CHICAGO – I’m not quite sure when I started loving hip-hop. As far back as I can remember, it’s been playing in the background of my life, a soundtrack of young black self-expression telling my story with an urgency that moved me.
But I remember when I realized I might hate hip-hop.
About a month ago, I was watching television when an ad aired showing a white man on a public bus. At his command, various people on the bus perform for his amusement. When he comes to an ample-bottomed black girl, he tells her to “shake your junk.” On cue, she jumps up, grabs the bus pole and pops her booty up and down to the beat. The tag line for the commercial, for Amp’d Mobile, says “Have the power to entertain yourself.”
I was stunned. Watching a black woman being reduced to a tool for sexual gratification, much in the same way female slaves were used by their white masters for sexual pleasure, made me sick to my stomach.
It’s an image I haven’t been able to shake during the barrage of news coverage of the Duke lacrosse scandal, in which a black exotic dancer has accused white members of the Duke University lacrosse team of raping her.
Initially, I felt angry toward the white men in these incidents, but I soon realized that the real culprits are the performers and purveyors of hip-hop music, who have legitimized and popularized the degradation of black women.
Black women are the writhing wallpaper in the ubiquitous rap videos, gyrating and panting, decorating the borders of hip-hop like living blow-up dolls. We are the props in the thug fantasy, a symbol of sexual subjugation that shows the world that black men have arrived.
The images run constantly on the televisions, radios and iPods of people all over the country, the vast majority of them white teenagers.
According to a Village Voice article on hip-hop’s audience, as much as 70 percent of sales is made to whites.
This modern-day minstrel movement has spawned mimics all over the country, young white men and women who appropriate the images from rap videos in the name of being cool. Last November, at the University of Chicago, a group of white students made headlines when they held a “straight thuggin” party, where people wore tilted baseball caps, gold chains and sagging pants, the uniform required in just about every video on BET.
Did a similar spirit of imitation prompt the Duke lacrosse players to hire two black strippers to dance for them? Attorneys for the young men charged in the case say they did not request black dancers.
Nevertheless, “here again in 2006, we have us being stereotyped as hypersexual toys of wealthy white males,” said Krista Summitt, a 41-year-old woman from the Raleigh-Durham area who started a blog in support of the dancers.
“I felt like it is just one of two major stereotypes for black women,” she said. “You are either hypersexual animals or mammies, all seeing, all knowing adviser to take care of the kids. And it just made my blood boil.”
These images date to the days of slavery, said Rebecca Hall, who teaches about gender and race at the University of California at Berkeley.
Hip-hop, Hall said, only amplifies stereotypes that already exist.
“It has a market because it is resonating with pre-existing ideas of black womanhood,” she said.
Given the current climate, it’s easy to see why Amp’d Mobile would turn to a bus-pole-dancing black girl to sell its phones in a society that made “I’m in Love with a Stripper” a hit song. Why shouldn’t America feel it has the power to use black women to entertain itself?
Negative images of women circulate in unprecedented ways today because of hip-hop, said Mark Anthony Neal, associate professor of black popular culture at Duke University. The marriage of hip-hop and pornography and the celebration of pimp culture, as evidenced by rap artists such as Snoop Dogg’s appearing in porn films, has heightened the exposure of black women’s bodies to white men, he said.
“Young white men grew up watching videos on MTV and BET, and the message they get is that black women’s bodies are available to me to do with what I want,” Neal said. “We would think that when black men got into positions of power that they wouldn’t do the same thing to black women that white men did.”
It’s not that there aren’t white women writhing in music videos, too. But in other parts of mainstream culture, white women more often are depicted as three-dimensional beings. But for black women, videos are one of the primary ways we are seen. The imbalance of imagery is overwhelming.
Little effort has been made in the black community to address sexism and misogyny, Neal said. The popular support for R. Kelly, who has been charged with 14 counts of child pornography, is one example, he said.
“We would rather protect black men than talk openly about the damage they might do in our community,” Neal said. “We can’t get all upset about these white men raping black women if we don’t get upset about black men raping black women.”
One of slavery’s legacies is that black men continue to struggle with their masculinity, said Tarshia Stanley, a Spelman College English associate professor specializing in film and media studies. Embracing misogynistic images of black women is an attempt at reclaiming their manhood, she said.
“What we are seeing is an opportunity for the black community to make money off the images in a way that didn’t exist before,” she said.
And far too often, black women embrace these roles, showing up to a music video set to strip for free or dancing in clubs to lyrics that disrespect them. In many ways, black women have gone from being victims of hip-hop to volunteers.
“Women don’t see themselves as being exploited,” Stanley said. “Think of all these young girls growing up watching videos and seeing all the attention men give those women. They see this as the only arena where (they) feel valuable, special. There is only one Oprah, but how many video girls are there out there?”
Spelman, a historically black college for women in Atlanta, made national headlines in 2004 when students objected to a proposed bone marrow drive on campus to be led by rapper Nelly. At issue was Nelly’s “Tip Drill” video, a nearly X-rated clip in which the rapper slides a credit card through the cheeks of a woman’s buttocks and other men throw money between women’s legs. The event was subsequently canceled.
I know our problems – racism, sexism – are much more complex than what can fit into a three-minute hip-hop video. The music is just a mirror; it’s the reflection that bothers me.
I miss the days when the rhymes did more than encourage our brothers to be thugs and discourage our sisters from loving themselves. I remember when rappers like Common, Talib Kweli and Mos Def, whose socially responsible lyrics touch on the problems and solutions in our community, were the rule, not the exception.
I long for the days when the music was about lifting up the race, not your skirt.