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Monday, April 16, 2007
Updated: April 17, 1:13 PM ET
Imus shouldn't give hip-hop a bad rap

By Todd Boyd
Special to Page 2

Now that disgraced radio talk-show host Don Imus has been booted, can we finally get down to some "real talk" about the multiple issues embedded in this racial theater? There is a lot to sort through here, but after a week of debate centered around "nappy-headed hos," half-assed apologies, cries of censorship, and a curmudgeonly shock jock's lame attempt at being funny, many pundits have moved beyond the core issue and now are talking about the perceived double standard they feel exists between what Imus said and what often comes from the mouths of rappers.

Don Imus
Don Imus lost his job for using words that are commonplace in hip-hop culture.
Yet Imus and hip-hop really don't have much in common. Imus was host of a radio show that focused on the real news of the day, while hip-hop is a fictionalized form of cultural expression. Imus is real, featuring real guests and humor based on real topics. However loudly hip-hop might claim to be real, it is not real; it is a form of representation. This is why so few rappers use the names on their birth certificates when performing. Rappers are in essence characters performing a fictional life. Though the culture is rooted in the notion and style of authenticity, it is decidedly fictional. If not, the cops could arrest every rapper who talks about selling drugs or killing someone in his or her lyrics. So we should be judging hip-hop the same way we judge a novel, a movie, or a television show, and to do so means we have to afford hip-hop the same latitude we afford any other form of artistic expression.

Over the years, hip-hop has taken a lot of words -- "diss," "pimp," and "bling," for example -- that were once the exclusive domain of black street culture and put these words into widespread circulation. In many ways, one could say hip-hop took a private conversation and made it public. As hip-hop has grown from being a New York subculture into a global phenomena over the last 30-plus years, the language of the culture has come to present a number of complicated scenarios for a public that never really learned how to talk about race in the first place. There are times when I'm not even sure if we know what constitutes racism, really, short of someone getting beheaded while being dragged behind a pickup truck.

On this point, many in America feel that with the end of legalized segregation in the 1960s, racism ended as well. Thus, racism is often viewed as something confined to the PBS "Eyes on the Prize" documentary series from the 1980s. The fact that someone like Barack Obama is currently mounting a serious challenge for the Democratic presidential nomination further complicates matters for those who subscribe to this "racism is dead" thesis. How could a black man be considered for the presidency if racism still existed, they ask ever so discreetly?

Then there are those who seem to think racism potentially lurks around every corner. Any untoward gesture, remark, or idea, however slight or incidental, is thought to reflect America's problematic racial history rearing its ugly head once again. A good example of this type of paranoid thinking can be found in the 1992 film "Boomerang" where Martin Lawrence does a hilarious analysis of the racial symbolism of the colored balls on a pool table. In this line of thought, even the game of billiards has a racist undertone.

While neither of these extremes is ultimately relevant, extremes often draw the most attention. This means that those who feel there is no racism and those who feel everything is racist tend to get all the airtime, while the thoughtful and logical tend to get short shrift.

I thought about all of this while watching Imus and Al Sharpton on the latter's syndicated radio show. If ever there were two people who deserved each other, it would have to be Imus and Sharpton. While I am certainly not a supporter of Imus, I wish there had been a way to "fire" Sharpton as well. Sharpton needs Imus as much as Imus thought he needed Sharpton. Unless there are idiots like Imus who spout vile nonsense, then clowns like Sharpton wouldn't have anything to do. Sharpton and his race-baiting kin need public displays of racism in order for them to seem relevant. Racial opportunists like Sharpton are like ambulance chasers in this regard. So when the Imus train crashed, Sharpton was "Johnny-on-the-spot," ready to exploit fully every possible angle of this controversy for his own self-interest.

As the curtain closes on this most recent performance of racial theater, though, hip-hop culture and the controversial use of language has now moved to center stage. Does the Imus firing represent a racial double standard with regard to hip-hop? For those who believe the firing does indicate bias, their evidence would be that rappers use such language all the time and they seemingly get away with it. In this case, these people conclude that there is a censoring of free speech when it comes to white people and their discussion of racial issues.

This sentiment of a racial double standard goes back to the days of the landmark 1978 Supreme Court case, Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke, which helped to float the idea that came to be known as "reverse discrimination." Alan Bakke was a white male applicant to the medical school at the University of California, Davis, who had been denied admission several times. Bakke was regarded in some circles as a victim of reverse discrimination, because he had been denied admission, though several black students had been admitted under a quota system the school had used. In the end, the Supreme Court ruled quota systems unconstitutional and Bakke was admitted to the school. In the ensuing years, there were many who believed that the integration of black people into mainstream society came at the expense of whites.

Nelly
Nelly's "Tip Drill" video sparked a controversy in 2004.
Rappers have long been held accountable because of their speech. For people who do not really pay attention to hip-hop, but only focus on stereotypes of the culture, this is something they might not be aware of. Here are but a few examples: In 1990, The 2 Live Crew was arrested, taken to court and eventually acquitted on obscenity charges. In 1992, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton blasted rapper Sista Souljah and her lyrics, comparing Souljah's words to that of former Klansman David Duke. Ice T's single "Cop Killer" was deleted from the album "Body Count" and his band bearing the same name as the album was dropped by Time Warner because of the controversial song. William Bennett and the late C. Delores Tucker prompted congressional hearings on the impact of gangsta rap music in 1994, hearings that eventually lead to Time Warner selling its shares in Interscope Records and its rap subsidiary Death Row Records. Jennifer Lopez came under fire for her use of the n-word in the remix to her song "I'm Real" in 2001. A Nelly concert planned for Spelman College in 2004 was canceled because some of the women at this historically black woman's college felt his video for the song "Tip Drill" was demeaning to black women. Jadakiss received a great deal of heat for his rhetorical question "Why did Bush knock down the towers?" on his 2004 single "Why? "

The point is, hip-hop history is replete with examples of the culture being challenged over its lyrical content, in the court of public opinion as well as in the real halls of justice. To say that hip-hop has received a free pass on its language and sexual politics is simply uninformed and ignores the ongoing heated debate that has been raging for some time now on hip-hop's societal impact. I mean, who hasn't heard about Bill Cosby's senile rants against hip-hop the past few years? Critics of hip-hop are a dime a dozen these days.

In hip-hop, the widespread use of terms like "bitch" and "ho" is often interestingly set against the overwhelming admiration of the mother figure. A good example of this was the late Tupac Shakur, whose love anthem to the plight of single mothers, "Dear Mama," was getting much airplay at the same time that he was in court on sexual-assault charges. While many rappers have disparaged women in general, many of these same rappers often celebrate their own mothers as role models of feminine virtue. This contradiction exposes hip-hop's at its weakest, most indefensible point. Sexism in hip-hop works to undermine the culture's strength and overall message of racial and economic empowerment.

Though the culture has been progressive on a number of issues, when it comes to the representation of women, hip-hop is stuck in the 1950s. In order to address this, hip-hop must recondition its mind about women and their roles or else it will remain an easy target for those who want to see it shut down. Further, when rappers use these contested terms, it is often in relationship to women in general, as opposed to specific women. I guarantee you if a rapper was to single out the U.S. Olympic women's figure skating or gymnastics team by calling them the white equivalent of what Imus said, there would be a similar firestorm of protest and actions would be taken accordingly. The difference being that as one moves from the general to the specific, the stakes are raised accordingly.

Ultimately, the fact that rappers are now being held accountable for something Imus said shows the bias many people have against hip-hop culture. Hip-hop is often the scapegoat of everything gone wrong in America, but hip-hop didn't slander the Rutgers women's basketball team, Don Imus did, so let's stay on point here.

Let me add that if we are going to censor hip-hop, then let's not stop there. David Mamet has made a career in theater using similarly vulgar language like that in hip-hop, while Martin Scorsese has done the same in cinema. Are they not to blame, too? Should we be talking about canceling "The Sopranos" because of Tony's cursing? Perhaps Dick Cheney should have been impeached for his use of foul language toward a U.S. senator?

The point is, hip-hop didn't invent cursing, slurs, bad language, sexism or misogyny, though hip-hop like so many other fictional forms of the culture uses this type of language as a form of expression, however problematic it might be. This expression represents the way people in the streets talk. It might not be pretty or politically correct, but it is a unique form of fictional expression that emerges from the minds and mouths of young black men.

Censorship is a slippery slope. Once you start, it's not so easy to stop. Hip-hop is most certainly guilty of sexism in many cases. This is a point that cannot be denied. But the purpose of art is often to provoke, to shock, to annoy, to agitate, to say things that might not otherwise be permissible in real life. It might not always be appropriate, but it fulfills a purpose in a society that prides itself on free expression.

Which leads me to my final point. I'm not so sure that firing Imus was the best course to take. Don't get me wrong, I am not losing any sleep over this, nor have I or will I shed a tear. Imus has made a lot of money over the years being a crude, obnoxious, insensitive bigot. At least that's the persona he projected. He was like Archie Bunker, only not nearly as funny. His firing will lead many to regard him as a martyr, which he most certainly is not. I'm sure he already has begun negotiating another radio deal. Make no mistake about it, just like Trent Lott, Imus will be back in some form or another.

I have never spent five minutes listening to Don Imus. Why? Because I don't have to. I have choices. What is really great about America is there are choices. Haters of hip-hop don't have to listen to it, either. I don't particularly care for heavy metal or country music, but I'm not trying to censor it simply because I don't like it. They wave Confederate flags at NASCAR events all the time, but considering that NASCAR is not on my TiVo list, I could care less.

Let's be real about this. Again, context is important. What Imus did was insult a group of innocent young women for no apparent reason. At the end of the day, this was slanderous. It was the equivalent of a verbal drive-by shooting. One of the main reasons Imus ultimately was fired was because once people saw the poise and class of the Rutgers woman's basketball team, Imus' unprovoked comment came across as that much more egregious. Imus likely would not have used the same phrase to describe a team of white women, so he was being racially specific with his otherwise sexist comment.

Had Imus used the same phrase to describe, let's say someone like Star Jones, I doubt the furor would have been as strong. I'm not saying he would have gotten away with it, but Star Jones is someone who has generated enough public animosity that the insult would have seemed justified to many people. It also would have been personal. But considering Imus had no personal knowledge of the Rutgers team beforehand, and the fact the players simply were minding their own business after a great run to the NCAA finals, his unprovoked comments represented his own prejudiced view, not only of the team, but of black women in general.

The bottom line here is we should hold Imus accountable for Imus, and not use this as an excuse to censor hip-hop culture, because, at least as it pertains to the Rutgers women's basketball team, hip-hop is innocent of all charges.

Dr. Todd Boyd, a columnist for Page 2, is an author, media commentator and a professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. His next book "The Notorious Ph.D.'s Guide to the Super Fly '70s" will be published in June.