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CNN Exchange: Commentary

'Cousin Jeff': Don't blame hip-hop for society's sexism

By Jeff Johnson, aka "Cousin Jeff"
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Jeff Johnson is a correspondent for BET and former host and producer of "The Jeff Johnson Chronicles." He previously served as national youth director for the NAACP and vice president of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network.

(CNN) -- Hip-hop's alleged vulgarity, sexism and misogyny have been formally and informally challenged from the halls of Capitol Hill to the streets of Sugar Hill. Those outside the black and Latino communities, as well as those inside the hip-hop family have challenged it. Despite over a decade of engagement, many would argue that the images of women in hip-hop have become progressively and destructively more negative than at any other time in history.

Lyrics that were at one time provocative and merely suggestive are now blatant and overtly obscene. Music videos have become machismo fairy tales that have more "ogre and ass" scenes than the Shrek trilogy. These images attempt to pass off the objectification of black women specifically as "true beauty" in the name of entertainment. These images and lyrics, while acceptable for adults, are targeted to a demographic made up of young people ages 12 to 16. Studies have shown that these images, and more importantly these lyrics, play a role in how young people view themselves and process sex and relationships.

During the production of a documentary for BET, which focused on sex and hip-hop, I interviewed a panel of high school students. One of those students, a 15-year-old girl, stated that she was not satisfied with how she looked because she wanted to be like the girls in the videos. After all, the boys want to be with girls in the videos. One of the young men followed up by saying that the girls in the videos were cool to sleep with, but not to take home. In that very brief snippet of conversation, we get a sense of the negative impact that these sexist and misogynistic images have on hip-hop's biggest fans. Even with all this evidence, can we place the blame entirely on hip-hop? I say unequivocally, "No."

Hip-hop must accept a level of responsibility for the destructive reality played out in the lives of many young people as a result of the music. Hip-hop is one of the most vocal and visible delivery mechanisms for the language and imagery of sexism and misogyny. However, many politicians, pundits and haters demonize the art form, and more importantly, the young people that are a part of it, without putting the issue in its proper context.

The art form, culture, music or however you may describe hip-hop is a product of the black and Latino community. With that, it has inherited many of the cultural issues passed down from previous generations. Within the African-American community, there has been a pervasive sexism that has existed even within the upper echelons of leadership for generations. The black church barred women from the pulpit, but not from ensuring that many congregations remained served by the multitude of sister servants.

The civil rights movement, which has been justifiably praised for its ability to change the social and political fabric of America for the better, was overwhelmingly sexist. There were more women than men who did the day-to-day work of the movement, yet only men served as spokespersons. Sectors of the black power movement were marred by a misogynistic culture that led to the torture of several sisters who were as willing to give their lives to the movement as their male counterparts.

The young men and women who have embraced hip-hop have inherited a culture of sexism and misogyny that has never been effectively admitted to or addressed by the previous generation, leaving young people to bear the brunt of the blame. But to hold accountable the black community without indicting a broader western culture that is sexist would be irresponsible. The soft porn we see on many cable networks, the access to all forms of porn via the Internet, and Madison Avenue's continued recognition that sex sells have desensitized an entire generation to the objectification of women.

If we are to honestly deal with the real issues of sexism and misogyny in hip-hop, we cannot start and stop with hip-hop. Let's challenge the industry to be responsible for the images it produces and distributes, but simultaneously deal with the far-reaching and pervasive social and cultural deficiencies America has related to the protection of women.

What is your take on this commentary? E-mail us

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the writer. This is part of an occasional series of commentaries on CNN.com that offers a broad range of perspectives, thoughts and points of view.

Your responses

CNN.com asked readers for their thoughts on this commentary. Below you will find a small selection of your e-mails, some of which have been edited for length and spelling:

Corey, Vancouver, British Columbia
That article was one of the best I've ever read on the subject. You have hit the nail on the head. Keep it up Jeff. Enough is enough and this is not the burden of only the black community. Whether the discussion is about gender equality or racism, equal is equal and anything less is simply unacceptable.

Colin, New Orleans, Louisiana
Yep, let's not blame the artists or the producers or even the consumers. Let's look anywhere but directly at the problem. That should accomplish much. Brilliant.

Alvaro Ramos, Dallas, Texas
Surely Jeff Johnson is not seriously comparing keeping women out of the pulpit and the absence of female leaders during the Civil Rights Era with the misogyny showcased in today's rap videos. As a Latino who grew up during hip-hop's first generation, I'm disgusted by what record companies pay to have portrayed in these videos. The only thing that disgusts me more is the lengths people like Mr. Johnson will go to in order to justify the unjustifiable. The behavior on those videos has absolutely nothing to do with being black and Latino.

Emily Jones, St. Paul, Minnesota
It's not just music; it's culture in general. From religion to music to the workplace, women are denigrated and expected to serve men and not only that, but appear thin, beautiful, young and sexy. We need to end the discrimination against women now.

Ahmad Caeser, Chicago, Illinois
Show me a respectable woman and I will show you a respectable man. If a girl wants to sleep around then she will be called a "ho." Why is this such a big deal? Rap is about what we see every day. We need real change in our society where our children are murdered in cold blood at age 14 and have criminal records before they can drive a car. They have no chance at life and people are upset at the language they use to get away from it all when they are just talking what they see. Get your priorities straight.

Dave Kramer, New York, New York
To say that misogyny in hip-hop is the direct result of misogyny in the Civil Rights movement is quite a leap of faith. It also doesn't at all explain hip-hop's particular embrace of misogyny or why other, equally male-dominated cultures didn't (even remotely) follow suit. If you're looking for a reason not to blame hip hop, this ain't it Cousin Jeff.

Kyle, Washington, D.C.
Surely you cannot advocate that hip-hop plays a small role in sexism. Hip-hop lyrics and videos are the gateway to the "softcore porn" you mentioned. Porn is look at positively by only a niche of society but hip-hop is universally accepted and is available practically anywhere. Girls don't watch porn thinking they wish they looked like those girls; it's the hip-hop girls that they idolize. Hip-hop leads the way for sexism in America and makes it "ok". When sexism stops in hip-hop, we'll tackle other industries and cultural problems, but not until then.

T. Proof, Dayton, Ohio
I believe the author has it right. Hip-hop, rock and roll, swing ... every era thinks the kids and their music are morally corrupt, yet those same politicians, religious leaders and parents are unable to solve the broader issues that led the kids and the music to that point. The kids reflect the society they live in, and it is our responsibility as adults to make this a society to be proud of.


Johnson

Jeff Johnson argues that hip-hop and the black community should not be singled out for their sexism.

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