With radio personality Don Imus officially off the air and out of work following a racist and sexist rant, hip-hop now finds itself on the defensive as some activists and commentators try to draw comparisons between Imus' comments and hip-hop lyrics.
Many activists, community leaders and organizations — the Reverend Al Sharpton and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People among them — have publicly said they will continue to scrutinize and speak out against others who have a public forum and choose to perpetuate what they call sexist and racist stereotypes. Exactly what will fall under that scrutiny and whether hip-hop will be a target remains to be seen, but many in the hip-hop community aren't waiting for a bull's-eye to be painted on their chest.
"Hip-hop is a worldwide cultural phenomena that transcends race and doesn't engage in racial slurs," Russell Simmons said Friday (April 13) through his Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. "Don Imus' racially motivated diatribe toward the Rutgers women's basketball team was in no way connected to hip-hop culture. ... Don Imus is not a hip-hop artist or a poet. Hip-hop artists rap about what they see, hear and feel around them, their experience of the world. Like the artists throughout history, their messages are a mirror of what is right and wrong with society. Sometimes their observations or the way in which they choose to express their art may be uncomfortable for some to hear, but our job is not to silence or censor that expression. Our job is to be an inclusive voice for the hip-hop community and to help create an environment that encourages the positive growth of hip-hop."
Imus, of course, was let go from his position due to off-the-cuff racist and sexist comments aimed at the Rutgers University women's basketball team. And while Imus' comments fall far from the artistic expression found in hip-hop, the widening scope of the scrutiny they inspired looks like it will soon include music as well.
"The bad news is that we have to revisit these issues as late as 2007," Sharpton said at a press conference in New York on Thursday. "We will not stop until we make it clear that no one should denigrate women. ... No one, even in the name of creativity, should enjoy a large consumer base when they denigrate people based on race and based on sex."
He also went on to say, "airwaves should not be used to commercialize sexism and racism."
On Friday, Sharpton clarified his position to MTV News. He said he's not trying to bash rap on the whole, but at the same time, he's going to keep both ears on the music and try to dialogue more with hip-hop artists.
"We have for a while said to the hip-hop community that we believe in free speech, but at the same time, we also have the right to say this whole sexist, racist overuse of the word 'n---a' and 'ho' we need to deal with in our community," Sharpton explained. "We need to deal with how there are many artists that are conscious and progressive that can't get a [recording] contract. So this is nothing new. Two years ago at the National Action Network Convention, we had that conversation. This Saturday at the National Action Network Convention, we will have the conversation about what we do about the violence and the [racist], sexist language in hip-hop. At one of the first Hip-Hop Summits in 2000, we talked about this. I think a lot of the elements in hip-hop are positive and for us. I think some are bad."
So far, calls for hip-hop to check itself with regards to its lyrical content aren't just coming from Sharpton — a call to action from bloggers and commentators also seems to be gathering steam. Reverend DeForest Soaries announced on Friday that within the next 30 days he plans to have a "community-based town-hall meeting" on the Rutgers University campus, where media moguls and entertainers will be invited to find "constructive solutions."
Others in the hip-hop community are adamant that rap lyrics should not be compared to Imus' comments.
"Language can be a powerful tool," Simmons said. "That is why one's intention, when using the power of language, should be made clear. Comparing Don Imus' language with hip-hop artists' poetic expression is misguided and inaccurate and feeds into a mindset that can be a catalyst for unwarranted, rampant censorship."
"It's a completely different scenario," Snoop Dogg — whose music, along with Tupac Shakur and other artists', was protested by activists such as C. DeLores Tucker and singer Dionne Warwick over a decade ago — told MTV News earlier this week (see "Snoop Says Rappers And Imus Are 'Two Separate Things'; Talks New Comp"). "[Rappers] are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports. ... We are rappers that have these songs coming from our minds and our souls that are relevant to what we feel. I will not let them mutha----as say we in the same league as him."
"We need to have that dialogue," Sharpton added. "That's why I want to meet with people like Snoop Dogg and other artists that want to have that dialogue and see where we can come to common ground. Some guys are just exploiters and don't care. I do think some guys just disagree with me but wanna sit down and see where we can go, 'cause something must be done so that we can't be distorted against each other. Those that are sincere, I wanna sit down with. Those that just don't care and are exploiters and wanna call people whatever and don't care about the consequences, those are the guys we are going after."
For the record, though, Sharpton said he and his people will not just be taking a closer look at rap, but all mediums — movies and television included.
If hip-hop does become a target, history suggests that it will have little or no effect in stopping or hindering the art form. People have literally smashed CDs in the streets and complained to the U.S. government, but with each round of protesting, hip-hop only seems to gain a larger following.
Last week, Imus brought a media hailstorm upon himself after he and people who work on his syndicated radio program, "Imus in the Morning," referred to black women on the Scarlet Knights basketball team as "nappy-headed ho's." He also used words such as "jiggaboos" and "wannabes," comparing them to fictional characters in Spike Lee's film "School Daze." On Thursday night, Imus met with the team as well as its coach, C. Vivian Stringer.
On Friday, Stringer held a press conference that was broadcast live on CNN, during which she said the team had accepted his apology. She too mentioned that society needs to take a closer look at some of the images in Hollywood and the music industry. "I personally look forward to joining forces with other people who want to bring about change," she said.