I remember the day my mother kicked him out. I wasn’t quite sure what he’d done wrong or why he couldn’t stay with us. But mama said he had to go and that was that. My big cousin Bug quietly shut off the floor model Zenith stereo and everybody quit dancing.
“What’s wrong with Marvin?” I asked. “You ain’t old enough for that kind of thing,” my mother said, shaking her head.
Marvin was Marvin Gaye. It was 1982 and “Sexual Healing” was the hot single. At 14, my mother thought I was too young to be anybody’s “medicine”, let alone open up and let anybody in. As far as she was concerned, he could wait a hundred years before I did any “operating.” And if anybody was going to “take your time” and “do it right”, it wasn’t going to be me—no matter how long the S.O.S. Band’s hit topped the chart. If my mother had anything to do with it, I wasn’t going to lose my virginity to Betty Wright’s seminal hit “Tonight Is The Night” or “Turn Off The Lights” when Teddy Pendergrass started singing.
For the record, my mother was nobody’s prude and I wasn’t raised in a monastery. She and my father spent the better part of their lives getting the party started as owners and managers of some of the most legendary nightspots in St. Louis. Heck, I was named after one Goldie Holly, my Godmother, owner of the world famous Gold Room and producer of the only “Player’s Ball” that mattered.
But that was “grown folks business”.
If R&B was the song of their lives, hip-hop was mine. It didn’t matter if I couldn’t have Marvin, Betty or Teddy. Back then my heart belonged to Grand Master Flash, the Sugar Hill Gang and Run DMC. I played and re-played their records until I needed a stack of taped nickels to hold down the needle.
Unlike Ashley Judd, I’ve been on and down with hip-hop from the very beginning. I can still recite the lyric’s to “Rapper’s Delight” and nobody had “Devastating Mic Control” like D-MC. I’ve watched the rise and fall of one hit wonders like Vanilla Ice and waited for what never came after J-Kwon’s “Tipsy”. Predictably, Rich Boy never got beyond throwing “some D’s”. But today, I’m the proud mother of five—three of them daughters— and in this instance I have to side with Judd.
“As far as I’m concerned, most rap and hip-hop music — with its rape culture and insanely abusive lyrics and depictions of girls and women as ‘ho’s’ — is the contemporary soundtrack of misogyny,” she said in her memoir “All that is Bitter and Sweet.”
Judd went on record a few days ago, not to apologize, but to clarify her statements. Let me help her out.
We may not like the message and may well regard and disregard the messenger as not “one of us”. But, without question, hip-hop has changed. And no matter how much we celebrate a young (mostly) brother’s right to produce and get paid for his music, we cannot be so blind as not to recognize the resulting damage. There are women in the game too. The carnage left by their willing participation in the now fantastical world of instant gratification is maddening. It’s us dancing in rhinestone-studded thongs talking about “if you ain’t got dough, you can’t go with the Fox b$#&h” while tricking off every ounce of our dignity for a brief ride in a Bentley coup.
For the record, I do not blame hip-hop for the complexity of societal issues black America confronts from day to day. I do not believe a young man decides to sell drugs, beats his significant other or gangs rape a young girl because a record told him to. I believe Snopp Dogg is no more responsible for the soaring high school drop out rate than republicans are for trying to defund Head Start. If we’re going to blame Eminem for the rape and murder of women then we should cancel the next season of South Park.
What I do believe is this. As a society we are negatively impacted by the hyper-sexualized, misogynistic lyrics and the stereotypical imagery that have become so common in hip-hop culture. It’s about what we choose to glorify. It’s about desensitization. It’s about what we tell our children is right and reasonable. They become to unwitting benefactors of low-expectations when we tell them, through our silence, that it’s not only easier, but more financially rewarding to hone your freestyle skills than it would be to study medicine, law or engineering.
Many will argue, and rightly so, that accountability begins with parents. Indeed, “home training” is a lost art. But, it isn’t about an either/or, but a both/and. I would charge that, just as Coca Cola has a responsibility not to put poison in its bottles, hip-hop has a similar responsibility not to pump lyrical toxins into our communities. Just as Toyota has a responsibility to make cars with accelerators that don’t stick, hip-hop has a responsibility not to dehumanize and marginalize women to the point that they become sitting targets for those too young or too un-evolved to know the difference between real life and art. When did it become right and reasonable to glorify “jump offs” and “baby mamas”? Or for women to embrace such a position by sitting on a video set for a couple of hundred dollars a day in nothing more than a pair drawers and couple of pasties?
A few years ago, my then client Procter & Gamble asked me to produce an event for the BET Awards. The result was more than a reception. In 2007, I created and launched “My Black is Beautiful” — still the largest marketing investment targeting African American women in that company’s history. LL Cool J, Robin Thicke, Clifford “T.I.” Harris, Gabrielle Union and other bold names showed up and showed out. My goal was to ignite a sustained conversation that night in L.A.
I believed then, as I do now, that if we could infect Black women with the purpose of owning their standard of beauty and determining how it is promoted in popular culture when could change this. We could dry up the demand for images that do not serve us well, that we could re-claim and have a say in how we are portrayed in news and entertainment. I never once believed I could change the hearts and minds of record executives. But I know one thing: If nobody’s buying, nobody’s selling.
I do not want hip-hop to die. My iTunes library is home to Eminem, Snoop, and Dr. Dre. T.I.’s “Bring Em Out” got me through some tough days and I can’t get by without some Luda in my life. But I want it to change the way it affects and reflects black America. I want a body of work that tells the world something better about us, music that speaks to our present condition.
We can dismiss Ashley Judd but, if we’re honest with ourselves, there’s no way to dismiss her message.