Fighting in vain to keep his job, radio host Don Imus said that rappers routinely “defame and demean black women” and call them “worse names than I ever did.”
That’s an argument many people made as the Imus fallout intensified, culminating with his firing Thursday for labeling the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos.” Now that Imus has been silenced (for the moment), some critics are moving down the radio dial to take on hip-hop, boosting the growing movement against themes in rap.
“We all know where the real battleground is,” wrote Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock. “We know that the gangsta rappers and their followers in the athletic world have far bigger platforms to negatively define us than some old white man with a bad radio show.”
“We have to begin working on a response to the larger problem,” said the Rev. DeForest Soaries Jr., who as pastor of the Rutgers coach helped mediate the Imus imbroglio. Soaries announced Friday that he is organizing a nationwide initiative to address the culture that “has produced language that has denigrated women.”
The larger issue was alluded to by CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves when he announced Imus’ firing: “The effect language like this has on our young people, particularly young women of color trying to make their way in this society ... has weighed most heavily on our minds as we made our decision.”
Pointing out that the rapper Mims uses “ho” and worse epithets in his chart-topping song “This Is Why I’m Hot,” columnist Michelle Malkin asked: “What kind of relief do we get from this deadening, coarsening, dehumanizing barrage from young, black rappers and their music-industry enablers?”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, among the loudest critics calling for Imus’ termination, indicated that entertainment is the next battleground. “We will not stop until we make it clear that no one should denigrate women,” he said after Imus’ firing. “We must deal with the fact that ho and the b-word are words that are wrong from anybody’s lips.
“It would be wrong if we stopped here and acted like Imus was the only problem. There are others that need to get this same message.”
It is a message that was spreading even before Imus’ comments.
After “Seinfeld” actor Michael Richards was castigated for a racist on-stage rant, the New York City Council passed a symbolic resolution banning the n-word, and other cities around the country have passed similar measures.
Cultural critic, author and columnist Stanley Crouch, a longtime foe of rap music, suspected the Imus ordeal would galvanize young black women across the country. He said a key moment was when the Rutgers players appeared at a news conference this week — poised, dignified and defying stereotypes seen in rap videos and “dumb” comedies.
“When the public got to see these women, what they were, it was kind of shocking,” Crouch said. “It made accepting the denigration not quite as comfortable as it had been for far too long.”
Some defenders of rap music and hip-hop culture, such as the pioneering mogul Russell Simmons, deny any connection between Imus and hip-hop. They describe rap lyrics as reflections of the violent, drug-plagued, hopeless environments that many rappers come from. Instead of criticizing rappers, defenders say, critics should improve their reality.
“Comparing Don Imus’ language with hip-hop artists’ poetic expression is misguided and inaccurate and feeds into a mind-set that can be a catalyst for unwarranted, rampant censorship,” Simmons said in a statement Friday.
The superstar rapper Snoop Dogg also denied any connection to Imus. “(Rappers) are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports,” he told MTV.com. “We’re talking about hos that’s in the ’hood that ain’t doing ---- that’s trying to get a n---- for his money.”
Criticism of rap is nothing new — it began soon after the music emerged from New York City’s underclass more than 30 years ago.
In 1990, rapper-turned actor Queen Latifah challenged rap’s misogyny in her hit song “U.N.I.T.Y.” In 1993, C. Delores Tucker, who was chairwoman of the National Political Congress of Black Women Inc., led an organized movement — which included congressional hearings — condemning sexist and violent rap.
That same year, the Rev. Calvin Butts of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem drove a steamroller over a pile of tapes and CDs.
In 2004, students at Spelman College, a black women’s college in Atlanta, became upset over rapper Nelly’s video for his song “Tip Drill,” in which he cavorts with strippers and swipes a credit card between one woman’s buttocks. The rapper wanted to hold a campus bone marrow drive for his ailing sister, but students demanded he first participate in a discussion about the video’s troubling images. Nelly declined.
In 2005, Essence magazine launched its “Take Back the Music” campaign. Writers such as Joan Morgan and Kierna Mayo and filmmaker Byron Hurt also have tackled the issue recently.
T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, author of “Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women” and a professor at Vanderbilt University, said many black women resist rap music and hip-hop culture, but their efforts are largely ignored by mainstream media. As an example, the professor pointed to “Rap Sessions,” the 10-city tour in which she’s participating. She said the tour and its central question — does hip-hop hate women? — have gotten very little mainstream media coverage.
Sharpley-Whiting said, “It’s only when we interface with a powerful white media personality like Imus that the issue is raised and the question turns to ‘Why aren’t you as vociferous in your critique of hip-hop?’ We have been! You’ve been listening to the music, but you haven’t been listening to the protests from us.”
Crouch said that change in rap music and entertainment likely won’t come fast, because corporations are still profiting from the business — but it’s coming.
“I’ve been on (rappers) for 20 years,” Crouch said. “I was in the civil rights movement. I know it takes a long time when you’re standing up against extraordinary money and great power. But we’re beginning to see a shift.”