Awa Nur, 18, loves rap music's seductive rhythms and irresistible beats.
So why does hip-hop scare the hell out of her?
The Herndon High school senior recounts picking up her little brother, Abdi, after a seventh-grade school dance. She was appalled that many of his 12-year-old female classmates were dressed -- or undressed -- like grown women.
"They were scandalous," Awa says of seventh- and eighth-graders in "skirts that barely covered their butt cheeks." Younger and younger girls, she says, "are moving faster and faster to become sex symbols."
Pushing them is the music she loves: hip-hop. Forget Britney. In Awa's neighborhood, "Girls are much more influenced by Lil' Kim."
Her fears remind me of a "Rock the Vote" summit last year in which hip-hop celebrities exhorted young people to vote. Most impressive was Roc-A-Fella Records's insightful former co-chief Damon Dash, who tenderly cradled his beautiful, preschool-aged daughter on his lap.
Standing to answer a question, Dash lowered his doll-like daughter to the floor. Instinctively, he did what protective dads everywhere do:
Adjusted her dress to make sure it covered her underpants.
The gesture spoke volumes: One of hip-hop's most powerful employers, the producer of endless footage of near-naked video gyrators, feels that female modesty matters. Clearly, Dash felt at least one young lady deserves protecting: his.
I loved it.
But what of the millions of little girls -- like many of the 60-plus percent of black girls whose mommies are unmarried -- whose daddies cannot or won't protect them?
Many Americans like me -- middle-class, busy, eternally distracted -- would rather not think about such girls. Sadly, one who was devoted to them just left us: C. Delores Tucker, who died Oct. 2. Among the first to publicly decry rap's misogyny, Tucker received death threats for her concern.
Tucker would have loved how, at a recent Gallaudet University discussion on education coverage, a beautiful, brown-skinned young woman stood and said: "Hip-hop is supposed to express the black community's struggle.
"But in truth, does it hurt or help us?"
It was Awa. "In videos, I see nothing but women . . . moving like strippers," explained the Somalia native, who's lived here since she was 7. "It's degrading. And I'm mad that nobody says anything."
Tucker said plenty. An Essence magazine series explored black women's demeaning portrayals in hip-hop music. African American pundits repeatedly lament the problem.
Nothing changes. Why?
Andrew Ryan, who teaches "Beats, Rhymes and Culture" at George Mason University, says that black male artists routinely "call out" fellow artists who "step over the line" by dissing their peers, "but on the female side, there's never any policing."
So when Lil' Kim bares her breasts onstage, he says, "there's no one who says: 'That's too far.' . . . You don't hear [Queen Latifah] telling Lil' Kim, 'That's too much.' "
Ryan grew up fatherless in the Bronx, inspired by such artists as Tupac Shakur. His admiration for hip-hop led him to create the Journal of Hip-Hop (www.hiphopmatters.org) to "support the youth of America through responsible use of Hip-Hop culture."
But while teaching 14- to 17-year-olds at a summer school, Ryan noticed how hip-hop's irresponsible side "trickles down." He saw casual, intimate touching and sexual gestures that "mimicked what kids see in videos," Ryan says. "That's what drives it."
So what drives the artists? A manager at a major hip-hop radio station tells me that when rap's biggest acts arrive, "they're in their oversized jerseys . . . talking slang." But behind closed doors, "their whole demeanor changes. . . . Some even say, 'Yes, ma'am,' " she says.
But booty-shaking sells, the manager continues. "It's about the money."
Well, money means survival. Sex can be a gift from a generous God. Those are facts.
So are these: More girls -- and boys -- than ever have father-free lives. If incarceration rates hold, 1 in 3 black males born in 2001 will be imprisoned at some point, according to the Department of Justice. The tragically high percentage of African American babies born to unmarried mothers directly contributes to that unbelievable statistic.
Far too many black fathers -- and would-be protectors of little black girls -- are absent. With far too many black mothers being underaged, poor, overextended or caught up in the street life, every black woman kids see who isn't a manipulator, druggy or slut -- even in videos, because black kids watch more TV than other kids -- matters.
In a disturbing report based on interviews with poor black youths in 10 cities, girls overwhelmingly said that they felt "devalued" by boys and that it made perfect sense for them to use guys, sexually and financially, rather than be used. Some said they're so gun-shy, they sexually experiment with other girls.
Does their music help or hurt?
Dash -- whom I admired for showing up at that summit when other advertised bigwigs never appeared -- can do more than pull down his baby girl's dress. He -- and hip-hop lovers everywhere -- can pull the coattails of an industry that encourages vulnerable little girls to act out in ways no little girl should.
Our children's futures aren't just about "the money." They must be about what we, as a people, can afford. The statistics we'd like to ignore represent real kids as shimmery with potential as Dash's daughter and my own sons.
C. Delores is gone, but Awa -- who tied for first place yesterday in a local high school forensics competition in which she spoke about "Hip-Hop and the African American Female" -- is here, asking questions millions should be asking. Like other smart, caring people, she knows:
No matter what sells, we are responsible for each other.