The firing of radio talk-show host Don Imus, who last week referred to Rutgers University's female basketball players as "nappy-headed hos," thrust into the national limelight the misogyny of rap lyrics - a long-debated issue in the African-American community.
Over the past 15 years, performers such as Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Notorious B.I.G. and 50 Cent have built lucrative careers, and transformed hip-hop into a billion-dollar cultural force, with the gratuitous use of such words (and much harsher ones) in reference to black women.
"Hip-hop gave Imus the language," says T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, author of Pimps Up, Ho's Down: Hip Hop's Hold on Young Black Women. "He wouldn't have known what a 'ho' was if it weren't for rap records."
Some think the Imus controversy should push rap performers to take a longer, closer look at themselves and the images the culture perpetuates.
"Maybe Imus getting fired will plant some seeds of change in the hip-hop community, but I doubt we will see an immediate change," says Carla Lynne Hall, president of the Harlem-based indie label Moxie Entertainment and author of The DIY Guide to the Music Biz. "At the moment, rappers may be insulated from the blow. But eventually, the powerful white guys who bankroll these misogynistic rap albums may think twice about the lyrics these rappers are putting out there."
There long has been some resistance in the black community to how women are portrayed in rap lyrics. In the 1990s, during the boom of the music's dominance over mainstream radio, politician and civil rights activist C. Delores Tucker and pop-soul legend Dionne Warwick were prominent, outspoken opponents of the misogyny they said was corrupting the genre. And in the past few months, Sharpley-Whiting, Neal, author Joan Morgan and other hip-hop intellectuals have toured the national college circuit with "Rap Sessions: Does Hip-Hop Hate Black Women?" a forum that debates the lack of artistic and civil responsibility in the hip-hop generation.
But the Imus issue now is highlighting the question of accountability and moral authority within the hip-hop community. Why is the radio jock held responsible for calling a group of black women a slang term for prostitutes, some cultural critics ask, when scores of rappers have gone multi-platinum using the same word and uglier ones in reference to black women everywhere?
"There has been a dialog going on in the [black] community for years about the negative images in hip-hop," Sharpley-Whiting says. "But it's about what the mainstream media think is newsworthy. This 'ho' issue is so old. Mainstream media have erased the legacy of protest about this issue. With Imus, he's white and generates a lot of revenue, and so he gets a lot more attention when he uses 'ho' to describe black women."
The keys to Imus' downfall are the money his show generated and his platform - a radio program that drew high-profile guests such as former Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Meet the Press host Tim Russert.
"There's a money trail to follow with Imus," says Mark Anthony Neal, associate professor of black popular culture at Duke University. "If you wanted to make a case about policing public airwaves, this is the case. His show generates millions of dollars. The best way to hold people like Imus accountable is when you hit them in the purse strings."
Still many critics point to the popularity of such hip-hop performers as Lil' Wayne, the Ying Yang Twins or Kanye West, all of whom have recently scaled the charts (the latter two even garnered Grammy nominations) with overtly misogynistic songs. Poisonous images of black women - the gangsta "ho," the bling-hungry "ho," the freaky "ho," take your pick - have dominated rap music for more than a decade.
"We should have the same indignation when Snoop calls black women 'hos' or when Ice-T says it, says Marc Lamont Hill, associate professor of urban education at Temple University.
"At the end of the day, artists make decisions about the music they make. Hip-hop [artists] get indignant because they think of black women as 'our hos,' but the terminology, regardless of who uses it, is wrong."
Such depictions of black femininity haven't always corrupted hip-hop. Back in the early days, LL Cool J rode the charts with "I Need Love" and "Around the Way Girl," innocuous, candy-sweet odes to black women. In 1990, A Tribe Called Quest released a classic hip-hop serenade to a fictional black beauty named "Bonita Applebaum." But with the explosion of the West Coast gangsta rap movement shortly afterward, the word "ho" became synonymous with black woman.
"Young people are shaping their identities by the culture and the music," says Sharpley-Whiting. "Hip-hop used to be about the skills, and now it's too much about kicking "hos" around and pimping. It's a shame: The game has changed."
That change has been so pervasive that a middle-aged white man such as Imus felt free to use the same terminology in reference to a predominantly black collegiate women's basketball team.
"It's not just a hip-hop thing; it's an American cultural thing, this celebration of coarseness and incivility," Sharpley-Whiting says. "Women in this culture have been reduced to sex and beauty, and many of us don't seem to know we have options."
It's about time the hip-hop community took a moral stand, says Hill.
"Imus and the rappers who use words like 'ho' to describe black women - they're always wrong," Hill says. "The sad thing is that there seems to be no moral authority in the hip-hop community. We are creating the soundtrack to our own oppression."