- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2005

Where C. Delores Tucker and Bill Cosby left off, Essence magazine appears to be taking up some of the slack. In the January issue, an article titled “The Mix” promises discussions all year long on hip-hop and its “imbalance in the depiction of [black women’s] sexuality and character in music.”

For the uninitiated, it means that Essence, a monthly magazine, is taking on the exploitation of the sexist sexploits of the pop-culture phenomenon called hip-hop.

All I can say is: “Right on, my sisters. What took you so long?”

In and of itself, hip-hop is not a negative. It is a lifestyle, replete, as the 1950s and 1960s were, with its own music, dance and fashions. Whereas a few gyrations here and there represented the worst of those bygone eras, today’s urban youths swing and sway to misogynistic words that I dare not repeat in the newspaper. Suffice it to say, women and girls are referred to as tricks, hos and worse.

Grown-ups let the purveyors of this wealth-making degradation get away with it.

When Mrs. Tucker took on the darkest sides of hip-hop, we had her back — for a while. But then we retreated, repeating that old refrain about sticks and stones. Many of us even indulged, calling Eminem the death of hip-hop and chalking up rump-shaking videos to letting BET have its way.

The women of Essence knew two decades ago that something had to change. I first sensed their concern during the annual Essence Music Festival, a family affair held in New Orleans, the city marketed as hedonistic heaven. At the festival, we learned that R “I Believe I Can Fly” Kelly was warned against using the floor of the stage as a lover. When he did, the plugs were pulled. (A few years later, the NAACP almost — almost — awarded him an “Image” Award.)

We always have known the cultural dangers of the darkest sides of hip-hop — gangsta rap, X-rated videos and anti-women themes. But we let the right to free speech stop us from actually saying anything.

But, just like the rock ‘n’ roll in the ‘50s and ‘60s, hip-hop doesn’t wear well once a real woman hits her 30s. So it would seem that hip-hop would be on its way out, or perhaps grow into R&B or soul. Or so it would seem.

What has happened is that women — black women, who are hitting and have hit their 30s — are realizing that they were exploited and spent out of shape by a phenomenon that never had their best interests at heart anyway. (Or could it be, as Helen Gurley Brown might ask, that sex and the single black 30-ish woman is the new [and desperate] demographic?)

Fortunately, the women of Essence are finally speaking out: “In videos we are bikini-clad sisters gyrating around fully clothed grinning brothers like Vegas strippers on meth. When we search for ourselves in music … we only seem to find our bare breasts and butts. An entire generation of black girls are being raised on these narrow images. And as the messages and images are broadcast globally, they have become the lens through which the world now sees us.” (And it is not a positive image.)

Essence opened up for dialogue, too. A senior vice president at Ruff Ryders records says he doesn’t allow his 7-year-old daughter to listen to his music or watch videos. Russell Simmons, Def Jam co-founder and chairman of Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, concedes some critical facts, including the “raw” expression of sexism. But then he turns around and says something that is far more ugly and revealing. “Now that the truth is out there more,” he said, “young girls can learn how to deal with guys.”

Excuse Mr. Simmons, dear readers, the hip-hop mogul knows not what he really said. His latter comment is as naive as one of those video rump-shakers thinking she is an “actress” who happens to look good in a thong.

Essence also published comments from the popular singer/stylist Jill Scott, and from author and CNN correspondent Toure. Women, Toure said, “are defining themselves in reaction to what men want, rather than what they want. This is obviously the wrong message to send to young women and young men who will have to create relationships that become the families of the next generation.”

Jill Scott sounded a similar alarm, calling the sexuality in videos “more nasty than it’s sexy.” She also sounded like a conservative: “You have to be responsible not just for your child, but also for the other girls around you. So let them know, ‘That skirt is inappropriate’ … ‘No, honey, your breasts don’t need to be exposed like that.’ ”

Like Mrs. Tucker and Mr. Cosby, the women of Essence promise to do more. I hope we keep them at their word.

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