Oprah’s town hall meetings on misogyny in hip hop

by guest contributor Nina

Over two days this week, Oprah dedicated her show to a Town Hall Meeting to address misogyny in hip-hop. All this as a result of Don Imus’ “nappy headed ho” comment, and his trite excuse that black women are called these names by their own men. I was interested to see how Oprah would handle this matter since she has long come under fire for not having hip-hop artists on her show and she has said that she does not appreciate the degradation of women in hip-hop music.

The first show aired on Monday and was entitled “Now What?” It consisted of panel of black men and women, including a former CBS executive, two journalists, two author/magazine editors, activist Al Sharpton and the artist, India Arie. The second show on Tuesday entitled “The Hip-Hop Community Responds” was made up of a much smaller panel, Russell Simmons and Dr. Ben Chavis of the Hip-Hop Action Network, record executive Kevin Liles, and the rapper Common. There were no women on this second panel and there certainly were no female artists whose careers are built on their overt sexuality (L’il Kim, Foxy Brown, Khia etc.). Nor were there any of the female video performers who so willingly prance around in thongs and bikini tops pouring Cristal down their bodies while shaking their “bump, bump, bumps.” Female students from Spelman College attended both shows by satellite from their campus.

[Note from Carmen: Oprah has actually had Karinne "Superhead" Steffans on the show before to talk about the objectification of women, believe it or not.]

All the panelists (except the Spelman students) seemed to talk in circles around the issues and used far too many metaphors (Dr. Robin Smith’s “you feed someone garbage, eventually it starts to taste good”) to address the issue of female degradation in the hip-hop world. The world of which they spoke was of course mainstream hip-hop-rap videos you see on MTV/BET (both owned by Viacom) or songs you hear on commercial radio stations (many owned by ClearChannel). But there were some strong comments. Diane Weathers, former editor of Essence magazine called for Snoop Dogg to lose his contract due not only to his lyrics and videos but his side hustle as a pornographer.

Stanley Crouch called the hip-hop music world a minstrel show and said he would not allow these “clowns” to relinquish their responsibility due to the poverty and crime that they came up in. Panelists on the second show continued with the metaphors. Common stated that hip-hop, at only 30 years old, was just a child that needed tending to by its parents. Common has certainly evolved into a conscious artist since his first few albums contained plenty of bitches and hos and one song in particular where he talked about shooting a homosexual. Russell Simmons insisted that he mentored many artists during his reign at DefJam and while he would not censor what a poet wanted to say since it was a reflection of their own experiences, he was constantly guiding artists to learn more and be more and perhaps present themselves in a different way. The Spelman girls got very frustrated, particularly with the second show’s panel. One woman stated that rap music informs the way the world feels about black women and that there was a lack of accountability from the panelists. The women demanded that the problem be acknowledged and that steps be taken towards a solution. They even offered to work with the panelists towards that solution.

Unfortunately these two shows were really not about finding a solution.First of all, as previously stated, the worst offenders were not invited to speak. Or perhaps they were and declined. The conversation certainly would have been livelier and more genuine if Nelly, L’il Kim, Ludacris, Snoop Dogg, or 50 Cent had been present to explain themselves. What about artists like Talib Kweli, Mystic or the Canadian artist k-os, all of whom have a positive message but very little radio and video play and it is not for lack of quality music! Londell McMillan, an entertainment lawyer who represents hip-hop artists across the spectrum was the only person who stated the real
problem-artists are under pressure to make sales. The type of music that sells depends largely on what is pushed into the public arena as determined by corporate executives, marketing departments and radio. A lot of these players are black and that is where change has to begin.

I am old enough to have been around when rap was born. I remember the first time I heard Rapper’s Delight by the Sugar Hill Gang and my mother went out and bought the 33rpm so we could play it on our record player (remember those?). I remember writing down and memorizing the words to “The Message,” “Jam On it,” “Roxanne, Roxanne,” and even “The Rapping’ Cowboy.” I also have to admit to dancing to “Gangsta Bitch,” “What Y’all Ni**a’s Want” and “I’m F****n’ You Tonight” not to mention pumping most of DMX’s catalog while pounding on the treadmill. The music I listen to does not always define who I am. As a woman of color I always knew that “bitches ain’t shit but hos and tricks” did not represent me. Hey even Oprah pumped 50 Cents lyrics to In Da Club (“go shorty it’s your birthday, we’re gonna party like it’s your birthday”) during her endless “I’m turning 50” on-air celebrations. I guess she too ignored the rest of the lyrics to that song and just felt the beat. But the white suburban teens buying these records don’t have that breadth of knowledge. And as Russell Simmons stated 4 out of 5 rap albums are purchased by white suburban teens. That is why the mainstream rap world has to do better.

If we are to be honest with ourselves, we are all a mass of contradictions. In fairness to some of the artists I mentioned above for every “Move Bitch get out the Way” there is a “Runaway Love.” For every “California knows how to Party” there is a “Changes.” A lot of artists are capable of going either way with their music and lyrics, but when it comes down to it, revenue is what determines the path they will take. And in America sex sells everything from rap music to chewing gum. The degradation of women is not limited to rap music and it is not fair for Imus or anyone else to use the hip-hop world as a scapegoat for their inappropriate behavior. Misogyny is indeed a societal problem and one that we need to address as a nation, not just within the confines of rap music and lyrics. I certainly do not have the all the answers, but I do know that my wallet does the talking when I refuse to purchase music that I find offensive. I too have grown weary of explicit lyrics and videos. Of the promotion of luxury goods and thug living. But I am not ready to dismiss rap or the hip-hop community. I realize that these songs are just one facet of hip-hop, unfortunately to the mainstream media, they are the end all be all and sole reason to condemn the entire hip-hop genre.

On a side note:
It is a shame that Don Imus was the catalyst for this conversation on the Oprah show. A show with millions of viewers, the majority of whom probably cast a sideways glance at hip-hop. Oprah claimed on Monday’s show that she “did not want to fight this fight alone” yet she has taken up all sorts of other causes on her own from healthy living, to reading, to her current campaign against child molesters. Why this issue was not deemed worthy until now is unknown to me. I have written many letters to both her show and her magazine asking her to clarify her statements against rap music and challenging her to bring positive artists to her show. She said on Tuesday’s show that she considered Common a poet, but he had never appeared on her show until now, even when his song “The Light,” one of the most romantic rap songs I’ve heard in a while, was getting much air play. And isn’t it interesting that her audience was suddenly filled with black faces when discussing this topic? This also happens when she has artists on like Mary J. Blige, Denzel Washington or Beyonce. Does she bus in faces of color for these episodes? Just a thought.