April 16, 2007 -- Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., found himself criticized Monday by one of rap and hip-hop's leading producers, Def Jam Records co-founder Russell Simmons, who challenged the presidential candidate to stop criticizing rappers' lyrics and start working to improve the urban-American world that inspires them.
"My response to Sen. Obama is that you have to talk about the poverty and ignorance that creates such a climate that the poets can talk like that," Simmons told ABC News. "And all the politicians owe them an education and an opportunity for a better life -- and maybe they'll say something better."
Obama, the first presidential candidate to call for shock jock Don Imus to be fired for his racist comments about the Rutgers University women's basketball team, has said it's troublesome to condemn Imus' "nappy-headed hos" slur without addressing similar language used by rap and hip-hop musicians.
At a fundraising dinner for the South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus in Columbia, S.C., Friday, Obama said, "We've got to admit to ourselves, that it was not the first time that we heard the word 'ho.' Turn on the radio station. There are a whole lot of songs that use the same language ... We've been permitting it in our homes, and in our schools and on iPods."
Obama added that "If it's not good for Don Imus, I don't know why it's good for us. If we don't like other people to degrade us, why are we degrading ourselves?"
At the South Florence High School library in Florence, S.C., Obama said of rappers, "They're degrading their sisters." He said that "There are a whole bunch of young rappers who look like us, who use the words that Don Imus does, who are on our radio stations."
Poets Can Use Different Language?
But Simmons disputed Obama's contention that Imus' comments were in any way similar to those heard in rap music.
"People who are angry, uneducated and come from tremendous struggle, they have poetic license and they say things that offend you," Simmons said. "You have to talk about the conditions that create those kinds of lyrics. When you are talking about a privileged man who has a mainstream vehicle and mainstream support and is on a radio station like that you have to deal with them differently."
Asked about the lyrics that Obama contends degrade black women, Simmons said the rappers using those words are "poets" reflecting "a sickness in America."
"When the rappers say these things they offend Mr. Obama, and Sen. Clinton and some of the other people who have been critical," Simmons said. "At the same time, we have to look at ourselves."
But conservative talk show host Larry Elder said any criticism of rappers or Imus by Obama or Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., was hypocritical, given that both have been supported by raunchy rappers or those who have profited from them.
Clinton, for example, was feted March 31 in Miami by rap performer and producer Timbaland.
"Timbaland himself has put out stuff that says the 'b's' and 'h's,'" Elder said. "He has produced acts that say b's and h's. And Barack Obama had a fundraiser with David Geffen whose (former) company was involved with Snoop Dogg, who also uses that kind of language."
"It's completely inconsistent and completely hypocritical," Elder said.
For example, in Snoop Dogg's 2004 song, "Can U Control Yo Hoe," he raps, "You've got to put that bitch in her place, even if it's slapping her in her face."
In an interview with MTV last week, Snoop Dogg concurred with Simmons.
"It's a completely different scenario. We are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports. We're talking about hos that's in the 'hood that ain't doing sh--, that's trying to get a n---a for his money. These are two separate things....we ain't no old-ass white men that sit up on MSNBC going hard on black girls. We are rappers that have these songs coming from our minds and our souls that are relevant to what we feel. I will not let them muthaf---as say we in the same league as him."
Simmons rejected the notion that politicians shouldn't take money from rappers. "They take money from oil companies," Simmons said. "They take money from all kinds of abusive characters. I don't think the rappers are nearly as abusive as half of the lobbyists who are walking around Congress."
Simmons spoke to ABC News from Chicago, where he was preparing for an Oprah Winfrey town hall meeting on the subject of rap lyrics, which will also feature hip-hop artist Common, who raps about love and spirituality, Kansas City Star sports writer Jason Whitlock, former NAACP president Bruce Gordon and the Rev. Al Sharpton.
A press release from the Winfrey show said, "The group will address whether or not there is a double standard in this country, what behavior different races are willing and not willing to tolerate, and why women and minorities often are targets for derogatory and degrading comments. Winfrey asks the panel to consider if this incident could be a 'tipping point' for American society."