Hip-hop portrayal of women protested
Movement grows into national 'Take Back the Music' campaign
By Rose Arce
Editor's Note: The following report includes graphic language and images that some readers may find disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.
(CNN) -- The hip-hopping street party was in full swing, college kids talking, laughing and listening to the music.
Asha Jennings, 21, wasn't joining in. She and her girlfriends were confronting college party-goers in Atlanta, Georgia, challenging them about what they say is a nasty cultural shift, the transformation of hip-hop from a musical forum into a misogynic rant.
Jennings and her group pushed men -- and women -- at the party to think about how their support of the hip-hop industry perpetuated images that hurt the black community.
"I want people to start thinking critically about how these images affect black women today," said Jennings, a Spelman College alumnae and now a law student in New York.
"We're telling people [black women] are bitches and hos and sluts and not worthy of respect," she said. "And that's exactly how society is treating us."
It all began last April when Jennings organized a cancer fund-raiser at Spelman, where Jennings was a senior at the time, and invited hip-hop artist Nelly, whose sister has leukemia. Someone pointed out his video "Tip Drill" and Jennings was upset. Here are some of the lyrics:
"I said it must be ya ass cause it ain't ya face I need a tip drill." A "tip drill" is an unattractive woman who has sex for money.
"Now mama girl you gotta friend that don't mind joinin' in
Now baby girl bring it ova let me spit my pimp juice."
"You lookin' good in them shorts but they look better on the floo'."
Jennings and other Spelman co-eds threatened to protest the event, and Nelly cancelled. The movement grew, and suddenly Jennings and her friends found themselves part of a national campaign called "Take Back the Music" -- sponsored by, and featured in the pages of, Essence magazine.
Essence magazine is partially owned by Time Warner, the parent company of CNN.
The movement has sponsored two town-hall forums and had another planned for New York in March. It was also the topic of a National Public Radio program, and an ongoing column by Stanley Crouch, who writes for the New York Daily News.
The image created by these kinds of lyrics is an image of women that "tends to be objectified, degrading, very stripper-like. And it's not that that is wrong, but it becomes wrong when there's no other quality or image that we have to choose from," said Michaela Angela Davis, the fashion and beauty editor of Essence.
The problem, said Davis, is that the image of the black woman portrayed in many hip-hop videos has become the pervasive image of black women. And, according to Essence research, the main consumers of hip-hop are young, affluent, white men. She fears that society as a whole is getting a "sick" image of what black women are all about.
"That sickness is becoming the psyche of young women. Who they are in this culture, where they fit, what their value is, or their lack of value, because if this is the only image that they see of themselves in a pseudo-glamorous way, meaning if they look at a fashion magazine there's no girl that looks like 'Tamico on the block' [an average black girl], but in the videos there is," she said. "But they see them in this one objectified way and it's hurting them."
On Nelly's video, men throw cash at women's crotches and, in one scene, a man swipes his credit card through a woman's buttocks.
Nelly's representative did not return CNN's phone calls, but in comments made to Essence in the past about Jenning's movement, he said: "I respect women, and I'm not a misogynist. I'm an artist. Hip-hop videos are art and entertainment. Videos tell stories; some are violent, some are sexy, some are fun, some are serious. As for how women are shown in the videos, I don't have a problem with it because it is entertainment...
"No one knows what a particular woman's situation is, what her goals are. Being in that video may help her further those goals. Several women who have been in my videos have gone on to do TV appearances and movies. No one can dictate other people's choices and situations."
At an Essence-sponsored forum at Spelman in February, industry executives were asked why this has become hip-hop's female side. Bryan Leach of TVT Record and Michael Llewellyn of Black Entertainment network walked into a hornets' nest, where hundreds of young women accused them of making money by deriding them.
"Again at the end of the day those that tune in on to our network ... are doing so by choice. If there is something that you see that you don't want to see, simply don't watch," Llewellyn told the women. "I am not a gardener, but I am not leading a crusade myself against Home and Garden simply because I am not a gardener. Simply, I just don't garden."
Both of the executives acknowledged that the bottom line is business and that hip-hop is making fast, big money. But many of the women said they aren't after censorship -- they're after diversity. They want to see different images of women.
"I have to sit in front of these young men and women everyday who buy these CD's, who don't look at me as competent, as good as them," said Jennings. "They look at me like a tip drill, so I have to stand up and over-exert myself to prove myself, and that's not fair."
The young women also say they won't be silenced by their black male peers, many of whom accuse them of just helping out a culture that derides black men.
When Jennings and her friends shot back, one young black student from Morehouse College blamed it on the women who agree to appear in the videos, commenting: "If you have females constantly perpetuating the images that they talk about in those songs you just can't sit here and get mad at the men, you know what I'm saying."
But the women pressed on. If hip-hop is to form the image of black women in popular culture, these women insist they'll have a say in it.