'Taking Back the Music': Spelman Students Combat Hip-Hop's Negative Portrayals of Black Women

Article excerpt

ATLANTA

Music, by its nature, is a great unifier, able to turn a room into a rocking, bouncing good time. But in a stimulating evening of discussion on the Spelman College campus, music became something different: a veritable battleground of sorts. The debate, which has been swirling through the air of the leafy campus for a year, was hip-hop music. More specifically, the abhorrent effect of some raw forms of hip-hop on the images of African-American women.

Women--and men--for some time, have raised concerns about the treatment of Black women in words and videos. Black women are all too often referred to as "bitches" and "ho's" by swaggering, crotch-clutching performers, or presented as barely-dressed, butt-shaking sex pots. The issue reached the tipping point on the Atlanta campus last spring, when a group of Spelman students decided to challenge St. Louis rapper Nelly days before a scheduled campus appearance. A focal point of their anger was Nelly's "Tip Drill" video, which drew widespread criticism for its depictions of women as sex objects available off the shelf with the swipe of a credit card.

The protest blocked Nelly's plan to promote his bone marrow education program on the campus. But on a broader front, it stirred a wide debate among young people across the campus and beyond. Fellow students at surrounding historically Black Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College followed Spelman's example and vowed to focus attention on the issue.

In the latest foray, the women of Spelman joined with Essence magazine to sponsor a week of events called "Take Back the Music," and culminating in a "Hip-Hop Town Hall Meeting." Though they are too young to know it, their meeting, which drew a big, vocal crowd of women and men, harkened back to 1960's style teach-ins. In that era, students from Berkeley to Columbia to Howard to Clark gathered for 'consciousness raising' meditations and rallies to oppose the Vietnam War and fight racism and economic exploitation.

In the Spelman program, more than 500 students and supporters filled Cosby Auditorium to hear speakers, ask questions and watch examples of the most offensive videos.

As the panelists and experts made clear, the point of controversy over hip-hop images is a big one. In play are the issues of the glorification of criminal images, offensive language, exaltation of materialism and more.

But Moya Bailey, the student leader of the rap-chastening Spelman movement, said student concern is more basic.

"This is personal to us," she said. Out of the many issues is the question of "who we are."

While it is important, and depressing to have the world view Black women in terms of the images in videos, she said, "we are concerned that all Black women, and girls, may begin to see themselves in this way ... begin to believe that the only way Black women can be pleasing to men is as sexual objects, not people ..."

Among the panelists were two industry executives--Bryan Leach, vice president of urban A&R for TVT Records, and Michael E. Lewellen, vice president of corporate communications at BET.

"A lot of these videos air at 3 a.m., when most people cannot see them, unless they positively want to see them," said Lewellen. His off-argued point--prudent people can shield themselves and their children from unwanted images.

But students in the audience, in a question-and-answer session, pointed out that many similar images are displayed in prime time, and even 3 a. …