Maybe it was the credit card that rap superstar Nelly swiped through a woman’s backside in a recent video.
Here at Spelman, the most famous black women’s college in the country, a feud has erupted over images of women in rap videos, sparking a petition drive and phone campaigns.
Nelly planned to visit Spelman earlier this month for a charity event enlisting students for a bone marrow registry. But the rapper canceled the appearance after hearing that a protest was in the works because of his videos — especially “Tip Drill,” the one with the credit card, which also shows men throwing money between women’s legs and women simulating sex acts with each other.
Misogyny in pop music, especially hip-hop, has been around for years. What’s new, students say, is an explosion of almost-X-rated videos passed around on the Internet or shown late at night on cable channels like Black Entertainment Television, also known as BET.
Never before, students say, have the portrayals of black women been so hypersexual and explicit.
“It’s very harsh. This is something we have to see and listen to on a daily basis,” said senior Shanequa Yates. “Nelly just didn’t want to come here and face the criticism for the choices he’s made.”
Not all students agreed that rappers are to blame, or that the images were harmful to society. At a recent meeting at Spelman to decide what should be done to protest rap music, some pointed out that women in the videos know what they’re doing and are paid to do it.
Grown women making a choice
The issue especially incensed some men studying at Morehouse, a black men’s college closely affiliated with Spelman. “These are grown women. I’m putting the blame on the women,” said Kenneth Lavergne, a senior who was loudly booed by the 300 or so women at the meeting.
Another student, Bradley Walker from Clark Atlanta University, talked about the credit-card swiping. “Bottom line, a woman let him do that,” he said. “I do think sometimes the total blame is put on artists themselves.”
Nelly’s record label agrees. A spokeswoman for Universal Records, Wendy Washington, complained that the charity event fell apart just because women at Spelman were looking for a scapegoat. She said the feud unfairly made Nelly an example to fire up urban radio stations and music writers across the country.
“He did not think it was appropriate at all for students to use that as a forum,” Washington said. “I think he was profoundly frustrated. He was not the first, certainly, to do a video like that.”
Spelman women have low hopes of getting a change from BET, which shows bawdy videos with genitals and breasts fuzzed out on “BET Uncut” at 3 a.m. ET.
No changes coming from BETThe network has no plans to stop running it. “'Uncut’ has developed an almost cult-like following because of the freedom of artists to express themselves,” said network spokesman Michael Lewellen. “It is specifically for adults. These are music videos whose content is too strong for our day points. We exercise more scrutiny than is required.”
That sums up the basic message Spelman women have gotten from rappers and TV executives — if you don’t like it, don’t watch the videos or listen to the music. But the student activists insist the stereotypes in rap music hurt black people even if they don’t listen.
“Black entertainers have become the new myth makers, showing gangsters and bikini-clad women with hyperactive libidos,” said Zenobia Hikes, vice president for student affairs. “For non-black children it creates a gross misrepresentation of the black experience.”
The next move is a petition drive, and a campaign to phone complaints to TV networks and radio stations that run offensive material. If Janet Jackson’s breast sparked such a crackdown on indecency in the media, the students say, surely a woman shaking so violently her bikini bottom pops off should anger people, too.
“We need to organize and say no to this stuff, this nasty, disgusting stuff,” said Beverly Guy-Sheftall, director of the school’s Women’s Research and Resource Center.
It won’t be easy.
“I don’t see a solution as long as you have people willing to do it,” said senior Nikole Howard. “You have to demand respect, but I doubt these women even thought they were being disrespected. It makes me sad, makes me realize how much work we have to do to educate women.”