It’s part two of our Oprah Show town hall about the Imus controversy. What are the real issues? The hip-hop industry responds with music mogul Russell Simmons and Grammy-winning rapper Common.
After radio shock jock Don Imus was fired for his racist joke about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, the country hasn’t stopped talking about it. In a statement to the Today show, Imus responded to criticism by saying, “I know that that phrase [nappy-headed hos] didn’t originate in the white community. That phrase originated in the black community. And I’m not stupid. I may be a white man, but I know that these young women and young black women all through that society are demeaned and disparaged and disrespected by their own black men and that they are called that name. And I know that, and that doesn’t give me, obviously, any right to say it, but it doesn’t give them any right to say it.”
His controversial comment has sparked conversations about the state of racial affairs in America today. In an Oprah Show town hall a panel of experts discussed the issue, opening up about racism and the denigration, marginalization and sexual exploitation of women.
Was Imus correct in pointing a finger at the hip-hop culture?
The Oprah Show has assembled a panel of hip-hop professionals to respond to the firestorm. Music industry insider Russell Simmons; record executive Kevin Liles; Dr. Benjamin Chavis, former CEO of the NAACP and current President/CEO of the Hip-Hop Summit Network; and Grammy-winning rapper Common continue the discussion and get the hip-hop community’s response.
Russell Simmons—recognized as one of the founding fathers of hip-hop for his record label, Def Jam, and author of Do You!—says that Imus is wrong. “It is historically incorrect. Black people didn’t invent ‘nappy-headed hos.’ Don Imus’s statements were offensive to everyone,” Russell says. “I almost want to thank him for creating this forum. It’s a long time coming.”
Russell emphasizes that the music does not create the conditions of the world, or celebrate them, but rather it discusses them frankly. “The hip-hop community is a mirror, a reflection of the dirt we overlook—the violence, the misogyny, the sexism. They need to be discussed.”
“All throughout history the poets who have been a reflection of society have always been under fire. We don’t like what they have to say, but some of it has to be examined. It’s important that we teach artists more. It’s my job to teach artists to know more and say more.”
Kevin Liles—who rose from intern at Def Jam Records to executive vice president at Warner Music Group and wrote about his business experiences in the book Make It Happen—says that the hip-hop culture is not only about the negative subjects and attitudes that many in the mainstream perceive.
Kevin says he mentors young artists to help them deal with growing up and to see and to communicate differently.
“Hip-hop is culture, not color. It’s the spirit in which you live your life, by saying, ‘I still have a dream. By any means necessary I will make it happen.'”
Dr. Benjamin Chavis was once CEO of the NAACP and is now the CEO of the Hip-Hop Summit Network, which he co-founded with Russell Simmons.
He says that while Imus’s “awful comments” have presented an opportunity to discuss issues America has avoided for years, Imus is by no means off the hook.
“Hip-hop artists are not responsible for what Don Imus did. Don Imus was a racist. Don Imus was a sexist, and there’s no way that Don Imus can blame hip-hop for what he did,” Dr. Chavis says. “That is not to excuse hip-hop. Hip hop is not perfect. We’ve got to make it better. But we make hip-hop better by making society better, because hip-hop reflects the contradictions of society. There’s too much poverty, there’s too much injustice, and there’s too much bad treatment of women in our society.”
Grammy-winning rapper Common is known as one of the more progressive and positive rappers in the business. He says that his beliefs stem from his earliest memories of listening to the music. “Hip-hop was telling stories about consciousness,” he says. “I learned about the Bible through hip-hop. I learned about … uplifting black women. I started changing my way of thinking because of hip-hop.”
Though he loves the music and the culture, Common admits that it has taken a turn. “Hip-hop has been this child that we had. Our elders kind of abandoned the child at a young age and said, ‘Okay, we don’t really understand this. We don’t relate to this,'” he says. “And now as hip-hop has evolved and grown up, our parents are expecting hip-hop to be perfect and to be right.”
Despite staying clear of such denigrating ideas in his own music, Common says he refuses to abandon the culture. “I’m going to ride with my hip-hop people, because if I divide myself that’s going to continue to keep the problem going,” he says. “If criticism could come with love, we can make some progress.”
One group of women frustrated by the use of words like “ho” in hip-hop are students at Atlanta’s Spelman College. In 2004, female students at the college made headlines when they protested a scheduled performance by rapper Nelly at their school. At the time, students said they were upset at how the rapper treated the women in his videos. “I feel that, as with the Don Imus situation, there’s a lack of accountability. As rappers, I feel that accountability should be taken into consideration—as well as with Don Imus—from a racial standpoint. Rappers from a sexist standpoint,” Keli, a student at the school, says. “It all needs to be addressed and we need to quit talking around the issues.”
All seven women on the Spelman panel say they have been called a ho and that the negative stereotypes in some hip-hop songs are being applied to all black women. “I’ve heard a lot of rappers say that they are speaking about the ‘hos from the street’ and the hos from their experience,” says Leona, a student. “But they have to understand that men don’t make distinctions between those hos and us. When we go to a club they don’t say, ‘Let me see your school ID’ and distinguish whether they’re going to call us a ho or not.”
Common acknowledges that there is a problem and it is deep-rooted in society. Asks a student named Devon, “Is it okay to continue it?”
No, says Common. “Let me say to the sisters from Spelman we acknowledge there’s a problem and we [the hip-hop community] want the help. When I talk to cats on the street, they don’t want to be in that situation. We don’t want to be in this painful situation,” Common says. “And we are apologizing for the disrespect that does come from the mouths of men to women.”
Diane Weathers, former editor in chief of Essence magazine, says women must take the lead in the fight against misogynistic images of women in hip-hop. “You cannot go to the industry, people in the industry, and expect them to fix this,” Diane says. “Women have to say, ‘No.'”
Russell says he doesn’t believe the industry should promote “dirty behavior on any part,” but he points out that there is the right to freedom of speech and expression. “They have a right to say what’s on their mind. I’m not saying we have to put them on the radio,” Russell says. “The idea [should be] to lift up each voice to say the most positive things.”
Still, Diane says that performers who use derogatory language should face consequences. In an earlier town hall discussion, she said performers should lose their contracts if the behavior persists. “They have to know that it’s not acceptable if you keep doing this kind of music. The contract is off,” Diane said. “These guys are all really embraced by the mainstream. It has to be unacceptable.”
Russell says taking away record deals could actually make an artist more popular—and most could distribute their own albums. “They’re just as big without the record company.”
Londell McMillan is an entertainment lawyer who represents well-known artists like Prince, Stevie Wonder, Usher and Lil’ Kim. He says record companies have a responsibility about what they choose to release. “The companies are the owners of the product. They also, in these contracts, have rights to define and determine what product they would like to distribute,” Londell says. “That doesn’t mean they should jump into the creativity of artists, but certainly there is responsibility there.”
Londell says there are a number of legal issues the industry needs to consider:
Corporate Responsibility: “[It’s] having fiduciary duties to do what’s in the best interest of the business,” Londell says. Companies put out what they think will sell, he says.
Constitutionality: “Not all speech is free speech and acceptable speech,” he says. “However, we should be very careful when we want to censor. All cultures and families—they have censorship amongst the group. But not by government.”
Creativity: “Most [artists] are under pressure to be in a box. To produce a certain type of content that they’re being told sells,” Londell says. “There are a number of people who have the kind of integrity, the education and the support where they don’t succumb. It’s our job to create an environment where they don’t have to succumb to what’s worst in us and the pain in us—but the progress and the creativity in us.”
Londell acknowledges the industry is grappling with a “very profound and complex issue,” but he points out that there are many outlets in which change can take place. “At the hip-hop table, Oprah, you’ve got corporate America, you’ve got the artists and producers, you’ve got the consumers, and let’s not forget radio,” Londell says. “Radio plays this music, and just like they stopped Imus, they have an ability to stop music that offends young people.”
Dr. Chavis says one step to eliminating negative images in hip-hop is to work on eliminating poverty. “I know that we need to solve this problem so that we can treat each other better in the home, in the community,” Dr. Chavis says. “What we’re saying is you want to sanitize poetry and lyrics and videos and not deal with sanitizing our community and not dealing with the inequities that we have to face every day, then the problem is going to come back. Let’s not put a Band-Aid on this. Let’s deal with this substantively.”
However, syndicated New York Daily News columnist Stanley Crouch (pictured above) says there’s a double standard. “There’s an extraordinary double standard here because most of the people who were in the Ku Klux Klan were what they call ‘poor white trash,’ who were at the bottom of society. Nobody ever … makes an excuse for them blowing up little girls, for them being racist,” Stanley says. “When you get these clowns in your guys’ arena, then suddenly, oh, these are just marionettes. They can’t make any decisions. So the corporation decides society, slavery, all of these things lead up to these people consistently calling peoples niggers, bitches and hos as though they’re these helpless guys who can’t do anything. And I’m not buying it.”
Kevin disagrees. “What I’ve done my whole life, now that I know, now that I’ve experienced different things, is to uplift a community, is to teach them to say different things,” he says. “Do you think I want them every single day to say bitch, ho, ‘n’ this, ‘n,’ that? I don’t want them to say that. … I have not told an artist ever, ever to say that. And I have [gone] out of my way to explain to them there’s other ways that you can communicate the same message.”
So how does a solution arise from such a heated issue? Bruce Gordon, a former NAACP president and current CBS board member, says it will come from working together. “The solution is not to blame,” Bruce says. “The solution is to collaborate and find the answer together.”
Above all, Common says, a solution will emerge once everyone acknowledges the need for change. “We want to change this world and it starts with us. The way we think, the way we speak, the way we act towards ourselves and towards others, because when we’ve got that love for ourselves, we’re going to look at each other no matter what color, no matter what gender, no matter what mistakes the other person made and say, ‘I love you,'” Common says. “We want change for this world. And it starts with our hearts.”