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 is a music journalist and activist living in Washington DC. He is a regular writer for Znet, and has also appeared in Socialist Worker, CounterPunch, Dissident Voice, and MRzine. He is working on his first book, The Kids are Shouting Loud: The Music and Politics of the Clash.

His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blosgspot.com, and he can be reached at [email protected]



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