Sexism in rap sparks black magazine to say, 'Enough!'

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Essence, the black women's magazine, has a daring New Year's resolution: It's embarking on a 12-month campaign to challenge the prevalence of misogyny and sexism in hip-hop lyrics and videos.

Many rappers and MCs coolly objectify women with vulgar song lyrics and hard-hitting, raunchy images on MTV. It's common, for instance, to see videos in which hip-hop artists lounge poolside as a harem of women gyrate around them in bikinis. The video for Nelly's "Tip-Drill" goes so far as to portray scantily clad women as sexual appliances.

The publication's crusade, dubbed Take Back the Music, seeks to inspire public dialogue via magazine features that offer a range of perspectives on the entertainment industry from inside as well as outside observers. The January issue kicks off with comments from artists, critics, and activists.

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Taking on a multibillion-dollar industry that accounts for more music sales than pop and rock - and exerts a cultural influence that extends far beyond the African-American community - is a monumental undertaking, even for a publication with a circulation of over 1.6 million. While few expect Essence to turn the tide, it's significant that the preeminent magazine for African-American women believes that the degree of sexism in rap is no longer tenable.

"This is certainly a women's issue, but it's a black women's issue first," says Michaela Angela Davis, Essence's executive fashion and beauty editor.

"It's fitting that [Essence] should be the ones to help folks talk about it, listen to each other and have them come up with action steps that make sense to them," she says. "We don't have picket signs, we're not telling people what to think, we're just asking them to think."

The Essence campaign is not without precedent. The magazine's staff was galvanized by a much publicized incident at Spelman College in Atlanta last year in which students at the black women's school protested the appearance of the rapper Nelly for a fundraiser on campus. As part of its campaign, Essence will host a "town meeting" at Spelman next month.

"It's a major project in terms of getting young people - white or black - to take these images seriously in a generic culture that exploits and objectifies women," says Beverly Guy-Sheftall, director of the Women's Research and Resource Center at Spelman, and co-author of "Gender Talk."

Last year marked three decades since hip-hop emerged on the streets of New York. Since then, it's established itself at the vanguard of pop culture. As an influence on fashion and other genres of music, hip-hop has had a colossal impact. But hip-hop culture hasn't always been as sexist as it is now.

Ms. Davis, also a founding editor of Vibe, notes that hip-hop has "gone through a funnel." It started off broadly, encompassing a variety of genres, and progressed from the political to the more avant-garde and satirical.

But as "gangsta rap" has come to the fore, so have lyrics that glorify violence and misogyny.

Of course, hip-hop is hardly the first, or only, form of contemporary music to portray women in an unflattering light. In the 1970s, and even more so in the 1980s, it was the spandex-clad, heavy metal crowd whose lyrics, videos, and album covers portrayed women as sexual objects.

That certainly suggests that the demeaning of women - and even misogyny - is a part of a wider societal problem that isn't peculiar to hip-hop. Nor is it just a black problem, since white consumers account for a huge share of hip-hop sales.

Some observers, however, see Essence's campaign as another attempt to lash out at hip-hop's free, and at times subversive, expression.

"If anyone singles out hip-hop, that's unfortunate: Hip-hop started in mid '70s, and sexism and misogyny have been around much longer," says Dr. Todd Boyd, author of numerous books on African-American pop culture and a professor of critical studies at the School of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

"It's one thing to challenge cultural representations in society at large - in hip-hop, television, movies - but to single out hip-hop is another example of people criticizing hip-hop without knowing much about it," he says. "It points to people's dislike of hip-hop but doesn't do much to advance whatever issue they have."

But Dr. Guy-Sheftall of Spelman College says that Essence's campaign is a nuanced one that recognizes that not all hip-hop is problematic.

Nobody involved in the campaign is under the illusion that taking on a pop-culture powerhouse will be easy, but they're hoping that diverse forms of hip-hop - less exploitative of women - will nudge aside the more objectionable content that dominates the Top 40 airwaves.

"[But] we don't see diversity coming on its own without action taken by individuals," says Davis. "It'd be wonderful if [society could] have a more accurate view of who [African-American women] really are."

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