Ashley Judd was right about hip hop. . .Kinda.

L ike it or not, the actress has a point. m4s0n501

@kevin_powell @theperfectru

The internet has been ablaze in the wake of Ashley Judd’s comments about hip hop in her book,  All That is Bitter and Sweet. She wrote:

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.

But how  far off is she really? If we’re honest, we know there’s “some” truth in what she said.

Let’s get some things out of the way early. We know that this statement doesn’t apply to all hip hop.  There are thoughtful, creative artists whose music is not based on denigrating women. Mos Def, Talib Kweli, J-Live, The Roots, Toki Wright, Shad, Pigeon John, P.O.S., and Blitz The Ambassador, are some that come immediately to mind.  And there are plenty of women who represent hip hop, as both MCs and spoken word artists.  Think Invincible, Jean Grae, Jessica Care Moore, Toni Blackman, Bless Roxwell, to name a few here.

So, what I think Ashley is guilty of is over-generalization.  But the fact is that too much of hip hop does, in fact, denigrate women, be it through lyrics or videos. Recent examples such as Kanye’s Monster video or most of the work of recently celebrated teenagers Odd Future fall in this bucket.  And Girl Talk samples what I think are some of the most vile examples of hip hop for his mashup albums.

What you end up with is work that creates an environment that devalues women. And it’s true: Rappers talk about women in the third person, as sexual objects or body parts, or women are seen gyrating half-naked in videos as a symbol of some dude’s material success.  Call women bitches and hoes enough times over dope enough beats and an attitude gets normalized.

Hip hop is a global pop cultural phenomenon.  It not only defines how a generation sees itself, but it also has become the shorthand for what’s cool around the world.

But on it’s way to becoming that billion-dollar industry, hip hop failed to grow up.  Global retailer Walmart went through similar growing pains.  As economist Umair Haque notes in his book, The New Capitalist Manifesto, as soon as the company made it to the top of the Fortune 500, society’s expectations rose as well, as evidenced by the attacks on it by labor and environmental activists.  So, is it so shocking that many of us have a higher expectation for hip hop, since it, too, stands atop the cultural mountain?  Further, is it at all shocking that Ashley Judd—someone who’s not part of the hip hop community—perceives hip hop the way she does?  Once you’re able to dictate terms of a discussion, peoples’ expectations about you change, for better or worse.

There is no power—or freedom—without responsibility.

For too many rappers “keeping it real” went wrong a long time ago. Even though the world is listening, too many engage in the fiction that they’re just talking to their boys on the block.  Now, it’s one thing to say something to friends: There’s context; people understand where you’re coming from; and there are probably shared values and ways of looking at the world.  But when you take some of these songs and blast them around the world, the context disappears.  We’re left with only the words.

There are those who will defend hip hop by saying that it’s only reflective of American culture, one that clearly doesn’t value women. I mean, if it did, there wouldn’t be a gender pay gap.  And, yes, we live in culture whose values are way out of whack: Cut the tax bills of billion dollar corporations to zero, while at the same time cutting social safety nets and education spending for the most vulnerable.  All in the name of some recently found idea of “fiscal responsibility”. Is this the culture the black community wants to reflect?  Just because parts of American culture are morally bankrupt, doesn’t mean hip hop—and by extension black culture—also has to be.

Some tried to point out the misogyny in rock and country music.   Remember when you were a kid and you got in trouble with your friends? Remember when you tried to make the case that, “They were doing it, too” line?  That didn’t stop your parents from tearin’ up that behind, did it?  No, because you were expected to know better.  Another way to think about it: The they-were-doing-it-too argument is like low-level Nazi soldiers after the Holocaust saying, “I was only following orders.” That’s a shameful cop out.

Thing is, every one of us always has a choice.  Hip hop has to grow up, and take responsibility.  It starts with the artists, but we as audiences have a responsibility, too.  If you’ve got grown men who want to act like teenage boys in their albums, then maybe we should stop supporting them.  We are under no obligation to continue circling the wagons around the artists or parts of an artform that don’t reflect where we want our culture and community to go.

Men, particularly, need to start speaking up when we see negative culture being produced and spread.  It’s often the few who are willing to speak out that give others the courage to do so.  Unless we take a compassionate, principled and firm stand, hip hop will never shake the image, held by many such as Ashley Judd, that it is a breeding ground for misogyny.

Women, hip hop, and our community all deserve better.

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11 Responses to “Ashley Judd was right about hip hop. . .Kinda.” Subscribe

  1. MALCO.New.York April 13, 2011 at 13:03 #

    Hip-Hop is brain dead crap… Mostly.

    • Rob Fields April 13, 2011 at 13:07 #

      I’d prefer that you stay away from broad generalizations. I understand the frustration, though. But I believe there are are a lot of good things happening in hip hop. Check out some of the artists I named in the third and fourth paragraphs, as examples.

  2. Anonymous April 13, 2011 at 15:02 #

    She has a point. I don’t like or listen to much rap. Not my thing.
    The problem though is that there’s a big difference between saying the music is crap or just of no interest to her and saying it’s rape music or the soundtrack of misogyny.

    The same people that denounce rap go out and shake their a$$ to the Rolling Stones “Brown Sugar”, “Midnight Rambler”, “Stray Cat Blues” “Starf*****” or “Under my Thumb” , Steely Dan’s “Cousin Dupree”, Elton John’s “Dirty Little Girl” and so on. One might argue that much of current rap exceeds all of those songs in bad attitudes but that would still require excluding much of hardcore metal, thrash,punk and so on from the analysis. It just reeks of hypocrisy and bad history.

    The blues song “CC Ryder” and the country song “T for Texas (Blue Yodel)” have a common predecessor as you can tell from the very similar lyrics. “I’m gonna buy me a shotgun as long as I am tall/I’m going to shoot that woman dead against the wall”. Robert Johnson’s “32-20″ blues talks about “cutting his woman half in two” while Pat Hare had a song titled “I’m gonna murder my baby”. Even teddy bear BB King occasionally got in the act with lyrics stating “I’ll make your mother a gift of you and your casket too”.

    So unless you want to talk about the entirety of music, of course partisans of rap are going to defend their favorite form of music. The other bad implied argument is that because someone consumes a certain form of art, that automatically means they are a bad person or will do bad things caused by the consumption of that art. Not so.

    • Anonymous April 14, 2011 at 17:57 #

      and let me add about half of maroon 5’s songs to that list.

      • Anonymous April 15, 2011 at 14:58 #

        That so? Hmm. I’m not familiar…

  3. joelygabs April 13, 2011 at 15:51 #

    point blank, she’s on target here. and remember she didn’t say ALL rap. i think that people will read that and say she’s completely bashing. she just said most of it. and i agree. and let’s face it. we live in a misogynistic country. PERIOD. we as a nation must deal day and day out with magazine covers of scantily clad women..we see it in movies. we see it on tv. it’s everywhere. and we feed into it. we buy into it. so really what does that say about US as a nation? i mean granted she has a point and she has a right to make a point and it’s true to an extent. but rap gets so much flack BECAUSE it’s blunt and curt. those songs that the previous poster gave as examples..it’s understood that sex and misogyny are in there but it’s not as out front and at attention like rap is. so rap gets takes the heat. maaaaybe if we as music listeners take a stand and don’t support these songs..don’t go to shows..don’t buy it..the rappers who write these lyrics will be forced to go back to the drawing board and try something else. but if we continue to do the opposite of what i suggested, it will never end and the hypocrisy of this world will continue. i always said this country as much as i love it has two HUGE problems..repression..and hypocrisy. and the misogyny is why i don’t listen to as much rap as i used to anymore. i fed into it. now i’m done. for all the positive rap that is out there, and there is a lot of positive..it doesn’t see the light of day because everyone wants the dirty. everyone wants the filth. and then we complain about it when we see it in movies and such. again. way to go america.

    oh and hasn’t ms. judd been in a movie or two that were sexually charged? hmmmmm… those who live in glass houses ash…

  4. Renee April 13, 2011 at 22:24 #

    Thank you for this analysis. Most of the commentary and articles I’ve come across have totally missed the mark, either defending Judd blindly or demonizing her.

  5. maíra April 13, 2011 at 23:14 #

    BLACK DIAMOND – that’s what you are!
    so amazing reflections… first time i read you, I’ll come back always!!

  6. jazzman7 April 14, 2011 at 01:01 #

    Rob, your article is very insightful and balanced. What needs to be noted is that Hip Hop is a lifestyle, not just music as Jessica, Talib, Toni and all of the “Conscious Poets” would point out. Ashley Judd has been a strong advocate for women’s rights and the resperct that they deserve. However she did overgeneralize the issue by saying “…most rap and hip hop….”

  7. Guest April 14, 2011 at 21:30 #

    Maybe the hick that raped her was psyched off of a Lauryn Hill album

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