The inherent bias of this hiphop documentary became most glaring, however, when – not until three-quarters through – it finally turned to the proverbial elephant in the room: white corporate control of the rap music industry. Until then, the filmmaker was content to let the viewer believe that the growth of flagrant sexism and even assaultive misogyny in rap was solely the fault of Black male rappers. Ironically, the documentary itself underrepresented conscious women voices in hiphop. The music industry, as anyone who has even casually studied the rap music scene knows, and as the documentary – eventually – grudgingly admitted, took active steps to increasingly promote the “bitch ’n ho,” “bling-bling,” bustin’ ’n bangin,’ shootin’ shit up, rap music that whites racistly and hypocritically love to condemn, while virtually shutting the door on any Black male performers who didn’t want to play into that stereotype.
PBS: Blaming Blacks, Again
By Joseph Anderson
PBS stations around the country recently aired a documentary, Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes (possibly archived online at PBS, YouTube, other video file archives, or via torrents files, etc.), by filmmaker Byron Hurt, which examined the subject of violence, misogyny and homophobia in contemporary rap music. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Hurt also appeared on radio station KALW’s Your Call Radio program (archived at yourcallradio.org on 2.21.07) to discuss the documentary. He was joined in the dialogue by Jeff Chang, the prominent hiphop journalist/history author; “Jen,” with the San Francisco hiphop collective Sisterz of the Underground; and Juba Kalamka, a gay hiphop critic.
While it’s certainly important to acknowledge and address the issues of misogyny, homophobia and noncontextual or glorified violence in rap music, the documentary (and the related Bay Area radio panel discussion) was a partial disappointment. Both the documentary and the radio discussion usually fell into a rather predictable, comfortable (especially for whites), ollld pattern that can be seen or heard again and again. This is where Black socioculture is disproportionately singled out, stereotyped and scapegoated for some social ill as uniquely pathological compared to white equivalents. But rap music is just a medium (like rock music or even books): it’s not inherently anything, either good or bad.
All A Matter of Who’s Really Tha Pimp
However, it appears that no one is going to make any money – or get paid doing a TV documentary – examining misogyny, homophobia or glorified violence in American society and popular culture across the racial board. Nor will anyone get paid and win Hollywood film awards (like the 2006 Academy Award-winning “Best Song” rap ‘minstrel show’ performance, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp”) for doing a nationally-aired documentary on sociopolitically conscious rap music on any of the major television networks. Tell me that song wasn’t singled out and awarded by purposeful white design – that’s how the white media want to see young Blacks, as wanna-be pimps and “video ho’s” – rather than film songs like “Fight the Power,” or even “New Jack Hustler.” I’d vote for “Burn Hollywood Burn” in a hypothetical Black film.
Rather, such documentary or news producers constantly have to pander to white prejudices and stereotypical fears about "the predatory, violent Black man." Ironically, such documentary makers are also pimping out such visions of Black pathology (of pervasive violence, misogyny or homophobia) to whites the same way various Black rappers (are often coerced to) sell glorified, fictionalized, or vicarious tales of their hoo-ridin,’ megagangsta lifestyles to white listeners. Such supposedly informed documentary stereotypes are also fed to white authority figures like the police, the employers or the teachers who would use that to, literally or figuratively, at their whim, beat down Black males.
These stereotypes are constant media fodder on heavy rotation, rather than to portray rap music about political, social consciousness or reality rap (which would even include authentic forms of gangsta rap) whose messages, after all, would be critical of the system that produces or reinforces violence, poverty, racism, sexism and economic exploitation at home and abroad. This would give regular white society a more honest window into those aspects of Black society and the world – and the rich white men who make money off of this.
The documentary includes a few token references to violence in white popular culture, such as action movies, but breezes past the fact that entertainment media created by whites, aimed at predominantly white male audiences, is, if anything, far worse across the board: for example, in video games (often a serial pornography of point-scored lethal violence, even car-jackings and often rape) – and especially when it comes to the sexual commodification and exploitation of, or violence against, women. Nor does the misogyny found in some rap videos compare to the suggestively violent visuals against women in many heavy metal videos. This is aside from the serial, pornographized, cat-&-mouse, sadistic torture-murder of often scantily attired females that’s sensationalized in popular horror-slasher films as entertainment. In fact, nowadays, ironically, it’s middle-class, affluent and rich white people in real life, or in movies, TV dramas, sitcoms (even little white kids), or on talk shows, who can’t seem to resist saying “bitch” – or even the more emphatic and colorful “BEEYATCH” – all the time.
The video segment of young Black males on a spring break beach shown in the rap documentary doesn’t even begin to compare to the wild open all-but-intercourse sexual exhibitionism, sexually explicit catcalls, sexual palming, and the show-everything prancing strip-offs at some beach or marina in any spring break "Girls Gone Wild" video. If anyone really wants to see rampant white sexual behavior, all they have to do is to take a trip to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, or Padre Island, Texas, to see the corporate (usually beer company) sponsored wet t-shirt contests and strip shows for and by white college students, the de rigueur wild drunkenness and carefree drug use, let alone the promiscuous stranger pick-ups and sexual free-for-alls back at the hotels. This involves mostly white late-teen and 20-something kids – male and female. And one can’t avoid the giant “Hooters” ad at a certain San Francisco ballpark – and a ball park trip is supposed to be wholesome family entertainment. What does this say about the ballpark and team owners’ respect for women, or teach boys about respect for girls, or girls about respect for their identity?
But none of this larger context was examined – across the board – by the documentary, nor was that meaningfully examined by any of the panelists on the radio program. That would involve criticizing white media and corporations and the white men who make millions of dollars off of that. Instead, they basically allowed the implication to stand analytically unchallenged that this sort of attitude or behavior is singularly common and virulent in primarily Black male socioculture.
But, note former Mickey Mousekateer, former teeny-bopper idol, and admitted (“former”) habitual illicit drug-user, white boy Justin Timberlake’s new hit album, “FutureSex/LoveSounds.” You remember Justin Timberlake: the guy who tore away one side of Janet Jackson’s bustier and bra during their 2004 NFL Super Bowl half-time show performance. (This also raises the issue of the customary presumption of white hands to gratuitously place themselves, almost at will, upon minority bodies, for any pretextual reason, to assert either a superior, disciplinary or, historically by white men against females, a sexual authority.)
Timberlake’s album has a warning label for its sexual “you-know-you-want-it” lyrics. One song is entitled, “Damn Girl,” where he exclaims, “bitch you're bad as hell!” Or, another where he brags to a girl, “I got sexy ladies all over the floor …That'll do anything that I please!” Or, there’s the hit song, “Sexy Back”: “I'm bringing sexy back / Them other boys don't know how to act / I think your special what’s behind your back / So turn around and I’ll pick up the slack / Them other f**kers don't know how to act / Come let me make up for the things you lack / Cause you’re burning up I gotta get it fast!” Or, there’s other song lyrics, “She's hopped up on me / Her body's pressed up on me / I think she's ready to blow / Baby all you gotta do is / Just tell me which way you like that.” Or, “She’s freaky and she knows it / She’s freaky and I like it.” Or, “Well I'mma freak you right, each and every night.” Or, “Simon says touch yours while you touch mine.” All this, on an album which reportedly sold some 685,000 copies to essentially white fans (male and female) just in the first week of its release! – and its song websites can get well over 2 million visits. But no one is pathologizing such white male scandalous sexual swaggering.
The PBS hiphop documentary makes it look like only Black male rap artists have cavalier, sexist or misogynistic attitudes toward women. But where are the documentaries focusing on all the sexism, misogyny, womanizing, abusiveness, excessive drinking, illicit drug use, violent tendencies or otherwise socially untoward behavior by iconic white Western artists of all kinds? Where are the video clips showing how many white rock stars have often had their road crew hand-pick female groupies from the audience after a concert to deliver to those musicians for one-night stand sex – even sometimes having the women strip for aesthetic inspection according to the rock stars’ specified favorite body types?
Similarly, when the media lauds a film about an African leader, it has to be about Idi Amin, right? Where are the big budget Oscar-winning films delving into the psychopathology of the many white genocidal colonial heads of African states? Or, better yet, where’s a big budget Oscar-winning film about someone like a Kwame Nkrumah? Nkrumah was a black consciousness, pan-Africanist freedom fighter and the first president, democratically elected, of the first sub-Saharan African country, Ghana, to win independence from European colonial rule. This was a leader later overthrown by the CIA and who died in exile.
Racial Statistical Stereotyping
The documentary also flung out statistically misleading and out-of-context percentages, like “Black women are 35% more likely to be victims of assault.” That implies that Black men are 35% more likely to be rapists or violent. This reinforces the stereotype of Black men as “hyper-aggressive” – especially sexually so – and thus as sexual predators. This is a canard popularized in white-American society in the movie Birth of a Nation – a movie which gave great impetus to the KKK terrorist movement and, not so incidentally, financially rescued the Hollywood studio MGM. White-American society loves to correlate negative criminal statistics or social ills on the basis of minority race – but especially when it comes to Blacks.
As this writer has written in other articles (see “Bell Hooks Black Male-Bashing” or “Uppity Black Man Banned from Cody’s Bookstore,” available online), only when it comes to Blacks must a "uniquely" Black pathology be theorized (and a racial statistical correlation automatically sought, if legitimate studies are even done) in a theoretical assumption or "given" that Black males are fundamentally different from (even socially, educationally or economically, similarly-situated) white males.
It’s the same as those undifferentiated statistics often brought up in the media that say that, according to 2004 government CDC studies, Black women are 2300% more likely to have AIDS than white women. It’s doubtful that Black women in college or otherwise intellectually oriented, or on university faculties, or in solidly middle-class or affluent neighborhoods, or in stable marriages, or weekly church-goers, are so much more likely, in quadruple percentages, to have AIDS (whether from prostitution, intravenous drug use, secretly gay husbands, or just Black “social segregation”) as opposed to white women. It’s similarly doubtful that Black women from securely middle class or affluent backgrounds are much more likely than white women of similar economic backgrounds to be victims of violence. Black women are probably far less likely than white females to be killed by mass murderers that seem to strike at least every few months somewhere at various high schools or workplaces across the country.
Why don’t pundits ever statistically associate negative social or criminal behavior with age, income level, education, class stratum, or for that matter privilege (either the moneyed status to more easily engage in vice or the ability to get away with it), or social setting (like white frat houses and drug-/alcohol-facilitated rape), geographical location, neighborhood stability (regardless of economic class), big city vs. small towns, or even male height & weight? Color has nothing genetically or inherently to do with human qualities (either positive or negative), any more than hat size – which could also be meaninglessly statistically correlated to something criminal or sociologically negative – as the Nazis used to do with European Jews and other minorities in their "racial" craniometry studies and the measurement of other physical features, like ears. By buying into those misleading so-called "statistics" without question, context or deeper analysis, the documentary helps further build, promote and reinforce white theories of virulent Black pathologies.
Racial statistical stereotyping of this type is so ubiquitous and pernicious that it even once led Jesse Jackson to say that, “When I see or pass by a group of young Black males on the streets, I too am afraid.” Question: were the young Black males loitering on a drug or pimp corner – or with their musical instruments near a Lincoln Center conservatory, holding a set of books coming from their college, toting chess boards on the way to some park tables, conversing at a sidewalk cafe, or just hanging out on their front steps jivin’?
Hyping Black Homophobia
The Black "homophobia" angle was also played up far too much in the documentary. Blacks are not more homophobic than whites; that’s another one of white-America’s racial stereotypes about Black males. Homophobia is quite alive and well in white society in most male institutions from the Boy Scouts right up to the military Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Pace’s decree that homosexuality is immoral and unacceptable. This was as also recently exemplified from the nationally popular, right-wing, bombastic airhead and frequent mainstream talk show guest Ann Coulter’s explicitly anti-gay “faggot” epithet (roundly received with laughter from her white audience).
In fact, white males are typically more violently (even murderously) homophobic – even against white lesbians – than are Black males. Young Matthew Shepard’s beater torture killers were white (two murderers and two accessories to murder), Shepherd having been beaten-up on at least two previous occasions by no one Black; so were Brandon Teena’s killers white (in a brutal triple murder along with two friends of his, where the white local sheriff completely ignored a previous rape against Teena by the murderers) – in a strongly anti-gay atmosphere in among two of the whitest states in the Union. White comedian Norm MacDonald quipped, without penalty, on the predominantly white Saturday Night Live TV show that Teena deserved to die.
Gay males in Black communities may occasionally be looked upon with disapproval, or even made fun of by some straight males, especially as kids, by kids. But there haven’t been any Black homophobes who have left any gay people, half beaten to death, left tied up like a scarecrow on some country fence to die in the freezing night (even taking the victim’s shoes) on some windswept field in a brutal kidnapping-murder, as happened with Shepard. And there are no Black crowds who parade at even some murdered gay victim’s funerals – or even military funerals of gay soldiers killed in Iraq – with signs saying “God hates fags,” while the victim’s family is deeply and doubly grieving over the death and the very senseless cause itself of the death. The Bible has been responsible for far more misogyny, homophobia, and violence than rap music ever has.
The federal government refuses to even legally recognize hate crimes or discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and it’s the federal government that refuses to include gays/lesbians, as such, in any kind of legally protected status. As for the white military hierarchy and misogyny, one female soldier (Spc. Mickiela Montoya), one of many who face/d routine sexual harassment, exploitation, assault or rape from male superiors and peers, and females often having to carry their weapons just to go to the latrine, said that, “There are only three kinds of female the men let you be in the military: a bitch, a ho, or a dyke.” (“The Private War of Women Soldiers,” Salon.com)
A particular grievance of the hiphop documentary was that Black males don’t want to talk about homoeroticism in rap music. Again, however, this has nothing at all to do with Black rap music, per se, as opposed to white popular culture. Of course, no straight Black males typically want to talk about homoeroticism in rap music. Straight white males don’t typically want to talk about homoeroticism, either, in their rock or country music, or in their fraternity hazing (typically sexualized), or, especially, in their male “buddy” cop movies (analytically known for their “my partner is closer and more important than my wife” homosexual undertones), or in just about anything else.
The Big White Elephant in the Room
The inherent bias of this hiphop documentary became most glaring, however, when – not until three-quarters through – it finally turned to the proverbial elephant in the room: white corporate control of the rap music industry. Until then, the filmmaker was content to let the viewer believe that the growth of flagrant sexism and even assaultive misogyny in rap was solely the fault of Black male rappers. Ironically, the documentary itself underrepresented conscious women voices in hiphop.
But, the final segment about the music industry thoroughly undermined that premise of singularly Black male misogyny and homophobia! The music industry, as anyone who has even casually studied the rap music scene knows, and as the documentary – eventually – grudgingly admitted, took active steps to increasingly promote the “bitch ’n ho,” “bling-bling,” bustin’ ’n bangin,’ shootin’ shit up, rap music that whites racistly and hypocritically love to condemn, while virtually shutting the door on any Black male performers who didn’t want to play into that stereotype. One of the foremost hiphop journalists in the country, Davey D, has covered this issue with rappers innumerable times in broadcast and in print.
Once major entertainment conglomerates essentially took over rap music (especially by buying out formerly independent rap labels), the content and character of rap music drastically changed. This was true not only in terms of lyrics, but even in the public personae of rappers, some of whom were even encouraged or coached to behave in public (such as during interviews) in ways that were consistent with their supposedly "gangsta" lifestyles or affectations.
The documentary provided the viewer with the sad spectacle of several aspiring young Black rappers from poor Black neighborhoods performing for the camera – the kind that white society has long tracked away from college classes that reflect on gender consciousness issues. The rappers began with typically "violent" lyrics, but then in conversation afterwards they readily disclosed that they didn’t necessarily want to limit themselves that way. They simply knew that they wouldn’t have any chance of ever being signed (or as one aspiring rapper said, “just trying to feed my family”) unless they conformed to what the white recording labels wanted. So, this isn’t some uniquely Black male pathology at work; rather, it’s white distortion, misappropriation and white cultural colonialism of Black-American culture – an exploitation as old as Black-American culture itself.
Had the documentary addressed the record industry early on, instead of at the very end, the entire tone, context and direction – and thus its content and analysis – would have been different. Misogyny and violence in rap would have been presented not as, in particular, a dysfunction of Black culture, but rather what it really is: more a byproduct of the white corporate entertainment drive to commodify everything at the lowest common denominator (often especially women). The documentary, as well as the guests on the radio panel, could have emphasized that the rap music that is violent, misogynist or homophobic doesn’t create such social ills – it reflects those structural and social ills in both the entertainment industry and in the larger society: it ain’t just "a Black thang."
Joseph Anderson is a resident of Berkeley, CA, a San Francisco Bay Area progressive political activist, a local media monitor, an occasional KPFA-fm radio guest, and an occasional contributing sociopolitical columnist/commentary writer for various publications.
Originally appeared in spring 2007 issue of Konch Magazine.