"What do we want? Decency! When do we want it? Now!"
That was the chant by a small but determined group of women outside the offices of Viacom in midtown Manhattan. They're targeting the media giant because it owns BET, MTV and VH-1, and the hip hop and rap music they play.
"What specifically do you want off the air?" I asked. The terse response: music about bitches, hos and nig%$#'s. You know it when you hear it. "Prurient, debased and racist depictions of women in particular in the media," is how Janice Mathis of Rainbow Push describes it.
I honestly believe we would not have been out there were it not for Don Imus. The women agree. Numerous groups came together to form something called "Women's Voices," during the Imus controversy. Now, they're trying to ride the public interest generated back then, to try and clean up the airwaves. Some of Imus' defenders said he was just repeating what's so often heard in rap music. "Women's Voices" is trying to take that defense away.
Rather than just march in the streets, they've targeted Viacom's shareholders gathering in New York for their annual meeting. Interestingly, some members of the women's coalition have bought shares in companies like Viacom so they'd have the right to enter the room. It's a fight that they say has been going on more than 15 years, but largely out of the public view.
"Some of the music is destroying our culture," said Dr. E. Faye Williams of the National Congress of Black Women. "Young people are being told making this kind of music is the way to the American dream."
They face a daunting obstacle. In fact, their protest was nearly drowned in Times Square, certainly one of the loudest corners anywhere. The rap and hip hop music industry is a multi-billion-dollar enterprise deeply ingrained in popular culture. But in recent years, sales have been plummeting, down 21 percent in 2006, and with no album in the top ten for the first time in a dozen years. What's more, numerous studies have been produced linking rap to a variety of negative social trends, like drug use and young people being more sexually active. That's perhaps no surprise. Critics long have complained that some rap music "Objectifies" women, often portraying females as "sexual appliances." You've seen the music video screen of the fellas lounging around the pool with what looks like a harem. If you haven't seen the scenes, your kids probably have.
But has the industry hit a tipping point? There's certainly a lot more buzz about just that. "Women's Voices" certainly hopes to give it a good shove.
There weren't any artists out there at the Viacom protests to defend what's usually described as a unique form of "poetry." But in interviews, various artists have said their "music is a mirror," a product of their environments, and harsh realities of life. They claim, and rightly so, that they have a right to talk and sing about whatever they want. All of this does raise rather complex issues of race, gender and culture, and especially in the African American community. And of course, businesses have a right to sell whatever they want.
"Women's Voices" says the issue isn't free speech, but rather decent speech. In ways big and small they're hoping to move the market of ideas and record sales that determine what's considered appropriate. This isn't the first time they and other critics have made their case before the entertainment industry's shareholders. They remain steadfast and determined. Things do change. And fallout sometimes takes a bit of time to fall.