After the Don Imus firing over making "ho" jokes at the Rutgers women's basketball team, and in the wake of condemnation in some quarters that there is a most glaring double standard at play here, some black leaders have proclaimed they will rededicate themselves to the larger battle against the destructive nature of the gangsta-rap culture. A new leader is emerging. His name is Russell Simmons.
Simmons is one of a relatively new species in the American entertainment industry: the "rap mogul." A co-founder of the Def Jam rap label way back in 1984, Simmons was an early pioneer in taking this spoken-word genre -- one cannot call it "music" -- from the streets right into the American radio mainstream.
Def Jam records has a sorry history promoting vile gangsta-rap messages, but now Simmons is having serious second thoughts. He's proclaiming loudly and most eloquently that the street poets need to drop some words from that mainstream repertoire -- the N-word, "bitch" and "ho." These need to be considered extreme curse words, he says, and should be taken off the public airwaves, just like the famous "seven nasty words" that are banned, for the simple reason that children are in the audience. To be sure, some radio stations regularly edit such language, but many others don't.
He doesn't advocate dropping this language altogether, which is unfortunate. Simmons concedes that millions of adults listen to unexpurgated rap CDs, and he is unwilling to condemn it. Still, the move to take this off mainstream radio is a significant start. On "The O'Reilly Factor," Simmons declared, "I think that children, and parents, and every else who doesn't really understand the hip-hop community should have a choice. ... We want people to choose what they want. And if you turn on mainstream radio, you shouldn't have to hear these words."
Simmons has issued a statement from his Hip Hop Summit Action Network recommending the music industry get serious and form a voluntary Coalition on Broadcast Standards, consisting of leading executives from music, radio and TV industries. This coalition would recommend guidelines for lyrical and visual standards within the industries. He also recommended that the recording industry establish artist mentoring programs and forums to stimulate effective dialogue between artists, hip-hop fans, industry leaders and others to promote "better understanding and positive change."These actions are not making him popular in rap circles. But there are many blacks -- especially black women -- cheering him on for joining their longstanding opposition.
This was a big moment. Prior to this announcement, Simmons was clearly uneasy and sounded almost schizophrenic, vigorously defending the rappers' right to use the insulting words while simultaneously protesting them, calling them "misogynistic" and "racist." When he appeared on Oprah Winfrey's show last month, he argued the problem was larger than the music world, "Whether it's our sexism, our racism, our homophobia or our violence, the hip-hop community sometimes can be a good mirror of our dirt and sometimes the dirt that we try to cover up." Still, by the end of the show, Simmons agreed that rappers had a problem with obscene lyrics.
Defenders of nasty rap songs often make the argument that the nastiness merely reflects on society. The excuse-makers at the rap magazine Vibe now are arguing that the new sensitivity to language is some sort of a conspiracy to silence political speech. "The desire to police hip hop at the level of language does little to address the sexism, misogyny and homophobia that informs the treatment of black women in black communities and the larger society."
People trying to raise their children to have more respect for women than the "ho" culture provides are not buying the "mirror of our dirt" analogy. When a person gets up in the morning, the mirror reflects that they look groggy and unkempt. No one hails or blames the mirror for this image. It is high time the rap community clean up its act.
Russell Simmons should be hailed for daring to suggest rappers (and their moguls) groom their language, and leave their linguistic bad breath at home.