Dirty dancing

In part two of our Take Back the Music series, we go behind the scenes with video girls. As pimp culture goes mainstream, are we getting paid or played?

May 2005
Essence, Take Back the Music
By Jeannine Amber

They’re what male fantasies are made of: One brown-skinned sister, wearing painted-on jeans and four-inch stilettos, is as tall as a runway model but with an ample booty and sleepy almond-shaped eyes. Another woman is baby-doll petite with olive skin, long bleached-blonde curls and supersize cleavage bursting out of the tiny piece of fabric that is her top. A third is wearing a gold cutout bodysuit, heels and a micromini so short that she has to hold down its hem as she walks across the room.

These girls, along with four other equally arresting women, are taking a break, lounging in the makeshift makeup area of a cavernous warehouse in a seedy part of Los Angeles, around the corner from adult-video stores and stripper joints. They ’ve been at this video shoot, starring rapper Fabolous, since eight in the morning. It’s now 12 hours later, and the video’s nowhere near done. The girls have had their hair straightened and curled, their makeup painted and repainted, and some of them have changed clothes three different times to suit the taste of Lil X, the director. The lensman behind countless Usher, Kanye West and Sean Paul videos, Lil X is a slight, unassuming man in his late twenties. To see him walk around the set filled with dozens of male crew and dozens more of the male hangers-on who always show up at video shoots, you’d never know he’s in charge. But it’s his job to make this video hot, which is to say sexy, and that’s why he keeps sending the women back to get "sexier hair" and "sexier makeup" and the sort of clothes that will indicate the exact kind of sexiness these young women are supposed to represent.

When they finally shoot a take, it goes like this: The music starts bumping, the camera rolls, and the girls all break into dance, rubbing their hips, shaking their hair, leaning their heads back and looking coyly at the camera. The director asks them to mouth the chorus and they all purse their shiny lips together, "Do do do do do do." This is the work of a video girl.

Back in the day, rappers used to rhyme just about anything: partying, Black pride, the Daisy Age, hustling, pimping, the irritating way parents just don ’t understand. From the sublime to the criminal to the mundane, it was all part of hip-hop and everyone had a place: gangsters, jokers, fast girls, tomboys and African queens. The art was as diverse as the people who produced it. But as hip-hop enters into its third decade, one icon has captured the imagination of the current crop of rappers as nothing has before. These days the pimp reigns supreme.

Pimp, pimping, pimp juice, pimp paraphernalia like goblets and canes, the pimp lifestyle, ethos and "code of honor" have permeated hip-hop culture and beyond. MTV airs a weekly show called Pimp My Ride, hosted by rapper Xzibit; Sony Pictures produced a feature-length animated flick, Lil’ Pimp, with the voices of Ludacris and Lil’ Kim, about a 9-year-old White boy who takes up pimping; 50 Cent calls himself a muthaf---in’ P.I.M.P. and shoots up the charts to number one. And Nelly hits the shelves of convenience stores with his energy drink Pimp Juice.

In hip-hop, pimp is a signifier of charisma, power and wealth. Pimp is masculine flamboyance, tricked-out cars, one-of-a-kind ’gators, bejeweled goblets full of Cristal. Pimp is domination in the bedroom, respect on the streets, a romantic illusion of alpha-male greatness. Gangster, the archetype of choice a decade ago, is played out; now it’s all about the pimp. But if rappers are re-creating themselves in the image of a Mack, then what role are women left to fill?

Any fan can answer that. "Mostly in videos, the women are there to serve the men," says Morgan Crooks, 16, a high-school student from South Orange, New Jersey. Morgan watches music videos with the devotion most record companies long for. Videos are on while she does her homework, talks on the phone, eats her dinner. She watches in the morning when she’s getting dressed and at night before she goes to bed. By her own estimation, some weeks BET and MTV are turned on more than 30 hours. "Sometimes it’s just on to be on," she says. "I don’t even think of it as watching TV really."

By logging as much time in front of the TV as some spend in a full-time job, Morgan has become an expert on hip-hop videos. "You have New York—style videos," she says, "with the high-class, skinny girls who look like models. They just stand there looking good. And there’s this one 50 Cent video with women on leashes. Then you have videos from Down South, with half-naked rump shakers, and others where the guys sit in barber chairs, and the girls show up in tight pants and bend over, and their booties start jiggling. A lot of videos have girls just backing it up, like little hos."

Of course, every rapper who envisions himself as a pimp requires a bevy of willing females to bring the image to life. Round-the-way girls and African queens need not apply. Women here have one job only: to portray every shade and variation of a girl enthralled, enslaved by and beholden to a rapper—pimp. It’s the ho show.

So You Wanna Be a Video Star

Tawny, 22, has appeared in music videos for the past five years. On the set of the Fabolous shoot, she has finished her close-up, and she wants to make one thing perfectly clear: "I am not," she says emphatically, "a video girl." If you ask Tawny, with her long straight hair and gravity-defying breasts, exactly what she does, she’ll declare, "I’m an actress." To prove it, she’ll rattle off a list of film credits that include John Singleton’s Baby Boy and MGM’s Beauty Shop starring Queen Latifah. "Video," she says, "is just where I got my start."

There are many reasons women choose to be in videos. They want to meet a famous rapper, have some fun, or catch a glimpse of themselves on television. Most of them go to open auditions they learn about from flyers passed out at nightclubs or online; usually they get cast as extras, people in a crowd scene. Extras make very little money, often no more than $100 for a 12-to-24-hour shoot. Sometimes extras don’t get paid at all. But Tawny is a featured girl, handpicked by the director to appear in close-ups, dance with the artist, or just stand beside him. Featured girls get the most camera time, the hottest clothes and the best chance at a pictorial in an urban men’s magazine like Smooth or the hip-hop magazine XXL, which runs a four-page spread every month called Eye Candy, about the latest video vixen to make men drool. Tawny won’t say how much she’s getting paid for the Fabolous shoot, but the most sought-after women—the ones some men in the industry call top-shelf bitches—can command as much as $3,000 a shoot.

Tawny has heard all the criticism about video girls. You can’t be in this industry and not hear all the stories about the video ho—the hoochie—everyone loves to hate. But Tawny, for one, is really sick of it. Sure there are women, the groupies, who are totally unprofessional, like the girl Tawny saw rubbing an artist’s penis right in the middle of a take; or the girl who disappeared into the artist’s trailer and came out looking all disheveled.

But these are the exceptions, she insists, the women who give everyone else a bad name. Most dancers are just working their hustle, trying to get to the next level of fame. Besides, Tawny says, there’s a glaring double standard: Artists like Janet and Beyoncé are allowed to parade in bikini tops and booty shorts and nobody says anything. But when aspiring actresses like Tawny dance in a skimpy outfit, everyone gets up in arms. "If video girls are being exploited, then every female artist who is out there being sexy should be blamed too. To me, it’s all bulls---."

Tawny knows sex sells and as a general rule she doesn’t mind showing her body as part of her job requirement. But, she admits, sometimes the director goes too far. "If it’s lie by the pool in a bikini, fine," she says. "If it’ s wear a bikini and shake my ass in front of the artist while he sits in his car, then no. I won’t do it." Some girls are not so discerning.

Porn for Beginners

At three o’clock in the morning, BET, the premier cable channel for airing hip-hop videos, broadcasts BET UnCut. The program features music videos in which many of the girls are wearing lingerie and doing the sorts of acrobatics usually reserved for bachelor parties. There’s a bikini-clad woman shaking her booty and grinning wildly while holding one leg high in the air in Nelly’s Tip Drill. Another woman, standing on her head, provides the backdrop to Ludacris’s rhyming, with his head between her naked, open thighs while she flexes her buttocks in Pussy Poppin’. There are women on all fours, women writhing on the ground, women grabbing their ankles, all poppin’ to the beat. These aren’t run-of-the-mill sexy and suggestive dancers. These women are clearly professionals with masterful control of the muscles of their hips and thighs and buttocks. When they lift one leg in the air and pop, pop, pop their thang, it’s enough to leave an average woman speechless.

Before BET UnCut, a seminaked Black woman lying on her back with her legs hoisted over her shoulders was something only paying customers in a strip club might see. Now it’s mainstream. Teenage girls are perfecting hypersexual stripper moves like booty clapping, dropping and poppin’ and showing them off at middle-school dances. "These are dances young girls didn ’t used to know about," says Pamela Weddington, vice-president of communications at Motivational Educational Entertainment Productions (MEE), a communications company that specializes in urban markets. "Now it’s something that they aspire to. Even if they are not staying up until three in the morning to watch BET UnCut, everyone can set up a VCR."

While BET reps insist the show is for adult viewers only, the fact is many teenagers are indeed tuning in. "BET Uncut? Everyone’s seen it," says Morgan. "I remember some of the boys in class were like, ‘Did you see the uncut Ludacris video? Or the uncut Chingy?’ This was when we were like 14. Now it’s the younger kids who are watching it, the boys who are 12 and 13."

While exposing young boys to images of near-naked strippers will likely encourage them to sexually objectify women, for girls the effects are more subtle. "My sense is that over time young Black girls are beginning to internalize what they see in the media," says Weddington. "And we see it in their behavior."

Weddington’s company surveyed thousands of low-income African-American teens between the ages of 16 and 20 in ten cities across the country, including Los Angeles, New Orleans, Chicago and New York, and asked them about sex, sexuality and the media, particularly music videos. "The message young women are getting is that if they can’t get something they want through their talent or ability, then they have something else that they can use, and that ’s their bodies," says Weddington. "They are learning that what’s important about a woman is her body, not her mind. So that means, ‘I am a commodity, therefore I’m going to use that commodity to get what I want.’" Weddington suggests that when girls use their bodies as barter, they are more likely to engage in risky behavior like unsafe sex, sex with multiple partners or sex with men many years their senior.

At least one study suggests Weddington is right. In 2003, in Alabama, 522 African-American girls in rural and poor neighborhoods were asked about their consumption of hip-hop videos, then their behavior was tracked for a year. Even after the researchers adjusted their data to accommodate for differences such as family income, and whether the teenagers were from one- or two-parent families, results were startling. "We divided the group into girls who watched fewer than 21 hours a week of music videos and girls who watched more," explains Ralph DiClemente, Ph.D., associate director of the Center for AIDS Research at Emory University and one of the lead investigators in the study. "We found that girls who watched more videos were 60 percent more likely to have contracted an STD during the year, twice as likely to have multiple sex partners and 60 percent more likely to use alcohol and drugs.

"It’s clear that when you look at rap music videos, you see a certain scenario: one male artist surrounded by scantily clad females, and their job is to please him," adds DiClemente. "There are many theories that suggest that if a person looks at a lot of videos and doesn’t have information to the contrary, she begins to believe that this is reality, that this is the way the world works." According to DiClemente, teenagers seem to be influenced by the images in videos because they don’t have the life experience to counter what they are seeing. "They can’t say what they’re watching isn’t true because they don’t know. They’re just kids."

Hip-hop’s Side Hustle For as long as teenagers have listened to music, there have been people angered by its content. In 1984 Tipper Gore, wife of the former vice-president Al Gore, appalled by lyrics she heard on a Prince album she had purchased for her 11-year-old daughter, led a campaign that resulted in parental-advisory warning stickers being placed on CDs with explicit content. More recently, several students of Spelman College called Nelly on the mat for his video Tip Drill. "We put up posters calling him Misogynist of the Month," says Moya Bailey, president of the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance (FMLA), the group that launched the campaign last March. Bailey says that while many of the women on campus understood why her group was upset by the video, there was also a backlash. Some students felt the FMLA’s questioning of Nelly was poorly timed: The rapper was scheduled to appear on campus to support a bone-marrow registration drive when the group’ s posters went up.

But the ambivalence about the group’s protest seemed to go further than that. "Some women saw it as Black women yelling at Black men," says Bailey. "A lot of women feel that if we say Black men have adopted these misogynistic ideas, then we’re attacking them and not being supportive as Black women. That makes it hard for Black women to step up and say something." Bailey points out that at the same time, White women are also reluctant to take on the cause of misogyny in hip-hop. "White feminists don’ t know how to deal with it," she observes. "There are so many issues of race tied into it that they just sort of let the Black women handle it."

Lara Mahaney, director of corporate and entertainment affairs at Parents Television Council, says her organization is considering forming a coalition of interested groups, both Black and White, to launch a "campaign of shame and financial consequences" such as boycotts aimed at industries and retailers who make and distribute offensive material. "It’s going to take a large group of people talking about this to bring some kind of change," says Mahaney. "If we don’t speak out, things will only get worse."

That may already be happening. In a trend that has gone virtually uncommented upon by activists, some rap stars have decided to lend their name and talents to productions even more explicit than their uncut videos. Rappers are now appearing in hard-core porn. In 2001 and 2003 the best-selling adult videos of the year were Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle and Hustlaz: Diary of a Pimp, respectively; both were hosted by the Billboard-topping rapper. Snoop, recently applauded for his work with the Rowland Heights Raiders, a junior all-American football team of 8-to-10-year-old boys, acts as tour guide in the graphic DVDs, featuring naked adult-film stars engaging in among other things, anal and group sex. According to Sean Carney, the research director at Hustler Video, the company that distributes Snoop’s films, Doggy Style sold 45,000 units and Diary of a Pimp, 50,000—more than four times what’s considered a top seller in the porn world. Snoop, who endorses T-Mobile and AOL, and was once asked to appear on Jim Henson’s It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas, has been hailed as "totally embodying the hustler lifestyle" by Carney. "This has been a fantastic partnership," enthuses Carney, noting that "Snoop has brought some hip-hop fans to adult videos for the first time."

Over the past several years, other top-selling rappers like 50 Cent, Lloyd Banks, Lil’ John and even old-schooler Ice-T, who currently stars on NBC’s Law & Order: SVU, have hosted adult videos. Ice-T’s top-selling project, Pimpin’ 101, shows the rapper "schooling viewers on the different types of girls who work the streets," says Dan Miller, features editor for Adult Video News, a porn-industry publication. Porn actresses play the hos, and a fully clothed Ice-T narrates the film and introduces the sex scenes. "Making porn is a sign you’ve made it," says Carney. "If you are a hip-hop star and you come out with your own triple-X video, it’s a sign you’ve arrived." And so it continues—the exaltation of Black women as sexual acrobats by the very artists so many of us support.

Not My Daughter

In some corners there are rumblings of discontent. "My dad doesn’t like seeing half-naked girls in videos," says Morgan, the 16-year-old from New Jersey. "When I was 12, he complained because Mya was wearing a midriff shirt and this really tiny skirt, and she was dancing, which is not a good mix. He was like, ‘She’s already got all eyes on her; why does she have to have only half her clothes on?’ I didn’t understand it at the time, but I do now. He doesn’t want me to be like that, so he doesn’t want me to watch that."

Many experts feel that the best way to arm young girls against the bombardment of images that promote Black women as sex objects is to do what Morgan’s father did: talk with them about what they are seeing.

"We live in a sexualized society," says Cydelle Berlin, who runs a theater-based education program for teenage girls out of St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital in Harlem. "But you can’t say to a teenager, ‘Turn off the television,’ because that’s not going to work." Instead, says Berlin, "we need to watch these images with our children and use it as a teachable moment. Ask what the video is about, what is the woman representing, how is that similar to how girls at school act and dress? And talk about how the video makes you feel so you can discuss your value system." Most of all, says Berlin, we need to help young girls see that there are other messages of what it means to be a Black woman. There is so much more Black women do than just bounce to the beat.

But if hip-hop has demonstrated anything about us, it's this: No matter what Black men do, there will always be Black women who stand by their side. We will be their ride-or-die bitch, the Bonnie to their Clyde, the played to their player. So maybe it's no surprise that so many rappers swaggered confidently into the realm of pimp, expecting all the pretty girls just to fall in line. But what happens if we don't? In a world where women aren't willing to accept being cast as bitches and hos, there won’t be anything left for wannabe pimps to do but find some other fantasy.