Is Russell Simmons Playing Politics With Hip-Hop?

It’s hard to know what to think about Russell Simmons’ recent announcement about checking the content of hip-hop. There is no denying that most of us would like the words “bitch,” “ho,” and “nigger” to disappear from the English lexicon entirely. But alas, the situation is much more complicated than that. On the one hand, it is true that sexism and homophobia abound in not just rap but popular culture as a whole. On the other, there is a need to defend the music against those who denounce it for political gain.

And on yet a third hand (or maybe a foot), we have the context of the announcement: in midst of a backlash against the glorious sacking of Don Imus.

Apples and Oranges

To be clear, Imus’ supposed defense that he was merely repeating the “language” in hip-hop is the biggest pile of crap since… well, his show. Hip-hop is a response to the long-term degradation of blacks and other oppressed peoples in the United States. Like all music it is flawed, but like no other genre it remains a mirror held up to the worst ills in American society. Imus, on the other hand, is a mouthpiece for maintaining those ills. A well-paid veteran broadcaster, he has spent the past twenty-plus years calling Arabs rag-heads, gay men faggots, and black women “cleaning ladies.” He brought his producer on board because he liked “nigger jokes.” And all the while he has interviewed the most high-profile politicians, media moguls and millionaires on his show. Imus and hip-hop are in completely different leagues.

Furthermore, to say that sexism is somehow unique to rap is laughable. Listen to anything by Merle Haggard or Ted Nugent, the Rolling Stones’ “Cat Scratch Fever,” or the hit from Fountains of Wayne “Stacy’s Mom” (whose video featured a stereotypical “MILF” parading around in stripper gear) and one might get a good idea of how rife so-called “white” music is with misogyny.

But the twisted logic of this defense seems to have soaked well past Imus himself. Barack Obama (whose own role in assuaging white liberal guilt becomes bigger and bigger every day) made it clear which side he stood on with his comments last week: “We’ve got to admit to ourselves that it was not the first time that we heard the word ‘ho.’ Turn on the radio station. There are a whole lot of songs that use the same language and we’ve been permitting it in our homes, in our schools, and on iPods.” So, Barack, how long until you revive the PMRC?

It is the same kind of bootstrap rhetoric we’ve been hearing from Obama since day one. It’s the kind of talk that bolsters the idea that racism doesn’t exist, and blacks are only poor because they’re lazy and self-loathing. When Obama spends more time talking about “getting Uncle Jethro off the couch” than he does about Hurricane Katrina, any criticism he may have of hip-hop should be put on mute.

Muddying the Message

Enter Russell Simmons. At times, his own defense of hip-hop has been eloquent and prescient. His response to Obama provided a glimpse into the nature of this debate: “People who are angry… and come from tremendous struggle; they have poetic license, and when they say things that offend you, you have to talk about the conditions that create those kinds of lyrics. When you are talking about a privileged man who has a mainstream vehicle and mainstream support and is on a radio station like that you have to deal with them differently.”

Yet less than a week later, Simmons and his Hip-hop Summit Action Network announces it is launching a campaign to better the content of Simmons’ own Def Jam recordings. In particular, he wants to crack down on the use of the words “ho,” “bitch,” and “nigger.” Though a dialogue about such a thing is welcome, it should be initiated by the artists themselves, not by a label owner. When it is initiated by someone in Simmons’ position, and at a time such as this, one wonders if this “discussion” is happening because of a genuine need, or rather because of pressure from the same people who are threatened by hip-hop’s very existence.

First of all, neither Obama, Oprah, or any of the more right wing figures diverting the issue seem to know anything about hip-hop. One wonders why there is no mention of the socially hard-hitting rhymes of The Roots, Common or Talib Kweli. Or even some of the more conscious (if still contradictory) mainstream joints coming from the likes of Nas or Kanye West.

Perhaps it’s because there are those who have made billions off marketing rap’s worst elements, while downplaying its long history of being a forum to speak out on inequality and poverty. Ever since Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” first hit the airwaves, the likes of MTV, BET and Clear Channel have sought ever more effective methods of making rap marketable by dumbing it down. That’s called exploitation.

Hip-hop historian Jeff Chang illustrated such marketing patterns with the example of Nas’ Stillmatic in a 2002 article. Though the album was full of protests against war and racism in the post-9/11 world, it also included songs with homophobic language chronicling his beef with Jay-Z. Needless to say, the latter got the airplay, but the former was ignored.

It’s All About the Cheddar

Given this, it is questionable how much Simmons himself will actually be able to change. He may have direct control over the content that his own label puts out, but Def Jam is still subject to the same market principles as any other major record label. With Clear Channel having a strangle-hold on radio airplay, and likewise with MTV on television, will Simmons’ efforts make a difference?

An MC friend of mine from Baltimore recently pointed out that Simmons lives in a very different world than most of the acts on his label. Despite his admirable record on civil rights issues, Simmons’ more recent behavior may indicate somewhat of a shift. Many progressive hip-hop fans were dismayed when he endorsed Maryland’s Republican Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele for Senate last election. When he received criticism for organizing a tour through Africa with DeBeers Jewelers, Simmons responded that there is too much focus on conflict diamonds.

Might his endorsement of Steele be just the beginning? Might this announcement be more than a publicity stunt, but a concession to Obama and the likes? Is it possible that beneath his progressive image, Simmons is attempting to buddy up to this country’s heavy-hitting politicos?

Only time will tell, but there is a bigger problem. In making this announcement about hip-hop’s content now, in the context of a backlash in response the Imus firing, Simmons’ concession seems to say that the two are linked. They aren’t. Worse still, Simmons’ action opens the door for those who want to do away with not just the “sexist” or “misogynistic” elements, but hip-hop altogether. John McWhorter of the conservative Manhattan Institute has stated he makes no distinction between “conscious” rap and “gangsta” rap. He sees both as violent and depraved. When it comes down to it he would also probably like to squash the art form altogether. Simmons’ has now opened the door to McWhorter’s arguments.

The Imus scandal should be an opportunity to talk about the very real racial and gender inequality in this country. It should be the chance to ask why women make 75 cents to men’s dollar. To ask why more black men are in prison than college, and why the NYPD thought it necessary to pump fifty rounds into Sean Bell’s car. Instead, the debate has shifted to all the flaws in black culture, and has merely reinforced the double standard that “white” culture simply isn’t held up to. Where will Russell Simmons taken the debate? Only time will tell, but it doesn’t look promising.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to SocialistWorker.org, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in TheNation.com, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com Read other articles by Alexander.

11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Giles Babb said on April 27th, 2007 at 8:16am #

    “…..the debate has shifted to all the flaws in black culture, and has merely reinforced the double standard that “white” culture simply isn’t held up to.”

    I’m hoping this debate will shift to all the flaws in our hedonistic Western culture overall, and lead to “white” culture “pumping the brakes” on their depraved culture of death as well.

  2. whataboutourdaughters.org said on April 28th, 2007 at 1:12am #

    This is much ado about nothing. Russell Simmons is concerned with the bottom line. Nothing will happen as a result of this summit.
    I’m not interested in any committees, dialogues, commissions or a task force. Those are just ways to wear passionate people out. Diane Weathers said black women should take the lead in this fight. What are we going to DO now?
    I’ve created a blog whose sole focus is informing people about grassroots efforts to combat these negative images. Whataboutourdaughters.org. I also have a call in internet talk show on Saturdays at noon CST.

  3. Terry Howard said on April 29th, 2007 at 9:03pm #

    “Hip-hop is a response to the long-term degradation of blacks and other oppressed peoples in the United States.”

    Originally… partly… yes. But that statement becomes absurd in the face of the majority of hip-hop today that focuses solely on the topics of degrading women, doing drugs, beating or shooting people, and what can only be described as outlandish over the top hyper self absorbed greed. In the 80′s you might have had songs that discussed these issues in the manner you mention, putting them in the context of being imprisoned by culture and how the desire is to overcome them. Certainly there are those artists today that still hold those artistic values. Jurassic 5 can be added to the list you already mentioned. But the fact remains that a large majority of the artists are putting out pointless trash that doesn’t just talk about these issues minus the social concern, but actual glorifies them and does nothing more than perpetuate living like flat out animals, thereby perpetuating the oppression of the African American people without the need of help from the racist elements of white America one bit. The truth is, Russell Simmons is whitey, he’s keeping the black man in the ghetto because that personae makes him filthy rich.

    Russell Simmons is merely a dirt merchant in this garbage, and he is 100% within his rights to produce and promote speech that is disagreeable, disgusting or even damaging to culture. But if he is trying to tell people that ALL this stuff is culturally significant art, then he is just being an insincere scumbag. If he wants to be a scumbag, fine, more power to you, but have the guts to admit you are an audio porn pimp and stop acting like you are some soldier for the downtrodden. Be a man and admit what you are, or be a man and change. As it is now, he is not a man, but a worm who just wiggles only as much as he needs to get out of the line of fire.

  4. Deadbeat said on April 30th, 2007 at 12:30pm #

    There are also women hiphop artist that we never get to hear they opinion on this issue. Let me remind the previous poster that you can find misogynistic songs in all genre of music. Therefore I’d be really interested in hearing from female hiphop artist for their opinions and the recourse that they are talking to address this.

  5. Cue's Reviews-info on Eve, Joe, Zero G Flights and more! « Canhead said on April 30th, 2007 at 2:55pm #

    [...] Can’t Say That Anymore-Lorraine Ali/Newsweek Is Russell Simmons Playing Politics With Hip-Hop? by Alexander Billet Cleaning Out Rap Sewer- Fort Wayne.com  Jeff Chang and Dave Zirin: Hip-hop generation is fighting [...]

  6. L. Cue said on April 30th, 2007 at 2:57pm #

    Nice post, I linked back to in at my site and here at Blogcritics. Take a look when you can.

  7. Alexander Billet said on April 30th, 2007 at 11:00pm #

    To Terry Howard: who is this “vast majority” you talk about? What is shown on MTV and BET? Do you really think these outlets really care about showing hip-hop for what it really is? Or do you think, as I said in my article, that they care about perpetuating the myth and image that you laid out? I am very happy that Cue linkes to an article by Jeff Chang and Dave Zirin (a good friend of mine). That article lays out how hip-hop is marketed in a certain way (sexist, homophobic, etc) not because of what it actually is, but because of the demands of capitalism, which benefits greatly from portraying black men as savages waiting to be civilized by the benevolent white man. Ultimately, the double standard that all black people are held up to is there in to music too. How could it not be there in this society?

    And yes, Deadbeat is right. Go to your record collection. Pick ten rock albums at random. You will find most of the mysoginy of hip-hop is just as prevalent in “white music” (once again, mentioned in my article).

    The amount of hip-hop artists who really buy into sexism and exploitation isn’t any more significant than any other type of music. And that’s the bottom line.

  8. Ayana said on May 1st, 2007 at 7:43am #

    I really enjoyed reading this article and the comments. I think that its really important that we have this discussion. I don’t think that there is one right African American perspective on this. If we don’t all share the same view that doesn’t mean that we aren’t black enough or care about the our community. Obama and Oprah are black too. They just have their own perspecitives as a result of the experiences in their life. We should listen without judging each other’s blackness for a second. We may not come to the same conclusions but we can learn from one another.

    I like that this article touched on the issue of Clear Channel and their control of what is played on the airways across all musical genre’s. All of the music that is coming from the souls of our people are not violent, sexual, and angry. We are a diverse people but the powers that be may not see the profitablity in displaying it all. I think that we need to put pressure on Clear Channel and hold them accountable. At the same time we need to take control ourselves and make sure that we act responsibly and consider the impact of the messages that we send out like Russell Simmons has. We can debate the motivations of Russell Simmons but at the end of the day its something that needs to be done for the health of our community.

  9. nushooz said on May 3rd, 2007 at 6:18am #

    “First of all, neither Obama, Oprah, or any of the more right wing figures diverting the issue seem to know anything about hip-hop. One wonders why there is no mention of the socially hard-hitting rhymes of The Roots, Common or Talib Kweli.”

    Actually, Common was on Oprah talking about the issue.

  10. johnnie said on May 3rd, 2007 at 4:49pm #

    only briefly read your article but i can assure you that stacies mom aka rachel hunter enjoys every minute of being ogled. a stripper friend once told me that men looking at women is the most natural thing in the world. you are trying to change human nature. all the womens rights groups in the world are challenging evolution on this one. some time ago a telephone company woman exec visited our summer house and happily paraded around in next to nothing as did the surgeons wife and any other woman with a good body. for all the rhetoric about men being pigs, they only do it because men want it , unequal opportunity , etc. ad nauseum many many women enjoy displaying themselves and unless you aspire to being a castrated eunuch you should learn that that’s just the way it is . besides, are we to become the new puritans? what the heck is wrong with some good old fashioned lust anyway? p.s. i’ve never had a politically correct screw.

  11. Alexander Billet said on May 4th, 2007 at 8:12am #

    Wow, Johnnie. How does it feel to so willingly wallow in ignorance? You’ve conflated a very real oppression of women with human nature. It’s your kind of rhetoric that leads to the conclusion that women deserve to make less than men (and no I’m not talking about your phone exec friend), and that women’s only real role is to stay home and make babies. Pat Robertson would be proud. Strange bedfellows, eh?

    Human nature? I can cite biologists and anthropologists that would not only disagree with your pretty narrow conception of that, but deliver a pretty hard intellectual smackdown to the kind of tripe you just recited. I can tell you’ve never studied a lick of “evolution.”

    Do some women “enjoy” parading around and men ogling them because it’s “natural,” or because the people that run society have raised us with very specific conceptions of what men and women are supposed to be? Human nature is fluid, and able to bend to the constructs of society. Does that mean society is right, or even more in tune with what is natural? Hell no…

    Perhaps I am wasting my time responding to your post. From reading your screed about “summer homes,” “phone exec friends,” etc, it sounds like you’re much more at home with the record executive types who are perfectly fine with sitting in their ivory towers and using exploiting images of women as mere sex objects for their own personal gain.

    Oh, and by the way, on that last (particuarly offensive) point “I’ve never had a politically correct screw.” Here’s one: screw you.