Feminism / Music

The Weight of Words: How Ashley Judd’s Hip-Hop Comments Opened the Door to Discuss Rape Culture

As you’ve probably heard by now, actor Ashley Judd ignited a firestorm of controversy over her condemnation of rap and hip-hop from her new memoir All That is Bitter & Sweet.  Here is the passage that caused the furor:

“YouthAIDS created hip public service announcements for TV and radio using popular local and international celebrities and athletes and was participating in the MTV World AIDS Day ‘Staying Alive’ concerts. Along with other performers, YouthAIDS was supported by rap and hip-hop artists like Snoop Dogg and P. Diddy to spread the message … um, who? Those names were a red flag. As far as I’m concerned, most rap and hip-hop music—with its rape culture and insanely abusive lyrics and depictions of girls and women as ‘ho’s’—is the contemporary soundtrack of misogyny.”

Talking about rape culture and misogyny…yay!!  But wait, calling rap and hip-hop “the contemporary soundtrack of misogyny?!”  Wow, that’s quite a damning statement!  I gotta say that made me cringe when I read it.  In one of his tweets about Judd’s vitriolic comments, Questlove from The Roots responded:

“…EVERY genre of music has elements of violence.  it speaks MORE volumes that in rap only a certain side gets promoted.”

Immediately after the backlash, Judd reached out to her friend Russell Simmons to apologize and to clarify her statements about rape culture.  When Simmons asked her what she meant by that seemingly inflammatory passage, she told him:

“My intention was to support artists to know that they have so much power. That they make incredible life changing impressions, particularly on the young.  And we have choices everyday with our expressions, we either empower and celebrate unity or to re-enforce inequality and degradation. We are either part of the problem, or part of the solution…My intention was to take a stand to say the elements that are misogynistic and treat girls and women in a hyper-sexualized way are inappropriate. The male dominance that is displayed, and the reinforcement of girls’ and women value and identify as primarily sexual, is not helpful in any artistic expression, in any cultural form, whether its country music or in television story lines…We do live in a worldwide culture in which the sexual interests of boys and men are privileged over the bodily integrity and sexual autonomy of girls and women.”

Last week, Judd appeared on Tavis Smiley to talk about her new memoir.  Smiley said that he understood what she was trying to say but asked how she thought could have chosen her words differently.  Judd replied,

“…I just would have done a more clear job of individuating that which is in hip-hop and rap, which are distinct art forms, misogynistic and expresses extraordinary objectification and hypersexualization of girls and women, and the part that obviously does not…”

Numerous artists, writers, activists and bloggers have weighed in on Judd’s statements.  Stephanie Rogers of the fab feminist film Bitch Flicks (one of my fave blogs!!!) does a fantastic job rounding up links that provide salient points on the Ashley Judd / hip-hop controversy.  Some have denounced Judd because she’s not a part of hip-hop culture nor a fan so how dare she make such broad sweeping statements about it.  A white female celebrity makes vitriolic statements about the hip-hop community; the racial implications can’t be dismissed.  Judd also clearly ignores the fusion of hip-hop and feminism with self-proclaimed hip-hop feminists such as the amazingly kick-ass Latoya Peterson and Jess Yee.  But we also can’t deny the valid issue Judd raises.  Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic argues,

“…I really wish, just once, when smart hip-hop fans see people accusing their art-form of a special degree of misogyny, they could admit that there might be…as a hip-hop fan, and as a music fan, it’s really hard for me to believe that all musical forms are equally misogynistic.”

Blogger Jaz at Goddesses Rising wrote a fantastic post on the controversy, addressing the gendered and racial assumptions at work here.  She asserts,

“Aside from the fact that Ashley Judd has no clue about Hip-Hop as an art form and a culture, her comment shows an underlying prejudice towards black men…There’s a difference between talking about the music as being misogynous and honestly deconstructing what’s behind that, and saying Hip-Hop as a whole promotes “rape culture.” It shows a lack of understanding of the diversity of Hip-Hop and the commercial decisions that shape how it is sold and capitalized upon (and who makes those decisions)…no matter how much success black men achieve the stereotypes about their sexuality continue to exist and persist. For feminism to move forward among all genders, we need to be cognizant of how this thinking keeps gender roles alive and inadvertently feeds a cycle of violence…one that has nothing to do with Hip-Hop.”

In Robert Ebert’s review of the awful 1995 movie Dangerous Minds, he makes an incredibly astute assertion about many white people’s dismissive response to rap music:

“Rap has a bad reputation in white circles, where many people believe it consists of obscene and violent anti-white and anti-female guttural. Some of it does. Most does not. Most white listeners don’t care; they hear black voices in a litany of discontent, and tune out. Yet rap plays the same role today as Bob Dylan did in 1960, giving voice to the hopes and angers of a generation, and a lot of rap is powerful writing.”

I may be no fan of rap or hip-hop (although I do like Jay-Z’s Unplugged album with The Roots).  But there are artists and songs that empower rather than denigrate women.  Salt-n-Pepa sang about expressing yourself and safe sex.  Queen Latifah rallied women in “Ladies First,” a “feminist anthem.”  Lauryn Hill sang about motherhood, relationships gone wrong, love and spirituality.  While some might decry Nicki Minaj for embracing a Barbification of beauty norms, she deftly plays with the fluidity of gender roles.

Yes, some rap is incredibly misogynistic with lyrics like, “Life ain’t nothing but bitches and money (Master P),” “99 problems but a bitch ain’t one (Jay Z),” “I’m not saying she’s a gold-digger (Kanye West),” and “Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks (Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre).”  And yes, far too many rap and hip-hop videos objectify women.  Language is powerful in that it reflects our values and in turn shapes our views of the world.  But rap and hip-hop aren’t the only genres or forms of language that contain sexism and perpetuate misogyny.  As Abigail Collazo wrote at Fem2.0, misogyny and abuse intertwine into so much of our lexicon.  Collazo writes:

“…Language itself is replete with violent imagery when describing relations with women and girls. Examples include phrases such as: “I tried to get her in bed but got shot down”, “he’s always hitting on women,” “she’s a knockout,” “what a bombshell,” etc. These metaphors subtly reinforce the violent nature of gender-based discrimination and sexuality…gender discrimination is not just a question of what is in our laws and on our books. We are moving ever closer towards gender justice and equity, but part of that movement is recognizing where and how discrimination and devaluation exists. And here in our culture and our society, our language perpetuates the idea that men are sexually violent aggressors seeking to dominate and control passive and fragile women.”

I’ve met Judd on a few brief occasions (look at me name-dropping!).  While I certainly can’t claim to know her well, I can say that she’s an advocate for women and an impassioned speaker; perhaps so passionate that she might just let her emotions carry her away, not thinking about the consequences of her words.  While I disagree with her initial categorical dismissal of rap and hip-hip music, she raises a crucial issue.  Too often, we don’t look at how we as a society contribute to and foster a rape culture.  Where Judd falters is that she should have also vehemently condemned country music, rock, pop, TV shows and pretty much the entire film industry.  I’m thrilled that she spoke so ardently about the perils of sexism and misogyny.  I just wish that she had recognized the racial implications of her statement as well as her own privilege.

The words we use wield far more power than we sometimes realize.  Looking at the world through my academic feminist lens, I wasn’t cognizant of how many people had never even heard the term “rape culture” until Judd uttered it.  In a subsequent blog post, I intend to unpack the term and explore the intertwined ways that contribute to how we live in such a fractured world that harms both women and men.  Judd didn’t intend readers to focus on that one paragraph in her memoir.  Yet her statement opened the door to talk about the ramifications we all face living in a rape culture.


5 thoughts on “The Weight of Words: How Ashley Judd’s Hip-Hop Comments Opened the Door to Discuss Rape Culture

  1. This is a great and broad look at the controversey surrounding her remarks. I do think that the two issues at play – male/female relations and black/white relations add a complex dynamic to the discussion of rap lyrics, and sometimes reconciling those two relationships can be very difficult. Is one part of the culture of the other, as is often perceived?

    Thanks for this great post!

  2. I feel like music was created for expression, not just joy and love. Some of my favorite music would probably be construed by many as depressing.

  3. I agree with her on the argument that some music degrade women. However, I hate that it is making such a generalization on all Hip Hop & Rap music. There are influential rap artists out there ranging from Christian rap to Neo Soul. I think that’s why the black community get so upset because when negative things are point out it is considered a representation of that particular group as a whole. There is more to Hip Hop than the Lil Wayne’s and Jay Z’s of the world.

  4. I do think there is merit on both sides.
    A lot of the popular (promoted) Rap artists, do promote a pretty degrading message, in regards to women.
    What’s even sadder, is the women that willingly play into that role & buy into that “Bitches & Ho” stereotype, because their culture tells them it’s “cool.”
    I do understand where Ashley Judd is coming from…

    Having said that, i love “smart” Rap.
    I love artists like A Tribe called Quest, The Roots, Gangstar, Guru…
    WERS has a great underground Rap show, and a lot of it is lyrical poetry.
    It’s like a completely separate genre from the commercial Rap, where the
    artist is a living cartoon based on some sort of “Thug” image, instead of any sort
    of skill.

    You can always tell the talents from the pretenders, in any genre.
    I think Judd was referring to “the pretenders.”

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