Commercial Hip Hop Trafficks Sex
Hip hop is hot.
According to the Recording Industry Association of America, hip hop -- the macho subculture of rappers, graffiti artists, and break dancers that began on New York's mean streets in the 70s -- became the second-most popular music genre, with a 13.8 percent share of all music purchases in 2002. The music and its associated products are marketed to teens of all races, the fastest growing segment of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
None of which pleases Rachel Lloyd, executive director and founder of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services in New York City, a four-year-old mentoring agency for girls and young women between 13 and 21 who are at risk of sexual exploitation.
"Just about every hip-hop song has a reference to pimping," protests Lloyd.
Given the unabashed and almost respectful treatment that hip hop gives to pimping and prostitution, Lloyd considers hip hop one of the threats -- along with poverty and single-parent homes -- facing the girls she mentors.
Lloyd, herself once a sexually exploited teen, worries that as hip-hop culture has become more dominant, it's having a negative influence on girls who are most vulnerable to sex trafficking.
Prostitutes, according to Lloyd, are getting younger and younger, with the average age of entry now 12. "It's easier to manipulate younger and younger girls," says Lloyd. "Most people get into this world before 18 and get stuck in it."
Because so many young girls are being sold for sex, Lloyd dislikes the word "prostitute." "'Prostitute' implies a mature person able to make a decision," she says. "It is a misnomer because it denotes a level of choice. It should be seen for what it is, sexual exploitation."
And she says pimps should be seen for what they are: "child abusers."
For some community activists in New York, uneasiness about pimping, prostitution, hip hop and young kids came into focus about a year ago, with an incident in the stairwell of a New York City middle school. There, according to a speaker at a community forum on urban crime, a 12-year-old girl was found performing oral sex on a 12-year-old boy. The coupling had been arranged by another 13-year-old girl -- a pimp, essentially -- who was prostituting her friend.
Pulled Into 'The Life'
Although girls pimping other girls might be unusual, hip hop's critics say its style, language and mores are working to repackage and popularize the traditionally reviled profession of pimping. And the result is that more girls are getting pulled into the "life."
Bakari Kitwana, author of "The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture," and the upcoming "Why White Kids Love Hip Hop," believes that some artists, albeit not all, give their youthful fans the idea that sexual trafficking is cool.
"There are certain commercially viable hip-hop artists that sensationalize certain behaviors and then position it as a part of hip hop," says Kitwana, a former executive editor of The Source, a leading hip hop magazine. "Because of their influence, it has become an issue."
Dr. Tracy Sharpley-Whiting, chair of the Africana Studies Program at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., agrees. "The more hedonistic versus the more progressive forms of hip hop get promoted," says Sharpley-Whiting.
Kitwana believes that these relatively few but influential artists encourage young girls and boys to think of themselves as pimps and "hos."
And, says Kitwana, even young girls who do not identify with the images are apt to brush them aside too easily. "Young girls who are into hip hop make excuses for it. They say, 'They are not talking about me,' or 'Some girls are like that.'"
Sharpley-Whiting, currently working on book on feminism, hip hop and young black women, says the New York City middle school girl who acted as the pimp was on a quest for personal power. That it took that particular form, she says, could well have been explained by the influence of hip hop videos and music.
"They see that one acquires money and goods by dominating women and they pick up on the message," says Sharpley-Whiting.
Material Success Link
Lloyd says the act of girls pimping girls is in fact probably very rare. But what is becoming more commonplace, she says, is for girls not to think of pimping or prostitution as sexually exploitative. For them, she says, it's an activity that hip hop has glamorized by an association with materialism and success in the form of flashy dress, money and fine cars.
A counselor at the school where the pimping incident occurred agrees. "They don't have a good understanding of what it's about," the counselor says. "They don't understand the danger of it."
Pro-pimping cues are explicit in some of the most commercially successful hip hop.
One of the most popular songs today is "P.I.M.P" by rapper 50 Cent, who, according to the New York City hip hop radio station, HOT 97, earned $18 million last year. Featured on his compact disc, "Get Rich or Die Tryin," the song talks explicitly about sending women out to solicit sex for money:
"B ** ch hit that track, catch a date, come a' paid the kid. Look baby this is simple. You f**ing with me, you f**ing with a P -I -M -P."
The song's video -- which features rapper Snoop Dogg -- has an unidentified member of the group "walking" two women on leashes. In August, during the MTV Music Video Awards, 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg performed "P.I.M.P" before a live audience. Girls on leashes were once again featured and the rappers were joined on stage by Bishop Don Magic Juan, a real life former pimp who also serves as advisor and touring mate to Snoop Dogg.
Making 'The Game' Acceptable
Juan wants to make the "game" -- street slang for pimping -- more socially acceptable. "It's been negatively portrayed through movies and television," said Juan in an interview with The Associated Press. Although he doesn't openly promote a pimp's activities, he promotes a pimp's style; the clothing, jewelry and accessories. He has even offered grooming tips, such as the proper skin care regimen, to the readers of MTV.com.
Juan's rise in popularity has led to negotiations for a reality TV show and a record contract with Los Angeles-based independent label Avatar Records. His upcoming CD, "Bishop Don Magic Juan Presents: Green Is for the Money, Gold Is for the Honies," will feature his favorite old classics from his pimping days, as well as new songs from rappers Ludacris, Snoop Dogg, P. Diddy and others.
Pimping has even spawned a new energy drink, Pimp Juice, owned and marketed by rapper Nelly, which will hit stores nationwide this month. Then, there is "Lil' Pimp," an animated feature film to be distributed by Sony Pictures.
"Lil' Pimp" tells the story of a 9-year-old white boy who abandons his suburban enclave after he's introduced to the world of pimping by "master pimp" Fruit Juice and "working girl" Sweet Chiffon. The film which features the voices of Lil' Kim, Ludacris and actors Bernie Mac and William Shatner, makes pimping seem fun and harmless.
Lloyd finds these attempts to legitimize pimping distressing.
"It's out of control. Some girls who come into the agency like the song 'P.I.M.P'," she fumed. "These are girls who have been raped, on the street, and/or incarcerated. They are girls who know the life on one hand and yet are immune and accept the images. We're trying to educate girls and help them get out (of the life) and we're fighting against a media tide."
Carla Thompson is freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY.