By DR IAN BETHELL-BENNETT
Today's piece is really about the images we value, especially the images of media stars and their behavioUr we celebrate. It arises out of recent developments with male leaders in industry who have found themselves compromised between being good men, using their positions and power to further those around them, and also to destroy those whom they consider as having little significance in a world that values male privilege (especially white male privilege) and bad behaviour.
Sexual abuse and exploitation are never about desire, but always about one's ability to use one's power and position to exploit others. Exploitation becomes increasingly problematic in popular culture, where men who behave badly, especially those who dominate and belittle women, are seen as heroes. These men use their privilege and power to 'hide' their deeds. However, as Jay-Z raps in "The Story of OJ", when they are black, they forget that they are "just another ni".
Meanwhile, the social discord and public strife this causes, especially in minority communities that need heroes to help fight institutionalised racism, systemic and blatant disregard for non-white humanity, sexploitation and segregation, is complicated. People do not want to see their heroes fail; they also want to be helped along. This help is usually attached to dangerous and poisoned strings. However, are people cognizant of the interconnections or do we continue to turn a blind eye to the exploits of our heroes because we come from oppressed backgrounds and any of our members' success is ours?
A student came to class the other day and said he wanted to research if rap music caused violence against women, but couldn't find information to support his thesis. Two things came to the fore as he presented his topic: firstly, the information was freely available, but he was looking in the wrong places. And secondly, he was simply not looking for it because he did not know what he was looking for. Access to information and one's ability to use it seem limited for many who are connected through the World Wide Web.
The class discussed rap, violence and hero worship, and as they drilled down, each student revealed more about his or her character. The idea that music could promote violence shocked some at first. The idea that some men used power to exploit did not shock, however. They had witnessed this in their own lives. As the first student explained what he thought, the others could see it at play in their daily lives. When heroes can do anything but live within the law, it sends troubling and conflicted messages to young people. Mixed with rap's glamourising violence, for example, and the unfettered filtering of subliminal messages, rap's welcome reception is really troublesome.
Music, as with many other aspects of popular culture, such as video games, as is becoming increasingly apparent, has a direct impact on the behaviour of young people. As old Bahamians often say of negative information, "don't let that stuff sink into your soul", well, this is exactly what it has happened.
A great deal of the message passed on by misogynistic lyrics, violent videos and images of a way of life much romanticised because of its glitz and glamour finds a home in unsuspecting souls that are open and willing to receive it unchecked. Countless studies have demonstrated this transfer. Of course, music is not subject to earnest screening due to freedom of expression. The expectation is that listeners will have a balanced influence that mitigates against the messages being passed on. The student who opted to do this study, found the research challenging because, unbeknownst to him, there was so much of it. One must also be able to challenge one's own views and assumed norms. Other students witnessed problems with domestic violence and rape, yet they saw these as being cultural norms, almost unchallengeable. They also saw male privilege and abuse of power and people as normal.
The damage done here becomes more overwhelming when the image and popular culture are conflated with the normalising of exploitative behaviour through other avenues. Rappers are famous badly behaving gangsters and thugs. Few really challenge their behaviour because it is a part of the act. There is one R&B entertainer who has been made hugely famous by his bad behaviour. In many ways, his power, seen through his public reach and money, allows him to behave as he wishes and prevents the system from effectively protecting those less able to look after themselves. In fact, most people are not protected, but are made more vulnerable through the dynamics of cult power. Entire communities often back these figures.
The BBC recently ran a special documentary on this. "R Kelly: Sex, Girls and Videotapes" explores the supposed sexual and physical exploitation of young and underage women. The information is shocking, yet people are not shocked by it, especially those who see him as a star and would do anything to be near him. They see getting close to him as promoting their own success. For some young (especially black) men his behaviour is admirable; they want to be him. The image is powerful and appealing, the 'cult' veils illegality and blatant sexploitation. This comes at an interesting time as well-known black, wholesome, father-figure, icon, Bill Cosby is found guilty of sexual misconduct.
Power and corruption
Power asymmetries allow victims to be made of folks in small communities. Research conducted in Jamaica and Trinidad, for example, revealed that the more government fails the people, the greater the influence that public leaders such as drug lords and gangsters have on impoverished communities. They are the individuals who touch lives, be it for better or worse. As seen with many powerful leaders, they can demand unchallenged loyalty from people whose electricity bills they pay, whose food they buy, whose books they help procure, and whose children they befriend/mentor.
Much like rappers, these figures are larger than life. Dudus Coke in Jamaica is an example of this. People are willing to die for people like him because they are provided with a figure to look up to and access to tangible goods needed to survive. Further, they see themselves in these people; they look like their communities. Some of these families, indeed many of them, are honoured to have these men lead their children; they are willing to offer up their daughters' and sons' innocence on the pyre of tangible help/consumerism. This is not uncommon with other community leaders, too. In fact, there is a confluence of influence between legal and illicit leaders. Deborah Thomas' "Exceptional Violence" studies this.
Dr Ian Strachan's opus on violence, "Gun Boys Rhapsody", begins a local conversation on this. There needs to be deeper understanding on the influence of media and accepted exploitation, especially in poorer communities, where media becomes life, as did playing cowboys and Indians one time ago. Hollywood is 'real'. We see the tangible influence of dons on young people in our neighbourhoods. Communities do not discuss these matters openly, so these deeds are permitted.
The BBC special reveals the ugly side of complicated complicity; it demonstrates the complex relationship between popular culture and public behaviour. It further illuminates social, economic, not to overlook gender, and racial inequalities that allow and indeed encourage exploitation and the use of bodies for pleasure. While rap and R&B may be popular forms of entertainment, their promotion of bad behaviour is community-destroying.
Tying things together
Our desire to shield and promote local stars, although they be villainous, articulates a social divide that allows black exploitation and continued social violence. These men often use their power to hide behind the community and to devour their own groups. This is equally as reprehensible as rich white men using their power to sexually exploit everyone under them. It speaks to a need for communities to be willing to oust these 'demons', even if it means dethroning cult heroes of popular culture and material wealth.
My students researching music and violence made it clear that though music stars were being publicly challenged for their 'bad behaviour', they could not find information. This indicates a serious inability to manoeuvre through daily life. At the same time, it speaks to deeper and far more complex and complicated texture of inequality that promotes complicit exploitation. Society's acceptance of leaders' exploitation is deeply troubling, but students' willingness to accept this without challenge as norms of social interaction and their awareness of how people with apparent power can exploit others with less economic wealth demonstrates how OJs and Kellys are formed, protected and promoted. How we can mitigate against this kind of social power and inequality?