Essence, the black women's magazine, has a daring New Year's
resolution: It's embarking on a 12-month campaign to challenge the
prevalence of misogyny and sexism in hip-hop lyrics and videos.
Many rappers and MCs coolly objectify women with vulgar song
lyrics and hard-hitting, raunchy images on MTV. It's common, for
instance, to see videos in which hip-hop artists lounge poolside as
a harem of women gyrate around them in bikinis. The video for
Nelly's "Tip-Drill" goes so far as to portray scantily clad women as
The publication's crusade, dubbed Take Back the Music, seeks to
inspire public dialogue via magazine features that offer a range of
perspectives on the entertainment industry from inside as well as
outside observers. The January issue kicks off with comments from
artists, critics, and activists.
Taking on a multibillion-dollar industry that accounts for more
music sales than pop and rock - and exerts a cultural influence that
extends far beyond the African-American community - is a monumental
undertaking, even for a publication with a circulation of over 1.6
million. While few expect Essence to turn the tide, it's significant
that the preeminent magazine for African-American women believes
that the degree of sexism in rap is no longer tenable.
"This is certainly a women's issue, but it's a black women's
issue first," says Michaela Angela Davis, Essence's executive
fashion and beauty editor.
"It's fitting that [Essence] should be the ones to help folks
talk about it, listen to each other and have them come up with
action steps that make sense to them," she says. "We don't have
picket signs, we're not telling people what to think, we're just
asking them to think."
The Essence campaign is not without precedent. The magazine's
staff was galvanized by a much publicized incident at Spelman
College in Atlanta last year in which students at the black women's
school protested the appearance of the rapper Nelly for a fundraiser
on campus. As part of its campaign, Essence will host a "town
meeting" at Spelman next month.
"It's a major project in terms of getting young people - white or
black - to take these images seriously in a generic culture that
exploits and objectifies women," says Beverly Guy-Sheftall, director
of the Women's Research and Resource Center at Spelman, and co-
author of "Gender Talk."
Last year marked three decades since hip-hop emerged on the
streets of New York. Since then, it's established itself at the
vanguard of pop culture. …