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Beats & Rhymes: Exploring the Complicated Intersection of Hip-hop and Feminism

Dr. Tracy Sharpley-Whiting, director of African American and Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt University, has been hailed as a “rising star” by cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson. In this interview, she offers fresh insight on the current state of hip-hop music and culture in her latest book, Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women.

DI: Pimps Up, Ho’s Down is a very interesting title for such a scholarly investigation of hip-hop. Where did the title come from?

TSW: I chose the title to capture the moment where we have arrived today in hip-hop, or better stated the ethos of hip-hop with respect to the relationship between men and women. Pimps Up. Men Up. Women down.

DI: Following the Don Imus fiasco, the media and much of the old guard of Black leadership blamed hip-hop artists and rap music for making the word “ho” socially acceptable or “mainstream.” In your book you write that hip-hop culture is no more violent or sexist than other American social products. If this is the case, why then did everyone blame hip-hop?

TSW: For just a moment, I thought to send Don Imus roses. The moment he made that misstep my book took off, and I was able to make some interventions.

We don’t understand history. If we go back five years after the penning of the Declaration of Independence, we have Thomas Jefferson writing that Black women were more ardent in love, and that we were so sexually licentious that essentially orangutans preferred us over their own species. If that is not calling us a “ho,” I don’t know what is.

There have been narratives around Black women’s sexuality that have been woven into the fabric of this country since its founding. Hip-hop is not responsible for that narrative, although it certainly contributes to the proliferation of it in all forms. Hip-hop is part of a larger cultural framework —a larger cultural narrative.

DI: Rap music videos are saturated with scantily clad women performing sexually suggestive acts to illustrate profane and oftentimes misogynistic lyrics. What impacts do these images and lyrics have on the behavior of young women who tune into them daily?

TSW: There have been studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that show high a incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, drug and alcohol abuse, and sexual activity with multiple partners among young women [that absorb high concentrations of these images].

While hip-hop consumption daily can definitely have an impact on young women, that doesn’t mean that by just watching hip-hop will cause the [previously mentioned scenarios to occur]. I don’t believe in the cause-effect relationship totally.

DI: Most would agree that hip-hop has a strong chokehold on young Black women, but what about young Black men?

TSW: Hip-hop is essentially a man’s world, and we’re seeing an over-hyped masculinity being pushed. As a result, there is a great deal of fall out: increase rates of sexual abuse … and the [impact of] groupie culture, which I discuss in the book. The fall out is huge.

I tried to explore how hip-hop impacts young Black men and women together.

DI: Are there any socially redeeming aspects of hip-hop worth talking about?

TSW: I think there is! Most people when they see the title of the book think that it is going to be a scathing indictment of hip-hop. But tearing hip-hop to shreds is not the point of the book at all.

For me, hip-hop has created a space where we can openly talk about these issues with the freedom in which our political culture and other venues don’t allow for. I find that very redeeming.

–Michelle J. Nealy

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