Rewarding the Violent Repression of Black Women from Hip Hop to Hollywood
Copyright 2006 by Ewuare OsayandeWho would have ever thought that a song outright denigrating women and celebrating their actual oppression would be deemed worthy of an Oscar? Yet that is exactly what happened at this year’s Academy Awards when Three 6 Mafia won the Oscar for “Best Original Song” for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” the title track to the Paramount Classics film Hustle and Flow. The rap song is written from the perspective of the pimp protagonist, who rhymes about the sex trade:“Wait I got a snow bunny and black girl too/ You pay the right price and they’ll both do you/ That’s the way the game goes, gotta keep it strictly pimpin’/ Gotta have my hustle tight, making change off these women, yeah”
The American acceptance and embrace of the pimp as cultural icon was symbolically captured as the members of Three 6 Mafia squeezed the gold frame of the Oscar statue in acceptance of their reward. From its inner-city origins to Hollywood’s center stage, the social acceptance of the pimp is no longer a subject of speculation; it is now a fact of history.
On the surface, the revival of pimp fascination can be attributed to the rap industry as more and more hip hop artists have donned the pimp icon as mantle of choice. Hip hop has always had its rappers who praised the pimp “lifestyle.” During the early days of hip hop, rappers such as Too Short and Ice-T became famous for their tales of macking and pimp slapping. Yet they were peripheral at best. Today, rappers across the regional and ideological spectrum have embraced the image of the pimp as their profile of choice. In fact, it is probably the most universal of roles rappers are toting. From the hard-core gangsta rap of 50 Cent to the commercially driven materialistic rap of P. Diddy, to the crunk sound of Lil’ Jon to the “southernplayalistic” rap of Outkast, from Nelly to Jay-Z, everybody wants to be a pimp. Even so-called conscious artists such as Common and Dead-Prez infuse their work with references to themselves as “pimps in recovery.”
Although the Oscar-awarded song suggests that white and Black women are equally accessible for exploitation, the fact is that white society long ago deemed the Black woman as the appropriate image of the prostitute or the “ho” that can be used and abused. That fact helps us to understand how such abuse of women can be celebrated in a country that prides itself on its supposed rights and freedoms for women. Black women are without respect in this regard. As long as Black women represent the image of the prostitute then it doesn’t threaten the American ideal of white womanhood as pristine and untarnished – the eternal virgin. This ideal remains intact no matter how many white female pop stars come along calling themselves Madonna in their attempt to undermine the racist/sexist trope that has justified the enslavement, rape and repression of Black women.
The American fascination with the pimp is an _expression of the perverted white social fixation with a warped Black sexuality. That fascination was present at the auction block, when whites would come and inspect and bid on the naked bodies of African men, women and children. That fascination was present at the plantation whipping post, when whites would strip enslaved Blacks and beat them mercilessly. That fascination was present at the lynching, when whole white communities would come out and watch a single Black man or woman or child stripped, mutilated and burned alive; taking home charred remains as souvenirs. That fascist fascination is found today in the voyeurism of white eyes as they watch their racist projections of Black sexuality acted out on the silver screen where they can in response project back onto the screen their personal deviant sexual proclivities; where they can live out their repressed sexual fantasies vicariously via commercialized Black flesh.
Rap music is the contemporary _expression that has been and is being used to reinforce an ideology that supports the continued exploitation of the most maligned and marginalized segment of U.S. society – Black women. With the popularity of rap music and rap-inspired films, the mainstreaming or normalization of the pimp has become a reality too. The Black pimp icon is a reactionary image that emerges from the actual prostitution of female bodies that occurs in oppressed communities. To understand how the pimp has emerged as an iconic figure in rap music, the social conditions that create and condone prostitution must be addressed.
The pimp is a consequence of poverty. According to some scholars, the pimp is an option for many inner-city Black men who have opted out of a system that long ago opted out on them. In Robin Kelley’s essay “The Riddle of the Zoot Suit,” he describes how the pimp emerged amidst a backdrop of hustling as an alternative lifestyle for some African Americans and Latinos during World War II. “As a number of criminologists and urban anthropologists have suggested, ‘hustling’ or similar kinds of informal/illicit economic strategies should be regarded as efforts to escape dependency on low-wage, alienating labor.” (Race Rebels, p. 174) It should be made clear that the pimp is not just a product of male poverty. Its very existence can be more aptly stated to be caused by female poverty. For in the pimp we find the person whose primary function is the exploitation of impoverished and impressionable young women. Kelley continues,
“The zoot-suiters and hipsters who sought alternatives to wage work and found pleasure in the new music, clothes, and dance styles of the period were “race rebels” of sorts, challenging middle-class ethics and expectations, carving out a distinct generational and ethnic identity, refusing to be good proletarians. But in their efforts to escape or minimize exploitation … [they] became exploiters themselves.” (163)
Joy James discusses this same historic period from the vantage of Black women. In her essay, “Depoliticizing Representations: Sexual-Racial Stereotypes,” she zeroes in on the abuse Black female prostitutes experienced not just from their pimps, but from the police as well.
“Black females were more visible to arresting officers gazing through a distorted social lens in New York City in the 1930s, where they constituted over 50 percent of detainees and were arrested at a rate ten times higher than that of white women … Black females who were not engaged in the sex trade but merely walking the streets could be harassed by police. Whether any crime had been committed or not, black females were linked with sexual vice …” (Shadowboxing, p. 137)
In the present, Black women are still linked with sexual vice in a society where conditions are still conducive for hustling. Black unemployment is off the charts. An ever-increasing number of Black and Latino youth buck the system and dodge enlistment in the armed forces, refusing to partake in what they understand is an unjust and unnecessary war. In so doing, they are resisting hegemonic notions of patriotism and American nationalism. This new generation of “race rebels” is finding alternatives to wage work in the hip hop inspired lifestyle of hustling as their hipster predecessors did in the jazz-inspired world of their day. The rationale for the zoot is renewed in the pursuit of the bling. But these rationales and pursuits are not justified in and of themselves as they are riddled with contradictions, not the least of which is the penchant to prey on impoverished and impressionable girls and young women. An alternative must be found to the “alternatives to wage work” that does not turn young girls into wage slaves of another kind.
The zoot-suited hipster has passed down to the baggy-jeaned homeboy the pimp lifestyle as something to strive for, something to take pride in. This striving has been spurred on by an American corporate sector that has turned this oppressive condition into a glamorized and self-perpetuating retro-reality. bell hooks has stated that,
“The contemporary glorification of male violence against women has caused the pimp, once a despised figure in communities, to be elevated to the status of hero. The pimp’s misogynist treatment of women was romanticized in movies like Sweet Sweetback or Cool World, and in books like Iceberg Slim that glorified his exploits.” (Aint I a Woman, p. 108)
These films and books and the writers that produced them have achieved cult status in the rap world. Artists like Jay-Z and Nas are known to pepper their lyrics with references to Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim, two of the most famous writers of pimp lit or street lit to emerge during the late Sixties, early Seventies. Ludacris in his rap song, “Eyebrows Down,” talks about how picked up books by Goines and got schooled to the “business” of hustling and pimping while still a teenager. But the best example of the influence of Blaxploitation films and books on hip hop artists is best summarized by self-described pimp Snoop Dogg himself, who receives “spiritual guidance” from none other than pimp turned preacher turned pimp-guru Bishop Don Juan. “When I started seeing those movies in the ‘70s, like ‘The Mack’ and ‘Superfly,’ that helped me to more or less pick who I wanted to be in life, how I wanted to live my life, how I wanted to represent me.” (Moody)
This sick and twisted “birth rite” passed from one generation of Black men to another via film and literature is wholly disturbing for it is predicated upon the subjugation and violation of Black women. The two cannot be separated. Pimping and the violent subjugation of women go hand in hand. You cannot separate the gold chalice and the pinky ring of the pimp from the busted lip and black eye of the young girls and women being prostituted. And no matter how many commercials Snoop appears in selling fabric softener, he cannot soften the hard-core reality of pimp life. To be a pimp means to be a predator.
No one knows how brutal pimping is better than celebrated pimp turned pimp-lit scribe Robert Beck better known as Iceberg Slim by rappers who treat his books with the same reverence Christians give the Gospel. “The best pimps I have known, that is the career pimps, the ones who could do twenty, maybe thirty years as a pimp, were utterly ruthless and brutal without compassion. They certainly had a basic hatred for women.” (Koblin)
Misogyny is the spirit that is pervasive in any form of male domination. That “basic hatred of women” takes form in the physical abuse women experience in prostitution. Women are not seen as human beings, but as sexual objects that can be manipulated, maligned and discarded. Kelley discusses this point further, “Women were merely objects through which hustling men sought leisure and pleasure; prey for financial and sexual exploitation.” Malcolm X reflecting on his life as street hustler Detroit Red in his Autobiography stated, “I believed that a man should do anything that he was slick enough, or bad and bold enough, to do and that a woman was nothing but another commodity.” Kelley continues, “Resistance to wage labor for the hep cat frequently meant increased oppression and exploitation of women, particularly black women. The hipsters of Malcolm’s generation and after took pride in their ability to establish parasitic relationships with women wage earners or sex workers.” (Race Rebels, p. 175)
That pride is still present in many rap artists and their male supporters. They wield a sordid charm in their repertoire of devices to manipulate the minds of young women who are too naïve to know when they are being played. But that charm soon wears thin as their thirst for control that lurks just beneath the veneer of their words is unveiled.
“Sweet talk and psychology were his main game. His aim was to look through the head of a whore and read her thoughts. If persuasion didn’t work he turned to violence. His prime bit was to roll up tow coat hangers into a truncheon and flail women’s naked backs until they bent to his will.” (West) This description is a far cry from the image presented in many rap videos of rappers draped in women clamoring for their affection. This is the true face of prostitution. This is the bruised face of prostitution.
Fear is the pimp’s main weapon in his arsenal of control techniques. “The hustler ethic demanded a public front of emotional detachment. Remaining ‘cool’ toward women was crucial to one’s public reputation and essential in a ‘business’ which depended on the control and brutal exploitation of female bodies. According to Beck, “the best pimps keep a steel lid on their emotions.” (Race Rebels, p. 176) Is there any wonder why many rappers created names for themselves that began with the word “ice”? The hook is not always meant to convey coolness as in being hip as much as it means to convey coldness as in being heartless.
In a rare interview in 1972 Beck was asked a direct question about the pimp’s role in the oppression of Black women. His response was just as direct.
“Koblin: The black pimp, as you were, has made his fortune through the total degradation of the black woman in this society. Is that true?
Beck: That’s true. And the tragedy is there, that the black woman is the bedrock of the black family unit. This is what is under direct assault. It occurred under the structured racism of America. When a black man turns out a black woman, he is denigrating the bedrock of family life in his community. Again, this is counterrevolutionary. Pimps are becoming an anachronism.” (Koblin)
Although Beck may have wished that pimping was going the way of the dinosaur, I wonder if he would be shocked to see just how wickedly popular the pimp has become. The pimp icon has moved beyond rap lyrics and B-rated movies to become an American metaphor infused with a multitude of meanings in mainstream media. There is MTV’s wildly popular reality show “Pimp My Ride,” where cars that should be en route to the nearest junk yard are customized to resemble a tricked-out pimp Caddy. Then there is rap artist Nelly’s Pimp Juice, an energy drink that survived an initial outcry to become one of the fastest selling power drinks on the international market. There were a couple of documentaries that came out at the start of the decade. One, Pimps Up, Hoes Down was aired on HBO’s series “Undercover American.” The film is the directorial debut of Brent Owens, known for his production management work on such films as Panther, New Jack City, Juice and Mo’ Betta Blues. The other documentary entitled American Pimp was directed by Hudlin Brothers of Menace II Society fame. Pimps even got their own cartoon. Lil’ Pimp is the animated story of a little white boy who learns the tricks of the pimping trade from Fruit Juice, a Black pimp whose voice is played by Bernie Mac. Mac is joined in this irreverent romp by a bevy of big-time Hollywood and rap stars including William Shatner, Lil’ Kim, Ludacris and Carmen Electra. This film was so reprehensible that Columbia Pictures decided not to show it in theaters, and instead sent it straight to video. I wonder if they regret that decision after the success of Hustle and Flow. There is even a website where white collar workers can learn how to “Pimp My Cubicle.” Far from becoming an anachronism, pimping has become an American past-time.
Some Black male rappers take pimping to be a form of reparations for slavery. “We’ve been pimped since we were ripped from the underbelly of Africa,” says rap artist David Banner. “We built America but never got paid for it, yet we get treated the worse. So pimping has always been part of our society, so to feel that we’re finally the pimps, why not embrace that?” (Moody) I can answer that: Because it means enslaving the other half of your community! That kind of reactionary response on the part of Black men is as tired and played as it was when Elridge Cleaver tried to justify his raping of Black women by saying that it was practice for the real “insurrectionary” act of raping white women. (Soul on Ice, p. 14)
Raping or pimping Black women is not pay back to white men or white society. When we as Black men rape or pimp Black women we are doing white supremacy’s bidding, not resisting it. White men are not hurt or pained by it. Nor are they disempowered by our behavior. The same is true for the rape of white women for that matter. All that does is reinforce the racist belief that we are sexual criminals who have a depraved craving for white female sexuality. The truth is that when we rape or otherwise sexually abuse and exploit women, we are manifesting the brutal force of patriarchy. We are acting as the oppressors we men are, regardless of our ethnicity or “race.”
In fact, we Black men have a curious relationship with white men as men that challenges our disdain for them. bell hooks clarifies this point when she writes,
“Sexism has always been a political stance mediating racial domination, enabling white men and black men to share a common sensibility about sex roles and the importance of male domination. Clearly both groups have equated freedom with manhood, and manhood with the right of men to have indiscriminate access to the bodies of women. Both groups have been socialized to condone patriarchal affirmation of rape as an acceptable way to maintain male domination. It is this merging of sexuality with male domination within patriarchy that informs the construction of masculinity for men of all races and classes.” (Yearning, p. 59)
This interracial sexist alliance amounts to a gang rape of Black womanhood.
This interracial gang rape mentality is best exemplified in the making of the blockbuster hit Hustle and Flow. Contrary to many people’s belief that the movie was a “Black film” made in the tradition of other Black pimp flicks in the Seventies, Hustle and Flow was written and directed by a white southerner by the name of Chris Brewer. Indeed Hustle and Flow harkens back to an even older tradition of white men creating outright racist representations called minstrel shows like Amos and Andy. Hustle and Flow is a neo-minstrel movie in that it is a contemporary cinematic projection of the white racist mind of Black life.
Just as white men during and after slavery created racist images of Black men as rapists and criminals to cover their homegrown sexist compulsion to rape and violate both Black and white women, Hustle and Flow is an outgrowth of that same white male supremacist thrust. Brewer has admitted that he was inspired to write the script by the events of his own personal life and marriage to his white wife as stated in this article published by Indiewire.com by Ellen Keohane.
Much of “Hustle and Flow” is based on experiences from Craig Brewer’s own life. When he and his wife Jodi moved to Memphis in the mid-1990s, they didn’t have any money. “My wife and I were really struggling,” said Brewer. Jodi, a costume designer, started making outfits for strippers for extra cash, then worked as a waitress at a strip club and later began stripping there. (One of the characters in “Hustle & Flow” is a stripper and several scenes take place in a local strip club.) “Part of me thought, wow, this will be an adventure,” said Brewer. “We started to roll with a very different element. At the same time, the lifestyle started to rob our souls a little bit. (emphasis mine) (Keohane)
The racism should be obvious. Rather than defy the white supremacist lie and write a script that details how he prostituted his wife to make ends, he realized that he would make millions more if he kept with the “master narrative” that images Black men as pimps and Black women as whores. Images that white America can readily embrace.
Joy James discusses a similar case of white male racist/sexist projection. Quoting an interview that appeared in Essence magazine, James writes,
“Writing that porn videos featuring black and interracial couples appear designed for white male viewers, Santiago refers to video writer-director William Marigold, who states that, for him, any appeal to black male viewers ‘is purely accidental.’ Santiago then quotes Marigold: ‘When I put Blacks in my videos, I project my fantasies, not theirs.’” (Shadowboxing, p. 140)
In Hustle and Flow Brewer, like Marigold and most other white photographers, filmmakers, directors and producers, is acting out his taboo sexist fantasies by masking white male perversion in Black skin. The agenda, purpose and motivation of the characters have nothing to do with Black life, but everything to do with white male psychosis.
If he had written a film about his own experience, undoubtedly he would have had to face his personal sexism and his personal complicity in the system of patriarchy and male domination as a white man. In so doing, he would also have had to come to terms on some level with his own demons and the demons of his white brethren who have raped, exploited and abused women of every hue since European colonization. White men are the only men known to have raped women for the sole purpose of producing workers they could exploit. We are talking about the actual oppression of their progeny. Then to top it off, they justified such barbarity by sanctioning it in within their laws and religious doctrines. Talk about big pimping. You don’t get any bigger than that!
Brewer would be assisted in this endeavor by none other than John Singleton of Boys N the Hood fame. Singleton, in his role as the film’s executive producer, served as the necessary Black stamp-of-approval that dissuaded the fears of nervous Hollywood execs concerned about a possible Black backlash. Just as Dr. Dre’s role as producer of Eminem enabled Eminem to gain the necessary street cred he would not have been able garner on his own, Singleton’s presence enabled Hustle and Flow to gain a ghetto authenticity that Brewer could not have pulled off with his “Hee-Haw” look and persona.
How do we justify “pro-Black” Singleton’s involvement? We can’t! Of course, Singleton would probably state that this is not your typical pimp flick. I guess he would call it “Pimp-Lite.” Even though the main character DJay is portrayed as a reluctant Black pimp, he is still no less an exploiter. He still wields abusive power over the women in his house. We see several scenes where the threat of the pimp slap is constantly lingering in the humid air. It is that threat of violence that marks his control over the young women’s lives. The racist imaginary continues in the depiction of the women as well. Only the white prostitute is given a semblance of agency. She is the only one who seeks an escape from prostitution. She is the only one of the three who actually asserts herself beyond mere whoredom by the film’s end. In the Black women we see two favorite stereotypes deployed. One is of the hardened, foul-mouthed Black woman who despises Black men. The other is the whiney, weak and helpless Black woman. Both are too beat-down and oppressed to fight against their oppression, so they are forced by their condition to submit to it and engage in self-destructive behavior. There is nothing new about this movie or its depiction of Black people. Brewer’s interpretation of Black life is no different fundamentally from D. W. Griffith’s interpretation in Birth of a Nation. If he were alive, he would give the film four stars. The film only fosters and reinforces age-old codes and icons of white supremacy.
I wonder if Singleton would be down with a film that put a happy face on slavery. In this film, the main character is a white slave master who is conflicted with his role as slave owner and wants to get out the “game.” So he decides he’ll make a living by writing about whipping “them niggers,” rather than actually beating his slaves. He then commences to record the lyrics over the sampled beat of “Whistlin’ Dixie.” He coerces one of his enslaved field hands named Sambo to sing the hook “It’s Hard out Here for a Cracker” as we witness a whip hanging on the wall just behind Sambo as he stutters through his lines.
Singleton’s involvement in the making of Hustle and Flow exposes the continuing contradiction of African American manhood. Our notions of Black nationalism and Black struggle remain narrow and limiting when we act out our patriarchal prerogative and fail to accord to Black women the same sensitivity and respect for their experience that we demand from the system for ours. Singleton’s concern was not with the way the Black women are viewed. His own films are notorious for replicating stereotypical depictions of Black women. Rather, his concern was whether the Black man would be perceived as redeemable. But there is no redemption to be found in this film. The stretch from a pimp that actually exploits women to a rapper that talks about exploiting women is no stretch at all. It is simply the record of the reality.
What the film does show is that the pimp aspiration is the same as the rapper aspiration: Power. In search of said power, DJay as pimp and DJay as rapper are both willing to exploit women to make their dreams come true. Rap artists know this and have acted accordingly. The modern day rapper presents an ideological defense, an aesthetic apologia, for the pimp and what the pimp represents: the brutal repression of women. What other purpose is there for songs like “Its Hard Out Here for a Pimp”? The song is an anthem for male domination. It is machismo remixed for the new millennium.
Beck identifies this connection between the pimp and the president. “So you can see how utterly poisoning and trapping it all is. Once anybody has pimped he is in trouble because this is what the male aspiration is … whether he is the president of a white corporation, of General Motors for example. It all boils down to the same thing … Power.” (Koblin) Herein lies the crux of the system of patriarchy; its main purpose is the manly pursuit of power manifested as control over the lives, bodies and minds of women.
The system is turning us out as a people. We are both the prostitute and the john. We pay to see ourselves exploited on the screen. We pay to listen to ourselves exploited on the CD player. We are paying with money, and we are paying with our souls. It is the best indication of just how deeply colonized we still are.
Today we are witnessing the rise of a Black bourgeoisie in Hollywood that has made its ascension upon the backs of their Black kinfolk who still exist in the hoods they have escaped from. Their notion of giving back is not producing films that honor the struggle of the Black poor, nor do their films instruct impoverished Blacks on how to fight against the system. Rather, their films exploit the Black poor; makes a mockery of their plight so they can make millions. The message of their movies is for the poor to grovel at the bottom, fighting and abusing each other, rather than against those who are responsible for their misery in the first place. More and more it will be these moneyed Blacks who will sit in the very places once reserved for white executives. And that will not be a cause for celebration, for they will not be our ambassadors but our oppressors by proxy. These are the true “hos” of the system, who have been able to benefit from prostituting themselves to the white industrial pimps they turn tricks for, while passing onto their people the abuse and suffering that should be theirs too.
Paramount Classics, the company that picked up the film from Sundance and distributed it into theaters across the globe, was on its financial death bed in the early part of the decade. But Hustle and Flow changed all that. “It’s the best summer we had,” according to David Dinerstein, Paramount corporate exec. Hustle and Flow made over $20 million for Paramount Classics. Their next best flick came in a distance second, making a measly $7 million in comparison. (Sperling)
Tom Freston, the white man who became co-president and co-CEO of Viacom in June 2004, oversees MTV Networks, BET, Showtime, Simon and Schuster and Paramount Pictures. Tom Freston’s ability to reproduce racist/sexist images of Black women en masse in a variety of lucrative outlets is a throw back to his plantation predecessors. As Barbara Omolade states in her essay “Hearts of Darkness,”
To the slave master, the Black woman “was a fragmented commodity whose feelings and choices were rarely considered: her head and her heart were separated from her back and her hands were divided from her womb and vagina. … Her vagina … was the gateway to the womb, which was his place of capital investment – the capital investment being the sex act, and the resulting child the accumulated surplus, worth money on the slave market.”(Words of Fire, p. 366)
Just as Tom Freston’s white male ancestors were able to reap tremendous profits from the wholesale exploitation of Black women’s bodies, so to Freston and his corporate contemporaries are reaping tremendous profits from the wholesale depiction of Black women’s bodies. This time the capital investment is not the actual sex act, but in the act of reproducing images of Black women that reinforce racist/sexist notions and structures of domination.
This is possible for the same reasons it was possible during slavery. Black women and the Black community are an oppressed class of people in the United States. The very nature of capitalism is based on the exploitation of oppressed classes. As Angela Davis clarifies,
“It would appear, therefore, that those men who wield power in the economic and political realm are encouraged by the class structure of capitalism to become agents of sexual exploitation. Their authority guards them against punishment in all circles except one: they may not violate a woman of their own standing.” (The Angela Davis Reader, p. 135)
In the hierarchy of patriarchy, white men wield the most power. But that fact does not excuse or render Black men less responsible for our complicity in the system white men have devised for their profit. In fact, given our history and condition, we should be the first to resist the sexist exploitation of Black women rather than be first in line to reap a little profit for ourselves.
Rather than face up to our complicity in the exploitation of Black women and organize against the system, some Black men have tried to justify their position by claiming that they are pimping the system. One such rap group called Dead Prez has gone as far as to make a song and video that does just that. “Hell Yeah (Pimp the System)” is Dead Prez’s response to the dead-end reality that is faced by many of the Black working poor. Rather than pimp each other, they say, “pimp the system.”
This hip hop slogan is problematic coming from a rap group that proclaims itself revolutionary for a couple of reasons. First, it gives credibility to pimping and prostitution by its mere use of the word. Ideologically this is debilitating because it places us in the disempowered position of fighting on the system’s terms by using their very terms in fact. That is not revolutionary. Trying to disconnect pimping from its real purpose of oppressing women, and turning it into some radical act is a sign of political weakness and a lack of cultural vision. In fact is a trap. It is just not possible for the system to be pimped. The system already knows how to handle petty crime, which is what they suggest poor Blacks do to get back at the system. Smacking up the pizza delivery boy and stealing his meager funds will not free anybody. If anything, it will achieve just the opposite – jail. And our people are already over-represented in the penitentiaries.
The video actually ends with cops breaking in to their hide-out and arresting them. Dead Prez unable to cast a libratory vision for their scheme, turns it into a bad dream with them waking up in pre-colonial Africa surrounded a bevy of Black women lying all around them. The “ghetto ho” becomes the “Afrocentric queen.” Different image, same role: service the Black man. Which brings us back to the original issue: If you can’t pimp the “The Man,” then pimp the sistah. With “Pimp the System” Dead Prez doesn’t offer any viable solution, just more of the same.
Trying to find a little pocket in the system to pilfer, which, in the end, amounts to ripping off other poor people in the hood, is just another ridiculous ploy by a rap group at gaining street cred. Why else would Jay-Z appear on the song’s remix? Their attempt at converting self-proclaimed rapper-pimps falls right on its face. In the end, Jay-Z doesn’t change his ideological position as it pertains to the treatment of Black women or his relationship to capitalism. It is all a charade that only lends itself to confusing our youth. Both Dead Prez and Jay-Z share the same corporate sponsorship. That might better explain the reason for them working together on the track.
As has been stated, the prostitute cannot pimp the pimp. The prostitute’s only real option is to resist the pimp and get free. Our people’s only real option to end our misery under this corrupt system is organized resistance against it. Malcolm X settled the question back in 1965 when he said; “The system in this country cannot produce freedom for an African American. It is impossible for this system, this economic system, this political system, this social system, this system, period.” (The Last Year of Malcolm X, p. 43) Dead Prez should know better. But maybe they too have fallen victim to the dollarism Malcolm also addressed given their contractual relationship to corporate giant Columbia Records. “You can cuss out colonialism, imperialism and all other kinds of ism, but it’s hard for you to cuss that dollarism. When they drop those dollars on you, your soul goes.” (The Last Year of Malcolm X, p. 42)
Capitalism doesn’t care how much you rave and rant against it as long as you don’t actively resist it. And you cannot actively resist it while you are being pimped by it. It will even provide you with a stage so you can get paid to complain about how bad the system is. All the while, capitalism takes your ranting all the way to the bank and cashes in on your complaint.
Pimps are known to keep their prostitutes in check by playing mind games on them. In the film Hustle and Flow DJay manipulates his prostitutes by convincing them that they were in charge, when in fact he was. A real mind game is being played on our people under this system. This American free market system tells us that we are in control; that we can do whatever we want within the system. And we are falling for it. Far too many of us believe that capitalism is a good system. We have been so miseducated about how this system works. We are not taught that it is set up to keep the majority of us impoverished. We are not taught that its very existence depends on the exploitation of our labor. We have to recognize our power and use it to recreate the system. This is not folly or wide-eyed idealism. Our people are responsible for the two major economic and social shifts that have ever occurred in U.S. history. It was our ancestors and predecessors that ended slavery and later Jim Crow segregation. That potential still lives within us. It comes down to a question of priorities. Are we satisfied with groveling at the bottom, while a few of our people manipulate our desires for real power and control over our lives via music videos and Hollywood films? Have we become comfortable with customizing our poverty to make it appear flashier and more stylish than it really it is? Or are we really ready to make a new reality?
The system doesn’t have a conscience that would cause it to respond to moral suasion. Capitalism cannot be compelled to quit exploiting our people and certainly not the women in our community. Only when we come out of the studios, out of the theaters, and organize ourselves will the (s)exploitation of our people cease. If we are against the system, if we despise what white men have done to us, then let us fight, not to find our niche so that we can get in on the action of profiteering from the abuse of women, but fight against the forces that has our people locked down in real life cells while they sell our warped image to the world.
The value we place on Black women as evidenced in the numerous videos and films that we support only works to devalue their potential as self-defining and self-determining beings. Our value of Black women must move beyond being centered in how much pleasure they can bring us. It must move beyond a selfish and distorted appreciation for how good they look or how good they can dance or to what new level they can cause our libidos to rise. Our value of them must be anchored in an appreciation for their minds and their spirits. Minds and spirits that have the potential to create a new reality for themselves and thus, for our people. Minds and spirits that can cause our people to rise to new liberating levels of self-awareness and self-determination.
No, the system doesn’t have a soul. But we do. What is the condition of our soul when we pay top dollar to see our people exploited? Today, we are the ones showing up at the auction block bidding on our own people. What has become of us? The world has gained a distorted and dehumanizing image of our people as it is beamed all over the planet. We, in return, have gained nothing. In the process we are raising a generation that lacks a fundamental love and respect for each other and ourselves. Call me a “playa hater” if you must. But the truth of the matter, my brothers, is that you are not playas. You are just the ones being played.
Breitman, George. The Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1967.
Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Ice. New York: Dell Publishing, 1968.
Guy-Sheftall, Beverly, ed. Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought. New York: The Free Press, 1995.
hooks, bell. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Boston: South End Press, 1981.
hooks, bell. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End Press, 1990.
James, Joy. Shadowboxing: Representations of Black Feminist Politics. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
James, Joy, ed. The Angela Davis Reader. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 1998.
Kelley, Robin D.G. Race Rebels: Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class. New York: The Free Press, 1996.
Keohane, Ellen. “The ‘Hustle and Flow’ of Independent Film, Writer/Director Craig Brewer and Producer Stephanie Allain on Their Upcoming Film.” Web page: http://www.indiewire.com/people/people_050718hustle.html
Koblin, Helen. “Portrait of a Pimp.” Los Angeles Free Press, Vol 9, No 8 (Feb 25-Mar 2, 1972) Web page: http://www.popsubculture.com/pop/bio_project/sub/iceberg_slim1.html
Moody, Nekesa Mumbi. “Pimps: The New ‘Gangstas’ of Rap.” Web page: http://www.story.news.yahoo.com/news…_pimpin_1
Sperling, Nicole. “Revival Under way at Paramount Classics.” Web page: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr/film/feature_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1001056909
West, Hollie I. “Sweet Talk, Hustle and Muscle,” The Washington Post (1973) Web page: http://www.popsubculture.com/pop/bio_project/sub/iceberg_slim2.html
Ewuare Osayande is a political activist and author of several books including Blood Luxury and the forthcoming Misogyny and the Emcee. He is co-founder of POWER (People Organized Working to Eradicate Racism) and is creator of ONUS: Redefining Black Manhood. He can be reached at OsayandeSpeaks@hotmail.com.
Author of Blood Luxury
(Article courtesy of Assata Speaks! Hands Off Assata-Let’s Get Free-Revolutionary Pan-Africanism-Black On Purpose-Forum)