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Women say rap videos demean, not define

Black women have had it with misogynistic raps and lewd images. Treat us with respect, they say.

Published June 14, 2005

Only in a rap video can somebody swipe a credit card down a woman's thong-clad backside.

Black women are tired. Tired, they say, of being portrayed as everything but a woman.

"If there was a line," Cori Murray says, videos such as Nelly's 2003 Tip Drill, with the card swipe, crossed it. "It's just really blatant. Just in your face."

After years of letting rap videos define them as skin-revealing sexpots, black women have decided enough is enough.

From a historically black women's college in Atlanta to the nation's largest black women's magazine, the generation that grew up listening to, dancing to and loving rap is now challenging it. An intervention, Murray calls it.

At Atlanta's Spelman College last year, students protested Nelly's scheduled appearance at a campus bone-marrow drive, prompting a nationwide dialogue on rap and misogyny.

In April, a conference on feminism and hip-hop drew thousands to the University of Chicago.

One of the most sweeping movements is Essence magazine's "Take Back the Music" campaign. The initiative started in January as a yearlong effort, but now editors say until they see more positive images of black women in rap, the magazine will write monthly articles, hold town-hall meetings and urge readers to participate in telephone, letter and e-mail campaigns to cable, radio and record company executives.

"We do not believe in censorship," says Murray, the magazine's arts and entertainment editor. "What we're asking for is different images, balance. There are black women in different lights, different body types and just different venues."

The mainstream, however, may not know it.

"There's not a countermessage," says Tarshia Stanley, who teaches a course on images of women in the media at Spelman. "It would be fine if it were projected as a small part, but it's projected as all that we do, everything that we are."

Unlike the Spelman protest, the Essence campaign does not take aim at specific rappers. "For us," Murray says, "it is across the board."

If that's the case, why then did black women excuse the hypersexualized women in rap songs and videos for so long?

Stanley has a theory.

"We're dealing with a generation who's been raised by this kind of music and raised by this kind of imagery," she says. "They know something is wrong. They maybe don't like it, but it takes a moment for them to get a critical consciousness, for them to articulate what's wrong and why it may be detrimental in our community."

Murray can testify to that.

"I was one of those people" who said, " "Oh, it's the beat. They're not really talking about me,' " she says.

Even as a key player in Essence's campaign, she still has a hard time criticizing rap. "It's my music," she says. "I just want to see it grow in a different way."

Another reason for the delay? Black women did not want to sell out their black brothers - even if they sold them out.

"We didn't want to spank their hands, especially publicly," Murray says. "As a community, we have this thing about airing our dirty laundry."

But as rap became racier and offered more of a one-dimensional view of black women, "we realized we had to say something," Murray says. "Yes, it's going to hurt. Yes, we're putting these guys on blast. But you know what, we gotta do it because it's our lives. It's our souls.

"It's hurting us too much."

Murray has seen the impact the images have had on her niece, and the girl still wears diapers.

Once, she says, the girl gyrated and cooed, "Dip it low, make your man say oh."

The way the toddler moved and sang, like the women in the Dip It Low video, left Murray dumbfounded.

"She's 2," she says. "If she's doing this now, I can't imagine what kind of songs are going to be out when she's 5 or 6."

A group of Atlanta's Emory University professors found rap videos had far greater implications for the more than 500 black teenage girls it followed from December 1996 to April 1999. According to the study, published in the March 2003 edition of the American Journal of Public Health, the girls who watched hours of videos were morett likely to have had sex, drink and use drugs than those who did not.

"Exposure to rap music videos, which is explicit about sex and violence and rarely shows the potential long-term adverse effect of risky behaviors, may influence adolescents by modeling these unhealthy practices," the study's authors say.

It is not just the impact on black girls that worries black women. It is black boys, especially those who "get raised by the television and by music," Stanley says.

"Young men of color," she says, "get their idea of masculinity . . . from the media."

"The videos are showing young men how to treat young women," Murray says.

For all the damage rap videos may have done, Serena Kim, features editor of Vibe, a hip-hop magazine, says there is a flip side.

"Hip-hop in effect popularized female beauty and size," she says. "You don't have to be a Barbie doll to be attractive. These videos show that women come in more curvaceous sizes."

At a cost.

Most hours of the day, you can flip to MTV, Fuse and Black Entertainment Television, and see men (fully clothed) with half-nude women in videos. BET, a channel that has been criticized for showing too much skin, even has a program devoted to adult-oriented rap videos.

Michael Lewellen, BET's senior vice president of corporate communications, says any movement that generates dialogue and forces people to think about the choices they make is a good thing.

But the Essence campaign, he says, "has given people a reason to point a finger to the entire hip-hop industry," his employer included. "And that should not be the case."

"The most nominated artist for the Grammy Awards in 2005 was Kanye West and his lyrics aren't violent," Lewellen says. "We are talking about a small percentage of the artists whose content has fueled Essence and other campaigns going on right now."

Moreover, he says, the "thing that's important to note about any rap music video is what you see and hear is nothing more than that individual artist's (interpretation) of his or her world. It's not meant to be a blanket descriptor of black culture. It's not meant to be indicative of the lives of all black people."

Maybe so, but that is a naive assessment, Stanley says.

"It's not what you see one time," she says. "It's what you see 1,000 times. It begins to make inroads into your thought processes. It becomes life for (consumers) because they try to live out these things that they see and that they hear."

Murray agrees.

"It's a copout," she says. "Just because they're not saying your name doesn't mean they're not talking about you. They're talking about you collectively."

If people have such a problem with the music, stop buying it, Lewellen says.

"Let's remember the bottom-line factor: The industry responds to market conditions," he says. "As long as consumers are willing to buy the CDs, go to the concerts, listen to the songs of the more controversial artists, they will continue to make the kind of product that they will make. If the market conditions change, I guarantee you the the product will change.

"Do you really think Starbucks would charge $5 or $6 for a cup of coffee if consumers didn't pay for it? It's a similar analogy when it comes to music."

According to Lewellen, BET UnCut, the show that broadcasts adult-oriented videos at 3 a.m., has had double-digit viewership increases in the past two years.

"Someone is watching that show at 3 o'clock in the morning," he says. "Otherwise, we wouldn't get the numbers that we get.

"If there's a movement to get the attention of these artists, you . . . do that by not consuming their product and that's an individual choice."

Murray acknowledges that some of the very people who are now attacking the music are fans of it.

"It's a conflict," she says. "But we also recognize that it's time to step up and say no to it. We were a little late getting to this party, but we're here now and believe us, we are gonna make some changes."

-- Rodney Thrash can be reached at 727 893-8352 or


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[Last modified June 13, 2005, 16:28:03]

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