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For years certain elements of urban hip-hop culture, especially gangsta rap, have depicted females as nothing more than sexual playthings. Women have been called names that would provoke a fight if used against a wife, mother, daughter or sister. But now some African-Americans, particularly women, are fighting back.

The editors of Essence, a leading magazine for black women, launched a campaign called "Take Back the Music." Editor-in-chief Diane Weathers announced that the staff would take on what she called "the media war on young girls, the hypersexualization that keeps pushing them in sexual directions at younger and younger ages."

To humanize the victims, Essence's website featured images of black women with the words "b‑‑ch," "trick" and "ho" superimposed on them. It's a shocking but powerful response to music that reduces women to faceless stereotypes. The editors write that they're "alarmed at the imbalance in the depiction of our sexuality and character in music. 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 lyrics … and on the pages of hip-hop magazines, we only seem to find our bare breasts and butts."

Not Just an Ethnic Issue
The social concern is not simply for what this means within the African-American community. These portraits feed a false image to impressionable youth of every race.

"Whether by blatant depiction or by thinly veiled innuendo, some rap music imagery has been, and continues to be, instrumental in driving respect for black culture to an all-time low," writes educator Zenobia L. Hikes in Black Issues in Higher Education. "The ultimate tragedy of this paradigm is that young children who do not have the cognitive ability to differentiate between illusion and reality are continually exposed to a genre of 'entertainment' that serves as the predominant and prevailing expression of African-American culture." Among the artists expressing themselves are Snoop Dogg, R. Kelly, Nas, Ludacris, Jay-Z, Method Man and OutKast.

Not all victims of rap and hip-hop excesses are black. Neither are its offenders. White rapper Eminem has recorded misogynist raps with lyrics about abusing pregnant women, knifing prostitutes and killing the mother of his baby girl. His song "Drug Ballad" says, "You are now allowed to officially slap b‑‑ches." And "A‑‑ Like That," from his Encore CD, lustfully rates the posteriors of female celebrities.

Equally Fed Up
The Essence stand is yet another shot across the bow of the hip-hop industry. In 2004, female rapper Ife Oshun asked London's Guardian newspaper, "What sort of personal values do little girls in our hip-hop nation develop when they are constantly bombarded with images of their future selves as little more than rump shakers? What do our little boys learn when a disproportionate number of rap videos portray their sisters, mothers, future wives and future daughters as little more than eye candy?"

In April 2004, the women of Atlanta's Spelman College stood up to rap star Nelly, notorious for misogynist music and videos such as "Tip Drill." In that video men throw money at naked dancers as Nelly runs a credit card through a woman's buttocks. The protest forced the cancellation of a charity appearance by the rapper at the historically black school.

At about the same time, a group of African-American girls in Boston also drew the line. Using low-wattage radio station LOG 504 AM, Azia Carle and a group of friends, all ages 13 to 19, now provide an alternative to gangsta rap.

Even comedian Bill Cosby joined the fray, criticizing hip-hop culture for glorifying ignorance and destructive behavior. Cosby drew fire from leaders who accused him of airing the black community's dirty laundry in public. He shot back, "Your dirty laundry gets out of school at 2:30 every day; it's cursing on the way home, on the bus, train, in the candy store. … They think they're hip. They can't read; they can't write. They're laughing and giggling, and they're going nowhere."

Is Anyone Listening?
Asha Jennings, president of Spelman College's student government during the Nelly protest, believes the recent outcry is a good start. "People weren't really discussing this a few months ago, and just the fact that they are now means that we had a positive impact."

If protesters hope to have any lasting impact, they can't afford to pull punches like Essence's Weathers, who writes, "We want to provoke honest discussion and raise consciousness without finger-pointing, preaching, censoring or excessive moralizing. We're not demanding that edgy young artists deny their creative voice. But we do want to let them know when it hurts."

It does more than hurt. It damages. Cultures and individuals will be scarred if Americans of all races and creeds aren't prepared to point the finger, preach, moralize and, at least in our own homes, censor.

Published March 2005