[16 April 2007]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
Sometime between the time Don Imus uttered the now-infamous slur about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team and his firing from the airwaves, America was once again thrust onto the uneasy fault lines of race, sex and decency.
But the conversation didn’t stop there last week, as cultural observers, entertainers and regular folk moved beyond the radio dial to challenge pop culture at large - and the hip-hop genre in particular - for its glamorization of coarse, derogatory language and images.
“It’s time to check the madness, to have the hard national conversation, to do the heavy lifting and figure out how we got here,” says Bakari Kitwana, author of “Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop and The Hip-Hop Generation.” “But here’s the thing: It’s so easy to point to hip-hop but it’s more complicated than that.”
On the April 4 edition of his “Imus in the Morning” radio show, the old-school shock jock, who built a career on irreverence, referred to Rutgers team members as “nappy-headed hos.” Within days, advertisers and supporters distanced themselves from a show that had hosted presidential candidates, celebrities and journalists.
Before the end of a long, strained week during which he was first fired by cable network MSNBC (his radio show was simulcast on the network) and then fired by CBS Radio, Imus apologized many times, noting that he had taken his cue from the hip-hop community, where the terminology is used commonly and loosely.
“Hip-hop gave Imus the language,” said T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, author of “Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip-Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women.” “He wouldn’t have known what a `ho’ was if it weren’t for rap records.”
Just as quickly as Imus’ more than 30-year career in radio imploded, questions bellowed across the airwaves and Internet: Will television, movies and music be subjected to the same standards that doomed Imus? Will programming change? Specifically, will one of the nation’s most commercially and culturally successful musical genres - hip-hop/rap - be made over?
Public-relations expert Marvet Britto says the Imus controversy may be just the beginning of soul-searching on a national stage.
“You cannot crucify one person and hold them to a different standard. This has to be for everybody across the board,” said Britto, whose agency has represented singer Mariah Carey, basketball player Latrell Spreewell and former Florida Marlins player Gary Sheffield. “... You can’t single out rappers. Everybody has to be held to a higher moral standard.”
Some rap defenders don’t see a link between Imus’ comments and hip-hop. They describe rap lyrics as reflections of the hopeless, helpless, violent, drug-plagued neighborhoods that many rappers come from. Instead of criticizing rappers, they say, critics should improve the reality that inspires the lyrics.
“Comparing Don Imus’ language with hip-hop artists’ poetic expression is misguided and inaccurate and feeds into a mind-set that can be a catalyst for unwarranted, rampant censorship,” rap mogul Russell Simmons said in a statement Friday.
“Rappers are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports,” celebrity rapper Snoop Dogg told MTV.com on Friday.
Luther Campbell, the Miami rapper famous for popularizing nasty rhymes 20 years ago, draws the same distinction.
“He crossed the line because it was directed at specific people. Rappers are usually talking in general terms or just joking,” he said Friday. “Hip-hop is being made a scapegoat for someone who said something wrong. The two have nothing to do with each other.”
Campbell did make a concession: “... I will say sometimes it goes too far and we need to a better job of filtering to make sure the music is not offensive.”
Still, it is hard to know if there will be a shift, and if so, when. Viacom, which owns MTV, BET, Comedy Central and Paramount Pictures, declined to comment when contacted by The Miami Herald.
However, Source magazine, considered the hip-hop bible, said its staff will be asking “tougher questions” when interviewing entertainers who use the language.
“Any artist who makes outright references to an entire group should be taken to task for it,” said Jeremy Miller, president and CEO of Source. “We have struggled with this issue for years and I think the best way for us to deal with it is to ask the hard questions. We need to say, `what did you mean when you said that?’ “
Over the past 15 years, A-list performers including Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent and Dr. Dre have built lucrative careers and transformed hip-hop music into a billion-dollar cultural force, often using derogatory terms to reference women.
Now, some critics are hoping the Imus controversy will push rappers to take a longer, closer look at themselves and the images the culture perpetuates; to build a better filter.
Syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin condemned Imus, then asked: “What kind of relief do we get from this deadening, coarsening, dehumanizing barrage from young, black rappers and their music-industry enablers?”
There has been a long but largely quiet fight to shift the portrayal of women in hip-hop lyrics. Almost 15 years ago, as the genre began to dominate the charts, politician and civil-rights activist C. Delores Tucker challenged the misogynistic images and lyrics.
Three years ago, students at Spelman College refused to let rapper Nelly hold a bone-marrow fundraising event for his ailing sister until he explained his latest video. The video for his single, “Tip Drill,” showed him swiping a credit card between one woman’s buttocks. Nelly declined.
In 2005, Essence magazine launched its “Take Back the Music” campaign. Several authors have also weighed in, touring the national college circuit with “Rap Sessions: Does Hip-Hop Hate Black Women?,” a forum that debates the lack of artistic and civil responsibility in the hip-hop generation.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, among the loudest critics calling for Imus’ termination, indicated that entertainment is the next battleground. “We will not stop until we make it clear that no one should denigrate women,” he said after Imus’ firing. “We must deal with the fact that ho and the b-word are words that are wrong from anybody’s lips. It would be wrong if we stopped here and acted like Imus was the only problem. There are others that need to get this same message.”
Bryan Monroe, the president of the National Association of Black Journalists, which was an early and vocal critic of Imus, said: “Something shifted where America said enough is enough. Black, white, young and old said we cannot allow this language to continue.”