Politics & Policy

You, Go, Girlfriends

Essence vs. hip hop.

The editors of Essence, the largest and most successful magazine for African-American women, have started a campaign that deserves both attention and applause. They are protesting the demeaning images of black women in hip-hop lyrics and videos. As editor-in-chief Diane Weathers writes in her letter to readers in the January issue, “Black women now have the tragic distinction of being objectified, stereotyped and dehumanized in so much of Black popular music and lyrics. But it doesn’t have to be this way. “

In a feature entitled “Take Back the Music,” the editors expand on this gutsy declaration. “In videos we see bikini-clad sisters gyrating around fully clothed grinning brothers like Vegas strippers on meth. When we search for ourselves in music lyrics, mixtapes and DVDs and on the pages of hip-hop magazines, we only seem to find our bare breasts and butts…. The damage of this imbalanced portrayal of Black women is impossible to measure. An entire generation of Black girls are being raised on these narrow images… And the message and images are broadcast globally, they have become the lens through which world now sees us. This cannot continue.”

Michaela Angela Davis, Essence’s beauty and fashion manager, and a member of the committee charged with overseeing the campaign, told me “In the office we were all grumbling about this. We kept saying it has to change but it isn’t going to change on its own. We have to do something about this.”

Diane Weathers writes that the editors were impressed by a protest campaign a group called Dads & Daughters waged against Abercrombie & Fitch, when the retailer crossed the line with a hypersexual advertising campaign aimed at white suburban teenagers. She also says they were inspired by the young women at Spelman College who protested a visit from the rapper Nelly, causing him to cancel an appearance.

When I told Michaela that Essence was to be commended for expressing a very appropriate–and conservative–point of view, she didn’t want to agree. “I don’t think it is a conservative point of view. We are not saying it is all wrong. Personally I like a lot of the music. I started my career at Vibe. I have been a stylist for some music videos. The problem is it’s the only thing we have to choose from, the only images we see of Black women. We don’t want to shut it down but we do want to bring more balance to the way Black women are described and depicted.’

In the feature, a variety of black women and men, some involved in the music industry, share their experiences and opinions. Moya Bailey, a Spelman senior who was part of the anti-Nelly protest, notes “I know people who have been on exchange programs to another country, say South Africa or Brazil, and they’ve had people approach them…thinking they were prostitutes…just because of the images they have of American Black women.”

Others complain that it is the fault of the record companies. Writes Fatima Robinson, a video director, “I have problems all the time getting work because I refuse to write the treatments that record companies want–hot girls, cars, palm trees and so on.” While some like Debra Lee, the president of BET Holdings tries to put the blame on the public. “If more people are asking for it, and like it…who’s to say it’s wrong? If artists put out videos like this and people don’t like it, they should vote at the record store.” Rapper Nelly, who claims he’s an “artist” and that “people don’t respect what [rappers] do as art, ” simply wants to blame the girls, of course. “Women are in these videos by choice,” he whines.

But my favorite dodge is offered by Russell Simmons, the self-promoting hip-hop mogul, who was, amazingly, included along with Thomas Edison in Sir Harry Evans, new book about innovators, They Made America. Simmons was also featured on the first in a series of PBS documentaries based on the book.

Simmons declares: “Although these records and videos are offensive, young girls can learn a lot about the mind-set of the young guys they’re going to school with. Now that the truth is out there more, young girls can learn how to deal with guys.”

I get it. Those videos that show scantily clad young girls on leashes being pulled along by pimps are educational! And Russell doesn’t even seem to notice that with his comment, he is insulting young black men as well as black women.

Michaela says the campaign will continue for a year, with a meeting planned at Spelman College in February. There is also a study in the works on how young girls who watch hours of music videos are affected, as well as a report on the economics of the music business. “We have lots of anecdotal information, now we want more data to support the way we all feel.”

Michaela who is the mother of a 14-year-old daughter is especially interested in this important, admirable campaign. “On our music committee there are young women, mothers, even a grandmother. The editors at Essence are just glad we are here in this place and able to have this conversation. It is one we know we need to have. We are all so committed. “

By the way, I just had to ask Michaela Angela Davis if she was, as I assumed, named after black-power activist Angela Davis. She laughed, “I’m 40 years old. Angela Davis wasn’t famous when I was born. My mother studied in Italy. I was named for Michelangelo!”

Myrna Blyth, former long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.


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