It seems like just yesterday that Rick Ross upset critics by using poverty in Nigeria as a backdrop to his celebration of personal affluence. Now, on the track “U.O.E.N.O. (you ain’t even know it),” he's raised the ire of hip-hop observers again, this time by seemingly condoning rape. In a song for rapper Rocko's upcoming mixtape Gift of Gab 2, he says: “Put molly all in her champagne, she ain't even know it... I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain't even know it.”
Responses from cultural critics, feminists and hip-hop enthusiasts have ranged from outrage to indifference to intentional silence. While
some are speaking out about the rapper’s glorification of rape, there are also those whose unwavering allegiance to the artists and their music has led to a code of silence about promotion of drug and rape culture in hip-hop. Meanwhile, many have long ago developed apathy toward's the state of rap music, choosing not to weigh in or dismissing it as "the same ole same ole."
But the problem is much bigger than what artists say and what we are or aren't silent about. Let's keep in mind there are the record label executives who are out of the public’s eye but were complicit in the production of this song as well. Ross’ lyrics are sickening and incomprehensible, but one has to wonder how these recordings ever see the light of day. Who green lights these songs for release? Do record labels have internal checks and balances? It can’t be that anything goes, right? It seems that solely focusing on the artists themselves isn’t resulting in lasting change so we must shift our attention- once again- to the steps of the corporate offices that mass produce these kinds of misogynistic and criminal messages.
Indeed, too often, women are the burden bearers that hold men, particularly public figures, accountable to this type of recklessness. We push conversations forward via social media, write open letters to corporations, start petitions and seek to untrain young men in the ways of rape culture. Hip-hop activist Rosa Clemente, for example, created a video response to the song, saying, “We live in a society [where] by the time that African American women and Latina women are 18, nearly half of them - 44 percent - have been sexually abused.”
Women engage in these forms of resistance because it is often our own bodies, relationships, lives and futures that are at stake. But we also fight with the well-being and protection of all women and families in mind, knowing that the ripple effects of sexual violence impact entire communities’ sense of safety and trust.
There are always men in the trenches with us. Often, these men are just as outraged as we are. They willing use their platforms to shame men like Rick Ross for their social irresponsibility, disregard for women and disrespect of hip-hop culture. And it’s often the record industry that is the target of this outrage.
Paul Porter, founder of Rap Rehab and Industry Ears has been using his influence to hold the music industry accountable for over thirty years now. He says, “They have to start hearing our voices and we have to affect their pockets. We have to put pressure on everything they put out. Public pressure in the form of protest and financial pressure in terms of pulling ads and hurting sales and marketing.”
Still, there are many black men who seek to remain within the margins of the dominant hip-hop culture. Many of these men have bought into limited definitions of masculinity and are scared to be "outed" as weak, a hater, or - God forbid - gay if they speak out. There are, of course, even many women who fight endlessly to prove that the lyrics are about "those" women and not "me" or “us.”
Porter goes on to argue that artists should not be solely responsible for their lyrical content. According to him, the bar is being set increasingly lower and many are relying on shock value for mass appeal. This might explain why it seems the lyrical content gets progressively worse in its promotion of violence and drugs. And with media outlets not doing the best job in self-policing the airwaves, references to “Molly” and other drugs continuously get heard on the radio and in music videos.
“Somebody is responsible at every record label for what gets approved,” says Porter. “These are the people that we never talk about. The guys that profit the most never get talked about. Until the pressure is at the top - the bottom is never going to change. Rick Ross is just a pawn.”
There are times when I question the power of our voices against these massive corporate machines. What could we write/say that hasn't already been written/said? What could we do that would actually hurt their bottom line? And if we reach one artist, aren’t there hundreds of others who are just the same?
I was encouraged to read that Michigan-based urban radio station WUVS-lp 103.7 (The Beat) decided to pull all Rick Ross and Lil Wayne music from its rotation, saying in a press statement: “While we believe in freedom of speech, creative writing and individualism, we refuse to be part of the problem by spreading messages that could harm or end someone’s life.”
What difference it would make if record label executives had the same commitment. Just in case they don’t know the power they have, I encourage you to sign this petition to ensure they know now.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post. She is the founder and editorial director of Urban Cusp , an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT .