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Russell Simmons misses the point with call for ban on three words

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April 28th, 2007

By Guest Blogger Ivonne Salazar

Misogyny in hip-hop has been a hot button issue in the past several weeks since Don Imus was fired for using racist and sexist comments on his radio show. Since then, many notable media personalities have publicly denounced the pervasive misogynistic messages transmitted through hip-hop.

Few in the hip-hop community have publicly spoken against sexism in hip-hop, so I was surprised to read the AP article in which Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam Records, publicly announced that he now considers the words “ho,” “bitch” and “nigga” to be “extreme curse words” and that the recording and broadcast industries should consistently ban these words from all the “clean” radio versions of songs. He also recognized that “record companies sometimes ‘arbitrarily’ decide” which words to delete and the industry lacks a “uniform standard.”

Simmons’ statement is the first attempt by hip-hop insiders to acknowledge the need to clean up the lyrics, but as author Joan Morgan puts it, the announcement “amounts to nothing.” Morgan, author of When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down, was also featured in the article and she believes the recommendations are “short-sighted at best and disingenuous at worst.” In her opinion, the announcement is an “anemic, insufficient response” that failed to address homophobia and other issues in certain strains of hip-hop culture and rap music. She said that calling for the removal of these words assumes that “all of the violence, misogyny and sexism in hip-hop are only expressed in those words.”

Morgan makes a good—and feminist—point.

During the past several weeks Simmons has appeared in several media outlets, mostly defending hip-hop and speaking out against remarks that offer one-sided criticisms of hip-hop. Simmons even appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show as a panel participant to discuss some of the problems in mainstream hip-hop.

Simmons—with all of his influence in the music industry – is in a position to alter some of the negative messages in hip-hop music, but by focusing on a handful of words, he suggests that these are the only problems within the industry. In doing so, he is missing an opportunity to criticize the overall messages that hip-hop music promotes about women, masculinity, sexuality and urban culture. Even if radio stations consistently bleep out these three words, even if artists stop using all types of offensive words, the messages imbedded in these songs will still come out loud and clear.

The messages in these lyrics, and the videos that accompany them, will continue to actively direct young men to sexually conquer and exploit women and to subsequently treat them as if they were a piece of used toilet paper.

It is important to note that hip-hop was born out of a social movement, among low-income people of color, and served as a platform to protest the dehumanizing consequences of social inequality, discrimination, and segregation in urban cities. The music was often filled with aggressively political lyrics and depicted the reality of living and surviving a dangerous and marginalized life.

Sadly, this is not the hip-hop that we see anymore on television or hear on the radio. Mainstream hip-hop slowly became infiltrated with aggressive sexist and misogynist values that were not present before the corporate takeover of the genre.

It cannot go unnoticed that misogyny in hip-hop directly reflects society’s attitudes towards women. Media executives pushed these values onto artists back when corporate labels originally bought up small rap labels. As a result, these executives began watering down and eventually erasing virtually all political content and promoting the same damaging stereotypes about men and women, Black and white, rich and poor, that have always been promoted by corporate advertisers and corporate media.

Although you don’t see many inside the hip-hop community doing this, it is possible to criticize hip-hop and demand that the industry promote more positive values. [EDITORIAL NOTE FROM WIMN: In his documentary Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, Byron Hurt does an exemplary job of critiquing sexism, homophobia, race biases and violence in hip hop from a place of love – he opens the film talking about how he grew up with hip hop, was a huge fan of the music and never really thought about the lyrics all that much… until he started working for a program that educates men about stopping violence against women. When hip hop kept being referenced by men as an explanation of why violence against women was OK, Hurt began to think more deeply and critically about the messages in the genre’s lyrics and videos, and set out to investigate its social and cultural import and impact, in particular among young men of color. Hurt’s film offers a scathing critique of hip hop’s misogyny, homophobia and the racism and money-grubbing of the corporate music industry that pumps it out, but he does so in a way that never makes viewers question his appreciation and affection for hip hop.]

Simmons, along with others in the hip-hop industry, are squandering the opportunity to take a broader stand against sexist, racist, homophobic, and misogynist messages in hip-hop. By failing to do this, those within the industry are failing young men and women, and especially young urban youth, precisely the audience they promote to.

The inherent power of the hip-hop movement is its ability to educate and mobilize the masses. It is possible for the industry to stay true to the essence of hip-hop and simultaneously use it as a vehicle to spread positive and empowering messages about women and people of color.

This change is possible, but it needs to be orchestrated by influential people within the hip-hop industry [EDITORIAL NOTE: as well as openness to change among the purse-string-pullers of the music label owners, the radio station owners, and others who financially control the music industry and, by proxy, the content of most hip hop]. Only then will real change happen.

Guest blogger Ivonne Salazar works in the non-profit sector in New York City and graduated from Skidmore with a double major in Sociology and Women’s Studies.

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