an essay by
April 24, 2007
As a response to the Don Imus fallout surrounding his racist and sexist rant hurled at the blameless Rutgers University women’s basketball team – and to the dramatic shift and intense media glare on hip-hop’s sexism and misogyny – Russell Simmons and Dr. Benjamin Chavis Muhammad, leaders of the New York-based Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, bowed under mounting criticism and pressure, and announced this week that they will make a strong push to have the words “nigger,” “bitch,” and “ho” bleeped on mainstream public radio stations nationwide.
That is not enough.
As an anti-sexist activist, pro-feminist African-American male, I have had the unique and interesting experience of rolling up my sleeves and working with thousands of boys and men in the United States around sexism, men’s violence against women, and homophobia. I have worked with boys and men across race, education, and class lines, and I know how deep and complex these issues are. In my lectures and workshops, I acknowledge my own past as someone who was sexist, and who, as a heterosexual man, behaved badly with women. I am also very candid about how I still grapple with certain gender issues that to this day confuse me. I challenge guys to speak out about sexism, and inspire men to join in the effort to end men’s physical, emotional, and sexual violence against women. I show men how all of these issues hurt men as well as women.
Over the past 14 years years, I have been in the belly of the beast delivering this message. I’ve been in locker rooms with male athletes, on U.S. Marine Corps bases with young Marines, on-campus with black and white fraternity members, and in closed-door sessions with men in positions of authority at colleges and universities. I have also addressed, to a lesser degree, men in law enforcement, and batterers in court mandated battering intervention programs.
My current mission is to engage young men from the hip-hop generation – men who, it seems, are today’s lone scapegoats for centuries-old patriarchy, sexism and misogyny. Let the truth be told, hip-hop’s misogyny is indefensible and must be confronted. But hip-hop is surely not the only place where boys and men are informed about girls and women. From the recent Supreme Court decision to ban partial birth abortion, to “men’s interests” magazine covers donning scantily clad female celebs, to hard and soft-core pornograghy that subjugate women – men are bombarded daily with messages about gender. Even as a woman, Senator Hillary Clinton, mounts a formidable campaign to become the first female president of the United States, the messages about gender in popular culture are clear – men rule the world, and women are sex objects, bitches and ho’s.
Hip-hop’s sexism is only a piece of a much larger puzzle.
I am a hip-hop fan. At 37 years old, hip-hop music has been the soundtrack of a huge chunk of my life. But as I learned more about gender issues as an original member of Northeastern University’s Mentors in Violence Prevention Program, I began to question hip-hop’s ever-present macho themes and images. I grew up with hip-hop, but hip-hop did not grow up with me. I became so weary of hip-hop’s testosterone that, in 2000, I decided to do something about it. Over a period of six years, I directed and produced Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, an award-winning PBS documentary film about violence, sexism, and homophobia. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to standing ovations in 2006, and won best documentary at the San Francisco Black Film Festival.
The film is getting around. It is being shown on college campuses from Howard University to Harvard University. And last month, Firelight Media launched a year-long community engagement campaign to use the film as a media literacy tool in communities across the country. National and local community partners include: A Call to Men, Mothers Day Radio, YWCA–Racial Justice Project, Gender PAC, Youth Movement Records, Reflect Connect Move, HOTGIRLS, Inc., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, Center for Family Policy and Practice, and The P.E.A.C.E. Initiative. Additional events are planned in collaboration with this year’s Essence Music Festival, the Congressional Black Caucus, Rikers Island, and the Open Society Institute. The goal is to help young people, using hip-hop as a catalyst for discussion, think critically about the myriad gender issues in hip-hop specifically, and in the larger American culture in general.
The Ford Foundation has also pitched in providing resources for a Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes Historically Black College Tour to further conversations about the gender politics of Hip-Hop culture on black college campuses.
For several years now, the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network has done some great work for the hip-hop community. Through a series of national workshops, panels, and seminars called “Hip-Hop Summits” Simmons and Muhammad have helped register thousands of young people to vote, have confronted the unjust Rockerfeller Drug Laws, which disproportionately sentences black and brown men for non-violent drug offenses, and they do much to educate aspiring artists and businessmen before they enter the music industry. As hip-hop entrepreneurs, they do much to give back.
But Simmons and Muhammad’s action plan to have radio stations bleep the words “bitch” and “ho” on public airwaves is at best, a Band-Aid solution for a much larger problem. As Jackson Katz, author of The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help, says “… if men’s violence against women truly carried a significant stigma in male culture, it is possible that most incidents of sexist abuse would never happen.” I agree. Men who are not sexist need to send the message to other men that sexism and misogyny is not cool.
As men, we are woefully uneducated about gender issues. Many of us, with some exceptions, have never had a serious conversation about sexism. For decades, women all over the country have led the charge to eliminate men’s sexism and violence. But largely due to male privilege and sexism, men across racial lines have not listened. We posture, we resist, and we call it male bashing. I know, because I was once one such man. As Don Imus did so cunningly in the week after his transgression, we deflect and push blame onto someone else. In Imus’ case, hip-hop, whose face is largely black and male, was the convenient bogeyman. As men, we all need to acknowledge our sexism and take responsibility for our actions, and then work hard to change. Men are conditioned to be sexist, and we can be conditioned to become anti-sexist with education and leadership.
If Russell Simmons and Benjamin Muhammad really want to confront sexism in hip-hop, they have to begin by using their leadership, money, and status to educate the hip-hop community about the roots of sexism, and what we can do to change it. As hip-hop executives, they must own up to their own sexist attitudes and behaviors, and then, firmly reject sexism in hip-hop culture beyond bleeping offensive words. He must ask his cronies in positions of power and influence in the industry to do the same.
If the lyrics are to change, then the sexist attitudes that live on the edge of male rappers’ tongues, must change. That is going to take real work over a long period of time. Bleeping sexist words just won’t cut it.
Simmons and Muhammad must mount a campaign using artists with credibility, heart, and a strong desire for gender equality (that combination will be hard to find – but is possible) to send the message to all men that sexism and violence against women is – in hip-hop parlance – wack. I challenge Simmons and Muhammad to put their money where their mouth is and use their national “Hip-Hop Summit” tour to address hip-hop’s sexism and misogyny in a real and meaningful way. I dare Simmons and Muhammad to organize panel discussions with hip-hop feminists like Joan Morgan, Tricia Rose, Aishah Durham, Elizabeth Mendez-Berry, Carla Stokes, Rosa Clemente, Tracey Sharpley-Whiting, Monifa Bandele, April Silver and others, who have for years, railed against hip-hop’s sexism. Put them on the same dais with hip-hop executives and artists. Bring in some of the countries most skilled and experienced anti-sexist male activists to roll up their sleeves and work with male rappers and hip-hop heads. Conduct workshops and training sessions led by men like myself, Quentin Walcott, Don MacPherson, Ted Bunch, Antonio Arrendel, Tony Porter, Kevin Powell, Bikari Kitwana, Mark Anthony Neal, Asere Bello, Tim’m West, Juba Kalamka, and other profeminist men who love hip-hop, but who do not accept its hyper aggression, sexism, and homophobia. Make a real commitment to ending sexism and misogyny in hip-hop, not a paper-thin, disingenuous, and contrived public relations charade.
Not all men are sexist. Not all men in hip-hop are sexist. Not all rappers are sexist. Like me, many men within the hip-hop generation reject the macho and sexist manifestos contained in hip-hop lyrics and in music videos. When men with credibility, status, and a love for hip-hop stand up publicly to denounce sexism with conviction, it gives other men, good men, the space to do the same.