It begins at 3 a.m. with a throaty female voice:
"The following program is for mature audiences only. Viewer discretion is advised."
A woman's nearly bare behind flashes on the TV screen, followed by a shot of a female torso circling a stripper's pole.
The voice, the warning and the images set the tone for "BET Uncut," a program on Black Entertainment Television devoted to a particularly risque brand of hip-hop music. Videos on "BET Uncut" typically feature sexually explicit lyrics and jiggling, gyrating black women.
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To its critics, "Uncut" is the extreme embodiment of what has become of a once revolutionary music known for its raw social commentary. Some 30 years after hip-hop, or rap, began in the South Bronx and laid bare the realities of urban poverty, the music has taken a turn.
Hip-hop music has always had detractors and its share of over-the-top performers. But today, the lyrics and videos of some of the most heavily promoted records are so full of racial and sexual stereotypes that a new chorus of critics has emerged. Galvanized by words and images that depict black women as sexual objects, some African-American women are speaking out.
"We can't be silent anymore because this barrage of music, videos, ring tones, what have you, they are telling people black women are these hypersexual, money-grubbing creatures," says Cory Murray, 32, an editor at Essence, a national magazine for black women. "They have real meaning. It's not just distasteful, it's damaging."
For the past year, Essence has run a campaign called "Take Back the Music" to "reclaim" hip-hop. Editors vow to raise awareness, provide a platform for discussion and highlight hip-hop artists who don't stereotype women.
Kevin Powell, a writer and activist in Brooklyn, N.Y., has reported on the evolution of hip-hop and says both black men and women are hurt by music that defines them as focused on sex and materialism.
" 'Uncut,' is just the tip of the iceberg," says Powell, 37. "Corporations are making millions off of this music or so-called music with these very narrow, pimped out, g[angster]-d up, tricked out, hypersexual notions of what it means to be a black woman or man.
"And let's not be mistaken. There are black people getting rich off this stuff, too. Hip-hop -- and by that I mean the stuff that is on the radio, that's on cable TV, the very songs for which videos even get made -- has become the new minstrel show."
Too many bad messages
More than 50 hip-hop songs with the word "pimp" in the titles have been released -- so many that the term has become a cliche to describe everything from clothes to parties to cars. Many of the songs describe black men as virile, charismatic, dominant and capable of violence. Black women are portrayed as money-grubbing, libidinous, simple-minded and submissive.
Those portrayals worry Beverly Thompson, whose 14-year-old daughter attends high school in Hillsborough. She has added hip-hop to the must-talk-about list of topics in her household.
"There is no real balance, no real message," says Thompson, 45. "It's usually just a catchy song. And I'll admit I like some of it, ... but I can't help but be concerned. My daughter knows all the lyrics. I hope and pray that she understands that this is just entertainment."
Black girls like her daughter may be particularly susceptible to images in hip-hop, she says. Few movies, videos and television shows depict black women making smart choices. And because popular culture often doesn't equate black physical features with beauty, black girls have a lot of messages to decode and deflect, she says.
Even some artists, such as veteran rappers Common and Talib Kweli, say they are concerned about sexual images overtaking more socially conscious hip-hop themes.
Sexuality in hip-hop is nothing new. But in the early days -- the mid- to late-1970s -- when the music was known simply as rap, artists also wove politics, poetry, parties, spirituality, humor and criminality into their music. Though the lyrics weren't always fit for puritanical or young ears -- and groups such as 2 Live Crew became infamous for their rump-shaking music -- there was variety in the subject matter.
Back then, black public figures such as the late C. Dolores Tucker, the turban-and-pearls-wearing leader of the National Congress of Black Women, were calling rap a dangerous force. Hip-hop artists and fans dismissed the criticism as byproducts of racist fears or the generational divide.
After all, blues and rock-and-roll were once regarded as low, if not sleazy, music forms that would ruin a generation.
"You know the hip-hop generation just [isn't] going to listen to an old black lady in a turban," says Phonte Coleman, 26, of Durham, a member of the Triangle hip-hop trio Little Brother. "No disrespect to her, God rest her soul, but when I looked at her I saw my grandmother, somebody who was just too old to really understand my music."
Record companies blamed
Today, Coleman is bothered by the prevalance of hip-hop's four B's: beefs (disputes), banging (gang or criminal activity), booty (women) and bling (expensive goods). Little Brother's most recent CD satirizes some radio stations' and artists' fixation on these themes.
A decade ago, Coleman says, he would have laughed if someone had told him a song in which a man repeatedly whispers, "Wait till you see my [vulgar term for penis], wait till you see my [same vulgar term, expletive]" would top radio station play lists. The song, "Wait," was put out by Ying Yang Twins.
Critics say hip-hop grew raunchier and lost its political edge in the 1990s as it became more mainstream and as artists signed with major record labels. They contend that the big companies spend large sums of money to promote suggestive music in hopes of appealing to young male consumers.
"These [record] companies, they want it as dumbed down as possible," Coleman says. "When I go into a record exec's office and hear my hook is a little too 'wordy,' too highbrow for the radio, you know, I do get mad. But ... if the litmus test is 'Laffy Taffy,' then almost anything will sound too cerebral."
D4L's "Laffy Taffy," a catchy but naughty song ostensibly about candy, peaked at No. 2 last year on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.
Powell, the Brooklyn activist, says it should come as no surprise to people that what's being promoted and put on the radio is rife with "homophobic, racist and unbelievably sexist notions."
"You can't really expect the men in the suits, the people who have benefited from the system, to help you put out a CD that's going to rip [society] apart, call it what it is or mess with its hierarchy," he says.
A controversy over the image of black women in hip-hop flared in 2004 when well-known rapper Cornell "Nelly" Hayes Jr. planned an appearance at Spelman College, a highly regarded black women's college in Atlanta.
Nelly was riding a wave of success from his song "Tip Drill," about the search for a certain type of sexual partner. In a "Tip Drill" video produced specifically for "Uncut," Nelly swipes a credit card through a woman's behind.
Members of Spelman's Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance asked Nelly to sit down for a conversation about "Tip Drill." When Nelly refused, they announced they would protest his visit; Nelly canceled the appearance.
"Understand that you can't come on Spelman's campus, a campus of black women, have a video out that denigrates black women and expect us to welcome you with open arms," says Ayana Boswell, 21, vice chair of the Feminist Majority.
Such derogatory stereotypes, when embedded in art, can move around the globe, she says.
A black female friend of hers was in South Africa recently when a group of men surrounded her, Boswell says. The men kept repeating something about "getting naked and dancing" like the women in hip-hop videos.
"For us, this isn't a fleeting concern," she says. "This is about our generation's music."
Since the Nelly incident, both Spelman and the University of Chicago have held academic conferences on the images of women in hip-hop. Essence's campaign has generated more letters and feedback than any other series or single story in the magazine's history, says Murray, one of the editors. And last month, BET televised a documentary that featured Spelman's Feminist Majority and the debate about hip-hop.
But it's not clear that such efforts have had much effect in the musical world.
For example, T-Pain's new release "I'm N Luv (Wit A Stripper)" was No. 73 on Billboard's Top 100 songs of all genres for 2005. (Notable lyric: "I need to get her over to my crib and do that night thang.")
And BET hasn't announced any plans to change "Uncut."
"While we are sensitive to the concerns, let's not forget as well that we are running a business, and music programming, our programming, is popular," says Michael Lewellen, a BET spokesman. " 'Uncut' is just one of many programs that we offer our viewers. And somebody is watching 'Uncut.' Believe me, our ratings tell us that."