its representation of women. This time around, it centered on videos, and the use of scantily clad, curvaceous dancers gyrating about the screen as little more than eye candy and accoutrements for male rappers. There was nothing particularly new about that, but the practice reached a crescendo (or nadir, depending on your outlook) with the premiere of BET Uncut, a video show airing in the middle of the night on the cable network (safe, it was thought, from impressionable young minds who didn’t have access to Tivo or a VCR) featuring nothing but the raunchiest of the raunchy. At all-girl Spelman College, the target was Nelly’s infamous “Tip Drill” video, featuring the rapper swiping a credit card between an anonymous pair of female butt cheeks.
The fear held by many, including social service professionals who regularly worked with young black women, was that these videos, aside from their unflattering depictions of women (and it’s not like there were a lot of videos at the time showing women in all that much better a light), would be creating a dangerous mindset in the young people who watched them. Both boys and girls, the thinking went, would take away from a steady diet of such fare, the message that women were nothing more than ever-available sexual playthings. The effect of that notion on the self-esteem of young black girls, and how they would be perceived one day as adult women, was seen as especially deleterious.
As a critic I had written about Melyssa Ford, one of the most famous “video vixens”, and this chapter in the ongoing whither-black-female-representation saga. As the father of a young black girl, by now a teenager, I had to wonder if there was anything to the fears of the videos’ critics. Did she and her peers internalize these images? Did it skew how boys perceived them? Did all these raunchy lyrics and videos make her feel any less worthy a human being?
So I asked her. Her answer surprised me: “It’s just a beat,” she said.
I didn’t know what to make of that at first. Was she somehow unaware of the broader societal dimensions at play in this issue? Had I failed to instill a proper sense of rage against the corporate black pop media machine? Had my precious daughter, the apple of my eye, somehow come to believe the anti-woman hype?
Then I calmed down. Maybe she said that because there really wasn’t some sort of Pavlovian connection between a bouncing butt on the screen and how she was supposed to act upon seeing it. Maybe she said that because she could separate what was useful and enjoyable for her – namely, the music itself – from its sexist trappings. Maybe she said that because the grownups decrying these images aren’t seeing them from the perspective of their target audience, growing up in a world radically different from that of the grownups’ youth (whenever that youth was, be it the ‘40s, the ’60s or even the ‘80s). Or maybe she was of strong enough substance and character not to let her world be defined by the degrading images and messages a bunch of (almost all) male record industry decision makers, recording artists, and video directors thought would help sell product.
In other words, maybe I’d done my job as a parent, after all.
Given all those possible meanings encoded in my daughter’s matter-of-fact response, I did what any conscious rap-loving parent would have done: I thanked my lucky stars I had a kid who wasn’t likely to end up in one of those videos, and went on with life.
So did my daughter. She would go on to become a huge fan of both Tyler Perry’s Madea plays and movies, and The Boondocks. In 2009, I discovered that she’d been a Michael Jackson fan for years, despite the fact that none of his classic music was made while she’d been alive, and that for most of her life he’d been known as an accused child molester who looked like a white woman (she’d downloaded the MJ jams and whatever other music she wanted, not having bothered to peruse my CD library for it, or much of anything else, for that matter). When he died, she wanted to go see Michael Jackson’s This Is It, and the movie poster still occupies pride of place on her door.
On a magical night in November 2008, we gathered in the living room to watch history unfold a short drive away from our home, as the first black President-elect and his family took the stage in downtown Chicago’s Grant Park. The year 1992 really isn’t all that long ago, but even then, as I held my daughter for the very first time, I never imagined that we’d have a President of color before she was old enough to vote.
I also never imagined that Ice Cube would go from incendiary rapper to sitcom exec-producer, or that Dr. Dre would take forever (and counting) to issue the now-mythical Detox CD. Similarly, the Williams sisters, Tavis Smiley and Edwidge Danticat were nowhere on my horizon. Throughout, my daughter has been a constant source of laughter, purpose and joy for me from the moment she joined our world.
Black pop happenings have come and gone at a dizzying rate these last 18 years, but through them all she’s remained in my heart, and there she shall remain for the next 18 years and beyond. No matter what wonder and magic our stars might conjure, it’ll forever pale next to daddy’s little girl.
// Notes from the Road
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