Hip-Hop's Scarlet Letter 

As former staffers and irate bloggers flay The Source for sexism, is a new age of accountability dawning?

By now, we've all endlessly heard the N-word and the B-word in rap music, but we haven't enjoyed nearly enough of the A-word: accountability.

Specifically, accountability for racial insensitivity, glorification of violence, and allegations of widespread sexism by major media outlets such as radio powerhouse Hot 97 and longstanding hip-hop mag The Source, two NYC institutions that nonetheless influence public perception of hip-hop culture nationwide. Both have failed miserably in the A-word department lately. Hot 97's recent airing of a parody song mocking tsunami victims as "chinks" inspired widespread outrage; meanwhile, last month The Source was hit with a sexual-discrimination claim brought by former vice president Michelle Joyce and ex-editor-in-chief Kim Osorio, specifically targeting Source co-owners Dave Mays and Raymond "Benzino" Scott.

Osorio and Joyce's charges, if true, offer a revealing and tremendously unflattering view of The Source, Mays, and Benzino especially. While Osorio's allegations of "blatant gender discrimination and harassment" come as no great surprise to industry observers, the incidents detailed in the complaint -- available online at Sound of Hip-Hop (SoHH.com) -- are nothing short of startling. It's recounted that Benzino regularly stalked and harassed female employees, calling one woman up to fifty times a day (while also publicly referring to his own partner Mays as a "bitch" and "stupid motherfucker"). The suit, filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), also describes how Benzino allegedly refused to hire qualified female applicants for open staff positions, complained of "too much estrogen" during a fashion department meeting, and demanded closed-door sessions with no female staffers present to select models for fashion shoots.

But the kicker was Mays' Neanderthal-like response to his ex-employees' claims. In a press statement, he alleged that Osorio had "sexual relations with a number of high-profile rap artists" during her tenure at The Source. Evidently, the publisher considered that a sufficient rebuttal to the lawsuit, and declined to address the larger questions raised about the apparently antiwoman climate at the magazine.

Such ignorance did not go unnoticed. Joan Morgan, author of the "hip-hop feminist" treatise When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, enlisted fellow writers and activists Elizabeth Mendez Berry and Jeff Chang -- the Bay Area blogger and journalist who'd just published his hip-hop historical opus Can't Stop Won't Stop -- to draft a petition denouncing The Source and calling on the magazine's public supporters (namely, Al Sharpton) to clarify their position on gender issues. The petition struck a chord with the hip-hop community (particularly via blogs, the main weapon in the Hot 97 tsunami imbroglio), garnering more than 1,300 signatures in a mere four days. Reverend Al even promised to look into the issue.

"If the hip-hop audience isn't expected to work for the benefit of women, we have to question that," Morgan says, noting that over the years, women have supported The Source both as employees and loyal consumers, despite such non-PC features as the scantily clad "Dimepiece" photo gallery and annual swimsuit issue. Berry -- a journalist for The Washington Post, the Village Voice, Vibe, and other high-minded publications -- is even blunter, calling out Mays and Benzino for their apparently contradictory stance on social issues: "You're the saviors of hip-hop when it's convenient for you. Basically, it's completely hypocritical."

"Sexism at The Source has always been a very thinly veiled secret," says Chang, who has blogged frequently on the lawsuit at CantStopWontStop.com. But though it has outlived controversy before, he speculates that the mag, already reeling from troubling questions about its financial stability, may have taken a critical credibility hit this time. "They've bounced back from many different scenarios in the past, but this is huge," he says. "The thing about the sexual-harassment suit. ... Things are converging at a really inopportune time for Mays and Scott."

Chang notes that in April, the New York Post reported that The Source defaulted on a $20 million loan, while a string of articles posted on hip-hop news sites like AllHipHop.com and SoHH.com have amounted to a "steady drumbeat of bad reports that have to do with the bottom line."

The Source has been around since 1990, and at one time was considered the bible of hip-hop. But the mag has sabotaged its own hard-earned credibility under Benzino's reign of error, which began around 2001, when it was suddenly revealed that he co-owned the magazine with Mays. Since then, he has advanced his dubious rap career as the public face of The Source while the low-key Mays has played the background, and Benz' well-known distaste for journalists has resulted in a perpetual editorial revolving door. Among other things, the suit alleges Benzino promoted a mailroom worker with no journalistic experience to Source music editor, overlooked a male employee's statutory rape charge, and killed an investigative piece into the Kobe Bryant case. He and Mays have also had a contentious relationship with numerous disgruntled ex-writers, including former music editors Elliot Wilson and Reginald C. Dennis, in addition to one freelancer who took the magazine -- whose circulation hovers around 500,000, and reportedly remains profitable despite its mounting debts -- to small-claims court over a paltry $600. (In the interest of full disclosure, C2tE might add that when he was writing for The Source five years ago, he once had to front a $700 hotel bill because the magazine "forgot" to fax over its credit-card information.)

More alarmingly, rumors have escalated that the mag's circulation is down, while the ad count has dropped a precipitous 10 percent in the past twelve months. Some of the fall-off is undoubtedly due to Interscope pulling a reported $1.2 million in ads after Benzino's much-hyped and seemingly endless feud with Eminem (see "The Race Card's Joker," 12/10/2003).

Ironically, in a recent interview with AllHipHop.com, Mays defended his and Benzino's stance by griping, "There are irresponsible people running these huge corporations that are making all of the money off of hip-hop." We couldn't agree more, but the reality is that The Source hasn't exactly been a beacon of responsibility itself: To complement the allegedly rampant sexism, the mag has done its part to cook up occasionally violent beef on numerous occasions, whether it's between the Game and 50 Cent, Suge Knight and P. Diddy, Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown, or Benzino and Eminem. And while Benzino and Mays have claimed the mantle of cultural authenticity to justify their anti-Eminem crusade, Berry, for one, feels that journalistic ethics have been compromised when it comes to The Source in particular, and hip-hop media in general -- Mays and Benzino, she opines, represent "leadership that's so obviously morally bankrupt."

But is that true of the Hip-Hop Generation as a whole? Not according to Def Jam and Phat Farm founder Russell Simmons. Reached via phone during a promotional blitz for Phat Farm's latest line of raw denim, the loquacious media mogul, political organizer, fashionisto, and yoga enthusiast declined to comment on The Source's sex-discrimination suit specifically, noting that he hasn't bought a copy of the mag in two years. However, he freely admits that "There's sexism in this world that is beyond belief," and hip-hop, ultimately, is a reflection of society.

So while the Hip-Hop Generation is sometimes "very sexist, homophobic, and racist," Simmons says, "Guess what? The previous generation was more sexist, homophobic, and racist." While he regrets that the media cannot always be counted on to be responsible, Simmons praises youth activists for raising the A-word, because "every area they look, they can see inconsistency and lies."

Of course, Simmons has a spotty history both with The Source -- in 2003, Mays and Benzino dropped out of Simmons' political organizing group, the Hip Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), after Russell refused to side with them over Eminem -- and cries of sexism. A few years ago, Islamic groups protested a controversial cover photo in Simmons' short-lived One World hip-hop culture magazine, depicting Lil' Kim (the Annie Sprinkle of hip-hop feminism) wearing an Islamic veil with a typically revealing outfit.

Still, Simmons is quick to point out that, The Source notwithstanding, there's more accountability in hip-hop than people assume: He notes that several high-profile rappers have set up charitable foundations, sometimes without seeking publicity. For example, in Eminem's case, he says, "We thought he was a racist, but we found out he had given money to battered [African-American] women." Furthermore, Simmons credits the HSAN with changing New York state's drug laws, registering millions of voters, and pressuring NYC Mayor Bloomberg to restore $130 million cut from the city's education budget.

"Some people will criticize hip-hop by saying there's a lot of ignorance and a lot of poverty," Simmons concludes. However, "There's a big success story to be told about kids who have no education, who are managing their money." This year's Hip-Hop Summit, he adds, "is all about economic empowerment."

Speaking of empowerment, it's apparent that the recent trend of blog- and petition-filled attacks on hip-hop's gender and race offenders has been strikingly effective on a grassroots level, filling in the accountability gap left by commercial media outlets, and showing a willingness to go after the culture's sacred cows and mainstream Goliaths alike. That's good news for the true heads, proving once again that the court of public opinion must be respected. And while the A-word isn't nearly as popular as the N-word or the B-word yet, as hip-hop culture continues to mature, at least we're starting to hear it bandied about with increasing frequency.

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