The growing movement against misogynistic lyrics in popular rap and hip hop music found momentum in an unlikely place earlier this year – on the radio show of Don Imus, a middle-aged, white male shock jock.
Imus’ sexist and racist remarks about the women on the Rutgers University basketball team sparked outrage across the nation and brought heightened scrutiny to the epidemic of misogyny in the hip hop industry, an issue long debated among African Americans – especially women.
CBS Radio and NBC News ultimately bowed to pressure and fired the controversial radio host. And while debate continues about the severity of his punishment, one thing is certain: the Don Imus controversy propelled the issue of misogyny in music into the consciousness of mainstream America and underscored the importance of the work already being done to address it.
Growing Protest on Campus
Consider the young women of Spelman College, a prestigious, historically black university for women in Atlanta, Georgia. A group of women at the college waged a protest upon hearing that popular rapper Nelly had been invited to visit their campus for a Sickle Cell charity drive in 2004. Outraged by the rapper’s latest video, “Tip Drill,” now infamous for the scene during which a man swipes a credit card through a woman’s buttocks, the women organized a petition drive, phone campaigns and forums about Nelly’s visit to campus.
Beverly Guy-Sheftall, director of the Women’s Research and Resource Center at Spelman College, was the instructor of the women’s studies class during which the group of women first came up with the idea for the protest.
“Over the course of class that evening, there was a back and forth debate about what should happen in terms of Nelly coming to the campus. By the end of that class period, they concluded that they should engage (Nelly) in a dialogue about the “Tip Drill” video, and they organized a protest to get others involved,” said Guy-Sheftall.
“It’s always been a small minority, never the masses, to bring about change…and that’s how I see these women today.”
When Nelly learned of the women’s plan, he cancelled his visit to the university, but the women forged ahead with their protests against not only “Tip Drill,” but the depiction of women in music videos and the media in general.
In 2006, “Uncut,” the BET television program featuring X-rated videos such as “Tip Drill,” was cancelled following protests by students at Spelman and at Howard University where students organized a “Cut Uncut” campaign. The network did not acknowledge the protests played a part in the cancellation, claiming it had simply decided to look at “different and new things.”
Regardless of the reason behind the BET cancellation, Guy-Sheftall and many of the young women she works with at Spelman believe people must continue to speak out in order to stem the tide of misogyny in popular music culture. Guy-Sheftall said Spelman students have sustained the campaign against misogynistic music lyrics and videos, forming a group known as WORTH (Women Offering Representations That Heal) to help raise awareness about what they see as one-dimensional images of women in popular culture. The group currently is spearheading a letter-writing campaign to industry executives about demeaning depictions of women in the hip hop industry.
Even on the all-women campus of Spelman College, however, Guy-Sheftall said there is some resistance to their efforts. Some, she says, have been conditioned to view what’s being heard on today’s airwaves as innocuous.
“One of the biggest challenges we face is getting more women to understand that this music is harmful. It’s harmful for young people in particular to consume and internalize these kinds of messages every day, especially when there are no counter messages and no filter,” Guy-Sheftall said. “We have young people steeped in a culture of misogyny, violence and excessive materialism, and lots of education and raising of awareness needs to take place to counter that.”
Taking Back the Music
Providing more education and awareness about the effects of misogyny in the hip hop industry and highlighting alternative, positive forms of hip hop are the goals of Essence Magazine’s national campaign, “Take Back the Music.” The magazine launched a year-long “Take Back the Music” series in January 2005, and continues to raise awareness about the effects of misogynistic imagery upon young girls and women.
And this August, Al Sharpton’s National Action Network held a national “Day of Outrage” in Chicago and a dozen other cities protesting misogynistic and offensive lyrics in hip-hop music. Sharpton, who became vocal about the issue in the midst of the Imus controversy, is now advocating the targeting of advertisers to put pressure on stations that play music that demeans and degrades women.
Bakari Kitwana, author of The Hip Hop Generation and executive director of “Rap Sessions,” which sponsors national hip-hop discussion tours, believes Sharpton’s tactic could be an effective strategy. But in order to see real change, Kitwana said there must be a wide range of strategies.
“We need to construct studies that make a correlation between sexual violence and entertainment, we have to try and get our government to raise the question of whether it has a responsibility to protect our children when it comes to what’s being played on the airwaves, and we have to continue to hold forums that aren’t controlled by the same media that is perpetuating the problem,” Kitwana said. “And we have to get and keep women more involved in the conversation.”
Guy-Sheftall agrees. She believes women can continue to organize, join campaigns like “Take Back the Music,” stop buying the records and dancing to the music, and get involved in the organizations and efforts around this issue throughout the U.S., even though many of them are not highly visible.
We have to try and get to the place where we are outraged when these things are said about any woman.
“The whole [Imus] controversy presented an interesting dynamic,” said Carlos Morrison, an associate professor of public relations at Alabama State University who has also taught courses on hip hop and culture. “We seemed to be saying that these kinds of comments should be off limits to an Imus, because he was a white man. But, we say these things to each other and to our women, and it doesn’t capture that same level of attention. And that’s problematic.”
“Don Imus drew broader attention to this because he was speaking about a particular group of black women – they had names and faces, they were athletes and students,” Guy- Sheftall said. “We have to try and get to the place where we are outraged when these things are said about any woman.”
If the efforts of the young women on the campus of Spelman College, at Essence Magazine and in other groups around the country working to raise awareness about the issue are any indication, there is hope on the horizon.
“It’s always been a small minority, never the masses, to bring about change,” said Morrison of ASU. “It’s always been the Sojourner Truths, the Harriet Tubmans who weren’t afraid to take a stand, and that’s how I see these women today.”