Last month, the editors of Essence magazine, the nation's oldest magazine for black women, announced a campaign to encourage the mainstream hip-hop industry to rethink its use of misogynistic lyrics and images. The "Take Back the Music" campaign includes a yearlong exploration of the topic in the magazine's pages, studies of the effects of the economics of the industry and the impact of music videos on young girls, and a town hall meeting at Spelman College between students, artists, industry executives and others February 25.
"We are mothers, sisters, daughters and lovers of hip-hop," Essence editors wrote. "Perhaps that's why we're so alarmed at the imbalance in the depiction of our sexuality and character in music … an entire generation of Black girls are being raised on these narrow images. And as the messages and images are broadcast globally, they have become the lens through which the world now sees us. This cannot continue."
National Public Radio's "Day to Day" was among several media outlets covering the fledgling movement (Note: the broadcast, which can be heard online here, contains explicit language). The magazine's campaign was inspired partly by another widely covered story: how some students at Spelman College, an all-female historically black college, threatened to protest rapper Nelly's planned appearance on campus to promote bone marrow donation unless he was willing to discuss his explicit music in a forum. He cancelled, but the students held their own bone marrow drive and registered 300 donors.
Predictably enough, I think the magazine's campaign is a good thing. As a Christian, and a communicator by trade, I believe in the power of words and their capacity to create realities. God spoke our world into existence, and we have a lesser creative power through our words. I believe, too, that pop culture's offerings are important. Those of us who choose to watch or listen to such offerings should do so with discernment—but also knowing they are significant because they take the temperature of a culture. Hip-hop and I are about the same age, and, oh, it's pretty obvious from my byline that I am both African-American and female. I have no small stake in the way black women are portrayed in culture.
Over the last few years, I've watched as the coverage of hip-hop in publications like Essence has changed. Roundup stories with titles like "Is Hip-Hop Harming Youth?" and scholarly publications in which writers compare the storytelling of the hip-hop artist to the wisdom sharing traditions of the African griots have given way to more personal narratives in which women (including Michaela Angela Davis, one of the founding editors of Vibe magazine) write about the genre with the ambivalent tone one takes in deciding whether or not to break up with a bad-for-you boyfriend. In her book When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as a Hip-hop Feminist, journalist Joan Morgan, in her aptly titled chapter "From Fly Girls to Bitches and Hos," describes to a personified Hip-hop how difficult it's become for her explain her loyalty to the music that frequently demeans her:
" … I wax poetic about your artistic brilliance and the voice (albeit predominantly male) you give an embattled, pained nation. And then I assure them that I call you out on all of your sexism on the regular. That works until someone, usually a sista-friend, calls me out and says that while all of that was valid, none of it explains why I stayed in an obviously abusive relationship. And I can't lie, Boo, that would stress me. 'Cuz my answers would start sounding like those battered women I write about."
The March 2005 issue of Vibe magazine features "Love Hurts," an article that explores the connection between misogyny in hip-hop and domestic violence. A salient quote: "When you get paid big money to call every woman a ho, at what point do you start believing you're a pimp?"
The "Take Back the Music" campaign has real potential to effect change, largely because it's rooted in the hip-hop-loving community. These aren't folks removed from hip-hop who are clucking their tongues and talking about "real music back in the day." They'd rather mend than end the genre. But even those who aren't particularly connected to hip-hop can help redeem the broken parts—because the problems hip-hop faces are rooted in the brokenness of our culture.
What Can We Do About It?
Here are some ways I'd like to see Christians interact with hip-hop:
1) We can identify and interrogate the larger cultural forces in the creation and consumption of hip-hop. It's easy to attack the music, because it's a readily identifiable target. It's satisfying to point out particular songs as examples of violence or misogyny, and go after the artists who exploit these cultural realities to make money. And make no mistake, they should face tough questions from men and women from every segment of society and, given hip-hop's status as a multiracial, multicultural movement (and the fact that black folks are not the primary consumers of hip-hop), every race and cultural background.
But as Essence points through the roundup of voices featured in the January issue, there are several forces at work—the treatment of women and their bodies in the larger culture, the need artists feel to describe their realities, the fact that sex sells, et cetera. I'm not going to lie: On their own, many of these perspectives sound like disingenuous cop-outs. Personally, I'd like to scream whenever a music executive explains that they are simply selling what people want to buy. But together, the collage of voices portrays a group of principalities and powers of which misogyny is one part.
Some questions: Who's buying this stuff? What can we do about the social conditions reflected in some music, like broken families, lack of values, and desperate poverty combined with materialism? (Factors not limited to the poor, the black or the urban, by the way.) Why do corporate executives feel more responsibility to their shareholders than the streets, and what are effective tactics for changing that—beyond boycotting?
Why are so many women willing to be involved in the creation and promotion of this music as executives, publicists, choreographers, performers, and, well, booty-shaking you-know-whats? When a male rapper chants explicit lyrics in a song, who's the female voice singing them right back? And let's talk about the songs in which women themselves glorify the thugged-out ideal. They may not be as many as the bitch-and-ho tunes, but they ain't right, either, y'all.
2) Churches can become safe places to discuss the issues hip-hop raises. Urban, suburban, and rural churches—with members of all races—can create forums where young people (and older folks, too!) can talk and learn about the issues raised in debates about hip-hop. Instead of reflexively ignoring or disdaining the music, why not create interpretive frameworks in which we teach our parishioners how to think about issues like this: What does God's Word say about what it means to be a righteous person? A healthy, holy man or woman? In what ways might our culture affirm men and women, and how is it misandrist or misogynist?
How can we have healthy, God-honoring relationships (romantic and otherwise) as unmarried teens, as single, divorced or widowed adults, and in our marriages (and is our church a welcoming place for all of these people)? What does God say about money and how we obtain and spend it? Do we pay attention to the voices of rich and poor in our communities? How do we find purpose in our lives? What does God think of what we've glorified as the American Dream, and how does God's truth compare with what we see and hear in videos and music? Important issues, whether or not we view them through the lens of hip-hop.
Discussing hip-hop in a meaningful way in church is a risky proposition, and we need the wisdom, discernment and guidance of the older saints to do it effectively. There's the risk of ruffling feathers by talking about it in God's house. There are a lot of people who will be deeply offended by the idea that hip-hop is not necessarily negative in and of itself (and in case I haven't stated that clearly enough: Hip-hop is not necessarily negative in and of itself. In many ways, it's served as a positive force.).
Many churches are discussing hip-hop well. Some are using elements of hip-hop culture to embrace the hip-hop generation and to allow them to worship and express themselves in the ways they find most meaningful. And books like Jesus and the Hip-Hop Prophets: Spiritual Insights from Lauryn Hill & 2Pac by John Teter and Alex Gee are helpful in gleaning nuggets of truth and wisdom—glimpses of God—present in many songs. Of course, if your youth group kids are not into hip-hop, you can do this through rock, pop, R&B, or other genres. The issues we're talking about are not limited to any one form of music.
Churches can also provide opportunities for work and service that broaden parishioners' perspectives and encourage us to participate in God's work in the world. For the relatively prosperous, it's more than about "giving back" or "caring for the less fortunate." It's about asking ourselves how God intends to use our hands and our resources to extend grace and healing.
3) We can support good music. This is a great—and relatively painless—way to move from talkin' 'bout revolution to starting it. Whether it's mainstream music that has a searching or positive message (for example, portrayals of women beyond the model that CNN pop culture correspondent Touré identifies as "boy toys or tomboys," or individual songs like Kanye West's "Jesus Walks") or the many good offerings available from hip-hop artists who are Christian—folks like GRITS, Cross Movement, KJ-52 and others. There are reviews and artist pages here on this site. The print version of Campus Life magazine (a sister publication of Christian Music Today geared toward Christian teens) features two "We Recommend" pages in each issue—a resource for Christians who feel called to seek alternatives to mainstream music.
I'm excited to see that African-American women are forcing entertainment to serve an artistic purpose by dialoguing with the meanings it conveys. But I'm hoping that the discussion isn't limited to us—and I'm hoping it's not limited even to music. For Christians of many racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, this discussion and the actions that can follow provide ways to interact with the culture and to promote healing, justice, peace … and good music.
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