Copyright 2005 by Ewuare Osayande
Hardly anyone in the Black community would advocate, support or sanction the rape and sexual assault of Black women; yet everyday Black women are being assaulted by Black male rappers, hip hop culture and the recording industry that condones, supports and profits from it.
From the lyrics on the radio to the videos on the tube, Black male rappers engage in an aural and visual assault on the minds and bodies of Black women. This cultural attack on Black women would warrant a state-of-emergency even if the madness began and ended in the studios, but it doesn’t. More and more, Black men and boys are reciting these lyrics until they become the mental script that directs their interactions with Black women even as these tracks advocate the real-life hatred and violence toward women.
At face value, many would dismiss my description and assessment as being over the top, but upon close examination, one will realize that the critical condition of the situation cannot be overstated. My words fall way short of capturing the deadly effect misogynistic rap is having on Black women. The fact is that what many rappers are spewing is criminal by most societies’ standards.
According to Black’s Law Dictionary sexual assault is defined as
“Any willful attempt or threat to inflict injury upon the person of another, when coupled with an apparent present ability so to do, and any intentional display of force such as would give the victim reason to fear or expect immediate bodily harm, constitutes an assault. An assault may be committed without actually or striking, or doing bodily harm, to the person of another.” (p. 114)
As the definition clarifies, assault doesn’t need actual physical contact to be considered such. The mere threat of violence is all that is required. Clearly what rap has become, what it constitutes and perpetuates is a direct threat to Black women who relate to men who listen to and are persuaded by a music that prides itself on being the epitome of reality, not the studio-contrived production that it really is. Given this, Black women walk under the constant threat of being preyed upon by men that step to the beat of a sampled drum loop produced by platinum-laced pied pipers who proclaim themselves pimps.
The combination of violent lyrics and pornographic images result in a poisonous concoction that is literally numbing our youth to the deadly ramifications of what the record industry has made rap to be. Increasingly rap is becoming synonymous with rape as record execs are using rap to violate the minds of our youth with pornographic images even as it works to justify and perpetuate the actual rape of Black women.
What becomes clear through all of this is the role of the state and the corporate structure in producing an image of Black women as “bitch/ho” to substantiate their continued subjugation for the purpose of their economic exploitation. For example, if the corporate structure can convince young Black women at an early age that prostituting one’s body is not a bad life-choice and the state denies the majority of them access to a sound education and economic opportunity even as it demonizes them for making that “choice,” then the role becomes a self-perpetuating prophecy that gets fulfilled with each successive generation. In so doing, this form of social entrapment will ensure that elite men can reap the illicit economic benefits of this debilitating cycle.
Manning Marable describes in particular detail how this process emerged as it relates to the racist/sexist image of Black women and the impact that image would have on their actual lives.
“The Depression and war years produced within the popular culture the figure of the Sapphire: a Black woman who was ‘evil, treacherous, bitchy, stubborn, and hateful.’ The Sapphire stereotype was utilized by white males, who ‘could justify their dehumanization and sexual exploitation of black women,’ and by black males, who could reasonably ‘claim that they could not get along with black women because they were so evil.’” (p. 85)
Today, this has manifested in an inter-racial alliance of white and Black men who are reaping tremendous profits from the overt exploitation of this sexualized Sapphire stereotype. In truth it is a tri-racial alliance as many Asian execs, producers, writers, and artists are attempting to cash in on the crass display of subjugated Black female sexuality. As such, this capitalist assembly line production of CDs, DVDs and magazines amounts to a gang rape of Black female identity.
The now infamous image of a man swiping a credit card through the crack of a Black female’s backside in rap star Nelly’s video “Tip Drill” exposes the way these rappers, the recording industry and their eager clientele view Black women: as commodity, as property. Period. Their value is only determined by the degree that they can be violated.
But what Nelly and his fellow rap cohorts fail to realize is that for every time they swipe a credit card through a Black female’s behind and cash in on this oppressive profit-making scam, someone else is swiping one through their own asses as they remain bent in the position of submission to a system that views them as property too. But then again, maybe they do realize it, and just fail to care given the amount of fame and fortune that has come their way. But what we must realize is that there are millions of Black girls who are being violated in the name of hip hop culture and reap no profit from it whatsoever. And so the question that faces the Black community is: Do we care?
The lines between what is art and what is reality are blurring when artists’ marketability is based on a street credibility that they are expected to tote. And in too many cases Black women are the casualties of their rap mantra of “keeping it real.”
It has become an expectation that every gangsta rapper’s CD will have an obligatory “Beat that Ho” song in their rap repertoire. Gangsta rappers take the persona of the pimp as their street archetype of choice. To be a pimp means that the possibility of slapping, beating or otherwise assaulting a woman is just a look or a word away. This valorization of violence sits at the center of the current image of the rapper. And many rappers are being turned out by an industry that is invested in keeping Black men in the role of violent-prone sexual predator.
50 Cent, one of the most popular rappers on the scene today, is heard intimidating a woman on his 2003 top ten track, “P.I.M.P.” that stayed in rotation on radio for weeks upon its release: “Bitch choose with me, I’ll have you stripping in the street/Put my other hoes down, you get your ass beat/Now Nick is my bottom bitch, she always come up with my bread/The last nigga she was with put stitches in her head.”
Beanie Sigel’s “Watch Your Bitches” from his Def Jam release entitled The Reason takes an even more morbid turn when he threatens a woman with “bye bye bitch/fuck that red dress on/get a head step on/speed on before you get peed on/when I piss I don’t miss/get mad, scratch your ass and get glad/before I scratch your ass and get Glad bags/throw your shit out on the trash.”
The celebrated rap producer Dr. Dre is heard in his rap “Housewife” from the CD Dr. Dre 2001 saying, “Naw hoe is short for honey/almost had her wailing like Bunny/telling tales of being pregnant, catching Nordstrom sales with abortion money/I spotted her seeing her with my niggas when I shot at her.”
On Lil John’s track “Bitches Aint Shit” from the popular Crunk Juice CD, he regurgitates the master/slave relationship with him, a Black man, assuming the role of the master with the Black woman as his slave. “Acting all sophisticated spending money that she didn’t make/I get so mad that I could slap her acting like she Cleopatra/aint no need to ask she’s a slave to the money and I’m the master.”
Snoop Doggy Dogg has an entire track about beating women on his latest CD R&G: (Rhythm and Gangsta) The Masterpiece. The rap, “Can U Control Yo Hoe” has Snoop schooling another guy on how to beat the woman he is living with. The chorus is instructive in its brutality:
“Can you control your hoe? (You got a bitch that won’t obey what you say)/You can’t control your hoe? (She hardheaded, she just won’t obey)/Can you control your hoe (You’ve got to know what to do, what to say)/You’ve got to put that bitch in her place, even if it’s slapping her in her face/Ya got to control your hoe/Can you control your hoe?” Later in the track he says, “What kind of pimp holds back?/Never met a bitch that a pimp can’t slap/What’s wrong with pimpin’?”
This is the same Snopp Dogg that gets featured in movies and commercials selling fabric softener! It is also the same Snoop Dogg that produces porn and “Girls Gone Wild” videos. These self-admitted womanizers and women-beaters are rewarded and celebrated in our society, and we see nothing wrong with this?
Some might argue that this is just a case of “boys being boyz.” “No harm done. They’re just acting. It’s all entertainment.” But as an article in a recent issue of Vibe magazine delineates, this verbal assault is just a description of what many of these rappers actually do in their personal lives.
According to the article “Rap’s Black Eye” rapper Big Pun (now deceased) sent his wife Liza Rios to the hospital three times over the course of their ten year relationship and “prevented her from seeking medical attention on many other occasions.” Recounting one episode Liza Rios is quoted as saying, “One time he told me to change the batteries in his beeper … I totally forgot about it, and he took a lead pipe and started swinging on me. I had my daughter in my arms, and I told Cuban [Link, another rapper] to take the baby. After he finished beating me, my elbow was twisted out of place. I was limping for two months.” For Liza Rios and numerous other women, the last thing this is is entertaining.
As Elizabeth Mendez Berry questions expose the main issue here: “When you get paid to call every woman a ho, at what point do you start believing you are a pimp?” 50 Cent’s rap, “P.I.M.P.” would suggest as soon as the ink on your recording contract dries. And many rappers and would-be rappers are in agreement with him.
Rapper Mystical of “Shake that Ass” fame pleaded guilty to sexual battery after assaulting a woman in January 2004 – an incident that was caught on video tape. Damon Dash has had at least one order of protection granted against him and has been arrested several times for reported domestic abuse. Busta Rhymes has also had a restraining order imposed against him by a woman who has children by him. Rapper Charli Baltimore has gone on record describing the abuse she experienced at the hands of none other than the Notorious B.I.G. (Christopher Wallace). Also, friends of his wife Faith Evans have spoken out about how the bruises she covered under make-up and sunglasses didn’t stop until after his murder.
A childhood friend of Wallace has said that he “treated women like a pimp with his hos … He would talk about hitting them. He’d say things like, ‘She was out of pocket, so I had to put that bitch back in line.”
Biggie protégé and former partner of Dash, Jay-Z, would find himself embroiled in a controversy after video of him smacking on a woman repeatedly surfaced on the net. His Roc-A-Fella Records, in L.A.P.D. fashion, would have us not believe our lying eyes and claim that the video tape was wrong. Their press statement titled, “Jay-Z Was Not Beating a Woman,” is a clear attempt at damage control. They would have us believe that it was a case of Jay-Z just playing around with an old friend from the neighborhood. “Love taps. That’s all. She was enjoying herself as she was being knocked to the floor!”
The Black community’s relative reluctance to call this behavior for what it is – sexist – and resist it on all fronts as an act of sexual assault on all Black women, has resulted in the normalization and general acceptance of calling Black women by a name used to refer to a female dog. And once you start calling someone a dog, it is not a stretch to begin treating them like a dog.
Pearl Cleage details the socialization process that teaches us all to accept the dehumanization of Black women when she writes in Mad at Miles that,
“It is impossible to live in America and not be tainted by sexism and a participant in it, either as a victim or a perpetrator. As women, by the end of our African American girlhoods, we have learned and perfected a dizzying variety of slave behaviors which we are rewarded for mastering by the men who made them up in the first place.
As men, they were taught that we were inferior, unworthy of their respect, subject to their whim and present on earth primarily for their sexual pleasure and the bearing and mothering of their children.
We were all taught that it is acceptable for them to hit us when they think we have “asked for it” and that their opinions carry more weight in all critical decisions simply because they were men and therefore assumed to be of superior knowledge and more vast experience.” (p. 41)
No, rap music did not start the abuse, assault or rape of Black women, but it does advocate, glorify, justify and condone it – and as such – it works to reinforce and ensure its continuation and survival. Rap music and the rappers who create and produce it are responsible for the impact of their message on the minds of impressionable youth. When a sixteen or seventeen year old boy hears a rapper he admires counsel him to “smack that bitch,” why do we think that he would not consider doing that? What other force is as compelling that is advising him not to strike a woman, when the majority of mediums in American life only reinforce his destructive desires? Who are we fooling? None but ourselves if we think we can deny the impact rap(e) music is having on the minds and behavior of our youth. These would-be men are living their lives saturated by a socially accepted soundtrack that is riddled through with references to women as dogs that can and should be treated as such, kicked or killed at will.
In her article, Elizabeth Mendez Berry cites the scary stat that “Murder at the hands of a romantic partner is a leading cause of among African American women between the ages of 15 -24 according to the National Center for Health Statistics.” The bruised bodies of Black women in inner-city streets and suburban homes are proof enough of the damage being done in the name of being true to a game that nobody wins.
Further evidence of the normalization of abuse and assault of Black women is popuar New York radio station Hot 97’s “Smackfest.” Promoted like a pro boxing match, two women are squared off in a contest to see who can outlast who as they take turns smacking each other in the face with the hope of winning a consolation prize. In one video contest one woman is slapped to the point of busting her lip. The Black male DJ stops the match intervening with “we got mouth blood,” only to have them return and keep beating on each other.
Smackfest has currently been shut down by New York state officials after City officials intervened, citing a state law that protects people from dangerous and demeaning competitions. According to the State Athletic Commission, Smackfest is an unlicensed and illegal boxing match that could lead to Hot 97 executives and their parent company Emmis Communications being indicted and charged.
Smackfest represents the latest stage in the devolution of hip hop culture. Just when you thought the culture could not get any more crass, here comes Smackfest. Now that the abuse of Black women has been normalized, embraced and defended, poor Black women are being super-exploited and their rights violated to increase radio ratings. A stew of hyper-sexual sadomasochistic rhetoric and imagery bombards the senses of America’s youth everyday and Black females are the most targeted and hardest hit. And now many are being programmed to see no wrong in hitting each other. Rendered invisible as they are simply seen as hoes, bitches, nameless gold-diggers who will do just about any damn thing for a dollar even allow themselves to be peed, spat, or hit on for the hope of getting paid and being seen.
This Smackfest is very reminiscent of another exploitative and oppressive contest known as the Battle Royale. It is described in bone-chilling detail in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Black adolescent boys are blindfolded and herded into a makeshift boxing ring that is surrounded by the white men who watch them pummel each other until one is left standing. They are then carted into an adjacent space where the blindfolds are lifted enabling them to see a mound of coins and a dollar bills on a rug. They are told that they can have as much as their hands can carry. So they commence to grab with a greed born of impoverished need. Only to learn that it is all a hoax being played at their expense. As soon as their fingers touched the coins, they were sent convulsing in shocks of pain. The coins were charged and these white men sat there laughing in evil delight as they watched these bloodied Black boys electrified like live wire. That day those boys learned what it meant to be young Black and poor in America. It means to be vulnerable. It means to be easily exploitable. It means to be invisible. This is the same lesson Black women are learning about America today. And the irony is that many of their teachers are Black men.
Today Black men are choosing to emerge out of their invisibility against the shadowy backdrop of battered and bruised bodies of Black women. In the process muffling their voices and rendering their female truths invisible.
As the late Audre Lorde observed,
“Because of the continuous battle against racial erasure that Black women and Black men share, some Black women still refuse to recognize that we are also oppressed as women, and that sexual hostility against Black women is practiced not only by the white racist society, but implemented within our own Black communities as well. It is a disease striking the heart of Black nationhood, and silence will not make it disappear. Exacerbated by racism and the pressures of powerlessness, violence against Black women and children often becomes a standard within our communities, one by which manliness can be measured. But these women-hating acts are rarely discussed as crimes against Black women.” (p. 119-120)
It is that kind of communal silence that enables the rate of assault, rape and even murder to continue to wreak havoc and heartache in our community.
At the time of this writing, a 33 year-old Black woman named Lisa Eatmon was recently found dead in the Hudson River in New York. Eatmon was pregnant with Roscoe Glinton’s child. According to friend’s of Eatmon’s, Glinton, a Black man, wanted her to have an abortion, but Eatmon intended to give birth. Glinton, a suspect in this case, would lead police on a high-speed chase, having his wife and child in the car with him. He is currently in police custody. Police found blood at his workplace, a sanitation plant that sits right on the Hudson River.
This case could easily have been a rap song penned by B.I.G., Snoop or 50 Cent. But it isn’t. It is the real life account of the murder of another Black woman. It is a story that hovers like an imposing dark cloud over the lives of thousands of Black women each day who wonder if they will be next.
The normalization of the abuse of Black women only works to condone such crimes and leaves the Black community complicit in the beatings and killings that go down. No lyric is innocent when it advocates the outright infliction of violence on the bodies of Black women. We are implicated in this madness until it stops, for who will be the ones to stop it, except ourselves?
This truth is brought brutally home in the case of Cherae Williams, a Black woman from the Bronx who called 911 after being beaten by her boyfriend in September 1999 only to be beaten again by the officers who arrived on the scene. According to a CNN report, when police officers Damian Mercaida and James Caputo failed to intervene, Williams asked for their names and shield numbers. It was at that point that “Eyewitnesses say she was shoved into the police car and driven away.” Williams was then driven to a secluded area and assaulted by the officers. She would undergo surgery at the Bronx Lebanon Hospital to repair a broken jaw. “She also had a fractured nose and a large cut on her forehead.” Although both officers deny the charges, after the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau conducted DNA testing, they “found that blood stains from Caputo’s clothing and Mercaida’s handcuffs matched that of the victim.”
The case of Lisa Eatmon and Cherae Williams exposes the fact that for too many Black women there are pitifully few resources; they have no recourse. The justice system is trifling when it comes to enacting justice on the behalf of Black people in general. Our reluctance to acknowledge the sexism in our community and put an end to the abuse of Black women and girls is just as trifling. We are quick to rally when a sister has been raped by a white guy, but will deride the same sister if she is raped by a Black guy, especially if the Black guy is famous. Our contradictions only leave us wide open for criticism as a community.
If Black people cannot rely on the justice system for our protection, then we are especially pressured to act justly toward each other. And every ounce of our communal energy should be spent insuring such.
Those who refuse to address our intra-racial abuse and state their motivation as that “we should not air our dirty laundry,” are not dealing in reality. The fact is that the stench of our “dirty laundry” is being dispersed worldwide. It is being bottled and sold on the marketplace as the latest perfume and cologne as many in our community are profiting from the proliferation of pornographic and violent images of violated Black women.
When writing about addressing and putting an end to the abuse, I am not echoing the “respect and protect the Black woman” rhetoric that is the popular chant of some groups either. That rhetoric is just that. As good as it may sound to some, it doesn’t remedy the problem. Never mind the fact that it is problematic to begin with given that the slogan implies protection of Black women by Black men thereby reinforcing the notion that women should look to men for protection rather than create their own forms and forces of self-defense. It is not our duty as Black men to define protection for Black women. Rather, it is our duty to take their direction when it comes to how they want to be treated and addressed.
But sisters ain’t waiting on us brothers to get our act together. Although conditions are beyond dismal, Black women are not taking this lying down. Many women have been, and even more are becoming, active in their local communities. Black women all over this country are taking their bodies back from the marketplace, resisting violence and domestic abuse, redefining their relationships to men and this male dominant system.
Nationally, Aishah Simmons’ NO! The Rape Documentary has become a rallying cry for our times. Her nearly decade-long sojourn to give voice to the silenced memories of Black female survivors of rape, incest and sexual molestation stands as a clear example that African American women are refusing to remain silent.
When rapper Nelly wanted to host a bone marrow drive on Spelman’s campus, Black women protested to hold him accountable for his demeaning display of Black women in his music and videos. Moya Bailey, president of the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, and other student activists had to withstand a barrage of criticism from every side -- and did – in the effort to make their point. They were not about to allow Nelly to come to use them in his effort to make himself look good only to turn around and make another (s)exploitative video.
Conferences and community dialogues are taking place all over the country and many more are still needed. No only is our future at stake, our very present is precarious. What we do now is what matters most.
As Black men, we are challenged and encouraged by none other than the man that Ossie Davis called “our living Black manhood,” Malcolm X. Let us be guided in this work by Malcolm’s self-critical words as expressed in a letter written to his cousin-in-law Hakim Jamal just one month before his assassination as quoted in an essay written by Barbara Ransby and Tracye Matthews published in the anthology Words of Fire:
“I taught brothers not only to deal unintelligently with the devil or the white woman, but I also taught many brothers to spit acid at the sisters. They were kept in their places – you probably didn’t notice this in action, but it is a fact. I taught these brothers to spit acid at the sisters. … I taught the brothers that the sisters were standing in their way … I did these things brother. I must undo them.”
Let us in the spirit of “Our Living Black Manhood” also undo the spitting of acid at the sisters that still continues and in so doing build up a new generation of Black men who refuse to define manhood based on their ability to manipulate, control or otherwise threaten the lives of women.
Until we do, how can we expect Black women to trust us?
Pearl Cleage, speaking to women, gives us men direction on this question.
“If black men won’t admit that their sexism and male chauvinism and domestic violence are problems, how can we consider them allies in the search for creative solutions?
We can’t. Not yet. Not until they are willing to redefine their black male reality to incorporate the equally valid reality of our black female experiences. Not until they are prepared to recognize their role as oppressors in the struggle against sexism and see their crimes as no less serious than the crimes committed in defense of racism.” (p. 39)
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