Is Music Issuing a Call to Violence?


We are stunned. Horrified. We say the mass sexual assault of at least 53 women in Central Park two weeks ago was unexpected.

Me? I’m surprised it took so long.

In 1993, as a graduate student in New York, I wrote a magazine essay about the then-looming epidemic in violence against women.

The epidemic would come, I wrote, from increasingly common woman-hating pop music lyrics, and from music videos that routinely reduce women to punching bags, strippers and sperm receptacles.


While our culture is no stranger to denigrating women, mainstream pop lyrics advocating the abuse of women are now commonplace. Where these types of lyrics shocked us even 10 years ago, they’re normal now.

A record producer friend in New Jersey knows two of the men involved in the Central Park assaults. They’re wannabe rappers, he says, and are not among the 17 so far arrested. They’re strutting around Union City right now, bragging about what “pimps” they are.

In the U.S., it seems, a man’s worth is now directly linked to his ability to oppress women -- just as it is in the Middle East, much of Africa, and some parts of Europe.

While the media have searched for answers in the Central Park assaults via race and class, using code words such as “inner city” and “urban” (read: black/brown), I have a very different theory: The young men in Central Park were simply imitating their idols, as have many generations of insecure pop music fans.

While the “pimps” are certainly responsible for the assaults, so too are the record executives who continue to sign and promote only the lowest and most moronic and stereotypical of “artists,” wholesaling misogyny in the name of profit.

If sex and violence sell, their line goes, then sexual violence sells the most.

Perhaps. But sales at what cost?

Consider the common link between the Central Park assaults, the yearly sexual assaults at Atlanta’s Freaknik celebration, and last year’s multiple rapes at Woodstock: pop music.


In all of these cases, the men involved chanted rap or rock lyrics as they assaulted women. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

In spite of press coverage implying otherwise, this type of behavior is not limited to dark-skinned men. Statistically, white males buy the most rap and aggro-rock and commit the most hate crimes.

In fact, while many media accounts about the two murderous white Columbine High School students made mention of the racist leanings of the young men, few mentioned that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris also hated women. They said so in videotapes found in their homes.

And remember the two middle school cousins who killed four girls and a female teacher in Jonesboro, Ark.? They specifically targeted girls, they said.

All of these incidents are related, and misogynistic pop lyrics do not help.


Interestingly, the media blamed guns, social alienation and popular entertainment for the violent behavior of these white kids. But when dark-skinned young men act out violently, as in the Central Park assaults, the media tend to blame the youths themselves, or their race and ethnicity.

I’ve seen all this coming since I was inspired to write that essay in 1993 after a confrontation with a young man on a subway platform in Manhattan.


He wore headphones, stared into my eyes, and rapped loudly to a song that called for men to slap women down if they “act up.” He looked me up and down. When the train approached, he pretended he was going to push me in front of it.

Within weeks, I read in the New York papers that a young woman had been raped in a public swimming pool by a group of young men who chanted the lyrics to another popular song that degraded women. Dozens of people witnessed the attack, and no one helped.

Back in 1993, it was one woman in a pool. Two weeks ago, it was 53 women, sexually assaulted by groups of men who, eyewitnesses say, chanted misogynistic lyrics.

In the home videos taken by onlookers, the men in Central Park shake bottles of beer and spew them all over women -- exactly the way men do to a stripper in Dr. Dre’s new video for “The Next Episode,” currently the second-most played video on MTV.

None of this is happening in isolation. Around the world, society is traveling backward with regard to women’s rights.

It is now illegal for women in Afghanistan to go to school. The female populations of India and China have reached all-time lows because parents routinely kill baby girls.


In many nations, women can be beaten by strangers simply for being alone in public. In many other nations, if a woman is raped, it is the duty of her male relatives to kill her.

In an increasingly global culture, it is increasingly common to hate women. We are not immune. And this scares me. A lot.

We like to think time is linear, that we travel forward in the name of progress. But history has shown this is not so.

As we backpedal in the U.S., who is worrying about girls like Nancy Brown?

Nancy, 13 when we met, was paired with me by the Big Sisters organization for two years and taught me much about where we’re headed. She continually ditched school, though she liked learning. Why? Because, she said, she got sexually assaulted by boys at school. And guess what the boys recited as they did this? Song lyrics. Nancy told me she was not the only girl in her school who avoided class for this reason.

I’ve had arguments over the years with several of my colleagues at various papers, most of whom have told me to “relax” and quit blaming the entertainment industry for society’s problems.

Violent rap, I’ve been told more than once, is nothing more than the poetic expression of preexisting angst among young dark-skinned men.


I think, too, there is a simple tendency by male music critics of all colors to simply shrug off misogyny when it pops up, regardless of the color of the “artist.” Guns ‘N Roses and even the Rolling Stones have been just as offensive as gangsta rap with regard to women. And when is the last time anyone objected to the woman-hating lyrics by, say, German metal bands?

But with the rap and rock popular now, the most vile stereotypes of dark-skinned men have again and again clouded good judgment on the part of pop music critics I have known -- white and black.

They mean well, but they avoid confronting the dangerous reality of the lyrics these men put out. I think part of this is good old-fashioned sexism, but I also honestly believe lots of people in the U.S. still believe black and brown men are somehow innately more barbaric than other men, and so excuse these lyrics as the “artistic expression” of creatures from another universe.

We live in a world where many critics of all colors still believe an artist can “sound black” or “sound white,” in spite of good science and common sense.


No wonder, then, that few critics or executives seem to care when “urban” music calls for the beating of women. The men who do this are, after all, just “sounding black”--even the white ones, like Eminem.

All of this is dangerous. Very dangerous.

If those who favor enlightenment and human rights are not vigilant, if we don’t speak out, if we don’t protest, the pull to barbarism can, and will, take hold. It has happened before.


It took just one generation to commit genocide in the Holocaust, a generation whose ideas about Jews were formed by crafty propaganda.

And what are these hateful songs and videos but crafty propaganda set to a seductive backbeat?

The idiots who ripped the clothes off the women in Central Park were raised on gangsta rap and aggro-rock. It did not reflect their world view, it formed it.

So what can we do?

The music industry needs to take responsibility for what it is teaching people about the roles of men and women. And the media need to hire more women and more people of color to write about pop music, especially as critics.

And everyone with a conscience should be asking one very important question: Why all the woman-bashing now?

We need to change our musical direction. If not, we are literally destroying the lives of girls and women, and our society along with them.