Self-proclaimed feminist and “urban hip-hop fashionista” Michaela Angela Davis delivered a criticism of African-American hip-hop culture Monday, arguing at a Silliman College master’s tea that it propagates a negative stereotype of young black women despite its inherent artistic virtues.
After arriving 30 minutes late, Davis, sporting an impressively frizzy and omni-directional afro, spoke in an intimate setting to an audience of about 20 students, mostly female African-Americans. Davis served as fashion director at Vibe and Essence magazines and as a fashion stylist to Beyoncé, Prince and Oprah.
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Davis is perhaps best known for her work in founding the “Take Back the Music” initiative, which promotes rising artists ages 15 to 18 and helps them serve as the next generation of the hip-hop movement. She said the campaign focuses on the musical and artistic value of hip-hop as opposed to the negative, sexist attitudes that some rap stars repeatedly exhibit in their music videos and lyrics.
Mentored by Susan Taylor, editorial director of Essence magazine, Davis early in her career became known as a staunch promoter of the art form of hip-hop. She described walking through New York in the 1980s, watching the “breakers” (or breakdancers, as the press would later label them) spin on their heads to “tight beats.” Davis said she has thoroughly enjoyed watching the hip-hop movement mature.
“I love hip-hop the way my parents loved the Civil Rights movement,” she said.
But Davis expressed regret that she was unable to stop the derogatory decline in hip-hop’s portrayal of young African-American women. She said she begins many of her high school talks by apologizing to the black girls in her audience for the seamy nature of modern hip-hop videos, a phenomenon which occurred “on her watch.”
“It’s one thing to have fun, but it’s another at the expense of your identity,” she said. “The sad thing is, this kind of behavior wasn’t even challenged. I believe culture comes from the ground up. I know I’m wrong, but it’s what I want to believe.”
Davis recalled working at Vibe magazine, owned by Time, Inc., for male executives who were for the most part very “old, waspy, and white.” She said she remembered Martha Stewart once screaming at one of the executives for claiming he knew what female readers would be interested in. Davis soon resolved to make room for prominent, female, black musicians through her work as an editor.
Aida Sykes ’07, a black student from Tanzania who listened to the speech, said her friends from home are often interested in the behavior of black Americans. The exposure her friends have to music videos portraying the culture has piqued their curiosity, she explained.
“[Davis] reminded me that hip-hop was a movement; it’s not just, ‘Oh, rappers, there they go again, disrespecting women,’” Sykes said. “That’s not hip-hop at its best, but it’s what it’s doing now.”
Albert Lawrence ’07 said he appreciated her insightful perceptions of popular culture.
“She honed in on some of the images that are being proliferated with hip-hop, which was nice because I didn’t feel as though it was condemning hip-hop itself,” he said. “Instead, it was promoting women with an active agency to combat what is being pushed in front of us on TV screens.”
Davis, who was raised in Washington, D.C., attended New York University and the New School and trained at the Stella Adler Acting Conservatory and the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. She currently lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. with her teenage daughter.