Conscience Rap


“I once worked with a group that referred to their music as ‘cocaine rap,’ ” recalls Marcus Logan, a former marketer for Virgin Records. “They were incredible lyricists and much more, but that was their niche, and it was my job to market this to the world. I absolutely felt at times like I was a drug pusher. You know? I absolutely, 100 percent felt that.”

When Virgin downsized in 2002, Logan had a year to consider his six-year rise from Columbia Records intern to Bad Boy exec to the Virgin post—a résumé that boasted projects like Mase’s Harlem World and the Lox’s Money, Power & Respect. He toyed with the idea of leaving the music industry altogether. “The conflict comes when you can’t personally relate to it,” he says. “I’m 35 years old. I don’t do things that I did at 25. There are times that I love being of the artist’s world, and other times I just don’t.”

Women working in hip-hop often have an even tougher time reconciling that divide. Getting a paycheck for marketing products and artists that often instigate violence and portray women as only good for sex can leave staffers at all levels feeling played. That was—and is—the case at The Source magazine, according to former editor in chief and current plaintiff Kim Osorio, who found herself explaining how her former bosses sexually harassed her from a witness box in courtroom 14B at the Southern District of New York.

In 2002, Osorio became the first female EIC of the long-maligned publication that christened and continues to sell itself as the “Hip-Hop Bible.” But in an affidavit she and fellow employee Michelle Joyce filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2005—shortly after she was fired for poor performance, The Source contends—Osorio claims she was subjected to discrimination and harassment from male bosses and underlings alike, implicating then-co-owners
Raymond “Benzino” Scott and David Mays specifically.

Osorio, currently executive editor at BET Interactive, declined to discuss any specifics of her lawsuit or the trial, which concluded Tuesday, October 24 with a $15.5 million settlement in her favor. But her EEOC deposition, published on hip-hop news website, joins her recent court testimony in detailing multiple instances of disrespect and intimidation: “The sexual harassment was so severe and pervasive that women at The Source, including several female executives, would quite often hide in their offices and avoid walking through the corridors out of fear of being sexually harassed,” the affidavit contends.

Citing the ongoing trial, The Source also declined to discuss the situation. However, in the first interview she’s given since Osorio filed suit, Tracii McGregor, who rose from freelancer to VP of content and communication at The Source from 1994 to October 2004, says she never experienced harassment in her days at the publication. “I don’t put up with the bullshit,” she says. “So if there was anything unsavory going on, trust I would certainly be one—or anybody, really—to speak up.” Of the staff, McGregor asserts, “The guys were like my brothers.”

But even in less allegedly hostile work environments, many women in the hip-hop industry don’t feel as comfortable speaking up—whether it’s out of fear or guilt. Fiona, once an ad sales rep at another bestselling hip-hop publication, who spoke on condition of anonymity—she did not want to burn bridges in the small hip-hop industry, where pretty much everyone knows everyone—admits, “I would find myself hiding the fact that I was with that publication, but using it to my advantage where it could be used to my advantage. There were perks to being in my position. You know, parties . . . trips . . . There was a certain prestige in the hip-hop community, just being at one of the two main hip-hop publications.”

But the angel on her shoulder got in her ear. “People would ask my opinion on how they portray women and just the blatant usage of the N-word—among other expletives,” she remembers. “I would be like, ‘Oh, you know, well, it is what it is. This is the culture now.’ Deep down in my heart I knew that it wasn’t right. . . . I felt a lot of internal conflict.”

Though many hip-hop critics and fans take issue with the culture’s taste for “swimsuit issues” and other excuses to parade half-naked women that blur the line between fashion photography and softcore porn, that aspect didn’t irk Fiona much. “I’m not brand-new when it comes to nudity or semi-nudity,” she says. “My issue was the fact that from the front to the back of the book, the N-word was just explosive. Not to say that if this was a publication done by us [Fiona is black], for us, I would feel any differently about the situation, but the fact that this publication was owned and operated by people who don’t look like us, and sold en masse to people, again, who don’t look like us, I found issue with that.” Caught in a crisis of conscience, Fiona concedes she wasn’t giving 100 percent at the job anymore when she got the ax in January 2005.

Tracii McGregor says that she too was less concerned about all the skin shown in The Source‘s annual Swimsuit Issue than with the fact that the majority of the scantily clad beauties featured were light-skinned. “I was always rallying for more women with more skin color up in there,” she says. “I like to show the diversity of who we are. . . . Sure, I would’ve liked to see more clothes on women, but you know, women took their clothes off for those pictures.”

Sonya, another former Source staffer—who did not want her real name printed because the publication she currently works for did not want to be mentioned in connection with this article—wouldn’t talk about the lawsuit specifically, but attested to the fact that models willingly undressed even when they weren’t asked to. “We were sitting in an editorial meeting,” she recalls. “They bring in, what’s her name? Big-titty girl from the Petey Pablo video, ’cause she’s gonna do one of the spreads in the Swimsuit Issue. And she literally damn near takes off her clothes!” Sonya says she was paralyzed with shock as she watched the model start to disrobe; to his credit, one of the male editors in the room stopped her.

Ryan Ford, current executive editor of The Source, wasn’t the male editor that stopped the girl from undressing, but after working at the publication for five years remembers many such past incidents that could have made female staffers uncomfortable. “Sure,” he admits, “we’ve had our issues with half-naked women in our magazine in a million different ways, just like there’s been a million different ways in music videos. But I challenge you to find another publication that has the audience that we have that also talks about some of the negative aspects of those issues.” Ford insists that things are different now for female editors at the publication. “We respect their comments greatly with issues like this.”

“We go through that all the time,” Ford says. “Like, ‘Is this too heavy? Do we break this down so the motherfucker that doesn’t have a master’s degree can understand what the hell we’re talking about?’ Because still, hip-hop culture is a culture that serves working-class blacks and Latinos—point-blank.” He says communicating with this demographic is not about, ” ‘If you can’t understand what this word is, go pick up a dictionary.’ That’s not the attitude we like to come with.”Sonya knows the average male Source reader would’ve loved to fill her chair at the table that day. “Even though I’m a hip-hop journalist, I read all these shits. I know, they are not geared toward us,” she says. “If they were, they’d have actual fashion for girls.” Less concerned about the sexism, though, she beefs with the idea—sometimes prevalent at the mag, she says—that hip-hop’s audience is dumb. “We were getting ready for our International Issue and I wanted to write something like, ‘Look forward to next month—we’ll be hitting you with the diaspora,’ ” Sonya recounts. “These muhfuckaz was like, ‘Niggaz don’t know what diaspora means so we gotta take that out.’ I was like, ‘You don’t think muhfuckaz would wanna look it up?’ ”

Of the magazine’s penchant for publishing pics of skimpily dressed women, Ford says it’s not fair to single The Source out. “Maxim has half-naked women in it. Rolling Stone has naked women in it. Time magazine from time to time as half-naked women in it. Not that it’s right.” But, “Even in our darkest time we always had a strong political context that looked at things like misogyny in hip-hop, that really analyzed things like violence in hip-hop. And we continue to do that.”

The Time connection is a stretch, but there’s no shortage of hip-hop artists, journalists, filmmakers, and loyalists ready to defend the culture’s seedier aspects as an unfortunate but necessary reflection of reality. “The bottom line is people are trying to get their money and people are trying to get their product out there,” says Evan, a music video director and hip-hop documentarian who admits he’s shot his fair share of “guy up against his car, a girl shaking her ass for no apparent reason” music videos to keep the lights on. Evan didn’t want to be identified since he works for a major hip-hop artist’s label and feared recrimination. “By any means necessary,” he continued. “The market’s overly saturated and, you know, there’s things you need to do to sort of—some people gotta do what they gotta do. You know? It’s the society that dictates it. It’s not the rappers that dictate it.”

G-Unit president Michael “Sha Money” Clervoix concurs, citing longtime friend and business partner 50 Cent—and his famously dark backstory—as a prime example. “He’s not running around trying to shoot no one anymore,” he says. “It was a life that he lived. You live a movie, you gonna get a movie. Did you see the movie Gladiator? That’s basically what 50 is. He didn’t have to win the kings and the queens, the presidents and the execs. He won the crowd.”

Tresa Sanders—publicist to David Banner, Dead Prez, and G-Unit’s Lloyd Banks—also agrees, to a point, that hip-hop’s just reflecting harsh reality. “I grew up in Flint, Michigan, and we lived on the better side of town, but my brother . . . was just strictly a gangsta and was killed at 21, so I’ve seen that,” she says. She’s quick to add, “I’ve also seen the other side, where we were, like, valley girls. I find that, as a community, we’re not doing more to create other stories.”

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.”

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.

Now that the trial’s outcome overwhelmingly supported Osorio and devastated the “old Source,” one can only hope that the “new old” magazine—and other disseminators of the culture—will go beyond analysis to take responsibility for their specific role in shaping hip-hop culture. For example, if MTV challenged Snoop Dogg for leading two women in dominatrix gear down the red carpet on leashes as he did at MTV’s 2003 Video Music Awards—instead of using it to advertise the telecast’s highlights, and reprising the image in an MTV-aired cartoon this summer—maybe he’d be more likely to save the s/m fantasy for his friends and admirers at the Adult Video Network Awards . And maybe the Fionas and Sonyas in the game wouldn’t doubt their power to change it—whether that means speaking up when they feel uncomfortable or launching their own hip-hop ventures. “You don’t need to compromise,” insists McGregor, now head of Gargamel Music, the label she started with reggae artist Buju Banton.

As for Marcus Logan—who consulted while he sat out his contract with Virgin, and contemplated leaving the biz entirely—ultimately he decided to return, and now works at J Records. “None of us matter as individuals in the grand scheme of things,” he concluded. “However, we can affect the status of the product and the thought process that goes behind its creation. If I was not in the industry then it would be much harder to massively affect anything within it.”