Carla Thompson

Why the Green Schoolyard Movement Benefits Kids, Communities and the Environment

Imagine if every neighborhood in every city in America had a safe, vibrant and accessible outdoor place that served as a neighborhood hub. A place where kids could play and participate in sports; where neighbors could get together for a shared meal or a musical performance; where teachers could conduct lessons in science, poetry or art under a canopy of trees; where kids could plant a garden, tend crops and harvest a little healthy food for themselves.

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The Next Hip Hop Revolution

The women of hip-hop are taking their place in the spotlight during the 46th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony on Sunday, Feb. 8.

In the coveted Song of the Year award category, hip-hop artists have claimed four out of the five nominations, and three of the nominees are women. The works by female performers range from the overtly sexual lyrics of rapper Lil Kim to the soulful stirrings of the "Queen of Hip-Hop Soul," Mary J. Blige.

In the competition for the Best Rap Album award, rapper and producer Missy Elliot is pushing into the male-dominated category with her compact disk, "Under Construction." She is also in the running for three other awards: Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group for her collaboration with the rapper Ludicrous, Best Female Rap Solo Performance and the coveted Album of the Year.

As they rise to the top of hip-hop, female performers are doing more than singing and dancing. In their work, they are taking on such issues as domestic violence and AIDS. Some, such as rapper Rah Digga, are pursuing performance styles that challenge sex-role expectations. They're also lending their celebrity to everything from organizations opposing domestic violence to initiatives aimed at educating young women about safer sexual practices.

Recently Elliot, who as a young child watched her mother being abused by her father, has turned her off-stage attention to the problem of domestic violence. She now serves as the national spokesperson for Break the Cycle, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit for young people -- between 12 and 22 -- who are currently in abusive dating relationships or who may be at risk for such abuse. Break the Cycle provides preventive domestic-violence education and free legal services. "I know how domestic violence can affect a family and I want to do everything I can to stop it from happening to others," Elliot said in a statement.

Mary J. Blige serves as a spokesperson for MAC Cosmetics' MAC AIDS Fund, which helps finance AIDS education and research. Blige, who grew up in a single-parent home in Yonkers, N.Y., sings about her own pain, struggles and eventual triumph over self-hatred, giving voice to what she hopes will be a helpful and healing message to listeners.

Aside from the female performers, other women are also putting a new, more pro-female spin on hip-hop.

Film director and producer Lisa France, is one example. In early December, her feature-film directorial debut, "Anne B. Real," was nominated for two 2004 Independent Spirit awards; the John Cassavettes Award (for the best feature made for under $500,000) and the Best Debut Performance. The awards, given by the Independent Feature Project, a Los Angeles-headquartered nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion of independent film, will be announced on Feb. 28 in Santa Monica, Calif.

In what might seem an improbable literary device, the film juxtaposes the struggles of Cynthia Gimenez, a young woman struggling to become a rapper, to those of the sequestered Jewish girl in the memoir "The Diary of Anne Frank."

"We are in no way saying that today's ghetto compares to the ghettos of Amsterdam and what the Jews experienced during the Holocaust," said France. "But we do think that their voice is key. (These are) two young women who want to be heard and are afraid they may not be," France said. She added that a famous piece of historical literature, like the "Diary of Anne Frank," can "inspire a contemporary life."

Sensitive to the often derogatory treatment of women in hip-hop, France took a decidedly different tack. "There are no half-naked girls dancing for men drinking Martel. Women are not objectified in our film," said France, who has held various film industry positions from assistant director to stunt person. "We wanted to shift the paradigm of the urban, hip-hop story to make it accessible and powerful to all people. I think women are smart, quick and powerful in our film."

Rah Digga, the lone female rapper--or "MC" as they're dubbed by hip-hoppers--in Busta Rhymes' Flip Mode Squad, a six-member rap group, knows first hand the challenges of female MCs.

Digga, along with France, served on panel addressing women in hip-hop at the 2003 H20 Hip-Hop Odyssey International Film Festival, a five-day event held in New York City late last year. She told the capacity audience at City College's Aaron Davis Hall that her raspy deep voice and facial expressions were considered "too hard core" by producers and record executives. She said they preferred a softer, more sexualized style in female performers.

Digga, a former engineering student, released her first CD, "Dirty Harriet," in 2000. She named it after the underground conductor Harriet Tubman because, as she said in an interview with Hiphopline.com, "(I am) paving the way and leading a new species of female MCs to just feel confident enough to come with raw rhymes and not have to worry about exploiting themselves sexually to succeed."

Her next effort, "Everything is a Story" scheduled for release in early 2004, is "a more in-depth and personal" album than her previous CD and includes a song dedicated to her young daughter and a tribute to a deceased friend. "You have to learn how to manipulate (the system) without compromising yourself and still feel comfortable as a lyricist," said Digga.

Martha Diaz, a filmmaker and an educator, is pushing to turn a powerful pop-culture into a medium that sends girls an inspiring message. Diaz is founder and president of the National Hip-Hop Association, a New York-based promoter of hip-hop as a socially legitimate means of self expression and way to educate youth.

"We really need to educate the sisters," says Diaz, who recently conducted a summit on the use of hip-hop in the classroom as an "academic discipline and art form that can be used to engage under-served communities and at-risk youth." Over 300 educators participated in the two-day event in New York City that included speakers such as hip-hop star Fab 5 Freddy.

"We need to show girls alternative roles women play in hip-hop culture like that of lawyers, stylists and business women (not just singers and rappers)," said Diaz.

To help young female hip-hop fans develop a more positive identification with hip-hop, for instance, Diaz suggests that teachers, in the context of talking about strong historical women, cite Queen Latifah as a powerful contemporary example. Latifah, who was born Dana Owens, is a rapper, film producer, record-label owner and a 2003 nominee for Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role as "Matron 'Mama' Morton" in "Chicago."

Carla Thompson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY.

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.

Fueling Exploitation

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.

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