Recently, Jay-Z, the man who created an anthem which shamelessly glorified pimp culture, “Big Pimpin”, acknowledged his own conflicted feelings about that song to the Wall Street Journal. “It was like, I can’t believe I said that. And kept saying it. What kind of animal would say this sort of thing? Reading it is really harsh,” said the rapper. Yeah, listening to it come on in a club and see the entire crowd go wild and singing along has been really harsh too Jay.
Full disclosure, I’m a Jay-Z fan and I have been since his first album Reasonable Doubt. Yet as a survivor of the commercial sex industry and as an advocate for exploited and trafficked girls it’s hard to not feel some shame for liking an artist who has contributed his fair share of misogynistic lyrics and who has helped equate the concept of pimping with masculinity and ‘swagga.’
I’m not alone with these conflicted feelings about Jay-Z or hip-hop in general. For those of us who grew up listening to Public Enemy, Grandmaster Flash, Eric B, and Rakim Mc Lyte and Queen Latifah and who felt that rap told our stories and captured our hearts in a way that nothing else did, hip-hop has been part of the soundtrack of our generation. Yet for those of us, particularly women, who have been impacted by gender-based violence, who’ve experienced the venom behind the words ‘bitch’ and ‘ho’ and who are disgusted by the objectification and sexualization of women and girls in this medium, loving hip-hop presents an uncomfortable contradiction.
For me, the conflicted feelings run deep. For the last 13 years, I’ve worked with and fought for girls and young women who’ve experienced violence and oppression at the hands of pimps and johns. And I know first-hand what its like to dance on the stage of a stripclub, be leered over by strange men, and break my ‘daddy’ off some bread. In short, I’ve been one of the girls that are alternately scorned and objectified in the lyrics of many rap songs.
My experiences, and those of the girls I work with are minimized and mocked by some of our favorite artists, the men who hurt us held up as folk heroes for whom “pimpin ain’t easy.” The truth, that you won’t hear in any of these songs, is that pimps prey upon the most vulnerable girls and young women; girls who are runaways and homeless, girls who have been victims of child sexual abuse, low-income girls, often girls of color, who are considered disposable in our society.
When we consider the circumstances of girls who are recruited and know that the most common age of entry into the commercial sex industry is estimated to be between 12 and 14-years-old, it becomes clear that pimping is, in fact, quite easy. Pimps use tactics that are eerily reminiscent of those used by 18th century slave owners to control and manipulate girls and women and to ensure that their ‘property’ is a profitable investment. Girls’ families are threatened, they’re branded with their ‘daddy’s’/owners’ name, isolated from anyone who could help them, beaten and raped into subjection and then told it’s ‘for their own good’, that daddy knows best and that they were born to be a ‘ho’ and that’s all they’ll ever be.
Today the auction block is the stage of a strip-club, the corner of a track, an ad on the internet where adult men can purchase a girl, a child for their sexual gratification. An estimated 100,000 youth in our country are being exploited through the commercial sex industry and yet our culture has glorified pimping and turned ‘pimp’ into a word that now means being a playa, being fly, being a ‘real’ man.
I don’t know how much Jay-Z understands the realities of pimps and the harm that’s done to girls and young women every day in this country by pimps and traffickers. I don’t know how much he feels that he’s played some role in the acceptance and glorification of pimping within our culture and how committed he is to perhaps trying to take responsibility for that. But his acknowledgment that he feels a level of shame about this song is a start towards having a balanced conversation about hip-hop’s role in this issue.
What if 50 Cent recognized that his song “P.I.M.P” played a huge part in society’s acceptance of pimp culture? What if Snoop acknowledged his well-known affiliation with pimping, that goes far beyond just his lyrics, has been wrong and harmful to women and girls?
In the past, I’ve written about the corporate sponsorship of the glorification of pimp culture, in an effort to broaden the dialogue past blaming individual artists for society’s problems and looking at where the money trail leads. But individual artists could begin to take some responsibility for the lyrics that they’ve put out there in the world. As artists mature musically, find love and balance with their spouses and children and frankly just grow up, perhaps it’s time that they reflect back on what they’ve contributed to our world, some of which has been insightful and just plain enjoyable, some of which has damaging and has perpetuated ideas that hurt our young people, especially our girls.
Perhaps if more artists, particularly those who are already so established, were willing to step up and do that we could begin to reframe hip-hop’s current direction so that upcoming artists didn’t feel like that they had to follow the same old script of big pimpin and making it rain in their lyrics in order to get put on. Hopefully then the hip-hop soundtrack for the lives of girls in this generation could be empowering and celebratory, something that when they get older they won’t feel guilty about loving.