Offended? The Rap's on Me.

By Justin D. Ross
Sunday, September 9, 2007

When it comes to sexism and racism in hip-hop, I'm part of the problem.

Let me explain. I love hip-hop -- have ever since it first came on the scene when I was in elementary school. Over the years, I've bought hundreds of tapes, CDs and downloads, gone to countless rap concerts, even worn my favorite artists' clothing lines. We used to think of hip-hop as just a black thing, but it's not. The largest share of rap music sales in America goes to white listeners. That would be me.

So I'm not just sounding off when I say this: It's time for a boycott of all rap music that stereotypes African Americans or insults and degrades women. And in particular, the people who need to be doing the boycotting are white fans like myself.

In the current debate over whether hip-hop has become degrading to women and harmful to race relations, I've heard quite a bit from black activists, some of whom have fought for years against the sort of lyrics I'm writing about, and I've gotten several earfuls from black rap artists. But I haven't heard a peep from the white fans who essentially underwrite the industry by purchasing more than 70 percent of the rap music in this country, according to Mediamark Research Inc. I don't presume to tell any artist, studio executive or record label what to record or not record. But I will presume to ask young white customers: Why are we buying this stuff?

Across the country, white kids in comfortable suburban neighborhoods (mine was Greenbelt) sit in their cars or bedrooms or studio apartments, listening to the latest rap music that glorifies violence, peddles racist stereotypes and portrays women as little more than animals. We look through the keyhole into a violent, sexy world of "money, ho's and clothes." We're excited to be transported to a place where people brag about gunplay, use racial epithets continually and talk freely about dealing drugs. And then we turn off whatever we're listening to and return to our comfy world in time for dinner.

But music is powerful. You can't just turn it on and off with a switch. Back in 1989, rap music had this white kid wearing a leather African pendant and reading Malcolm X because Chuck D did. Before I graduated from Kenmoor Middle School, I was ready to "Fight the Power" because Public Enemy told me to (even though I didn't really know what that meant).

But it has been a long time since Public Enemy. Some hip-hop artists (the Roots, Talib Kweli, D.C.'s own Wale) still succeed without using stereotypes and misogyny, but too much of today's rap goes another way: It's full of drug dealing and killing, and it portrays women as sex objects. A generation ago, at least some element of hip-hop remained loyal to the civil rights movement. Now songs talk so casually about selling crack and committing murder that listeners are desensitized to the words' effect.

Let's be clear about what we -- rap's huge white audience -- are becoming insensitive to: crime against black people, drugs being sold in black neighborhoods, black people being killed. I think this desensitization is partly responsible for the absence of discussion about the cruel fact that, according to a 2001 study by the Department of Health and Human Services, the leading killer of African Americans ages 15 to 34 is homicide. It may also help explain why you'll seldom hear politicians talking about another awful statistic: According to the same study, African Americans are five times more likely than whites to be victims of homicide.

So who are the rappers really aiming at? Many rap songs use the "N-word" a dozen times or more. But I can count on two hands the number of times I've heard the words "whitey" or "cracker" in rap music. I wonder: If the Grand Wizard himself owned a record label, how much different would the music sound?

I also wonder what would happen if rap artists started talking about selling dope in the suburbs, or shooting white people or beating down white men. Would rap's comfortable white fans continue to consume it? I suspect the record companies wouldn't even sell it. Like the majority of people who buy rap music, the majority of people who get rich off it are white. That sort of thing might hit a little too close to home for hip-hop's fans and profiteers.

The other day, my 3-year-old wanted to listen to some music on my iPod. Before I let her, I checked out what I had on there. Much of it was trash I wouldn't let her listen to. I've been waxing intellectual for years about the state of rap and how it needs to change, and there I was, looking at my iPod and seeing songs such as "Hustlin'," "Bury Me a G" and "Poppin' My Collar," all of which are guilty of the very offenses I just decried and all of which I purchased within the past year.

That's when it hit me: I'm the problem. It's time for me and others like me to own up to our role in peddling degrading hip-hop. Of course, I can't legislate a boycott of offensive rap, except for myself. And that's exactly what I plan to do.

Justin D. Ross, a Democrat, represents

Prince George's County in the Maryland House of Delegates.

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