Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Hip Hop Made Me Do It (Hi Patrice)

Like most people, I think, I would have a hard time making the argument that people are particularly skilled at solving problems by targeting root causes. Even beyond the misinformed policies and practices of local and national governments, two of the (arguably) biggest forces shaping our world today are a "war on terror" with a split focus on poor middle eastern muslims and political dissidents, and global economic policies that purport to alleviate poverty by institutionalizing free trade. But even by these standards, I'm having a hard time writing off our most recent firestorm over hip-hop as just another misguided effort.

Everybody, it seems, has something to say about how terrible the language of hip-hop is (and has been) towards women. And, contrarian as i may be, I guess I'm going to have to concede that point. The objectification of women and general misogyny has become boilerplate in rap music, and the sins of the father (in this case, american patriarchy) in no way absolve the missteps of the progeny. As much as folks like Jimi Izrael may want to argue, that's not really up for debate. However, like terrorism and global poverty, misogyny can't really be tackled by what's currently being used to fight it.

To me, one of the most irksome parts of the current debate is how it gained so much momentum. The arguments thus far are definitely not revealing any concealed truths about collective priorities, but it still bugs me that in spite of a longstanding tradition of objectifying women in general popular music, what's bringing so much heat to hip-hop (and only hip-hop? really guys?) is Don Imus's half-assed attempt to deflect blame for his racist comments. ESSENCE magazine started its Take Back the Music Campaign in 2005, and the last decade has seen the rise of several efforts, feminist and otherwise, to interrogate the production and control of our media. That people really start to question the way sexist sentiments are bandied about only after Don Imus points his finger boggles my mind.

Secondly, inasmuch as words and ideas are damaging, I don't believe that a lot of the problematic ideas endemic to mainstream rap music are actually doing more harm than bad schools or public policy. Women may routinely be referred to as bitches and hos, but as we all know, either from every other issue of ESSENCE, or personal experience in higher-ed, black and latino women are outperforming black men in practically every area of achievement. Obviously my personal experiences don't represent any kind of hard data, but I cringe when I hear college-educated women with professional careers complaining about poor, uneducated black men tearing them down, and that appears to be the standard. It seems that what is being implied in a lot of this furor over misogynist rap lyrics, but rarely stated explicitly, is a fear that black women can't find decent black men to settle down with. And that's a totally fine, legitimate concern. However, when we frame huge national debates within such blatantly heterosexist parameters, we ignore the greater problems of reinforcing problematic gender roles, and furthermore, erase queer people from public discourse. That's the last thing black folks need.

Lastly, as my refrain always goes, I'm annoyed that rap music is getting so much scrutiny while the corporations that promote, distribute, and control it come out largely unscathed. The advent of Girls Gone Wild dvds didn't bring about such febrile discussion and hands-wringing, and neither did the mainstreaming of porn or the heavy coverage of oversexualized celebrities.

And of course, all of this is not to say that we need to completely dismiss the current debates over hip-hop. It's just painful to see such public engagement and media attention effectively wasted on problems too narrowly defined to effect real change.

-Anika Assassinationday

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