Hardcore rap and hip-hop in general are under siege again, thanks to Don Imus’ recent episode in whatever you want to call it: racism, bigotry, stupidity, temporary insanity.
Imus has apologized sincerely and asked for mercy and forgiveness, but not before turning the issue upon his prosecutors: Why don’t you do something about the image of women in hip-hop? he asked Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.
It was an interesting tactic, like the guy caught robbing a bank who then asks the FBI: Why don’t you do something about corporate tax cheaters?
Imus’ crime has less to do with the language he used than with whom he battered with it: black women who play basketball for Rutgers University.
Had he used the same words to describe someone anonymous – a woman he noticed on the street – he’d be in much less trouble, if any at all. Instead, he made it personal. Based solely on their looks, he demeaned and insulted a small group of college students who had nearly won a national title. His remark seemed as irrational as it did demeaning. Why them and why now?
If you’re not feeling the insult or the outrage – if you’re parsing the meaning of “nappy” – consider another scenario: Say you’re dining at a restaurant and your waiter makes a generic wisecrack about overweight people. Maybe you let it slide; maybe you tell him it was inappropriate; maybe you don’t leave him a tip. But if he says to your overweight daughter, “Does fatso want some dessert?” you would rightfully be irate and you’d want him fired.
That’s kind of what Imus did, except after he apologized profusely, he told his owner: “We really shouldn’t use so much trans-fatty oil.”
Race and gender are at the center of this imbroglio because Imus delivered them into it. Thus it was only a matter of time before the discussion turned to hip-hop in general and gangsta rap in particular. Imus brought it up to rationalize his sin, so here we go again: Another national discourse on race, sex and/or violence, and music becomes part of the problem.
My colleague Jason Whitlock wrote a persuasive essay about the issue yesterday, and he was spot-on when he criticized the worst traits of hardcore rap: rhymes that glorify violence, misogyny and drugs.
Like I said, if no one ever cut another gangsta rap, my life would not be affected in the least. I don’t listen to it. Neither do my teenage daughters – and not because I won’t let them. They don’t listen because it offends them; they don’t think it’s “appropriate.”
In an online column for The Independent in New York, Jerry Della Famina wrote that he’d bet that all of the offended players at Rutgers had songs on their iPods that included “anti-women lyrics that would shock you far more than Imus’ incredibly dumb words.”
Or maybe they don’t. And even if they do, so what? He goes on: “I’m not blaming these kids … I’m blaming the world and the media that (are) making this a double-standard world.”
And what a deep, wide double standard it is. I’m no patron of hardcore rap. I do, however, watch “The Sopranos,” I’ve seen every episode of “Deadwood” at least three times and I laugh out loud at Steve Carell’s sexist/bigoted/homophobic character in “The Office.”
“The Office” is extreme satire. Our laughter at his character, Michael Scott, is our way of recognizing and refuting bad or insensitive behavior. The other two shows are closer in dynamics to gangster rap: They demean women and glorify violence, sex, wealth and other excesses.
The men in “Deadwood” treat horses better than they treat women. Tony Soprano has murdered more men and slapped more women than 50 Cent and the Game combined. What does his heroic status say about our culture? It says we like to escape into other worlds, especially those that bring us close to danger.
The truth is, Al Sharpton and other black leaders and artists have addressed the issue of hardcore rap. Last month, Sharpton helped organize a public protest against rapper Tony Yayo, a 50 Cent protégé accused of assaulting a teenager.
A few years ago, women at Spellman College protested the scheduled appearance of Nelly because they objected to the portrayal of women in his video for “Tip Drill.” (Nelly, by the way, had scheduled that performance as a benefit for a foundation that promotes bone-marrow donations.)
Earlier this year, PBS broadcast “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes,” a documentary by Byron Hurt that examines the consequences of gender roles in rap.
The problem: It seems that when black America protests the violence and misogyny in hip-hop, white America (and the big media) is not listening, which is ironic because white Americans are rap’s No.1 customers.
Short of censorship, I’m all for anything that helps our culture say good riddance to foul rubbish, whether it’s “Girls Gone Wild” videos or gratuitous hardcore rap. One sure way of speeding up its disappearance: Don’t buy it, and there are signs that is happening on a grand scale. According to Nielsen SoundScan, first-quarter CD sales in rap/R&B were down 33 percent from last year (the industry as a whole was down 17 percent).
Even if gangsta rap goes away, don’t expect the lifestyles it glorifies to disappear with it. Those are the consequences of socio-economic inequities (including race) that have gone unresolved for more than 200 years; those are the deep, profound issues that need to be discussed and repaired.
None of the above has anything to do with Don Imus and what he said on the air recently. The future of his show lies in the hands of his audience, his bosses and their advertisers. Like hardcore rap, the market may inevitably decide his future, too.