After Close 2 tha Edge wrote about the Don Imus fallout last column, we got some interesting feedback. Russell Simmons' publicist e-mailed a correction: Apparently, his Hip-Hop Summit Action Network isn't in favor of a wholesale ban (as I wrote) on the words "ho," "bitch," and "nigga." In actuality, "The organization recommended to the recording and broadcast industries to remove/delete/bleep those three words from clean versions of CDs on the public airwaves, that means on radio and television. They did not refer at all to the artists, which HSAN believes very strongly in having freedom of artistic expression."
Thanks for the clarification, but that still doesn't address the larger issues of sexism and racism the Imus flap uncovered. For instance, a federal discrimination complaint has been filed against the NYPD after several black female officers were allegedly called "nappy-headed hos" by a white sergeant who's apparently an Imus fan. (Speaking of Imus, he's reportedly suing CBS for $40 million. Some people just don't know when to quit.)
More feedback: Davey D objected to being called a "hip-hop apologist" (for which I apologize), while educator and radio personality Alicia Banks notes she addresses Imus on her blog (Geocities.com/ambwww).
It is a bit patronizing to discuss sexism without actually talking to women. To rectify this oversight, Close 2 tha Edge talked to some prominent local hip-hop feminists, all of whom have been fighting for equal rights and justice long before Imus dissed the Rutgers women's basketball squad.
First up: Jessica Tully, who works with Youth Speaks and has a long history of involvement in organizing progressive causes around hip-hop. "When there are these issues that come up so strongly in the debate, it speaks to the lack of diversity in mainstream media," she says. Still, post-Imus, "It's no longer acceptable to categorize young women in these terms," and despite the "titillation" offered by mainstream fare such as Desperate Housewives a show which has been known to casually fling around both the B-word and the H-word she believes "there's no unringing this bell."
Next, we have Valrie Sanders of the Women of Color Resource Center in Oakland, who helped with the national campaign for Byron Hurt's eye-opening documentary Hip Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes. Sanders says women of color are often portrayed in a derogatory manner by media and music videos: "That's just a constant." Yet she points out misogyny and sexism aren't limited to one genre, and even though many people are aware of these issues, it's "just not addressed until it gets to a certain point."
When the Imus debacle erupted, Sanders says, "we were like, 'Okay, here we go again.'" She helped to organize around the issue, threatening a boycott of GE (parent company of cable's MSNBC, which simulcast Imus), and insisting that an apology wasn't enough. "I'm totally glad the discussion is happening," she says. "People are thinking about this critically."
Yet she's skeptical whether the issue will stay in the forefront of public perception. She remembers the Spelman College protests against Nelly "and how that got passed over" and questions Simmons' sincerity in particular: "You know, Russell has a book coming out. All of a sudden he's saying the industry now has to show changes. I'm not really sure if it's genuine."
Anita Johnson of KPFA's Hard Knock Radio, an MC in her own right, says any effort at regulation of sexism and misogyny "needs to come from the community and the consumer, not the industry." Pointing to former Source editor Kim Osorio and NY radio personality Wendy Williams, Johnson notes she's "able to be more conscious" than many women in the music industry. As a "grassroots journalist and activist, I'm not going to play a 50 Cent record on Hard Knock Radio," she says. Interestingly, Johnson relates that when she worked at KYLD, a corporate memo was passed around telling programmers not to play Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, or India.Arie women artists who don't promote a hypersexualized image, and often put forth positive and conscious themes in their music.
Speaking of commercial radio, Malkia Cyril of Youth Media Council was behind the 2002 campaign targeting KMEL for not playing local artists (which ironically catalyzed the rise of the hyphy movement). "It was very important that Don Imus was fired, but it was largely symbolic," she says. What's needed, she adds, isn't censorship, but "accountability for the use of our radio stations. ... Why would we ban 'bitch' and 'nigga' when right-wing shock jocks are talking about drowning gay people?" It's important, Cyril emphasizes, "to understand it's the market that created this. Every time Don Imus opens his mouth, it's a hate crime. This is not about hip-hop. This is not about music. This is about who owns the culture."
Where hip-hop is concerned, Cyril says what needs to happen is more internal dialogues within the community, with both artists and power brokers. "That's where we have to focus our attention."
You know what? She's right.
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