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Over Christmas break I was up late one night on the phone. As I passed the den I glanced at the TV and what I saw made me stop. Nelly and the St. Lunatics were throwing money at nearly naked women. Women were simulating sex with other women as Nelly and company looked on. Then I saw Murphy Lee sliding a credit card between a woman's butt cheeks. I was too disgusted to even speak and got off the phone quickly.
When I came back to school, along with the usual "How was break?" and "What'd you do?" came the soon equally familiar, "Have you seen 'Tip Drill?'" My Spelman sisters and Morehouse brothers alike were shocked by this recent low in depictions of African-American women on the small screen. Our critique of the video was not isolated. Fellow Historically Black College/University (HBCU) students at Howard had protested in front of Viacom to show their outrage towards the video in mid-December. It became apparent to me, as Spelman's Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance (FMLA) President that this was something that we, too, needed to address.
The FMLA had its first showing and discussion of the "Tip Drill" video at the beginning of February. A significant number of students came, including men from Morehouse. Many differing viewpoints were brought up. One student asked if women could ever be in these videos and be sexual without being viewed in a negative manner. The comment was eloquently addressed by FMLA member Bettina Judd, who replied that the kind of sexuality they were displaying was not about pleasure; it was about women performing for a male audience. I mean what kind of pleasure is received when a credit card is swiped through your backside? It is impossible to display healthy sexuality when you are being degraded. The men in the audience noticed that watching the video in a room full of women made them feel differently about the video. It helped them see the misogyny they had overlooked before.
A week later I saw Asha Jennings, The Spelman Student Government Association (SGA) President carrying a big box. She called me over for what I assumed would be help carrying the load, but ended up being help in what has been titled, "The Nelly Controversy." Asha explained that in the box were flyers for the Jes Us 4 Jackie bone marrow drive that was set to take place on April 2. Spelman SGA had been working with Nelly's foundation to bring a bone marrow registration drive to campus. The problem was readily apparent.
How could Spelman, a historically black women's institution, have Nelly on campus after his heinous depiction of black women in his lyrics and videos? Asha had been previously unaware of the video and had just seen it. She now stood at the crossroads of what to do. Should she cancel the drive, knowing that the issue of minority bone marrow registration would go unaddressed? Should she uninvite Nelly from campus and allow the foundation to come? Should students remain silent altogether and not bring up the issue of "Tip Drill?"
Asha presented her dilemma to our Feminist Theory class, citing that her other classes were in favor of participating in the drive, and then writing Nelly a letter which would uninvite him from the campus. Our professor, Dr. Guy-Sheftall, was the voice of reason and pointed out that writing a letter does not carry the same weight that protesting or canceling a drive have. If we were upset about his portrayal of African-American women in the video, our actions had to be equally powerful. Additionally, sending a letter does not ensure that Nelly will read it. He has people who read his mail for him and he might never know our concern. Finally, you cannot separate the man from his foundation. It belongs to him and should he decide to come on campus, he could do so with his foundation.
It was then that debate broke down into the point-counterpoint formula that is all too familiar in heated discussion. We discussed and discussed until Asha broke down in tears. Dr. Guy-Sheftall told her she needed to stop beating herself up over this and make a decision to cancel the drive or to allow students to protest it. The class voted and the protest won out.
The FMLA took on the task of organizing and planning the action. We decided that the next week's FMLA meeting would be the strategizing session for the protest. We were excited and eager to begin our work.
In the days that followed, we did research. We made signs with Nelly's lyrics on them and invited people to the meeting on Tuesday. We also found the definitions of a tip drill (which included a woman who has a nice figure but an ugly face, a woman who may have an STD and therefore only the tip of the penis can be used to have sex with her, or a stripper who prompts men to keep throwing money at her). These were added to the flyer inviting people to come to the FMLA meeting. Those planning to protest also planned to join the bone marrow registry, ensuring that the goal of the drive was accomplished and that bone marrow recipients did not suffer.
Fliers were up all over campus and the Nelly "Tip Drill" controversy was heating up. However, it was not until the Tuesday night FMLA meeting that everything came to a head.
Asha informed the group that the foundation had pulled out of the drive. Apparently, the foundation had been to campus earlier that week and seen the signs that the FMLA put up all over campus. They scheduled an emergency meeting with SGA and requested that no protestors be at the drive. SGA could not meet the ridiculous demand of assuring their request. The foundation then left the room so that SGA could vote on whether or not the drive could continue if, at the foundation's request, Nelly agreed to participate in a forum to address student concerns. Despite a unanimous vote to continue with the drive under the new stipulations, when the foundation came back they had already decided to cancel the drive.
The foundation was apparently so upset about this issue that they went to the press, saying that Spelman canceled the drive because of the video "Tip Drill." Unfortunately for them, their plan backfired and the media coverage blew up and ended up depicting them negatively.
MTV broke the story, erroneously reporting that Spelman was responsible for the drive not happening because we had planned a huge protest against one video. The Atlanta Journal Constitution's piece, however, included interviews with Asha and myself and set the record straight, explaining that the foundation had canceled the drive and that our issues were much bigger than Nelly and "Tip Drill." Fortunately, it was sent out on the AP wire.
We cropped up in the Dayton Daily News, an editorial in USA Today, a segment of Essence Magazine, and various websites, blogs and discussion boards. We appeared on five local Atlanta radio stations and I did an interview with the new liberal radio station Air America. All of this press was largely affirming, letting us state our case and explain once again that we were in support of the drive the whole time -- we just didn't want to support sexist images in the media. The foundation attempted to save face by trying to reschedule the drive, but was once again unwilling to have Nelly address student concerns.
As the media ran with the story, so many things surprised me. First of all, with all the activism that goes on at Spelman's campus, of all the problems we see in the Bush administration and in the world, a handful of students willing to stand up against problematic depictions of black women in the media got national attention.
The public outpouring of both support and opposition has also been surprising. The old guard of the black feminist movement has said they are re-energized by our efforts. Spelman alumna Pearl Cleage said that it was a welcome sight to see young black women giving voice to the issue of misogyny in the media. Jill Nelson, author of "Straight No Chaser" was equally impressed with what we have done, saying that our action gave her hope for the future.
But not all people have seen the situation in a positive light. Some thought we were angry emasculators who were too concerned with images and not at all concerned with bone marrow. It is so easy to portray us as angry black women unwilling to stand behind a black man, even though he is doing something good. Our questions for Nelly were recast as vociferous attacks and have allowed people to feel sorry for Nelly, a supposedly helpless bystander caught in the misdirected rage of young black women.
One of our most valid criticisms came from a former civil rights leader who spoke to the classism that seems to be lurking in this issue. As middle class, college educated black women, we can very easily speak to the issue of video images, but the issue of the financial barriers that lock women into being in these videos is not something that we seemed to address.
I understand how it looks that way; that those of us with privilege are judging those less fortunate than us for the economically driven decisions they make to participate in this medium. But in every interview we've had we stated that this is systemic, a part of the larger racist, capitalist, patriarchal society we call America. But once you start talking about interlocking systems of oppression, the press stops recording.
I also do not wish to demonize the women who participate in the videos and who feel the tug of the capitalist puppet strings and see this as an easy way to make money. Our criticism was directed toward Nelly, not the women in his videos, but I do hope to help them see that while they may feel autonomous in the choices they make, the implication of their decisions are global, impacting how African-American women are viewed world wide.
This whole Nelly controversy sapped a significant amount of energy from me and other obligations I had to school, to other organizations, and projects. Sometimes the situation seemed to have a life of its own, especially when the media picked up the story and ran with it. At times I felt like I was along for the ride.
Although the Nelly controversy was completely unexpected and caught me off guard, I will not shrink from the challenge of sustaining a movement around images of black women in the media. I want to make it clear that this is so much bigger than Nelly, that he is not the scapegoat but the spark that ignited the need for a public critique of how we as women are being portrayed. I see "Tip Drill" in the broader context of a racist, capitalist, patriarchal system that has a vested interest in feeding stereotypes of both black men and women as hypersexual in the quest for the almighty dollar.
It is because I love hip hop that I critique it and as part of the hip hop generation, who better than I to bring the music back to what I loved about it in the first place? For me, that sentiment can be summed up by one of the signs we had at the demonstration. "We love hip hop, but does hip hop love us?"
Moya Bailey is a Comparative Women's Studies/Pre-Med major at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia.