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Courageous women may tame hip-hop

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Like Rosa Parks before them, the activist women of Spelman College are intelligent and level-headed, insistent that theirs is a just cause, undeterred by the power of the forces arrayed against them. Unlike Mrs. Parks, the young Spelman feminists --- or "womanists," as writer Alice Walker prefers --- are not tackling the benighted laws of a white racist power structure. Instead, they are taking on the misogynous folkways perpetuated by a powerful and mostly black entertainment culture.

This week, veteran female rapper MC Lyte is joining the Spelman community for "Hip-Hop Week," which features panel discussions and assemblies critiquing the hypermasculinity and condescension toward women that are part and parcel of the genre. The Spelman effort is part of a broader grass-roots movement to change the tone of hip-hop lyrics.

That grass-roots campaign was given a boost last year when two Spelman students ignited a protest against St. Louis rapper Nelly, who was scheduled to visit the historically black women's college to promote a bone marrow drive. But students Asha Jennings, who was then president of the Student Government Association, and Moya Bailey, who led the college's Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, wanted no part of Nelly. They had seen his video "Tip Drill," which shows him swiping a credit card between a young woman's buttocks. As a result of the furor they started, Nelly canceled his appearance. (Jennings and Bailey have since graduated; Bailey is pursuing a Ph.D. at Emory, while Jennings is in law school at New York University.)

Not that Nelly seemed to understand their righteous indignation. His publicist pointed out that Nelly wanted to encourage bone marrow and stem cell donors because his sister, Jackie Donahue, had been diagnosed with leukemia. "To put him in this position is not right," she complained.

But just who put Nelly in that "position"? He did, by featuring a demeaning image of a woman.

And he doesn't stop with crude images. His lyrics are full of the "bitches" and "hos" (whores) that have become shorthand for "girls" or "women." Examples abound, but you should keep reading only if you have a tolerance for the rougher edges of popular culture.

And I'm looking for a modelin' ho, so let's go

Get it right --- six nights, six flights, (six shows)

Six checks, each one, six oh's (six oh's)

Six broads to choose, they six pros

Light-skinned Asian bitches with pink toes

--- "Pretty Toes," Nelly

Nor is Nelly the only offender. While twenty-something acquaintances chastise me for failing to hear the artistry in rap, the overwhelming message seems something rather more cliched --- sexism and a ferocious, unsocialized masculinity. Any artistry in this trash from 50 Cent?

I tell the hos all the time

Bitch get in my car (Bitch get in)

I got my 64, riding' on Dayton spokes

And when I open that do'

Bitch get in my car

--- "Get in My Car," 50 Cent

That doesn't even get to the mindless celebration of casual violence that dominates so much of the genre. Many rappers seem to believe that having criminal records enhances their celebrity and increases sales of their CDs. And, incredibly, they may be right.

By now, a generation of America's young adults, black, white and brown, has been weaned on this garbage, which only occasionally aspires to social protest or biting social commentary. Mostly, it's hypersexualized, profane and crude --- demeaning to women, contemptuous of gays and admiring of violence and criminality. So, call me an old fogey, but I pity a generation of young people who have rarely heard genuine love songs (Luther Vandross, after all, was more my generation than theirs) and who have become so desensitized to respect and courtliness toward women that they dance and writhe mindlessly to lyrics that call women vulgar names.

Don't count Spelman's courageous and thoughtful young activists ---women who have taken up the cause since the departures of Bailey and Jennings --- among that group. Like Mrs. Parks, they are fully prepared to go against the grain --- to pursue a lonely path in order to live out their principles. And maybe, just maybe, like Mrs. Parks, they'll inspire lots of others to follow them.

> Cynthia Tucker is the editorial page editor. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays.

Copyright 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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