Hip-hop is too often the scapegoat for society's ills, but you'd have to be blind -- or deaf -- to think there's no truth to the actress's controversial comments.
Ashley Judd's new, highly publicized memoir, All That Is Bitter & Sweet, has been in stores for a week, and the actress is already making waves for some harsh judgments she made about rap music in the book. Judd wrote that she was upset when she saw that Snoop and Diddy were performing at the MTV World AIDS Day concert because "most rap and hip-hop music -- with its rape culture ... is the contemporary soundtrack of misogyny."
While many of us who follow, love and consider ourselves cultural constituents of hip-hop might concede that some rap music is undeniably misogynistic, we also stand up for it when we feel it's being unfairly attacked. I have regularly defended hip-hop culture from its detractors, and upon hearing Judd's sweeping condemnation -- from which she later backed down after harsh criticism from The Roots drummer ?uestlove and others -- I was ready to assume my normal position.
But she is not your usual hip-hop-hating suspect (think Bill O'Reilly). She's a noted progressive, and her work around the world speaks for itself, so instead of a knee-jerk response, I considered the possibility that her claim was true -- not of hip-hop culture, but of rap music.
There's a regularly stated but not always understood distinction between rap music and hip-hop culture. Rap music is one element of hip-hop culture, which is a broader, generational phenomenon that includes a number of artistic elements, ways of being and speaking, and various social elements such as fashion and a particularly entrepreneurial spirit.
While rap music derives from the continuum of black oral and folk traditions, it, like other black musical forms, has been co-opted and commodified by mainstream America. In some of its most commercial forms, rap music is misogynistic, consumeristic and violent. And yes, it also reflects the rape culture that is a part of popular American culture.
Hip-hop culture, on the other hand, actually counters the rape culture of rap music in some interesting and powerful ways. Consider the work of Salamishah Tillet, founder of A Long Walk Home, or see Byron Hurt's Beyond Beats and Rhymes or Immortal Technique's "Dance With the Devil" for ready references. And we should laud artists like Snoop or Diddy for their attempts to support vital efforts such as the YouthAIDS movement, because although they may be (or have been) guilty of contributing to America's rape culture, their potential to shine light on these very issues is reflected in their influence on popular culture in general.
Three years ago on Larry King Live, Snoop said, "In the past I've always made music that was very insulting to women, because that's what I was taught. That's what I was brainwashed not to know. As I get older, and with my wife and my daughter and my mother and my grandmother, I tend to make more records that are ... aimed at telling the woman how beautiful she is and how she's appreciated and how I apologized for being so brainwashed and not knowing that I'm supposed to respect a woman."
Snoop's interview on Larry King Live should give us all hope that we can address misogyny in American society. The term "rape culture" seems strong, but the challenges with which we are confronted are both formidable and frightening. The facts: 17.6 percent of women in the United States have survived a completed or attempted rape. Of these, 21.6 percent were younger than age 12 when they were first raped, and 32.4 percent were between the ages of 12 and 17.
Of course, these are figures based only on those women who were brave enough to report. The vast majority of rapes and sexual assaults go unreported. And the vast majority of perpetrators are never brought to justice. In Transforming a Rape Culture, Emilie Buchwald, Pamela Fletcher and Martha Roth define rape culture as "a complex of beliefs that encourages male aggression and supports violence against women."
Tragically, rape is common in American culture, and rap music sometimes reflects the rape culture of American society. The encouragement of male aggression and the support of violence against women are regular features of popular rap music. Check out this verse from Notorious B.I.G. in "Dead Wrong": "Biggie Smalls for mayor, the rap slayer/The hooker layer ... Hail Mary full of grace/Smack the b--ch in the face/Take her Gucci bag and the North Face/Off her back, jab her if she act funny with the money/Oh you got me mistaken, honey/I don't wanna rape ya/ I just want the paper." Jay-Z's verse on Kanye West's "Monster" alludes to raping and pillaging.
Although these lyrics should be ascribed to the artistic personas of these major hip-hop figures, I still reserve the right to critique, challenge and hold the authors of these artistic personas accountable for their music, especially if it is contributing to one of our greatest social challenges: gender equality and the freedom of women not to live in fear of violent assault.
That said, rapping specifically about rape is not what rape culture is all about. The ways in which some rappers promote attitudes that normalize sexual violence against women and children are the more common culprits of rap's rape culture. Consider these lines from West's verse in "Monster": "I put the p--sy in a sarcophagus/Now she claiming I bruise her esophagus." I am more than willing to grant artistic license to any of these rappers, as long as they are willing to be publicly accountable for the ways in which these verses promote attitudes and mentalities that contribute to rap's rape culture -- as Snoop did on Larry King Live.
When Jay-Z signed Jay Electronica to Roc Nation label, it seemed like a triumph of underground hip-hop culture -- the talented Jay Electronica, along with Jay-Z's formidable business and promotional acumen, could change the game for the better. Instead, the rapper has elected to use some troubling language in his live performances, polling his audiences to inquire if women "like being choked during sexual intercourse." Many feminist bloggers and activists challenged Jay Electronica directly.
For the survivors of violent sexual assault and for those of us who understand that sexual assault against women is a critical problem for all of us, this sort of thing is simply unacceptable. Maybe I am sensitized to this because my daughter just turned 10. But I'm also aware that even though individuals must be responsible for their own acts, too many are susceptible to subtle (and unsubtle) cues -- from pop culture and the public sphere -- that subject women to male dominance, and reaffirm the sexism and misogyny that lead to sexual violence against women.
That we, myself included, are always ready to defend hip-hop is a good thing -- I think. Hip-hop cannot be the scapegoat for every talking head who is looking for an easy way to dismiss and degrade youth culture or black music. But rap and the industry that has developed through its popularity must be held accountable for its contributions to the world -- and that includes any role that the industry might play in the construction and cultivation of rape culture in society. If you don't want to hear it from Ashley Judd, then maybe you can hear it from me.
James Braxton Peterson is an associate professor of English at Bucknell University and the founder of Hip-hop Scholars, LLC. Follow him on Twitter.