Women, Men, Rap, and Respect: A Dialogue

The following interview is with Ajagbe Adewole-Jimenez and Dan’etta Adewole-Jimenez. Ajagbe was formerly student government president at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), where he participated in a take-over by students in protest of tuition hikes in 1991. He is a member of People About Changing Education and will be a coordinator of its Fannie Lou Hamer Institute for intergenerational activist dialogue.

Dan’etta is an educational coordinator of public school programs for the Caribbean Cultural Center. With other BMCC students, they cofounded the Youth Empowerment School (YES), a Saturday program for young people from grades 5-12.

Questions were posed by Juliet Ucelli, co-editor of the New York newspaper School Voices, and Dennis O’Neil, a writer for Forward Motion magazine.

Many progressive educators and parents appreciate rap as a musical form in which young people of color critique the racism and hypocrisy of our society. So, it’s especially disturbing that, in recent rap lyrics, there seem to be more put-down’s of women, more men bragging about dominating women — often by violence. Do you think rap is becoming more anti-woman and, if so, where is that coming from?

Ajagbe: I grew up with rap. It’s the music of my generation. It’s a powerful expression of African-American experience. But I have to say, rap always had its backward, sexist side — along with its revolutionary side — right from the beginning. “Hotel, Motel, Holiday Inn. If your girl starts acting up, then you take her friend.” That’s from 1979, “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang.

Dan’etta: That’s definitely a sexist lyric, but it’s not the violent misogyny we hear today. Just like other trends in pop culture, rap mirrors the larger society, where we see increased violence against women with the economic decline over the last 12 to 15 years. Rap and hip hop culture have taken off as corporate commodities. Woman-hating sells records. And it’s not just in the Black community. Many of the people who buy violent, anti-woman rap records are white teenage males.

Ajagbe: But rap still comes out of the African-American experience (and to a lesser extent, the Puerto Rican community.) So, when one out of every four African-American males between ages 20 and 30 has been in prison, when drug dealing is the major channel for upward mobility, when gangs are major community organizations — that has a great influence on the development of poetry and cultural styles. Where does the style of wearing your pants falling off your butt come from? In prison, you can’t wear belts so your pants are always falling off. Why Timberland boots and heavy North Face jackets? Because drug dealers get cold when they’re standing outside.

Part of the reason all these things are happening is the decline of the U.S. manufacturing sector, where most Black men with stable jobs were concentrated, while more Black women are in the service sector. The steel plants and auto plants and shipyards that allowed Black men in the cities to help support families, have been closing since the ‘70s. Because more men are unemployed, women carry a greater burden in supporting the children and households. This causes tensions, with Black men taking out their frustration on Black women. So there’s more misogyny, and more involvement with gangs, drugs and jails, which are very patriarchal, male bonding set-ups. Women are peripheral, subordinate: either pleasure objects or somebody’s mother. The music reflects that.

Dan’etta: The appeal of the gangs, the camaraderie, the feeling of standing for something — that’s increasing and spilling over to women. On the West Coast, female gangs go on drug raids, shoot-outs, beat-downs, framing their identities around the male gangs. You’re seeing more women incarcerated. Apache’s hit “Gangsta Bitch” — where he brags about his woman being as good a hoodlum as he is — reflects the number of Black women going to jail, becoming as hard as men.

Perhaps another cause of increased anti-woman feeling in poor and working-class communities is crack, which has affected women worse than any previous drug epidemic. More women desperately selling their bodies for the drug, neglecting their children, creates a new rage and resentment that the music expresses. KRS-1, who today is one of the more politically conscious rappers, put out “The P is Free,” a condemnation of women on crack, when he was right out of the youth shelters in 1986.

In historical terms, when you read Elaine Brown’s memoir of the Panthers, or Assata Shakur’s autobiography, they both talk about almost being gang-raped as teens, so that’s not a new thing. They also talk about Black male icons, leaders who claimed to uphold the Black nation, irrespective of the hatred and violence they perpetrated on Black women. So who did these guys define as the nation?

Then, is the music just a reflection of attitudes in the society, so we don’t have to worry about it? Or, does music help shape those attitudes, especially during adolescence, the time when pop music is most important to you and when your images of men, women and love are taking form?

Dan’etta: Yes, there’s a real effect, but it’s hard to measure how much. Objectifying women in music desensitizes listeners toward the subordinate position of women in the society. I’m thinking of showings of the Tina Turner movie, where friends of mine saw some young people laughing during a scene where Ike pounds Tina.

To understand rap, you have to look at how the issues of race and gender come together in a complicated way. You have a song like Ice Cube’s “Cave Bitch,” where, following Nation of Islam ideology, he refers to whites as coming out of the cave. Cube is saying he’s not interested in white women. Ice Cube claims the song is criticizing white supremacist society for holding up white women as the standard of beauty, which devalues Black women. Ice Cube’s criticism is well-taken, but it doesn’t justify calling any woman a bitch. Many rappers try to create a dichotomy between good or bad women by using a term like bitch. It clouds the issue. You may mean this sister is “okay” but this one “won’t do” what you say, so you’re gonna call her a bitch. It’s had an impact on how young people interact.

Ajagbe: I’m not clear that it has a big impact. When I was in my late teens and early twenties — especially in the Army — before NWA and hardcore rap came out, which is where all this stuff really got large, it was common for us to refer to women as bitches. “Let’s go out tonight and get some bitches.” Maybe NWA (Niggas with Attitude) reinforced it. I tend to believe that structural economic causes are responsible. I’ve seen the deteriorating attitudes of brothers toward Black women go along with increased approval of violence in general. At the Youth Empowerment School, we were talking about Columbus and how he had exterminated all the indigenous people on the island of Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti) within fifty years of his arrival. One of the students said, in admiration, “Columbus, he the man.” Columbus is super-violent, he got respect, he got juice.

Dan’etta: I have a sharper view on the influence of music. We’ve been having this conversation for a long while now, but we never agree on all the points. From the point of view of a woman of color, words and visuals in the videos play out to make us feel we have to fit a societal norm. The sisters pick up on that. They’re being told you’re supposed to be attractive, have hair down to your butt and often light skin, wear Daisy Duke shorts and have your breasts hanging out, like the women in rap videos.

A 13-year-old sister often doesn’t have the intellectual development to understand that’s sexism. She feels, “I want to feel attractive. What’s wrong with dressing like that? What’s wrong with brothers looking at me like that?” Music influences how young people view reality and relate to each other. It perpetuates insensitivity to women. If they hear about a sister being gang raped, they’re now more likely to say, “She probably deserved it — she probably was a ho anyway.” Not, “Why did those brothers do that?”

This is scary to me as a woman, when I hear this in the high schools I work in. Even if I were a third-degree black belt and strapped, I’d still be scared. I feel the effects of these lyrics on people’s minds.

Ajagbe: Everything you said is true. I agree. I’m opposed to using the terms “bitch” and “ho.” Though some Black women do use the term among themselves, men predominantly define how bitch is used. But on the other hand, a few months ago, I’m on the train going to school.

There’s a sister, she looks Ecuadorian, talking to her two male friends about her boyfriend. The male friends are saying they don’t like this guy, and she says, “I love him. He’s my bitch.”

Dan’etta: The real question, especially for educators, is: have young people been empowered to make a critical analysis of why they use those words and where the words come from? To take another example, which is not precisely comparable to bitch, some African Americans now claim that we can appropriate the word “nigger” from the oppressor and make it ours. But I’m not willing to accept that the use of “nigga” — with a new spelling — among Black men just means brother. The word has a history and we need to develop discussion around it. Whites can still call a Black woman a nigger bitch, and it means exactly what it means: black, less than human, and not a man. These terms have resurfaced partly because a lot of elders stopped organizing and educating in the community after the 60s, once they got some things they wanted — professorships, management jobs and houses in the suburbs.

Then again, I don’t see a necessity of absolutely defining usages. I think there should be dialogue, understanding the history of words in the context of racism and capitalist patriarchy. People of color need to formulate an understanding of why they use the labels that they use and to reflect on how they use these words to create their identities now.

How strong are the challenges to sexism coming from within the hip hop community?

Ajagbe: You have groups like Arrested Development, Digable Planets and The Coup that do take a principled stance. But they don’t appeal to a lot of younger folks. You need some combination of a harder style and revolutionary political lyrics.

Sisters like Queen Latifah and YoYo do address sexism and promote Black women’s beauty and strength. Yet they have contradictions too — Latifah, who owns a production company, produced “Gangsta Bitch.” The struggle within hip hop is complex and deserves a lot more discussion. Maybe School Voices and the Fannie Lou Hamer Institute could invite more young people to produce a dialogue about that.

There’s now one trend in the Black community toward banning gangsta rap or records that use the word bitch, or steam rolling rap records. What do you think of this?

Dan’etta: I don’t believe we should censor. One of the good things about pop culture is that eventually most trends or styles lose their appeal and stop selling. Nobody really buys Two Live Crew records anymore.

Ajagbe: I disagree with what Rev. Calvin Butts did, steamrolling a pile of rap records. If you’re trying to create consciousness among rappers and make them accountable, you don’t affront them in public. That shuts down communication. The rapper Ice-T said, “You’re trying to take food out of my child’s mouth.” Other brothers feel “You’re trying to pimp us. You’re trying to make a name for yourself from something that’s been going on for 20 years. Now all of a sudden you got something to say.” The Apollo now has a no-cursing policy so they closed the curtains on Grand Puba after one number, during a show put together by the Caribbean Cultural Center. A couple of years ago they had Two Live Crew on stage with sisters performing oral sex on them.

WBLS, the radio station owned by Percy Sutton, now has a no-cursing policy, but a few months ago they were playing “Gangsta Bitch” 24-7. They say it’s getting out of hand now, even though they helped it get out of hand. And everything they’re playing now is full of sexual innuendoes, like Janet Jackson’s “If” or “Let me lick you up and down.” It’s the same values; a woman is nothing more than a sex object.

Dan’etta: It’s all sexual objectification, but there is a difference between “I’ll give you pleasure,” and “I’ll do damage to you.” Getting back to the cry for censorship, though, I think it shows a generation gap and a class gap. Within the Black community, it’s coming from the embarrassed middle class or aspiring middle-class Blacks who want to distance themselves from “that element.” When mothers, especially, feel they can’t control their kids, and they want to remove bad influences, they put pressure on the ministers. Many parents, not only people of color, want to put on blinders and force things back to some mythical past.

So, as educators, parents or youth workers, what do we do to encourage young people to question misogynist attitudes and to respect women? How should we relate to rap music?

Ajagbe: What makes it hard to challenge the misogyny effectively is that there’s no militant, progressive organizing in the communities of color. Kids didn’t always grow up wanting to be hoodlums. If there were a truly progressive movement strong enough and glamorous enough to attract young people, it would detract away from the negative things in hip hop. Without a movement, these are the role models they have. Young African American, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Jamaican and other folks think that adults don’t care about them.

They’re not all that wrong, given that public discussion is usually about putting them in jail.

If you’re gonna talk to young people about sexism, you can’t do it as a lame liberal. Only the most militant anti-racists, those who will stand with youth against drug dealers and police abuse, have the right to speak, and won’t be seen as hypocrites. Adults need to expand their understanding of hip hop culture, and to take guidance from people of color in their twenties, our age group, who grew up in hip hop culture and aren’t condescending about it. Otherwise, young people will think you’re pointing out negative things to gloat over — and they already feel ashamed of too much.

White teachers and youth workers, especially, need to educate themselves about the history of communities of African descent. Listen to rap, listen to people’s conversations about it, and come to the classroom informed.

Dan’etta: Let me give an example of what’s wrong. In my work for the Caribbean Cultural Center, I was visiting a special education high school, majority male, majority African descent, with 98% white teachers. A young man came in with earphones and the teacher asked him to take them off. He never did it. The teacher follows him out the door with, “Take off your earphones, because probably what you’re listening to isn’t any good for you anyway.”

This is the problem. Then teachers want to know why kids don’t respect them and act out in class. It’s because of that basic racism. Young people are thinking, “You obviously don’t respect me because you say what I’m listening to ain’t worth shit.” Young people who listen to rap are usually willing to enter a dialogue with a white adult who knows something about it. They feel acknowledgment. They feel you respect them, you care about them, you’re not just there to hold them in the pen until school is finished and you can break out to where you live.

A teacher’s job is not to preach at students but to help them learn to think. To do that, you need to deal with the truths of history, not sanitize it, so young people can develop analysis.

How do you try to do that at the Youth Empowerment School and through other educational work you’re involved in?

Ajagbe: The Youth Empowerment School (YES) is a Saturday program for young people from grades 5-12. We have critical, structured dialogues about movies, TV shows, and rap songs; and we present accurate information about the histories of African diaspora peoples. Leadership skills are another big focus: how to plan and chair a meeting, take minutes, organize for a function. We’re encouraging the older teens to start their own group, so they can have a space to raise their own questions and issues, hang out and do things together.

Although young people don’t frequently use the words “nigga” or “bitch” during our sessions, I remember when a 14-year-old boy called a girl a cow. We were closing out a session, holding hands in a circle. This boy said, “… you cow.” I didn’t hear it at first. Only Dan’etta heard it. She told him, “This is unacceptable,” and explained why. “Would you like it if someone called your mother a cow? Why would you call a sister an animal because she disagrees with you?”

Dan’etta: In programming the public school cultural presentations for the Caribbean Cultural Center, I try to make sure that children see both men and women as accomplished artists. One time we brought in a drummer and a girl asked if she could play the instrument. A boy said, “No, that’s just for boys.” The drummer pointed out that some instruments in some regions of Africa are made and played only by women. So we try to use elements of culture to deconstruct sexism. When the Center sponsored a conference on hip hop, I and other female co-workers pushed for sisters to participate and address the issue of misogyny. It’s pervasive and has to be addressed in every arena. Like recovering alcoholics, even progressive men have to constantly struggle with their own sexism.

The other thing is that, to empower themselves, to deal with feelings they may not be in touch with, young women of color need their own spaces. The rites of passage workshops that I’ve seen tend to be either, “stand by your man” or “know your sexuality;” they’re usually mutually exclusive. With the YES youth group, I encourage the young women to get together and talk about our issues: everything from dressing and hair straightening to relationships to education, child care, and domestic violence. It’s now fashionable in social service agencies to deal with Black male issues, but not with females, who are going to detention centers in increasing numbers. Agencies and grassroots groups must become aware that there are special issues for young women of color.