Reclaiming hip-hop

While some fans abandon the genre, a few organizations hope to help women change the culture from within.

Published October 20, 2006 12:22PM (EDT)

Earlier this week, I was walking down the street alongside rush-hour traffic, congratulating myself for simultaneously saving the earth while significantly reducing my commute time, when a car's windows rolled down. The occupants started shouting dubious compliments in my direction, so I ducked into the nearest drugstore and was deeply interested in candy corn until they turned the corner. The perpetrators? Several young guys wearing gold chains and oversize sports jerseys. The background music? Well, they weren't blaring Brahms.

Music isn't necessarily connected to behavior, but it can be hard to separate hip-hop from the misogyny and objectification present in so many popular songs. And while the genre is widely beloved, many fans painfully acknowledge that hip-hop carries some distasteful baggage.

At its best, hip-hop is powerful and provocative, in addition to being great dance music. At its worst, it glorifies violence and drug use, demeans women and can alienate even its most ardent supporters -- like former fan Lonnae O'Neal Parker, who wrote about her disaffection in Sunday's Washington Post. In a piece titled "Why I Gave Up on Hip-Hop," Parker lamented that the music that was once community-minded and politically conscious "now promoted a sexual aesthetic Southern rappers had even popularized a kind of strip-club rap making black women indistinguishable from strippers."

Parker views the change as a sign that the movement has gone off the rails -- in part because women haven't participated enough: "We were so happy black men were speaking their truth, 'we've gone too long without challenging them,' as Danyel Smith, former editor of Vibe magazine, put it. And now, perhaps, hip-hop is too far gone," she wrote.

But some women have started to take back the music. Parker mentioned JaHipster, a Baltimore slam poet who has started her own "Groove Squad" consisting of dozens of women who will walk off the dance floor if they find the music openly offensive. Another project, Black Girls Rock! aims to change the image of women in hip-hop by influencing the women who are part of it. The group was formed by hip-hop DJ and former model Beverly Bond, and was recently featured in VH1's Hip-Hop Week as part of a panel on "Ladies First Rap."

In the end, hip-hop may just be the easy target -- and blaming the music may reflect an oversimplification of greater social problems, or a misdirection of indignation that should really be fired at something that needs attention more than lyrics do. Still, change comes one step at a time, and it's great to see it coming from within the hip-hop community.

By Adrienne So

Adrienne So is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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