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Hip-Hop Music and Culture Stir Divisive Debate at Morehouse, Spelman

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DSC_0445_3By Jared Loggins – Originally Published in the Sept. 2013 Edition of HBCU Digest Quarterly

Hip-hop, for decades, has stirred debate across the country over its role in misogyny, homophobia, racism and sexism. This debate has come again to the Atlanta University Center with the emergence of a “Please Don’t Stop the Music” petition sponsored by the Morehouse Student Government Association to counter a move by the administration to censor lyrics that are offensive to women.

At a recent town hall meeting, Morehouse President John Wilson said that he believes all misogynistic music should be banned from public spaces on campus because it misrepresents Morehouse’s institutional values and sends the wrong message to potential donors.

“If people are degraded by the music that is played on campus, then that is institutional complicity,” Wilson said. “I’m not for that.”

However, rather than impose his opinion, he urged students to draw a line on what is acceptable music on campus.

“We have to have intelligent debate and conversation around this issue,” Wilson said. “And frankly, it has not happened yet. We have to draw a line here on what is acceptable.”

The question among students, during and in the aftermath of the town hall, has centered on where, if any, a line should be drawn.  When polled by Wilson during the meeting on how many students opposed a ban on music, most students affirmed a sentiment that echoed across social media through a Maroon Tiger live tweet session: no ban.

Blurred Lines

The Maroon Tiger asked students to express their sentiments on the continuing discussions.

Junior English major Jebar King does not support a ban and says, like many students at Morehouse and Spelman colleges, it is an infringement on black cultural expression.

“It shouldn’t be banned at all because hip-hop is a part of Black culture and expression – no matter how ignorant it can be at times – and we are at an HBCU and need to embrace our culture instead of attempt to get rid of it.”

Other students disagree with a complete ban but believe a line should be drawn somewhere regarding the issue. Sophomore English major Aaron Jones believes censorship would allow students to reflect on Morehouse’s mission.

“I don’t believe it should be banned altogether but I do believe that we can’t be an HBCU uplifting black men and women if the image we’re projecting signifies men sagging pants, rapping about nothing more than money, designer clothes, and women or disrespecting women by portraying them provocatively in every video,” Jones said. “I believe there is a need for a censor, maybe a clean version [of a song] at the least, although I think a complete ban is overdoing it.”

Still, many students fear that a ban may set a precedent regarding how much power a president can exercise. Amid the discussion, some believe that censorship in any form would undercut the artistic expression that a liberal arts institution promotes.

Sophomore Business Accounting major Justin McKnight believes that the music is already censored at public events and the lyrics do not determine students’ conduct.

“I feel that there is a place and time for everything and events like Hump Wednesday and Homecoming where the music is played is a chance for students to come together and enjoy themselves,” McKnight wrote. “The music that we play today is what our generation enjoys listening to.”

Spelman junior Adeerya Johnson firmly believes that there should be ban.

“Yes, because the type of music Morehouse plays will represent how Morehouse is. Meaning, the whole school’s persona in general will be looked at as a contradiction. If you are a school focusing on black male excellence, you, as an institution, need to find a style of music or artist that represents your mission.”

DSC_0418_3Music Debate Nothing New

The debate began nearly a year ago when students in a black psychology class at Spelman drafted a petition urging students and administrators to be conscious of the degradation of women in certain lyrics played during Market Friday. Last October, Spelman President Beverly Daniel Tatum responded to student backlash to the petition in a letter that echoed college policy that bans misogynistic music on Spelman’s campus. The letter garnered mixed reactions from students.

“…Spelman College is a community where the educational empowerment of women is central, and the expectation is that everyone will be treated as worthy of dignity and respect,” Tatum wrote. “Our policies are designed to support and preserve those values. When you see a situation where those community values are being jeopardized, you can reasonably assume that College policy is being violated, and it is time to report it to someone.”

Dr. Tatum’s letter seemed to undergird a growing sentiment among administrators at both schools about a pervasive trend that seems to undermine institutional values.

In 2004, Nelly had planned a visit to Spelman to do work for a bone marrow registry but cancelled his visit in the wake of protests around misogyny and sexism in his lyrics.

“We need to organize and say no to this stuff, this nasty, disgusting stuff,” Beverly Guy-Sheftall, a professor of Women’s Studies at Spelman, said in an interview with the Associated Press at the time.

In January, a group of Morehouse students drafted their own petition standing in solidarity with the Spelman students who drafted the original petition against misogynistic music.

“We fuel popular culture on our campus and do not have to abide by the social narratives provided to us,” Junior and signatory on the petition Nelson Graves said in an interview with The Maroon Tiger in January. “On a campus filled with future doctors, lawyers, accountants, professors and renaissance men, to say we cannot do without the misogyny on a Hump Wednesday is simply untrue. We need to give ourselves more credit than that, as we are more than capable of breaking away and seeking a more positive alternative, an alternative that does not morally compromise ourselves or come at the expense of our sisters.”

The Morehouse petition aimed “to have disallowed, through the implementation/enforcement of school-wide policy, the public play of all misogynistic music on the Morehouse College Campus. This would include, but not be limited to, Hump Wednesday and concerts held on the Morehouse College campus endorsed by the institution or via student organization[s].”

Students remain vocal

Nearly a decade since the 2004 protests, grassroots action remains a site of agency and expression for students on both campuses to deal with a culture that many say extends far beyond music. While music has been at the forefront, recent sexual assaults have renewed a discussion about other factors that might contribute to such a culture.

Last Spring, a group of Morehouse and Spelman students came together to voice their concerns about rape culture amid a number of national headlines centered on controversial remarks related to rape and sexual assaults.

The group of male students and female students clad in racy attire flocked onto Morehouse’s campus holding bullhorns and wielding signs that disavowed controversial language surrounding rape.

“My clothes do not equal consent,” one Spelman student’s sign read. “Rape is rape is rape is rape,” another Morehouse student’s sign said.

Those protests came only weeks after allegations of sexual assaults surfaced on the campus. Though it had not been the first time that such an event had occurred –nearly 150 students protested an alleged cover-up by administrators in 2006 –Morehouse administrators pledged to do more to change the culture in the wake of the incident.

“Violence is the very antithesis of the Morehouse ethos and the values of a Morehouse Man,” a statement released by the Morehouse Office of Communications said at the time. Weeks later, the college hosted a Violence Against Women panel to get proactive about changing what many see as a culture that invites violence, misogyny, and sexism.

As for the direction the institution will take in the coming years, President Wilson promised a continued commitment to character preeminence.