‘Taking Back the Music’
Spelman students combat hip-hop’s negative portrayals of Black women
By Ernest Holsendolph
Music, by its nature, is a great unifier, able to turn a room into a rocking, bouncing good time. But in a stimulating evening of discussion on the Spelman College campus, music became something different: a veritable battleground of sorts. The debate, which has been swirling through the air of the leafy campus for a year, was hip-hop music. More specifically, the abhorrent effect of some raw forms of hip-hop on the images of African-American women.
Women — and men — for some time, have raised concerns about the treatment of Black women in words and videos. Black women are all too often referred to as “bitches” and “ho’s” by swaggering, crotch-clutching performers, or presented as barely-dressed, butt-shaking sex pots. The issue reached the tipping point on the Atlanta campus last spring, when a group of Spelman students decided to challenge St. Louis rapper Nelly days before a scheduled campus appearance. A focal point of their anger was Nelly’s “Tip Drill” video, which drew widespread criticism for its depictions of women as sex objects available off the shelf with the swipe of a credit card.
The protest blocked Nelly’s plan to promote his bone marrow education program on the campus. But on a broader front, it stirred a wide debate among young people across the campus and beyond. Fellow students at surrounding historically Black Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College followed Spelman’s example and vowed to focus attention on the issue.
In the latest foray, the women of Spelman joined with Essence magazine to sponsor a week of events called “Take Back the Music,” and culminating in a “Hip-Hop Town Hall Meeting.” Though they are too young to know it, their meeting, which drew a big, vocal crowd of women and men, harkened back to 1960’s style teach-ins. In that era, students from Berkeley to Columbia to Howard to Clark gathered for ‘consciousness raising’ meditations and rallies to oppose the Vietnam War and fight racism and economic exploitation.
In the Spelman program, more than 500 students and supporters filled Cosby Auditorium to hear speakers, ask questions and watch examples of the most offensive videos.
As the panelists and experts made clear, the point of controversy over hip-hop images is a big one. In play are the issues of the glorification of criminal images, offensive language, exaltation of materialism and more.
But Moya Bailey, the student leader of the rap-chastening Spelman movement, said student concern is more basic.
“This is personal to us,” she said. Out of the many issues is the question of “who we are.”
While it is important, and depressing to have the world view Black women in terms of the images in videos, she said, “we are concerned that all Black women, and girls, may begin to see themselves in this way … begin to believe that the only way Black women can be pleasing to men is as sexual objects, not people…”
Among the panelists were two industry executives — Bryan Leach, vice president of urban A&R for TVT Records, and Michael E. Lewellen, vice president of corporate communications at BET.
“A lot of these videos air at 3 a.m., when most people cannot see them, unless they positively want to see them,” said Lewellen. His oft-argued point — prudent people can shield themselves and their children from unwanted images.
But students in the audience, in a question-and-answer session, pointed out that many similar images are displayed in prime time, and even 3 a.m. programs here show at all times around the globe. Once the images are released into the airwaves they become components of the information stream, they say.
Kevin Powell, an African-American writer and cultural historian, said, “We are in a privileged space, a place for students and teachers. But once these images are released into the media, they are out of control and the images do not reflect any balance.”
MC Lyte, a pioneering female rap star, said that she had become so depressed over the trends of the last decade that she lost her enthusiasm for recording. “We should not be a part of it, this effort to tell the world that we are bitches and ho’s.”
In a poignant plea, one female student said, “We (women) feel like we are caged, and whipped while in the cage, and we have nowhere to turn.”
One of the record producers, perhaps accidentally proving the protesting students’ point, said that at a south Florida tryout for a video shoot, his company had to turn away a Black mother who brought her 16- and 18-year-old daughters. She thought an appearance in the racy production would bring them prominence.
For their part, said Bailey, the students do what they can by talking to young parents and teens in Atlanta neighborhoods, raising their awareness that the images can be harmful.
Powell cut through many of the cross currents of thought.
“If we provide these images, despite the real and potential harm, can we truly say we love our people?” he asked, to a loud ovation.
At one point in the Spelman discussion, one audience member asked if Spelman women continued to dance to music created by the offending artists. Bailey responded, “Yes, we do, and that is a difficult problem.”
But the Spelman women, and many of their campus comrades at Morehouse, Clark Atlanta and elsewhere, are saying that is the point of their education drive — to open eyes to the immediate and wider potential effect of the images.
Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman and a clinical psychologist, says among the components of healthy self-identity is personal pride.
“Black is Beautiful,” she says, “is a message that requires positive reinforcement in a culture that glorifies European images of beauty, and has been reluctant to acknowledge the intellectual contributions of Black people.
“While both Black men and women have been the victims of stereotyping, the current derogatory depictions of Black women as hypersexualized ‘bitches’ by Black men, and the violence and disrespect that often accompanies these images, can only be detrimental to the young people that see them,” Tatum says. “Detrimental both in terms of perpetuating racist images in the minds of White fans, but also in terms of diminishing self-respect and aspirations in the young Black men and women who are exposed to them.
“For young Black women, the fact that these images are being embodied by the same men who could be their fathers, brothers or husbands is especially disturbing, as is the participation of the young Black women who choose to be in the videos. Though often financed by White media moguls, these images could not exist without Black participation.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com