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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

In decade-old Nelly vs. Spelmanites, everybody loses

This is old news. But in the age of the Internet, nothing dies forever. Not even regret.

Nearly a decade has passed and rapper Nelly is still pissed about that time in 2004 when a bunch of frustrated Spelman feminists ganged up and forced him to cancel the good-samaritan bone marrow registry drive he'd planned at the school to help his dying sister find a donor.

Actually, that's not at all what happened, but that's Nelly's story and he's sticking to it.

The big omission, of course, being Nelly's maxed-out misogynist video "Tip Drill" - you remember, the one where he gleefully swipes a credit card down the middle of former stripper/video vixen Whyte Chocolate's ample cheeks. Even without the instant recall of Google, that image is forever burned into the annals of pop consciousness. It foreshadowed an era, just a few years later in 2007, when hip-hop was literally on trial. While T.I. faced federal charges for illegally purchasing firearms a block from the BET Hip-Hop Awards, the only cable network that had the gall - or balls - to air the explicit "Tip Drill" video on its defunct after-hours time slot ("Uncut") hosted a two-part panel discussion, perhaps as penance, examining the controversies surrounding the genre with some of its biggest stars, including Nelly, on defense. Meanwhile, a congressional hearing on hip-hop featured the likes of former down-south gangsta rap general Master P promising, way past his prime, to clean up the negativity.

Nelly's beef in '04 was with members of the Spelman Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, which he still claims wanted to pressure him into addressing his misogynist content on campus before he could have the drive. He decided instead to cancel the event. Spelman held a bone marrow registry drive without the participation of Nelly's foundation. Nelly's sister died of leukemia a year later, but the rapper's grudge lives on.

The case of Nelly vs. the former Spelmanites got dredged up again last week when Huffpost Live host Marc Lamont Hill asked the rapper how he felt today about the 2004 incident. Or, more pointedly, how he would handle it differently with the help of hindsight.

"The only thing I feel I would've did different is kick somebody's ass," Nelly responded in part. "That's just how it felt to me, Pimp."

Yesterday, Hill invited former members of the Spelman Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, along with former Spelman College professor Jelani Cobb, to respond to Nelly and his mischaracterization of the events that transpired at the time. In the video interview above, they explain that Nelly was never given an "either/or" ultimatum. Rather, they say they asked if he'd be willing to do both. Neither issue was ever resolved. Nelly didn't find a donor in time and misogyny in rap is certainly still a thing. BET did eventually pull the plug on "Uncut," though.

"Media isn't just entertainment, it really shapes the way people think and the way they relate to one another," a former Member of Spelman Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, Leana Cabral said yesterday.

In an open letter to Nelly, published after last week's interview, former SFMLA member Moya Bailey also countered the popular misconception of feminists as sexually-frustrated censorship advocates:

Often Black feminists are represented as advocates for censorship. People often portray us as sex-hating, stick-in-the-mud conservatives concerned with respectability. That couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, we like sex so much (NSFW) we dare to think that women should enjoy it and not be subjugated to images that define our sexuality in limited ways. Music videos and lyrics, including yours, often portray women as silent partners and objects of male attention. This silence, Nelly, is not unlike the silence you expected from us regarding your visit. Women are instructed in many songs about what to do, wear, drink, how to dance and behave to make themselves appealing to men.

At the time, Nelly defended the infamous credit card scene by giving Whyte Chocolate credit for the idea. Though I doubt he understands how agency works if that's his defense. Hear tell, slaves invented the cotton gin.

That this conversation is being rehashed right now is ironic in part because it happens to coincide with a current photography exhibit at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art titled Posing Beauty in African American Culture. I wrote about the exhibit, which delves into issues of beauty, identity and representation in black America, for this week's issue of CL. Some of the questions it poses sound a lot like the ones those former Spelmanites had in mind.

During my visit last week, several all-female elementary classes were also in attendance and I couldn't help but observe how the younger girls were drawn to the photos featuring female nudity. They tried to hide their embarrassment behind giggles while pointing and staring with their friends. When one of their teachers noticed their fascination, she attempted to help them put the exhibit in the proper context. "It's art," she said.

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