The Don Imus fallout has stirred up a veritable shitstorm which could conceivably have a significant effect on the future of hip-hop culture and rap music. As presidential hopeful Barack Obama recently said, “We’ve got to admit to ourselves that it was not the first time that we heard the word ‘ho.’ Turn on the radio station.” He went on to note, “There are a whole bunch of young rappers who look like us, who use the words that Don Imus does, who are on our radio stations.”
Everybody’s playing the blame game where hip-hop is concerned these days, although exactly who is to blame and what should be done is still up in the air. The heated debate has spilled over into industry boardrooms, the blogosphere, and even such nontraditional hip-hop outlets like 60 Minutes, Oprah, The Today Show, Time, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and The New York Times. As Chill Rob G once said, it’s getting, it’s getting, it’s getting kind of hectic.
On one hand, we’ve got the “blame hip-hop” contingent — Fox/MSNBC pundits, Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock, local church groups, Oprah Winfrey, the Reverend Al Sharpton, and Senator Obama. Then there are the “hip-hop apologists” — journalists Kevin Powell, Kelefa Sanneh, Jeff Chang, Shaheem Reid, and Davey D, and “conscious” rap artists like Paris, Wise Intelligent, Saul Williams, Jahi, Common, and M-1 of dead prez. Some want it both ways. Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, for instance, blasted Obama for criticizing rap, then turned around and advocated censoring its lyrical content.
How did we get into this situation? It all started April 4, when nationally syndicated talk-show host Don Imus had a Kramer moment and referred to the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos.” Imus attempted to defray widespread outrage and criticism by sparring with Sharpton on The Today Show and initially defended his comments (he eventually apologized after he was fired). As Shaheem Reid reported on MTV.com, “During his efforts at damage control, [Imus] asked why he was being taken to task and hip-hop music wasn’t.” That thread was soon picked up by the national media, which in turn led to charges that hip-hop was being scapegoated for a much larger problem.
The latest developments seem to offer more window dressing than actual solutions. Simmons has proposed banning the B-word, the H-word, and the N-word. On April 20, Roberts Broadcasting, an African American-owned media company which programs four TV stations and one radio station in the South and Midwest, announced a new policy banning “derogatory, sexually explicit, or violent” messages. However, at press time, larger corporate entities like Radio One and Clear Channel have remained silent, as has music industry bigwig Jimmy Iovine of Interscope (home of Eminem and G-Unit), and other white major-label execs who make millions from misogynist, violent rap.
Even so, restricting rap’s lyrical content won’t address the underlying causes of bigotry, sexism, or violence, and could ultimately stifle free speech. No doubt, hip-hop needed a wakeup call. But let’s not forget that rappers don’t get to choose what radio stations play; if stations wanted to promote conscious hip-hop, they could. Similarly, there are plenty of examples of rap albums with lyrics you wouldn’t be ashamed to have your daughter or grandmother listen to, but almost none of them are on major labels.
Take, for example, the groundbreaking recent all-female hip-hop compilation Queendom Vol. 1, which was released on SF-based indie Outta Nowhere Entertainment. Queendom, which features artists like Ladybug Mecca, Bahamedia, MC Lyte, Medusa, and the bay’s own Conscious Daughters, claims to be only the second such album of its kind, which is pretty remarkable considering women have been active participants in hip-hop culture since day one. Da Oposit, the man behind Queendom, says the idea of the compilation was, “Let’s create some gender equality. … It’s about women representing women. People need to look beyond what the major labels sell them. Where are the people who don’t represent misogyny? Nobody’s trying to look any deeper than the surface level.”
What about Simmons’ solution? “That’s not happening,” Oposit says with a laugh. He’s also skeptical of “Johnny-come-lately, ambulance-chasing, so-called black leadership who, for their own selfish reasons, are gonna fan the flames” of controversy. To him, the answer is “women changing these stereotypes themselves.”
As far as sexism is concerned, “we already know what the problem is,” Oposit says, adding that Queendom represents “one particular solution.” The album has moved seven hundred of the initial thousand units so far (an impressive sell-through rate), but Oposit thinks it could have a greater impact. “The big lights need to be shining on these projects,” he says, yet Should Winfrey et al. reach out, he wants it to be known that “we’ve got something going on in the Bay Area. Progressive. Forward-thinking. Helloooo.” That’s what’s up.