[25 April 2007]
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
Will Santa’s joyful greeting switch to “Hi, Hi, HI!” in a post-Imus media world?
Must chemists make sure to pump up that tiny “2” when they write their water-based formulas?
You can’t be too careful these days.
With the Imus news cycle slowed to what music oldsters regard as 16 RPM (Reflections Per Minute) after the shock jock’s beheading and the Virginia Tech tragedy, it’s time to step back and include scholars in a debate dominated so far by drive-time punditry.
For at least 10 years, thoughtful academics and hip-hop veterans, mostly black, have published raw truths about the pros and cons of hip-hop culture, essential context for shrewd reaction to Imus’ “nappy-headed hos” debacle.
Start with Gwendolyn Pough’s Check It, While I Wreck It (2004). Fill your basket with Bakari Kitwana’s The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture, Mark Anthony Neal’s Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic (2002), or Joan Morgan’s When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as a Hip-Hop Feminist (1998).
Then add T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting’s probing, just-published Pimps Up, Ho’s Down, a scathing account of how hip-hop, despite a few pluses, degrades black women. Context emerges.
You think Imus is the problem, and so problem solved? Not remotely. Any savvy show-biz observer knows that CBS’s man in the morning hawked an on-air persona that, like most on-air personas, remained an act. As comedian and professional jerk, he tried to riff on hip-hop lingo and impaled himself on a rule civilian talkers learn by high school: In life, not everyone gets to say the same things in the same places.
Imus knew that, too. He banked on the continued hypocrisy of his bosses, willing to profit off hip-hop vulgarity so long as it stays in its place, beneath the radar of mainstream, predominantly white media.
The latter world gives almost no attention to black artists and intellectuals such as Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch (who calls hip-hoppers “neo-Sambos”) when they savage the trash side of hip-hop and the hypocrites who market it. It also ignores protests such as Essence magazine’s “Take Back the Music” campaign. Imus and his bosses forgot that hip-hop misogyny and crudity are no joke to many educated black women (and others) who refuse to buy it or stand for it.
That left executives like CBS generalissimo Les Moonves, who enjoys the credibility in show biz that Alberto Gonzales radiates in legal circles, to shoot his own soldier to make the problem go away.
Sharpley-Whiting’s canny study focuses less on “speech crime” than the cultural ‘hood from which Imus’ phrase came, the way “hip hop sets the tone for how women—myself included—think and act.”
A professor of black and diaspora studies and French at Vanderbilt University, and a former print and runway model, Sharpley-Whiting brings both street smarts and sophisticated cultural analysis to her subject. While she appreciates hip-hop culture for “its unabashed articulation of the most distressing issues facing my generation and a younger generation,” she denounces its “clear and deleterious” effects on black women—far more insidious than Imus’ short-term diss of the Rutgers women.
Sharpley-Whiting takes on hip-hop’s “one-dimensional” perpetuation of skin-color hierarchies in the black community, its encouragement of sexual abuse of young black women, its increasing linkage to the strip-club business and black-male sex tourism (especially to Brazil), its homophobia, its spurring of groupie culture. Some of her iconic examples, such as the notorious image of using a woman’s buttocks to swipe a credit card in rapper Nelly’s “Tip Drill,” may come as a surprise to readers safe in mainstream media.
Now whose fault is that?
Perhaps the strongest lesson Pimps Up, Ho’s Down teaches is that mainstream newspapers, TV and radio operate in a linguistic never-never land between hip-hop and academic scholarship, banning the edgy slang both those media sectors permit.
To report her subject accurately, Sharpley-Whiting must constantly write about a word and concept that begins with “P” and has five letters. Mainstream media review and celebrate the work of “artists” who toss it around like high fives, but won’t go near it themselves. Same for a five-letter word that rhymes with witch, and essentially means that in hip-hop-ese. If such words are so bad that we ban them from mainstream media, why is it OK to make money off them? How can we celebrate “art” that depends on them?
Sharpley-Whiting understands the aesthetic and free-speech complexities of such questions. By book’s end, she ably explores the “conundrum of the new black gender politics that uses art, technological innovation, and globalization in the service of color chauvinism, sexist exploitation, and hair neurosis. It is a new black gender politics completely in the service of a jack-legged black masculinity.”
The gutsy thing for media execs to do post-Imus would be to confront the misogynist, garbage culture Sharpley-Whiting indicts, to give airtime to its opponents, and adopt a single standard on street jive: either “It’s acceptable in the music and culture covered, so it’s acceptable in journalistic coverage and commentary,” or “It doesn’t belong anywhere.”
Easier, though, to fire Imus.