Why Nelly & VH-1 Can Kiss It (but Not Exploit It)

Even at the height of his career  (and I use the term “height” here verrrryyyy loosely), I could never take Nelly seriously.

His first single, Country Grammar exemplified everything I had come to loath about contemporary, mainstream, hip hop. It was gimmicky, vacuous, soul-less and of course, over-hyped. It was an appropriate introduction though, because it set the tone for his very tepid career.

A couple of weeks ago, I was flipping through the channels and saw that VH-1 was featuring Nelly on Behind the Music. Normally, I would have kept perusing. However, I hadn’t given Nelly much thought since the 2004 controversy surrounding his infamous Tip Drill video. For those of you not familiar, this clip from the documentary, Beyond Beats & Rhymes will bring you up to speed.

So fast forward to 2011 and I’m glued to VH-1, waiting for Nelly to tell me that he learned something from this debacle. And while I don’t expect him to be completely reformed, I am hoping that I hear him say something that speaks to growth. 7 years later, I am looking for an older, wiser, Nelly.

No dice.

Imagine my horror, when I discovered that Nelly not only still harbored a deep resentment towards the women at Spelman for challenging the video but now, he also blamed them for the death of his sister, insisting that if  “they” hadn’t canceled the drive, his sister might still be alive today.

And that’s when it became crystal clear. The man was not only a misogynist, he was also an unrepentant idiot.

And then there is the travesty that is VH-1. With their shoddy, corporate-sanctioned  brand of journalism, they completely failed to mention the forum  that the students invited Nelly to attend and their decision to still support the drive, whether Nelly attended the forum or not. The Behind the Music episode made it seem as if the women of Spelman cancelled the event in a fit of anger when it was Nelly’s indignation at even being questioned  that prompted HIM to cancel the drive.

But what really cooked my goose was when Nelly looked right into the camera and earnestly asked how he could be considered sexist when the women in the video participated willingly, insisting that it was the woman in the video who suggested that he run the credit card down her backside after he ran out of money to throw at her.

And at that point, I had to turn the TV off.

Here was Nelly who, even with the tragic loss of his beloved, sister failed to understand the importance of black women’s lives. And in every instance that was presented to him to be accountable, either by taking the Spelman’s students concerns seriously or accepting the fact that his choice to cancel the drive jeopardized his sister’s donor search, he failed to do so. Each and every time he had the opportunity to rise to the occasion, he resorted to ducking, dodging, and blaming everyone else.

You would think that the loss of his sister might encourage him to reflect. To take into consideration that sexual assault and abuse of black women is just as deadly of an issue as Leukemia.  All statistics on women and sexual abuse/assault clearly indicate that black women are more likely to be victims of such attacks. Black women are more likely to lose their lives in sex-related crimes. And while Nelly likes to point out that there were no victims in the willing cadre of women who lined up to participate in the Tip Drill video, he has to know that the depiction of black women as licentious Jezebels and easy hoes has contributed to the rationalization and social acceptance of the many injustices committed against black women’s bodies.

But I am not surprised because this is VH-1 after all, which has become a shell of its former self. These days, it has opted to  forego music videos and glossy news, instead becoming little more than opportunisitic carrion feeding off the carnage that is reality TV.

VH-I has consistently waged war against the black female image. Since  the blatant stereotyping that launched “Flava of Love”, it has  found myriad ways to reduce black femininity to Jezebel/Sapphire depictions, over-sexed and shrewish figures who deserve neither respect nor empathy. By portraying the student activists at Spelman as villains through glaring omissions and carefully edited clips that served to trivialize the matter,  VH-1 made it clear to me that they too, fully support, the denigration of black women.

So to both, Nelly and VH-1….here’s to you, suckers.

And  to be completely honest, I’m angry at the women in the video.  This is the hardest bit for me to swallow. I don’t want to be angry at them. But I am. It’s frustrating to see these sisters who seem so complicit in their own exploitation…our exploitation. Women who seem to have completely divorced themselves from the contemporary and historical implications of their actions. The women, who in their own individualistic aspirations for money,fame and/or validation, care little for the collective.  And this is not just the sisters in the video. It’s also the sisters who support Nelly’s work because they not only accept, but embrace, the multiple abuses meted out by hip hop.

And I try not to judge. I understand that not all women have had the supports (parenting, guidance, mentors, teachers, opportunities) that I have had and that their life experiences have shaped them in the same way that mine have shaped me. I cannot talk about this anger that I feel towards other women without acknowledging the anger I feel towards myself. As a product of this culture, there is an internalized sexism that I must work to root out daily. And  I hold myself and all women accountable because I believe that what the late, great Afrocentric scholar, John Henrik Clarke says about oppression is true:

“If somebody is on your back, you have to bend a little to balance him on your back. The best move to get him off your back is to stand straight up.”

There is a personal responsibility that we women have to take for allowing, supporting, and perpetuating our own oppression. I am angry about the fact that we still have yet to stand straight up.

It’s important to understand that this is not just a battle for black women but for black sexuality as a whole. The type of sexuality and imagery that we see in the Tip Drill video merges sexual expression, racism, arousal, sexism, desire, disgust and violence into a confusing miasma that has dangerous implications. Please believe that I am no Puritan. I appreciate sexuality and erotica as valid expressions of human existence.

However, these videos don’t portray a healthy sexuality. Instead they promote a male fantasy that is steeped in oppression, abuse, sexism, and racism. It is fantasy that comes at the expense of black women’s pleasure, dignity, safety and respect.  I would fully support a hip hop sexuality that was holistic and healthy – that did not require black women to be face down…ass up. But I have yet to see that.

I urge brothers to stand in solidarity with women in calling this type of hip hop forth. I ask black men AND women to imagine a hip hop that provides us with images that they we can be aroused by AND not feel guilty about .I believe in the possibility of  images that allow us to express the full range our sexuality in ways that don’t demean, abuse, or oppress. It is possible….but only if we’re willing to stand straight up.

I salute the young women at Spelman. They faced a barrage of criticism and yet, they took a stance and challenged a rapper who, for all his bravado, could not face a room full of students and explain why he made the choices he made. These women of Spelman demonstrated a courage and leadership that I haven’t seen in hip hop in a long time. I also commend the young men of Morehouse, who stood beside their sisters in solidarity, challenging themselves and other men to do and be more.

For more reading on this subject from the perspective of the Spelman students and educators who challenged Nelly, check out: