Bonnie Zylbergold, "Let's Talk About Sex," American Sexuality, May 8, 2008. Copyright © 2008 by Bonnie Zylbergold. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of National Sexuality Resource Center.
Carla Stokes is a health educator specializing in the cultural and health dimensions of gender, media, and sexuality studies. Bonnie Zylbergold is assistant editor and senior writer for American Sexuality magazine.
Rap and hip-hop music can be used by young women to express themselves sexually. Many young people relate more easily to the themes found in hip-hop and rap, so the genres lend themselves to being used as a tool to teach girls about themselves, their gender, and their roles in society. The lyrics in these songs can initiate important and honest conversations about sex. Not all hip-hop and rap songs are sexist and misogynist. There are songs with more positive messages that do not get the same amount of airplay that songs with negative messages get.
Carla Stokes is an activist, researcher, and health educator specializing in the cultural and health dimensions of gender, media, and sexuality studies. The founding executive director of Helping Our Teen Girls In Real Life Situations, Inc. (HOTGIRLS), Dr. Stokes grew up during the golden age of hip-hop, when artists such as Run-DMC, LL Cool J, and Salt-N-Pepa achieved mainstream success. Dr. Stokes has pioneered methods of applying hip-hop and the Internet to uplift youth and girls of color in particular. She uses rap music lyrics and videos to educate young people about HIV/AIDS, sexuality, dating violence, and other social justice issues.
American Sexuality: How would you define hip-hop?
Carla Stokes: Well, there's a lot of debate about what hip-hop is, but it's a cultural movement that encompasses different elements including DJing, the art of MCing or rapping, break dancing, and graffiti art. Some even argue that hip-hop also includes activism, and that there's an element of hip-hop activism and social change within the culture.
On your website it says that you came of age at the same time hip-hop did. What was it about hip-hop music that inspired you to do what you do today?
I really think that hip-hop provides a unique space for girls to express themselves, specifically the girls that I work with, as well as young people in general. Historically speaking, it has provided a safe space for young people to speak out.
Girls Can Use Hip-Hop to Discuss Sex
That's interesting; a lot of people would argue the opposite.
Yeah, I should probably rephrase that: I think hip-hop provides a space, but not necessarily a safe space for women. But it has provided a space for young women to speak out about sexuality. That's how I became interested in hip-hop as a tool for education.
Especially since young people today are coming of age within hop-hop culture, hip-hop's become a significant way of fostering dialogue around many important issues they're facing in their lives.
Was there a specific female artist that inspired this realization?
Women have been integral to hip-hop culture from the very beginning. Ever since hip-hop came on the scene, women have had an important role in the genre. When I started working with young people, doing peer education around sexuality education, themes around rap music repeatedly came up in the classroom. And so I began using hip-hop as a tool, particularly rap music and music videos, to stimulate conversations about gender and sexuality. Especially since young people today are coming of age within hip-hop culture, hip-hop's become a significant way of fostering dialogue around many important issues they're facing in their lives. Plus, it's become a means of expression for the girls I work with who are using rap music to educate their peers on certain issues. There's a recording studio at the Boys & Girls Club we partner with and the girls have been recording songs that challenge how women are represented in both the media and youth oriented and cultural spaces.
Positive Hip-Hop Songs Receive Less Attention
Overall, outside of the work you do, do you think that hip-hop and hip-hop culture has a positive or negative effect on youth?
I think it's complicated. There are contradictory messages in hip-hop. When people tend to talk about hip-hop, much of the time they're focusing on the misogynistic and commercialized hip-hop music and are not really cognizant of the wide range of artists that are addressing structural issues like sexism and racism. You know, those artists that are referred to as conscious hip-hop or rap artists. So there is a large positive movement; it's just not getting the same amount of attention or airplay on the radio.
Do you see a trend amongst the youth that you work with? Are they gravitating more toward one than the other?
When people tend to talk about hip-hop, much of the time they're focusing on the misogynistic and commercialized hip-hop music and are not really cognizant of the wide range of artists that are addressing structural issues like sexism and racism.
Yeah. I work in the South, in Atlanta, Georgia, so the young people I work with aren't necessarily listening to the more socially conscious rappers. They do tend to listen to local hip-hop artists that may not be as progressive in their message. So I do see the trend toward listening to more commercialized hip-hop.
Teaching Girls to Empower Themselves
Speaking of commercial, what about pop stars like Brittney Spears? Do they fit in with your work?
They do in the sense that we use popular culture as an educational tool to spark discussions, and sometimes our conversations end up revolving around more mainstream artists. We had a conversation recently about the word hot and what it means, and discussed Paris Hilton's use of the word. Our activities do not revolve solely around hip-hop culture or rap music.
What about women referring to each other as bitch. You hear it a lot; sometimes with a positive connotation, sometimes with a negative connotation, sometimes just as a friendly nickname between girls. What do you think about girls using the word amongst themselves, specifically within the communities you work with?
We have this conversation with the girls in my program a lot and many are torn about it. Personally, I don't think that it's an empowering word, but I understand where some of the girls are coming from. Some of them have tried to redefine what bitch means but I still don't think that it's effective in the ways that they're using it. Very often, it's contradictory and hypocritical since the girls get upset when someone else calls them a bitch but continue calling other girls bitches too! It's complicated....
Through her show, Tyra Banks has tried empowering young women, and she's very vocal about it. Could you remark on what she's currently doing?
I had a conversation with some family members about Tyra Banks, and I love Tyra. I do, I really like Tyra Banks! She has her TZONE camp for girls which focuses on self-esteem, and I appreciate many of the segments aired on the actual show. In fact, I've taped some of the episodes on body image and sexuality and plan to use them during some of the conversations that might come about in my workshops. I think Tyra evokes a dialogue that young women can relate to and, in so doing, a lot of girls look up to her as a role model.
African-American youth will turn to hip-hop music, an artist, or someone within their culture before they would potentially believe something that they hear on TV.
I found this question online: "Why is hip-hop sometimes called the CNN of black youth?" What is meant by this?
Chuck D famously said that rap music is the black CNN because rap music is the voice of black youth, who listen to and get information about a range of issues from rap music. They also consume a lot of media. In other words, hip-hop culture, and specifically music videos, are popular among black youth. Young people are more likely to listen to an artist they look up to, than say, CNN. African-American youth will turn to hip-hop music, an artist, or someone within their culture before they would potentially believe something that they hear on TV.
Some Reality Shows Encourage Stereotypes
What do you think about shows like Flavor of Love and I Love New York?
Personally, I just have issues with those shows.... I don't think that they ... I sometimes watch them, but only for entertainment purposes and to stay in tune with what youth are watching. However, in terms of the messages perpetuated by these reality programs, they tend to demonize African-American men as well as African-American women and African-American sexuality as a whole. So, no, I don't think the messages are particularly sexually healthy for the young women and men that tune in to watch them.
Actually, the girls brought it up not too long ago while we were working on our FIREGRL.com website; there's a section where three tiers of membership are offered depending on how much you participate on the website. The girls were debating about whether we should call the tiers Diamonds, Rubies, and Sapphires, and I began discussing the image of the Sapphire and how, according to black feminist scholars, the Sapphire represents the "loud mouthed black woman." And their immediate reaction was, Oh, like New York.
So, from what you can gather, the girls you work with also feel that this new slew of reality TV is negative.
They do, yes. But they still find entertainment value in it.