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Simmons explains new guidelines for hip-hop lyrics

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Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Oh, what a difference a week makes! On April 13, Def Jam founder Russell Simmons and Dr. Benjamin Chavis issued a statement on behalf of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network condemning the media for drawing comparisons between Don Imus’ on-air use of the term ”nappy-headed hos” — in reference to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team — and misogynist hip-hop lyrics. ”Don Imus is not a hip-hop artist or a poet,” they said. ”Hip-hop artists rap about what they see, hear and feel around them… Sometimes their observations or the way in which they choose to express their art may be uncomfortable for some to hear, but our job is not to silence or censor that expression.” Ten days later, however, the duo seemed to recant their original remarks when they released a set of recommendations to the recording and broadcast industries, calling on them to ”voluntarily remove/bleep/delete the misogynistic words ‘bitch’ and ‘ho’ and the racially offensive word ‘nigger”’ from their airwaves. EW.com reached out to various sources in radio and television to get their feedback, but they all declined requests to comment. Instead, we got the scoop straight from Simmons.

EW.COM: Would you like to expand upon and clarify your recommendations to the recording and broadcast industries?
RUSSELL SIMMONS:
I made the statements very clear. The last chapter of my book, Do You!: 12 Laws to Access the Power in You to Achieve Happiness and Success, which came out today, which is Top 10 at Amazon.com, is about the inner voice. That’s what makes hip-hop so special — and poets in general — because they listen to the inner voice. That’s why they say things that people are afraid to say that are right in front of our faces. In other words, we are so unconscious as a society that we ignore the misogyny. We can turn on Cops and want to know why every other call is a man beating his wife, but we never discuss the misogyny in a meaningful way. We can travel to what looks like battle zones in urban communities, where people feel like the police are occupying forces, and never discuss why there’s a ”No Snitch” campaign that’s been there since before I was around — it’s the code of the streets, not the code of rap. The point I’m making is that hip-hop spits truth to power on a regular basis. Most power doesn’t like this truth because it’s truth that’s generally overlooked. So what I said about misogyny — the language is offensive and scary, but the artists who are painting a picture use the language as a reflection of the dirt and the misogyny that exists in our society. So the reason that I made this statement is to protect the artists and protect the ears of the people who are interested in hearing the records in their most honest form. This is a move to stop the people who are working toward censorship. At the same time, it’s a move to clear up the commercial airwaves.

So you’re not saying derogatory and offensive lyrics should be removed or banned from hip-hop albums, just on TV and radio?
That’s correct. That’s a great step. And I think after we get it off the airwaves from hip-hop, then maybe the rest of the world will stop using those words so much.

Do you think hip-hop has played a role in desensitizing our ears to that language because the music is so popular and we hear it all the time?
Well, yes, it’s desensitized people to a lot of words. There’s this magazine I think is pretty interesting called Bitch. It’s a feminist magazine and the claim of the publisher is that an insult hurled so many times at a person becomes their sole property. That’s why a Bitch magazine can be here. That’s why the hip-hop community can refer to the N-word. And so when the hip-hop community is speaking to themselves, it’s speaking to people who can digest their words and understand their words. But speaking outside of their community, sometimes their words are misunderstood.

Are you saying that you don’t think it makes a difference if derogatory and offensive words still appear on hip-hop albums because the people who buy the albums understand the context?
That’s exactly right. And they know what they’re getting. This dialogue is not about what I think about any record or any artist; this dialogue is about the right for the artist to paint a picture of society. They have that right and we should protect that right.

Have you received any feedback from the hip-hop/music community about your recommendations?
Well, it was not a consensus on this idea. That’s why we went out alone. But they’re just recommendations. There are more than just those ideas. I knew the other recommendations would cause more discussion, but the most important recommendation is artist development. I feel that the more I inspire or educate an artist, the more he can do to lift people up and the more of a vehicle he is for giving other people opportunities. That’s what I like about hip-hop — what it can do to lift people up. But I also respect their ability to have a reflection of the times.

Does that mean you haven’t received any feedback from the hip-hop/music community about your recommendations?
No, I’m saying I don’t wish to comment on it. The idea came from Stephen Hill [Senior VP of Music Programming and Talent] at BET. Just so you know, it was not my idea. [Stephen Hill declined requests to comment for this story.]

What do you mean? The recommendations were not your idea?
Yeah. And it was expanded on, but I don’t even want to go there.

Why not? You can’t talk about it?
MTV and BET were there at the meeting. Everyone was there. We had this discussion. It was hard to get a consensus. We wanted to get a unanimous consensus or a vote. It’s work to make everybody move at the same pace, do the same thing at the same time. We’re recommending these ideas. Maybe someone will have more creative ideas. I think these are first steps. The Hip-Hop Summit is always looking to lift the artists up so they can do good for their communities.

How did you feel about Common appearing with you on Oprah given that he’s not one of the artists who are being held accountable for using derogatory and offensive language in his music?
I don’t know if you know that, but I don’t book the Oprah show. I was lucky to be billed. I was thrilled to be booked because I knew that there was going to be a good dialogue. I was there because I thought we needed a voice to express the reason that hip-hop is so critical and important in our society for social and semi-political content.

The outcry concerning misogyny in hip-hop has been raging since the dawn of gangsta rap in the early ’90s. Why do you feel compelled to respond to it now?
I think that the current state of the outrage and the amount of work that’s being done behind the scenes by all the activists and all the people requires us to look at ourselves and see if there’s something that we can do to speak to the pain of black women and black men who are outraged. This outrage has caused us to do self-analysis. But I also know that it could become a very bad sign for our First Amendment rights — there are bills being drawn up and there are sponsors waiting for response. So this is the time for many reasons. The theme of the Hip-Hop Summit is ”Taking Back Responsibility.” We don’t want anyone else to be responsible for managing our business. Although I want to be clear: I don’t have a record company.

Would you have adhered to your recommendations if they were suggested back when you were still at the helm of Def Jam?
When I was running Def Jam I went to conferences with the Senate a number of times and we came up with stickers.

The ”Parental Advisory” stickers that appear on album covers?
That’s correct. We went to work to manage our own business before it became a discussion about censorship. So I did adhere and speak to the public outrage in a way that was creative and yet protected our first amendment rights.

What, if anything, has changed since the Imus controversy and HSAN’s previous statement two weeks ago?
Two weeks ago, we made the point that I made to you earlier: We are here to protect artists and allow them to say whatever it is — paint the pictures they want to paint, and write the poetry they want to write. Throughout history, they’re under attack and because of their sensitivity to real issues and the ability to speak to issues that we sweep under the rug. While all the sophisticates do horrible things, the poets are always the ones who point it out. We put people in ovens, we bomb innocent people, we enslave people — it’s unbelievable. But when you look inside, poems come from inside, not from being sheep. So we need creative people who look inside and find answers. The answers are embedded in all of us about protecting mother earth and humanity. That’s how vegetarians are born: They look inside and they don’t want to harm mother earth or anything on it. That’s what happens when you look inside — you come up with more compassionate, more humane ideas, or you’re sensitized to things that people are desensitized to. So you hear stuff that’s truthful yet offensive, but it’s offensive probably because it speaks to your own connection to these ideas.

Do you really expect the recording and broadcast industries to follow through with your recommendations?
They already are. I was at [New York’s] Power 105.1-FM this morning. They told me they’re bleeping bitch and ho. I heard from Green Lantern, the DJ at Hot 97, which is the other hip-hop station [in New York], that right after the Imus thing — and before — they were already starting to find all the ”bitches” and ”hos” and get rid of them. So I absolutely expect it to happen. And I’m hopeful that they’ll make a unified statement about it. It’s not my job to make them do anything. The recommendation is one that I think is a smart choice for them. But they are already making changes lots of places across this country as we speak. I was on CNN this morning and we talked about bitches and ho’s and stuff without a problem. You turn on mainstream talk radio or talk TV in the middle of the day and they say ho all the time. They say bitch all the time. Watch Ellen Degeneres or any mainstream talk show host and see if it don’t come out of their mouth. Maybe not now — everybody’s changing. But when rappers make a public statement that they intend to take these words and treat them this way, we hope that the rest of the country really follows through.

What about instances like Queen Latifah’s song ”U.N.I.T.Y.”? The words bitch and ho are repeated throughout the chorus, but not in a derogatory way because the song is meant to uplift and empower women who routinely encounter disrespectful men, not rappers, in their everyday lives. If you bleep out those words, the whole point of the song is lost, no?
Yeah, that’s the truth. It’s powerful that we have to have this discussion this way. On daytime radio, if it came on right now, they would still bleep the words. I’m not offended by any of the words, but we’re talking about mainstream radio, and there should be many other vehicles to distribute these words, and there will be.

Are you saying that ultimately some sacrifices and compromises have to be made for the greater good of protecting free speech?
In order to protect the artists, I believe it’s where we have to go. In order to protect the artists’ freedom of speech and also protect the innocent ears of young people and other people who turn on the mainstream airwaves and don’t want to hear these words. Art is supposed to inspire people, and maybe there’s ways to say things on mainstream radio. It’s in the language. So it’s a very complex issue and no answer is easy. But there are answers that are acceptable to everyone, or more acceptable. I’m sure there are people who want more words [bleeped] and I’m sure there are people who want censorship. They don’t understand why art has to be what it is anyway. But art has to be what it is — it’s so important — and the artists have to be protected.

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