WHEN HIP-HOP IMPRESARIO RUSSELL SIMMONS appeared at Hamilton College for an evening lecture on "Hip-Hop, Culture, and Politics" in April 2004, no one could have anticipated the fallout. Simmons, whose net worth hovers around $400 million, had been invited to lecture for his work as the chairman of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN). The year 2004 was a critical election year for many who were tired of the mendacity and chicanery of the Bush administration. Some were also openly smarting from the voter fraud and widespread Black disenfranchisement in Florida 2002. Simmons's HSAN had voter registration among hip-hop generationers as their mission, as well as challenging the [New York state] Rockefeller Drug laws as unethical, racially biased, and harshly punitive.
His lecture morphed into a Q & A session, as he made a last-minute decision to stray from the contractual script towards a "just kickin' it" dialogue. As with comedian Dave Chappelle's bodacious, street-creed-upholding character in the skit, "When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong," Simmons's attempt at "keeping it real" fell flat.
Riled by the television show BET Uncut and specifically the rapper Nelly's controversial video "Tip Drill," female students swapped volleys with Simmons. At one point, he suggested that the students just "turn off their television sets," an increasingly used line by corporate representatives when directly confronted by critics of such programming. Simmons's use had the effect of identifying him more with his lucrative financial interests than with his audience. The students though were more concerned about the 80 million television sets that were tuned into BET, and the unpleasant gender politics and sexual provocations that continually flowed from them.
One of the Hamilton students, a young woman, was especially agitated. While she was clearly misguided in her assertion that there were no networks devoted to promoting white culture, she nonetheless zeroed in on hip-hop culture's contradictory relationship with women and boldly declared that these videos impinged upon her sense of womanhood. As she fled the auditorium, Simmons delivered the "keep it street" coup de grace. He attempted to evoke empathy for the hard-knock life of so many male rappers. He suggested that after acquiring the requisite material trappings of success--cars, houses, jewelry, and "all the pussy" they wanted--many rappers were still quite unfulfilled. With the president and dean of the college and a gaggle of professors in the audience, Simmons exemplified for many the role that hip-hop has carved out for young women. They were either "hot pussy for sale" or they were "pussy for the taking."
But of course, hip-hop's relationship to young women is much more complicated and varied than that. In fact, hip-hop's commercial success is heavily dependent upon young Black women. Overexposed young...