Hip-hop `cleanup' involves more than musicians

By Davey D, San Jose Mercury News

In the aftermath of the Don Imus controversy, hip-hop remains at center stage, as everyone from Oprah to local church groups holds town hall meetings, round-table discussions and seminars on why and how hip-hop should be cleaned up.

I have been part of the discussion on radio shows from here to Chicago and New York. It is clear that significant numbers of people are tired of song after song with misogynistic, violent and materialistic themes. And, as I noted in my April 12 column, the majority of hip-hoppers also are tired of these themes. Many have been protesting and working diligently for change.

One discussion topic has been a call for personal responsibility. I've heard everyone from Al Sharpton to women at Atlanta's Spelman College, where a protest against degrading hip-hop themes demanded that Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Nelly and other artists behave more responsibly.

And, yes, ideally these men should regret the hurt and angst their lyrics cause. But sadly, their ideas of responsibility are not always the same as ours. Having met and interviewed many of them, I know they often equate "being responsible" with "being true to their artistic vision" and with making money to care for their families and loved ones. For some artists, delivering a shock to the senses of the audience is the whole point.

Complicating the issue are the millions of corporate dollars pumped into marketing some of the offensive songs and
artists. While I agree that artists should be responsible for what they say, I also believe music industry executives need to be held accountable for what they promote and play. There are dozens of Snoop Dogg wannabes in every community. There's only one Sumner Redstone, whose Viacom is home to VH1, MTV and BET, which reach millions of people daily.

When Nelly was shown in his "Tip Drill" video on BET swiping a card between the buttocks of a woman, we must remember that occurred on Redstone's watch. It was his executive team, which includes BET president Debra Lee and vice president Stephen Hill, who allowed those images to go on the airwaves.

Ironically, this is the same Redstone who has censored words or images of then-popular performers such as Public Enemy, Brand Nubian and Paris when they made statements about police brutality or racism. This is the same Redstone whose company censored Kanye West for rapping about how white men profit from black pathologies in "All Falls Down." But Redstone is just the tip of the iceberg.

Def Jam Records founder Russell Simmons, who recently reversed an earlier stand by calling for a ban on words such as "bitch" and "ho" in rap songs, told viewers of the Oprah show that artists should be allowed to say whatever is on their hearts and minds, but that radio should not play their excesses on the airwaves.

It's interesting that hardly any of hip-hop's harshest critics, including Bill O'Reilly, seem eager to blame radio executives such as Lowry Mays and Mark P. Mays of Clear Channel; or Jeffrey H. Smulyan and Rick Cummings of Emmis Broadcasting; or Dan Mason and Richard Lobel at CBS Radio; or Robert F. Neil and Marc W. Morgan of Cox Radio; or Cathy Hughes and Alfred C. Liggins at Radio One, to name a few.

But shouldn't we be holding their feet to the fire, and asking why they play salacious material with little or no balance? Instead of the O'Reilly types asking Ludacris about a song where he brags about having "hos in different area codes," shouldn't they be asking Cathy Hughes or Jeff Smulyan why their stations kept playing it?

I recall an incident that showed just how far removed from reality some of these executives were. Several years ago, comedian Steve Harvey started working for Radio One, the largest black-owned radio network. On a panel, he spoke about leading a listener mutiny of sorts against his bosses, who had refused to play artists such as Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and India.Irie. Harvey found their music uplifting, and argued it gave some balance to the playlist. But his bosses told him black women didn't want to hear that sort of stuff and refused to play it. Harvey appealed to listeners, asking them to call in and protest. It was a bold move that would have resulted in the immediate dismissal of any other DJ, but Harvey was the talk of the town then, just too popular to fire.

In a recent letter to U.S. senators, Lisa Fager, president and co-founder of the media-watch group Industry Ears, posed this question: If NBC were to show a porn movie at 5 p.m., would you call porn star Jenna Jameson or NBC President and CEO Jeff Zucker on the carpet?

Misogyny and violence are persistent problems that need to be addressed wherever they occur, including hip-hop. But we have to be diligent about cleaning up this mess at all levels, including the corporate boardroom as well as the studio.

article originally published at http://www.mercurynews.com/music/ci_5754181.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey