Perhaps it was inevitable that discussions provoked by the words “nappy-headed hos” would come around to rap music and the culture of hip-hop. After all, hip-hop has taken the rap for just about every social ill: misogyny, gun violence, rampant materialism, anti-Semitism, gang warfare, even the decline of the NBA. Yes, to some extent, the insulting remarks of radio shock-jock Don Imus (who called the Rutgers University women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos,” for which he’s been fired and subsequently sued) were drawn from a rhetorical subculture influenced by certain strands of rap music. But to focus on hip-hop as the instigator of our coarsening culture is a grievous misdiagnosis.
Hip-hop, at its best, reflects, distills, amplifies, deconstructs and re-contextualizes the social realities that are its raw material. The product of this creation then is reincorporated into that reality. Born in the ghettoes of New York City in the disjuncture between the hopes of the civil rights promise and the harsh realities of economic disinvestment, hip-hop’s founding spirit expresses an insurgent rejection of business as usual.
Nevertheless, big business saw great profits in its growing popularity. Large record companies absorbed the independent labels and accelerated hip-hop’s profit potential. These companies changed the marketing emphasis from creativity to profitability, which shifted the focus to the more sensationalistic aspects of the genre rather than its politically charged or artistically challenging expressions.
Thus, sensationalized tales of drug dealing, sex seeking and gun play (by groups like Oscar winner Three 6 Mafia) find more corporate support than political rappers like Dead Prez or adventurous groups like the Perceptionists. This disproportionate emphasis on pathology has distorted hip-hop’s public face.
Thus, when Imus’ defenders blamed hip-hop for providing their man the vocabulary for his insult, many agreed. Oprah Winfrey’s entire response to the Imus affair was a two-segment “town hall” meeting on the state of hip-hop.
Even the Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network and leader of the campaign demanding Imus be fired, has linked arms with those protesting demeaning lyrics in hip-hop. On May 3, Sharpton led marches on the corporate offices of Sony-BMG, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group’s to protest their promotion of demeaning rap lyrics.
“This is not about censorship – it is about standards,” Sharpton told the crowd at the march’s conclusion. “There’s a standard that says Ice‑T can’t rap against police. There’s a standard that says you can’t rap about gays, and you shouldn’t. They had standards against Michael Jackson saying things anti-Semitic. Where is the standard against ‘nigger,’ ‘ho’ and ‘bitches’?” Sharpton is a long-time critic of what he considers degrading rap lyrics, but the momentum of the Imus controversy obliged him to raise his voice on the issue.
Others also have been forced to take action in the wake of the shock-jock’s fall. The Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HHSAN), led by former Def Jam Records CEO Russell Simmons and former NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Chavis, has announced a new campaign urging radio stations and other media not to air the words “bitch,” “ho” and “nigger.”
Chavis noted that the HHSAN directive is not for rappers to stop using the words. “We don’t want to violate the First Amendment Rights to free speech,” Chavis told the National Newspaper Publishers Association. But other crusaders are not that fastidious. They want to force rappers to stop saying things they do not like. Like their fellow citizens, African Americans have to be reminded that the urge to censor is an authoritarian impulse.
One of the most salient aspects of both the Communist Soviets and Nazi Germans was their demand for artistic conformity. Of course, that should not deter the African-American community from agitating for respectful media depictions, for more responsibility from artists, or for holding record companies accountable for violating community standards.
Yet Russell Simmons, who sometimes seems in thrall to corporate interests, was on target when he told Oprah that we have to let rappers reflect what they see. “People who are angry … and come from tremendous struggle; they have poetic license, and when they say things that offend you, you have to talk about the conditions that create those kinds of lyrics.”
In a black America that is largely fatherless, resource-starved mothers may come across as promiscuous gold-diggers to their proud but clueless sons, who may turn into rappers and tell their tales. We might better channel social resources if we listened more attentively to those tales. Granted, too many performers are “false flagging” their woes for profit, but there’s still plenty of wheat amidst the chaff.