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Rappers Aren't Feeling Oprah's Love

Oprah has refused to bring Ice Cube and Ludacris on her show. But it's not their music she hates -- it's their message of contempt for black women.
 
 
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Ludacris was the first rapper to complain about Oprah. In the May 2006 issue of GQ, he said that Oprah only grudgingly invited him to her show because of his role in the Oscar-winning film "Crash." Ludacris called Oprah "unfair" and said that she edited his comments and lectured him about his music.

Then 50 Cent -- the infamous crack dealer turned rap artist -- joined the fray, telling the Associated Press that Oprah rarely invites rap artists on her show. Revealing his disdain for what he characterized as Oprah's older, female, and primarily white audience, he said, "[I] couldn't care less about Oprah or her show."

And now Ice Cube, the former frontman for controversial rap group N.W.A, has expressed his displeasure with Oprah. He told FHM magazine that he's been involved with three projects that were pitched to Oprah but has yet to receive an invite. "Maybe Oprah's got a problem with hip hop," Ice Cube said.

But contrary to what Ludacris, 50 Cent and Ice Cube have implied, Oprah has had rap artists on her show, but her tastes lean more toward John Legend and Alicia Keys than to Lil Wayne and Trina. To promote the film "Barbershop," Oprah invited rapper-actress Eve and comedian Cederic the Entertainer. Sean "P-Diddy" Combs was on before he ran the New York City marathon to raise money for local public schools. Incendiary rap artist-producer Kanye West, whose religious anthem "Jesus Walks" stirred up controversy among church folks, has also appeared on her show. Queen Latifah and LL Cool J have sat on Oprah's stage. More importantly, rap artist-producer Missy Elliott and "queen of hip hop" Mary J. Blige were both part of Oprah's Legends Weekend celebrating accomplished black women.

Earlier this month Oprah responded to her critics, explaining to MTV: "I respect other people's rights to do whatever they want to do in music and art. ... I don't want to be marginalized by music or any form of art. ... I feel rap is a form of expression, as is jazz. I'm not opposed to rap. I'm opposed to being marginalized as a woman."

In case Oprah's comments need some decoding, what she's saying is she believes rap artists should be free to record songs that call women "bitches" and "hos," and she should be equally free not to invite them on her show. Oprah does not have a problem with rap music -- she has a problem with rap that degrades women.

There's a particular arrogance that permeates Ludacris, 50 Cent and Ice Cube's statements, as if Oprah owes them a spot on her show. It's Oprah who has issues by refusing to celebrate black men who've made millions by demeaning black women?

If songs such as Ludacris' "Move Bitch" or NWA's "A Bitch Iz A Bitch" are not Oprah's cup of tea, then why should she be obligated to give them a platform? It doesn't seem to occur to these black men (or their supporters) that Oprah has the right not to use her show -- which is seen by 21 million viewers a week in 105 countries -- to promote performers whose work she feels is misogynistic or offensive. Oprah may not be kicking any black feminist credentials, but rather than blindly using her influence to "help the brothers," she is choosing not to support black entertainers whose work denies the humanity of black women.

The main focus of this brouhaha is not hip hop or rap, but the commercially successful subset of these genres that has transformed the public image of black women from flygirls to bitches, tricks, 'hos and chickenheads. This is the same sector of hip hop that has mainstreamed stripper culture, reduced the value of women to their body parts (remember Nelly's music video "Tip Drill?") and mocked the importance of love.

Rap shouldn't be banned or censored, but if living in an open society means that performers are free to express themselves, then that same freedom of expression must be extended to folks who aren't feeling it. Unfortunately, among black Americans there is little substantive debate about how popular culture affects our communities; any criticism of rap music, however slight or legitimate, is routinely dismissed as "hating."

In early 2004, Motivational Education Entertainment (MEE), a Philadelphia communications firm, released a nationwide study of 2,000 "urban" teens. The authors of the study concluded that, overall, the teens in their survey believed "black females are valued by no one."

The vast majority of the teens received their perceptions about life from the rap they regularly consumed. The study states that one of the most relevant changes in the hip hop generation (from their civil rights and black power movement predecessors) is an open disdain for black women. It makes perfect sense, then, that Oprah would not want to even indirectly advance messages that negatively impact young black women.

In his FHM interview, Ice Cube claims he deserves an invite to Oprah's show because of his "rags-to-riches story." Sure, Ice Cube has made millions -- but his success was founded on songs like NWA's "One Less Bitch," and the extremely raunchy "Giving Up the Nappy Dugout" (a solo release).

What Ice Cube fails to understand is that Oprah herself is the prototype for the "rags to riches" stories she highlights on her show; her life has been much more dramatic than those of many rap artists. She grew up dirt-poor in rural Mississippi to unwed parents. At age 9 -- and repeatedly thereafter -- she was sexually abused by a relative. She endured years of bad relationships, drug addictions, weight problems, and a career-changing demotion that moved her from her news anchor seat to co-hosting a morning talk show.

Oprah credits her fortune to education and faith; her shows reflect her strong belief in self-transformation. For over 20 years, Oprah has featured "success" stories on her show. Most of these have been women who became influential through perseverance and creativity, as well as people who have overcome adversity, tragedy or abuse to create richer lives for themselves, their families or communities. For Oprah, success is not predicated on amassing large sums of money; it is based on the contribution a person makes to improving his or her world.

Oprah has her detractors, mainly because she uses her show to promote the subjects she cares about. Implicit in all of the criticism from rap artists is the idea that because Oprah is black, she is expected to push every black entertainer's latest film or album, regardless of her opinion. The underlying sentiment is that if she is unwilling to set aside her values, then she can't be down for black people.

This position assumes that what is good for black entertainers is good for all black folks -- a highly arguable notion. There are many media outlets that expose U.S. rap artists to the global marketplace. But Oprah is virtually alone in her ability, through her selection of guests, to provide the world with a broader view of black Americans and their achievements. For black women, who are so commonly equated with the stereotypes of half-naked, gyrating women found in rap music videos, an opposing portrayal is welcome.

If the brothers feel they need more media visibility, they should use their millions to finance their own talk shows, instead of jocking Oprah Winfrey.

Yvonne Bynoe is the author of two books: "Stand & Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and Hip Hop Culture" and the "Encyclopedia of Rap and Hip Hop Culture." She is also a regular panelist on the National Public Radio program News & Notes with Ed Gordon.