Sunday, April 15th, 2007

Imus-ing Rap :: Capitalism, Race, Gender, and Speech

It wasn’t 48 hours ago that Javier Reyes and I were being interviewed about hip-hop aesthetics and Imus on KALW, and the question came up as to whether the Imus thing had legs. Reyes laughed, “Are you kidding? Hip-hop is about to be on trial.”

So our friend Ethan Brown points out today’s NY Daily News headline: “Hil & Obama got help from foul musicians”. Turns out that Timbaland, that notorious foul-mouthed rapper, and his fellow trash-purveyor, Ludacris, helped raise funds for Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama.


Suddenly the Sunday morning armchair pundits had a new thing to talk about: whether rap made Don Imus say what he said, and whether rappers are really the ones to blame here.

Let’s be real here. Rap didn’t allow Don Imus to call the Rutgers womens basketball team “nappy headed hos”: widespread acceptance of racism and sexism allowed this rich white man to do what he did.

Media, as usual, mostly doesn’t want to deal with context. Imus’s words were another act of silencing women of color. People would like to have you believe that words can float out there in the either, free of context. But words have history, words have meaning, and words can silence entire communities.

This is why, when Coach Stringer was asked to comment on Imus’s insult, she provided a lengthy personal history. It was her way of saying: I’m a woman of color who has struggled against poverty, racism, and sexism, and I will not be silenced anymore. In all the tumult of this past week, all the voices that weighed in on this, the most important were the words of Coach Stringer and the woman of the Rutgers basketball team. But instead, the conversation was dominated by men, white and Black. Context lost again.


Another piece in the Daily News, by Jim Farber, pits Byron Hurt against Busdriver on the question of the H-word, taking both their quotes way out of context. (What, Joan Morgan and Jean Grae weren’t available?)

This is not the conversation Byron–or any of us–wanted to have.

We want a conversation about race and gender and sexuality in the popular culture, one that can help transform it to make it look more like how we really are.

But what we get so often in the mainstream media is a flattening of differences and a discarding of context. Something that Busdriver says about how young Blacks use language is made equivalent to something that Byron says about how the pop culture encourages young Black male stars to flaunt their sexism.

Here’s another example of how context and difference are routinely tossed out. One idea that many floated last week was that Imus ought to be shielded from criticism because “rappers say worse”. If Imus and Snoop say the same thing, the thinking goes, why does Imus get hung?

This idea rested on a uniquely American notion (which we are busy exporting around the world): hey, we consume all this stuff, what’s the difference?

Or, put another way: so many white men buy sexist rap by Black men–Black men like Timbaland and Ludacris have been made rich off this–that white men who mouth racist and sexist comments ought to be immunized from criticism.

It’s like, we all live in a post-racist world and these are all just words floating in it. Weren’t we all mad about Katrina together? Aren’t we all fighting this War on Terror together?

But buying a rap record does not mean that you purchase innocence from America’s racial history. Imus knows this. He certainly would not have used the N-word to describe the women. But it’s OK if he uses the H-word? How you figure?


Because of a paradigm shift in the hip-hop community that has taken place from the grassroots up since 2001, hip-hop adherents have begun confronting the fact that rap’s massive success has made us gender innocent and sexuality innocent. We have literally bought the idea that purchasing hip-hop has given us innocence from society’s and our communities’ histories of sexism and homophobia.

But hard work by people like Cathy Cohen, Joan Morgan, Elizabeth Mendez Berry, Gwendolyn Pough, Lisa Fager, Rosa Clemente, Kuttin Kandi, Afrika Bambaataa, Davey D, Mark Anthony Neal, Byron Hurt, Paul Porter, and thousands of others, from the academy to the newsrooms to the steps of Hot 97 has complicated this idea. Their work actually made it possible for the Imus issue to reach critical mass.

In the wake of the Imus episode, the conversation isn’t continuing toward more serious considerations of race, gender, sexuality, and power. The mainstream media has shifted its attention to Ludacris and Timbaland and the Democratic presidential candidates.

The fact that wealthy Black men like Timbaland and Ludacris might actually leverage power with campaign donations to Democratic candidates has come under fire. The question has become: What are the Democratic candidates–one a woman, the other a Black man–getting for their money? This new post-Imus story isn’t about power, gender, and race, it’s about the sanctity of the transaction.

In America, the thing we want to believe above anything else is that our money is clean. We ought not to have any guilt when we go to the cash register. (And for that matter, when we throw things away. Capitalism eventually turns most things into trash.) Here is one explanation of why CBS and NBC dropped Imus so easily–their advertisers were telling them that they didn’t feel right about transacting with a known racist.

This is the context in which Timbaland and Ludacris have been Imused. It’s not likely that Luda’s song about domestic violence and abuse “Runaway Love” will be getting much mention. It’s time to do a counter-lynching for the memory of Imus.

Every once in a while, culture does an interesting thing. It shows potential ways that society may change. The Imus episode, which is what made it qualitatively different from the Mel Gibson or Michael Richards meltdowns, revealed all kinds of ways that power might actually shift in this country. It suggested, in fact, that power might shift towards women and people of color.

So the flattening of context and difference, these false equivalencies that the media has made–all of this taking our eyes off the real targets.

Instead, what matters is that “the ‘ho’ problem”, as the NY Daily News woman writer puts it, continues. What matters is that everyone goes back to feeling OK about what we pay for and what we get for what we pay for.

posted by @ 11:00 am | 5 Comments

5 Responses to “Imus-ing Rap :: Capitalism, Race, Gender, and Speech”

  1. Darren says:

    Jeff, as always, I found your post to be thoughtful and informative.

    But allow me to ask you a question. You use the term “people of color.” How is this term different from the offensive term, “colored people?”

    I do not believe that using the term “color” in a prepositional term alters the meaning enough for this term to slip into the mainstream acceptance it has acquired.

    What do you think?

  2. Zentronix says:

    Actually that’s a great question. There is a different context for the two. The term “colored people” was used against the backdrop of legal racial segregation to refer to African Americans. The term “people of color” came into existence against the backdrop of “Third World” movements in the U.S.–the Black Panthers, Young Lords, I Wor Kuen, etc.–during the late 60s to refer to people not of European ancestry.

  3. Zentronix says:

    I should add too–because it goes to the question of context, and what can/can’t be said–if it isn’t already clear, that “colored people” was a term originating with whites, and that “people of color” is a term that originated with non-whites. That’s why the connotations are much different.

  4. Darren says:

    That’s an interesting answer. Certainly who first said something and how they said it makes quite a difference.


  5. Anonymous says:

    Here are more perspectives on the debate about hip-hop’s influence on American culture:

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