Oprah's Hip-Hop Town Hall

BlogHer Original Post

I was able to catch the second day of Oprah’s round table discussion on ….what else? (For a recap of the first day of the discussion you can find it at Oprah.com) and found myself getting a tad annoyed, even though I have even more respect for former Def Jam head Russell Simmons that I did before. While acknowledging that yes, there is sexism in Hip-Hop Simmons argued that artists come to the plate as ‘story tellers,’ using narratives from their own lives and experiences within their songs (which honestly, doesn’t exactly justify the lyrics of some artists0:

"The hip-hop community is a mirror, a reflection of the dirt we overlook—the violence, the misogyny, the sexism. They need to be discussed."

"All throughout history the poets who have been a reflection of society have always been under fire. We don't like what they have to say, but some of it has to be examined. It's important that we teach artists more. It's my job to teach artists to know more and say more."

What I respected was that despite the undeniable fact that Simmons past position as a music exec alluded that he faces some culpability in the initial emergence of questionable lyrics in Hip-Hop, he held his ground against Oprah, whose interest in the story seemed a bit forced – like she was only doing it because it was a hot news item and not because she took a personal interest in it (but granted, I’m a bit biased against Oprah….) Simmons talked back, didn’t let her rail on about the perceived atrocities of Hip-Hop culture, and didn’t seem too fazed at defending himself against this media giant. So yes, he provided an ‘excuse,’ perhaps not the most solid one, but it turned the program into what is usually an ‘Oprah is right’ forum into one that asked viewers to really look at all perspectives, perspectives that question the popular assertion that Hip-Hop music is evil and looks at how not just black consumers of Hip-Hop are responsible, but all of us.

BUT….. From reading Bomani’s post on the Town Hall episode, I re-evaluated some of my initial thoughts about Simmons defence about artists and what shapes the narratives that go into their music. Is talking about drug dealing and pimping considered art? Do/ should artists have the responsibility of taking what they produce to the public into consideration? Yes, some artists have grown up in poverty, and they choose to use their music to narrate their experiences, as Simmons argued. But what is the true intent of their music? Do black artists have a responsibility to produce art that reflects only the good aspects of black life, or life in general?

Obviously, racism, sexism and classism are huge problems within the community, but do artists have an obligation to fight – or at least address the problems – within their music? The music executives signing these artists know that regardless of the social implications within the music from certain artists, people (statistics show that the main consumers of Hip-Hop music are white suburbanites), are buying the product.

Let me play the devil’s advocate for a hot minute: We live in a capitalist, consumer-driven society in which people will do what they have to in order to make money. And not everyone is socially conscious, and why should the black community be so careful in the images they present when other cultural / ethnic groups do not have to live up to the same scrutiny? What about other genres of music? In the past, pre the emergence of Rap and Hip-Hop culture, rock and metal music was labelled as being a social problem. And as Simmons said, that even if the labels, music video and radio stations refused to air offensive music, people would still buy the product, especially since artists can now promote their music via the internet (MySpace, YouTube, etc)

My whole thing is this: How successful have we really been in the cessation of offensive music and videos? I’ve had a problem with some hip-hop artists for years, so I stopped purchasing albums. While it irks me to hear a artist refer to a woman as a ‘bitch’ or a ‘ho,’ I believe that consumers have the power to turn off the radio, stop watching the video, write letters, picket buildings…do whatever they feel comfortable with to let the corporations marketing and selling music know that they are not buying it.

But more importantly, I think that we have to question people who cannot separate fantasy from reality, who actually think that what they are seeing in videos and on albums are how black people – all black people – actually live and behave. People who choose to ignore the black politicians, social and cultural leaders, writers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, choosing to focus on a small segment of artists who simply don’t care – and because of the consumerism in our capitalistic society, really don’t have to, unless someone is threatening to implement measures to deter their money-making initiaves. Also, I think that we need to ask what is driving women, specifically women of colour who appear in offensive music videos. Pam at Pam’s House blend points out Nelly’s infamous “Tip Drill” video to say this:

This video has to be a milestone in misogyny. Nelly's lyrics describe what he perceives to be ugly women with great bodies who need to hand themselves over to him -- and his crew -- and they'll slide money in their thong and, well, other things. Of course the women enjoy and beg for this, in his little fantasy video. The sad truth is, the women -- all beautiful, btw, since that wouldn't make a good video for the fellas to wank off to, willingly shook their asses in the camera, some almost completely nude in the uncut version.

No one, especially me, expects things to radically change in a two-episode discussion on Oprah. But it does suggest that everyone must re-evaluate their thinking on the topic, what they purchase and what they choose to watch on TV in order to spark change. As I said in a post on my blog, I don't buy into the arguement that Hip-Hop is to blame for Imus's statements (and if you watched 60 minutes last weekend, his previous racist remarks), but it has sparked a national discussion on how we can move past the finger pointing and decide how all of us can spark change.


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