Conscience Rap

In the wake of the Source trial, hip-hop staffers ponder their contribution to the culture

Though Sanders says she isn't in the business of challenging her clients to create these other stories, she did ask David Banner why he'd gone "rough" with his second album, Certified,on which tracks like "Bloody War" and "Gangsta Walk" tell gruesome tales of Mississippi street violence. "When I first played it," Sanders says, "I called him and was like, 'Wow. You're shocking me.' We talked about it." Banner insisted, " 'This is the album that was supposed to talk about the bad times and what people were going through,' so it wasn't really him saying these things," she continues. "People don't understand that sometimes—I'm not saying all the time—rappers are just telling stories of what's going on around them."

But the art-imitating-life defense is hard to swallow as these stories trickle down to consumers through agents that aren't of the culture. "For people who did not really grow up in that lifestyle, it's almost like being on a movie set," Fiona says of her primarily white former co-workers. "Like, it's not your reality, it's not your responsibility. You don't hear gunshots. . . . You're not dealing with baby-daddy drama issues. You know what I mean? Your reality is so different so it's easy for you to go to work and do something like that and feel totally disconnected from its actual effect on society."

Fiona says she wishes she'd been more vocal about the things she would've liked to see done differently. "I think I accepted the fact that I, to some degree, was in the boys' locker room," she reflects. "I would have personal discussions with people . . . but I never did so with the expectation of changing the actual thread of the publication because I knew that, to some degree, that's what made the publication what it was. That's what sold the publication." This said, Fiona says her current peace of mind is worth the smaller check she gets at her current job. "I always wanted to work for a women's publication that targets African American women," Fiona explains. "Something that was uplifting, inspirational." The magazine she works for now "represents all of those things."

Michelle Joyce (left) and Kim Osorio filed suit against The Source last year.
photo: Amy Pierce
Michelle Joyce (left) and Kim Osorio filed suit against The Source last year.


Editor's note: The online version of this article was updated on 10.24.06 to reflect the outcome of the Source trial. The print version closed before the verdict came in.

See also:
Are Hip-Hop Staffers Complicit?
An open thread in Power Plays

Sonya says the dearth of hip-hop magazines that speak to women is a gaping hole that needs to be filled. "That's why everybody's trying to create a Suede or a Jewel or something that's Essence but younger so you can incorporate hip-hop," she says. "I love Essence, but they're not gonna have a Q&A with Jeezy."

In the absence of that publication, Sonya, currently a hip-hop journalist for a leading music magazine, makes sure to ask tough questions of the rappers she interviews: "Questions like, 'So, you hate your mother?' " She says she's also accepted that the inner conflict comes with the territory. "I have to interview these muhfuckaz on a daily basis, and they're always respectful," she says. "They're never gonna be like, 'Fuck you, bitch.' Even people like Too $hort are like, 'Hey, what's going on?' "

As for, say, Too $hort's infamous reputation for flinging the word bitch around in his rhymes, "This sounds like a cop-out, but you kind of have to be like, 'Yeah, they're really not talking to you,' " Sonya says. She knows her status (and power) as a journalist help earn respect. "But if they didn't know you within a specific situation to be a writer or to be the EIC of a magazine, would they still be treating you like any tramp off the street? What makes you so special right now? That's a question you always deal with, and you have to say, 'You know what, because I carry myself in a certain way these dudes are gonna respond to me in a certain way.' But it's not a foolproof argument. It doesn't even always convince me."

The Source's Ryan Ford admits he's felt conflicted too about some of the artists his publication has promoted, but he asserts, "I don't think that everyone who works at The New York Times is 100 percent full-speed ahead with every story that they ever write. . . . Magazines have to be sold whether it's The Source or whether it's, you know, The Christian Science Monitor."

In any event, Ford contends The Source, which forced out Osorio defendants Mays and Benzino in January 2006, has returned to the "fundamentals that The Source was built upon." Ford says the magazine's current editorial goal is to analyze hip-hop thoroughly, from the music to the culture to the politics that impact the hip-hop generation. "We call it 'the new old Source.' "

But as the Source trial dragged on and salacious details continually emerged, it's uncertain whether the publication can now regain the allegiance of its slipping readership, retain the favor of advertisers, or maintain the morale of its current staff—female and male. Also hanging in the balance is the hard-won respect of hip-hop by the mainstream culture. As artists like Common, Dead Prez, and the Roots blaze the "conscious" trail for formerly unlikely hip-hop stars like Kanye West—and Jay-Z changes clothes to go around the globe as a U.N. emissary raising awareness about the world water crisis—allegations of the sophomoric behavior detailed in Osorio's suit cast a cloud of reasonable doubt over the maturing genre.

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