In the aftermath of the Don Imus debacle, everyone from conservative pundits to rap mogul Russell Simmons has pointed a finger at hip-hop, arguing that while Mr. Imus's rant was inappropriate, rap stars get away with such sexist and racially charged language on a daily basis. And sure, there are plenty of rap songs that celebrate homophobia, intolerance, and women-bashing. But to say that hip-hop comprises only those qualities is like saying that country artists croon solely about pickup trucks.
I grew up in virtually all-white McMinnville, Ore., and, save for the occasional minority scholarship I didn't qualify for, have never been discriminated against. Yet, thanks to the magic of MTV, I became transfixed by hip-hop at an early age – begging my mom for rides to the local record store to pick up releases by LL Cool J, Dr. Dre, and the Beastie Boys. In each album, I found something familiar and relatable. In the gangstas trying to escape the violence of Compton, Calif., I saw myself wanting out of a small, stifling farm town; their rants against the police reminded me of teachers and others who never took the time to understand my perspective.
The fact that I – a petite, well-educated blond woman – am rushing to defend rap music should at least make you think twice before condemning hip-hop as a genre that celebrates violence and sexism.
Never once did listening to rap make me run out and buy a gun or sleep around. Rather, I was empowered by Salt-N-Pepa telling me "fight for your rights, stand up and be heard/ you're just as good as any man, believe that, word" and impressed by Tupac Shakur's willingness to rap unabashedly about his love for his mama.
When I moved to Los Angeles for college, I joined other young intellectuals in classes on black pop culture and black literature, where I was often the only white student. I was inspired to study the lynching of Emmett Till after hearing him mentioned not by Bob Dylan, but in a song by rapper Kanye West.
Which is why I've been dumbfounded by critics who have recently characterized rap as strictly the domain of materialists and misogynists. Honestly, has Bill O'Reilly ever actually sat down and listened to a single rap song in its entirety? (Disclosure: I work for the company that syndicates his column.) The pundit's favorite whipping boy has been the rapper Ludacris, whom he lambastes for using profanity and referencing violence. But the last time I checked, Ludacris's recent hit was "Runaway Love," in which he spotlights domestic violence against women with concern and care.
When I go on my daily afternoon run, the first song on my workout mix is "I Can" by Nas, in which he addresses young blacks, telling them: "Nobody says you have to be gangstas, hos/ read more, learn more, change the globe." And just this morning, I heard a radio commercial by rapper Nick Cannon, who also hosts a hip-hop-themed show on MTV, imploring young people to check out community college as a way to better themselves.
Another one of the past year's best-selling rap artists, T.I., seduces a woman on the song "Why You Wanna" not by saying he wants to slap her behind, but by offering to "compliment you on your intellect and treat you wit respect." Yes, the lyrics are punctuated by R-rated language and imagery, but there's a critical difference between a song's profanity and its underlying message.
Some would argue – perhaps rightly so – that using terms such as "ho" and the "N" word is never OK, no matter what the context. But rap, like all music, is simply a reflection of the society that gave rise to it – and America's in particular is one with a centuries-old history of relegating blacks and women to the bottom of the barrel, something white men were practicing long before the Sugar Hill Gang and other early rap groups came along.
If hip-hop detractors really cared about the generation they insist is being corrupted, they should also acknowledge the surprising amount of good that hip-hop does as a vehicle that opens young people's eyes to poetry and dance. It's a medium that pleads for its audience to take part in their communities – and one that increasingly affirms women as teachers and role models.
• Sara Libby is an editor for Creators Syndicate.