It is with
the greatest respect and adoration of your loving spirit that
I write you. As a young child, I would sit beside my mother everyday
and watch your program. As a young adult, with children of my
own, I spend much less time in front of the television, but I
am ever thankful for the positive effect that you continue to
have on our nation, history and culture.
The example that you have set as someone unafraid to answer their
calling, even when the reality of that calling insists that one
self-actualize beyond the point of any given example, is humbling,
and serves as the cornerstone of the greatest faith. You, love,
are a pioneer.
I am a poet.
in Newburgh, NY, with a father as a minister and a mother as a
school teacher, at a time when we fought for our heroes to be
nationally recognized, I certainly was exposed to the great names
and voices of our past. I took great pride in competing in my
churches Black History Quiz Bowl and the countless events my mother
organized in hopes of fostering a generation of youth well versed
in the greatness as well as the horrors of our history.
Yet, even in a household where I had the privilege of personally
interacting with some of the most outspoken and courageous luminaries
of our times, I must admit that the voices that resonated the
most within me and made me want to speak up were those of my peers,
and these peers were emcees. Rappers.
Ms. Winfrey, I am what my generation would call "a Hip Hop
head." Hip Hop has served as one of the greatest aspects
of my self-definition. Lucky for me, I grew up in the '80s when
groups like Public Enemy, Rakim, The Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah,
and many more realized the power of their voices within the artform
and chose to create music aimed at the upliftment of our generation.
in a household where I had the
privilege of personally interacting with
some of the most outspoken and
courageous luminaries of our times,
I must admit that the voices that
resonated the most within me and
made me want to speak up were those
of my peers, and these peers
were emcees. Rappers.
As a student
at Morehouse College where I studied Philosophy and Drama I was
forced to venture across the street to Spelman College for all
of my Drama classes, since Morehouse had no theater department
of its own. I had few complaints. The performing arts scholarship
awarded me by Michael Jackson had promised me a practically
free ride to my dream school, which now had opened the doors to
another campus that could make even the most focused of young
boys dreamy, Spelman.
One of my first theater professors, Pearle Cleage, shook
me from my adolescent dream state. It was the year that Dr.
Dres "The Chronic" was released and our introduction
to Snoop Dogg as he sang catchy hooks like "Bitches
aint shit but hoes and tricks
it was a playwriting class, what seemed to take precedence was
Ms. Cleage's political ideology, which had recently been pressed
and bound in her first book, Mad at Miles.
As you know,
in this book she spoke of how she could not listen to the music
of Miles Davis and his muted trumpet without hearing the
muted screams of the women that he was outspoken about "man-handling".
It was my first exposure to the idea of an artist being held accountable
for their actions outside of their art.
It was the first time I had ever heard the word, "misogyny".
And as Ms. Cleage would walk into the classroom fuming over the
women she would pass on campus, blasting those Snoop lyrics from
their cars and jeeps, we, her students, would be privy to many
freestyle rants and raves on the dangers of nodding our heads
to a music that could serve as our own demise.
coupled with the words of the young women I found myself interacting
with forever changed how I listened to Hip Hop and quite frankly
ruined what would have been a number of good songs for me. I had
now been burdened with a level of awareness that made it impossible
for me to enjoy what the growing masses were ushering into the
mainstream. I was now becoming what many Hip Hop heads would call
"a Backpacker", a person who chooses to associate themselves
with the more "conscious" or politically astute artists
of the Hip Hop community.
What we termed as "conscious" Hip Hop became our preference
for dance and booming systems. Groups like X-Clan, A
Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubian, Arrested Development,
Gangstarr and others became the prevailing music of our circle.
We also enjoyed the more playful Hip Hop of De La Soul,
Heiroglyphics, Das FX, Organized Konfusion,
Digable Planets, The Fugees, and more. We had more
than enough positivity to fixate on. Hip Hop was diverse.
genius, as far as the marketability,
of Hip Hop is in its competitiveness.
Its roots are as much in the
dignified aspects of our oral tradition
as it is in the tradition of "the dozens"
or "signifying".... Because of the
competitive stance that all emcees
are prone to take, they, like soldiers
begin to believe that they can show
no sign of vulnerability.
I had not
yet begun writing poetry. Most of my friends hardly knew that
I had been an emcee in high school. I no longer cared to identify
myself as an emcee and my love of oratory seemed misplaced at
Morehouse where most orators were actually preachers in training,
speaking with the Southern drawl of Dr. King although they were
19 and from the North. I spent my time doing countless plays and
school performances. I was in line to become what I thought would
be the next Robeson, Sidney, Ossie, Denzel, Snipes
It wasnt until I was in graduate school for acting at NYU
that I was invited to a poetry reading in Manhattan where I heard
Asha Bandele, Sapphire, Carl Hancock Rux,
Reggie Gaines, Jessica Care Moore, and many others
read poems that sometimes felt like monologues that my newly acquired
journal started taking the form of a young poets. Yet, I
still noticed that I was a bit different from these poets who
listed names like: Audrey Lourde, June Jordan,
Sekou Sundiata etc, when asked why they began to write poetry.
I knew that I had been inspired to write because of emcees like
Rakim, Chuck D, LL, Run DMC
Hop had informed my love of poetry as much or even more than my
theater background which had exposed me to Shakespeare,
Baraka, Fugard, Genet, Hansberry and
countless others. In those days, just a mere decade ago, I started
writing to fill the void between what I was hearing and what I
wished I was hearing. It was not enough for me to critique the
voices I heard blasting through the walls of my Brooklyn brownstone.
I needed to create examples of where Hip Hop, particularly its
lyricism, could go.
to poetry readings with my friends and neighbors, Dante Smith
(now Mos Def), Talib Kwele, Erycka Badu,
Jessica Care Moore, Mums the Schemer, Beau Sia,
all poets that frequented the open mics
and poetry slams that we commonly saw as "the other direction"
when Hip Hop reached that fork in the road as you discussed on
your show this past week. On your show you asked the question,
"Are all rappers poets?" Nice. I wanted to take the
opportunity to answer this question for you.
as far as the marketability, of Hip Hop is in its competitiveness.
Its roots are as much in the dignified aspects of our oral tradition
as it is in the tradition of "the dozens" or "signifying".
In Hip Hop, every emcee is automatically pitted against every
other emcee, sort of like characters with super powers in comic
No one wants to listen to a rapper unless they claim to be the
best or the greatest. This sort of braggadocio leads to all sorts
of tirades, showdowns, battles, and sometimes even deaths. In
all cases, confidence is the ruling card. Because of the competitive
stance that all emcees are prone to take, they, like soldiers
begin to believe that they can show no sign of vulnerability.
Thus, the most popular emcees of our age are often those that
claim to be heartless or show no feelings or signs of emotion.
The poet, on the other hand, is the one who realizes that their
vulnerability is their power. Like you, unafraid to shed tears
on countless shows, the poet finds strength in exposing their
humanity, their vulnerability, thus making it possible for us
to find connection and strength through their work. Many emcees
have been poets.
But, no, Ms. Winfrey, not all emcees are poets. Many choose gangsterism
and business over the emotional terrain through which true artistry
will lead. But they are not to blame. I would now like to address
your question of leadership.
has been the saving
grace of the African American struggle
as we have been whipped, jailed,
spat upon, called names, and killed,
yet continue to strive forward
mostly non-violently towards
our highest goals. But today we are
at a crossroads, because the
institutions that have sold us
the crosses we wear around
our necks are the most overt in the
denigration of women and
You may recall
that in immediate response to the attacks of September 11th, our
president took the national stage to say to the American public
and the world that we would "
show no sign of vulnerability".
Here is the same word that distinguishes poets from rappers, but
in its history, more accurately, women from men.
To make such a statement is to align oneself with the ideology
that instills in us a sense of vulnerability meaning "weakness".
And these meanings all take their place under the heading of what
we consciously or subconsciously characterize as traits of the
feminine. The weapon of mass destruction is the one that asserts
that a holy trinity would be a father, a male child, and a ghost
when common sense tells us that the holiest of trinities would
be a mother, a father, and a child: Family.
The vulnerability that we see as weakness is the saving grace
of the drunken driver who because of their drunken/vulnerable
state survives the fatal accident that kills the passengers in
the approaching vehicle who tighten their grip and show no physical
vulnerability in the face of their fear. Vulnerability is also
the saving grace of the skate boarder who attempts a trick and
remembers to stay loose and not tense during their fall.
Likewise, vulnerability has been the saving grace of the African
American struggle as we have been whipped, jailed, spat upon,
called names, and killed, yet continue to strive forward mostly
non-violently towards our highest goals. But today we are at a
crossroads, because the institutions that have sold us the crosses
we wear around our necks are the most overt in the denigration
of women and thus humanity.
That is why I write you today, Ms. Winfrey. We cannot address
the root of what plagues Hip Hop without addressing the root of
what plagues todays society and the world.
Ms. Winfrey, at itŐs worse; Hip Hop is simply a reflection of
the society that birthed it. Our love affair with gangsterism
and the denigration of women is not rooted in Hip Hop; rather
it is rooted in the very core of our personal faith and religions.
The gangsters that rule Hip Hop are the same gangsters that rule
our nation. 50 Cent and George Bush have the same birthday (July
6). For a Hip Hop artist to say "I do what I wanna do/Don't
care if I get caught/The DA could play this mothaf@kin tape in
court/I'll kill you/ I ain't playin'" epitomizes the
confidence and braggadocio we expect an admire from a rapper who
claims to represent the lowest denominator.
When a world leader with the spirit of a cowboy (the true original
gangster of the West: raping, stealing land, and pillaging, as
we clapped and cheered) takes the position of doing what he wants
to do, regardless of whether the UN or American public would take
him to court, then we have witnessed true gangsterism and violent
negligence. Yet, there is nothing more negligent than attempting
to address a problem one finds on a branch by censoring the leaves.
Name calling, racist generalizations, sexist perceptions, are
all rooted in something much deeper than an uncensored music.
Like the rest of the world, I watched footage on AOL of you dancing
mindlessly to 50 Cent on your 50th birthday as he proclaimed,
"I got the ex/if you're into taking drugs/ I'm into having
sex/ I ain't into making love" and you looked like you
were having a great time. No judgment. I like that song too. Just
as I do, James Brown's Sex Machine or Grand Master Flashes "White
Lines". Sex, drugs, and rock and roll is how the story goes.
Censorship will never solve our problems. It will only foster
the sub-cultures of the underground, which inevitably inhabit
the mainstream. There is nothing more mainstream than the denigration
of women as projected through religious doctrine. Please understand,
I am by no means opposing the teachings of Jesus, by example (he
wasn't Christian), but rather the men that have used his teachings
to control and manipulate the masses.
a world leader with the spirit
of a cowboy (the true original
gangster of the West: raping,
stealing land, and pillaging,
as we clapped and cheered)
takes the position of doing what
he wants to do, regardless of whether
the UN or American public would
take him to court, then we have
witnessed true gangsterism
and violent negligence.
like Rock and Roll, like the media, and the government, all reflect
an idea of power that labels vulnerability as weakness. I can
only imagine the non-emotive hardness that you have had to show
in order to secure your empire from the grips of those that once
stood in your way: the old guard. You reflect our changing times.
As time progresses we sometimes outgrow what may have served us
along the way.
This time, what we have outgrown, is not hip hop, rather it is
the festering remnants of a God depicted as an angry and jealous
male, by men who were angry and jealous over the minute role that
they played in the everyday story of creation. I am sure that
you have covered ideas such as these on your show, but we must
make a connection before our disconnect proves fatal.
We are a nation at war. What we fail to see is that we are fighting
ourselves. There is no true hatred of women in Hip Hop. At the
root of our nature we inherently worship the feminine. Our overall
attention to the nurturing guidance of our mothers and grandmothers
as well as our ideas of what is sexy and beautiful all support
this. But when the idea of the feminine is taken out of the idea
of what is divine or sacred then that worship becomes objectification.
When our governed morality asserts that a woman is either a virgin
or a whore, then our understanding of sexuality becomes warped.
Note the dangling platinum crosses over the bare asses being smacked
in the videos. The emcees of my generation are the ministers of
my father's generation. They too had a warped perspective of the
feminine. Censoring songs, sermons, or the tirades of radio personalities
will change nothing except the format of our discussion. If we
are to sincerely address the change we are praying for then we
must first address to whom we are praying.
Thank you, Ms. Winfrey, for your forum, your heart, and your vision.
May you find the strength and support to bring about the changes
you wish to see in ways that do more than perpetuate the myth
In loving kindness,
Williams is a poet. His books include The Dead Emcee Scrolls:
The Lost Teachings of Hip Hop and Said The Shotgun To the Head.
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