Hip Hop Journos Speak Out Against Sexism

Fueled by a recent sexual harassment lawsuit against <i>The Source</i> magazine, a growing number of hip-hop journalists, activists, and fans are signing a petition denouncing sexism in the hip-hop industry.
Last month, Kim Osorio, former editor-in-chief of The Source, and Michelle Joyce, former vice president of marketing, filed charges of gender discrimination and sexual harassment against co-owners Raymond “Benzino” Scott and David Mays. In response to the allegations, Scott and Mays were quoted in interviews with AllHipHop.com alleging that Osorio engaged in sexual relationships with several rappers while employed by The Source.

Confused about the relevance of Osorio’s alleged affairs in connection with the law suit? If so, you certainly wouldn’t be alone. Established hip-hop journalists Elizabeth Mendez Berry, who recently wrote a controversial piece about hip-hop and violence against women for Vibe magazine, and Jeff Chang, author of "Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation," also failed to see the relevance.

A petition denouncing sexual harassment at The Source is now circulating on line. Mendez Berry and Chang, who, along with Joan Morgan, are behind the petition, discuss their reaction to allegations of sexual harassment at The Source and what prompted the petition.

PopandPolitics.com: What was your initial reaction to the allegations of sexual harassment at The Source?

Jeff Chang: I wasn't surprised. Sexual harassment at The Source and in the "urban music industry" has been a poorly kept secret for decades. As women have moved into leadership, particularly in hip-hop journalism, I think there has been more push-back. But we haven't reached the tipping point yet past which there's an open conversation and a trend towards changing the situation, so most women I see still suffer in silence.

PP: What was your reaction to the comments Mays and Benzino made about Kim Osorio's sexual relationships?

Elizabeth Mendez Berry: Part of me laughed. How oblivious can they be? Who are their lawyers? As far as I know, Mays initially tried to retract his statements about Osorio, but then the following day Benzino said the same thing about her, and soon after, Mays was reiterating it himself [on AllHipHop.com]. So they feel pretty comfortable with what they’ve said.

Their arrogance, and the fact that they had no idea that what they were saying was completely self-incriminating, really spoke to the level of entitlement that some men in hip-hop feel. And of course, these are two men who say that they are on a crusade to preserve the music, men who consider themselves community leaders. I also found it really interesting that Mays, a white man who was so invested in critiquing Eminem’s sexism against women of color, was so quick to jump back into the old “she’s a ho / she’s a bitch” paradigm when two women of color confronted him. Benzino was up there criticizing Eminem as well, but it seems like both of them were fair-weather feminists.

So that was kind of amusing. At the same time, I was really saddened: the idea that a woman bringing a suit would be subject to this kind of speculation is frightening for anyone who works in the business. Plus the fact that a significant number of people spent time on the Internet speculating about Osorio’s sexual history really reminded me of how sexist our community is.

PP: How did this petition come about?

EMB: The thing for me was getting it on the public record that what Mays and Benzino had said was unacceptable to other people who are part of the profession. Oftentimes in hip-hop, we get exasperated and furrow our brows and then we don’t do anything, so I wanted to present a clear response to their behavior that came from within hip-hop journalism, so that it would not be seen as outsiders wagging their fingers. I feel like we need to be clear that this is a profession and that people are expected to behave professionally. Just because it is hip-hop doesn’t mean people can get away with behavior that would never be tolerated in any other context.

I was mad, and I wasn’t sure what to do about it, so I started drafting up a letter that expressed my concerns. I spoke with a few friends, as well as the REACH coalition, and they told me that they were supportive. I thought about having another few people I knew sign onto it. I spoke with Joan Morgan about it, she was down, and we developed a list of people who we thought might sign it. Joan also added language, she ran it past a few friends, and then we showed it to Jeff, who also added language. He added some folks to our wish list of signers, and then Joan suggested that we make it a petition, because that would be easier than sending it to friends in another way.

We posted it, expecting maybe a hundred signatures, and now we’re up to 1500. So I guess some other folks feel the same way as we do. Veteran hip-hop journalists including Sheena Lester, Dream Hampton, Kevin Powell, Harry Allen and Oliver Wang have all signed it, and so have former Source editors like Selwyn Seyfu Hinds and Reginald Dennis, as have lots of other music industry folks, activists, academics like Mark Anthony Neal and Tricia Rose, music industry vets like Thembisa Mshaka and Dante Ross, community activists like Adrienne Maree Brown and Rosa Clemente, and even an elected official, Eric Mar, the President of the San Francisco Board of Education. Even though Mays and Benzino are powerful individuals, there are a lot of big names standing up to them.

PP: As writers covering hip-hop, considering how established Source is in the world of hip-hop journalism, are you worried about how initiating this petition might effect your working relationship with your peers?

JC: If we are punished for doing this petition by editors, their venues don't want us anyway. But, on the contrary, I have only heard positive feedback from people within the journalism community. We're supposed to be about surfacing the truth, and discussion about sexism in the industry is something that has long been suppressed.?

PP: What can average folks, who don't agree with what's happened at The? Source, do?

JC: Write letters to advertisers and to other community leaders that work with the magazine expressing your disgust and asking them to reconsider working with the magazine. Those are profound pressure points. Mays and Benzino pride themselves on representing the community and doing solid, independent business. They can make that claim only in the absence of the actual community voicing their concerns about the status quo at the magazine and in the industry. If Mays and Benzino are hearing from the leaders and advertisers, they may be prompted to think a lot more seriously about what they're saying and doing.

Take Action! Check Out and Sign the Petition.
Sabrina Ford is a student at San Francisco State University where she also works with the Center for Integration and Improvement in Journalism.
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