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

May 9, 2007 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

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.

( — 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.

By Jeff Johnson

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