Kevin Powwell`s blog

In Defense of Ashley Judd

Ashley Judd is a very courageous woman. I am not referring to her work as a global ambassador for YouthAids, or her efforts to end poverty and sexual violence in underdeveloped nations overseas, or even her journey here in America as an actress, mother, daughter of a country music star, and avid supporter of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, animal rights, and equality for women. No, none of that.

Ms. Judd is fearless because she wears her life and her feelings on her chest, bare, in plain sight, and has written a stunning new memoir, “All That is Bitter and Sweet,” which discusses, with rawness and candor, her being sexually abused as a child by a grown man. We as Americans are deceiving ourselves if we do not think various forms of gender violence against women and girls is not at epidemic proportions, because it is. Just ask your mother, grandmother, sister, niece, aunt, female friends, women co-workers or classmates, girlfriend, wife, or partner, and I guarantee you someone in that group will have a story similar to Ashley Judd’s either as girls, or during their adult years.

It is for this reason alone that Ms. Judd’s new book is so timely, and so necessary. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month in America and, sadly, as I do a quick scan, right this moment, of New York headlines just from the past 2-3 days, there is the Manhattan man who stabbed his girlfriend to death, and the Brooklyn man who choked his girlfriend until she likewise died. Simply imagine the reported and unreported tales of American women and girls being abused, molested, stalked, street harassed, raped, beaten, choked, stabbed, shot, set on fire, or murdered each and every single day. Then imagine these same acts in nations across the globe, each and every single day. Thus, Ashley Judd’s very personal saga is for women and girls in America, overseas, everywhere, whose voices have not been heard. Or roundly dismissed or ignored.

As a writer myself, I know that the telling of one’s story is about healing, and transformation. And making a pact with one’s self not to tolerate certain kinds of abuses or behaviors ever again. And if one has been wounded, the way Ms. Judd was badly wounded as a child, one will, in adulthood, once one has found one’s voice, become a drum major for justice, a truth-teller. Which easily explains why Ms. Judd has crisscrossed America, and many a foreign country, taking on the difficult causes of everyday people. She is that everyday person herself in so many ways, from the sexual assault as a child, to the constant moving about (she literally attended 13 different schools by the time she graduated from high school), to the splintered relationships with her parents. Her story is our story and we know it well.

Unfortunately, that Ms. Judd is a famous Hollywood actress today means that a different kind of attention is being paid to her memoir. The good part is that she has an instant platform to discuss topics like gender violence. The bad part is that, in our very dumbed down, social network-obsessed society, it becomes quite easy and convenient for words to be taken out of context or, worse yet, not read at all, and just passed around, one tweet and facebook post at a time, until what Ms. Judd wrote very eloquently in her memoir is completely distorted.

Case in point are the very heated attacks Ms. Judd has received for saying, in her book, that “most rap and hiphop music—with its rape culture and insanely abusive lyrics and depiction of girls and women as ‘ho’s’—is the contemporary sound track of misogyny.”

If anyone had bothered to read pages 58-62 of Ms. Judd’s memoir, then they would know she put into context not only how she was asked to be a part of YouthAids, where hiphop icons P. Diddy and Snoop Dogg were serving as spokespersons, but you get her evident grappling, as a sexual abuse survivor, as a feminist, and as a human being, of making peace with working with them, and 50 Cent, too, in spite of her real and righteous feelings about gender violence. And why wouldn’t she? For example, besides a career weighted with lyrics calling women all sorts of derogatory terms, Snoop once showed up at the MTV Video Music Awards with two women on dog leashes. What woman, with any level of self-respect, would want to be associated with that definition of manhood?

Instead what we who call ourselves men, or hiphop heads, or whatever, have done is myopically label Ashley Judd as “racist,” “a dumb White woman,” and other terms which are simply not printable in this space. As a man, as a Black man, as a heterosexual Black man, who has been deeply involved in both hiphop culture and the hiphop industry for 30 years, I was not offended by Ms. Judd’s words.

That’s because I believe in speaking the truth always: America in general has always been a male-dominated, sexist nation. This is nothing new. Hiphop did not create sexism, misogyny, abuse, disrespect, a culture of rape, or violence against women. No. Those behavioral patterns go back to the days of the Pilgrims, the so-called founding fathers, and slavery, as if we are to be historically and culturally accurate.

But because hiphop has been the dominant cultural expression since at least the 1980s, in America, in the world, it has also come to embody many of the worst aspects of male privilege and domination. In other words, if you are born a male in this nation, unless there was some sort of intervention at some point in your life teaching you that women and girls are your equals, that love is preferable to hate, mindless ego, and reckless competition, that nonviolence trumps violence and warfare any day, guess what kind of man you, we, are more than likely primed to be?

Moreover, given that hiphop was created by working-class Black and Latino urban males, we have been the face of this cultural juggernaut in spite it being embraced by multicultural people worldwide (and barely controlled by us in terms of the mass production and distribution of words, sounds, and images). So when Ms. Judd declared hiphop had a “rape culture” many of us went off, because our interpretation is that she is saying Black and Latino males are the ones doing this to women and girls. Of course that is not the case.

And that is precisely where the thorny dynamic of White folks and Black folks in America once again crashes into that concrete wall called American history. We each bring to the table an airport full of baggage and what should be routine conversations and the exchange of ideas turn into mean-spirited broadsides with folks puffing out their chests and declaring beef over here! The result, ever more, is we surely cannot hear nor decipher what the other is saying. And while race takes center stage once again via the Ashley Judd episode the matter of sexism, of violence and reckless disregard for the female body, is tossed aside as if it is a non-issue. Yes, once again, the views of a woman does not matter is what we are essentially saying by responding as we’ve done on the internet. It is not just because Ms. Judd is White, either. I have seen the same harsh reactions to Black, Latina, and Asian women who would dare offer a critique of sexist behavior in a public forum.

And I seriously doubt Ashley Judd has spent so much time, energy, and a good deal of her own resources in Africa if she were, indeed, a card-carrying racist. She is not. She is a genuinely caring human being as evidenced by a life dedicated as much to public service as it is to her acting career. I think the only thing Ms. Judd is probably guilty of here is being an outsider and not understanding the totality of hiphop, its mores, its customs, its defiant swagger. Particularly that of us Black and Latino males for whom hiphop is everything in a world where we feel we are forever battling for our identities and our pieces of the American dream, real or imagined. But you do not move to destroy someone because of what they may not know. You take the time, if you have any sense of humanity, to teach. Always.

I am a hiphop head for life, since my days dancing on streets and at clubs and writing graffiti on walls; to my days as a writer for Vibe magazine and curating the first exhibit on hiphop history at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; to my current task of writing a biography, the next several years, on the life of Tupac Shakur. So I know there is a difference between hiphop culture, which I represent, and the hiphop industry, which is what Ashley Judd is referencing in her book.

And we’d be lying to ourselves, hiphop heads or not, if we actually could say, with straight faces, that hiphop culture has not been severely undermined, turned inside out, and made into an industry that promotes some of the most horrific images of women and men, that encourages oversexualization and materialism, that pushes anti-intellectualism and a brand of manhood that seems only to exist if one is engaging in the most destructive forms of violence and degrading of one’s self, and of others. That is not hiphop. That is called a minstrel show, circa the 21st century. And if you really love something the way I love that some thing called hiphop, then we would be honest about it and not go on ego trips attacking an Ashley Judd for having the courage to say what we should be saying ourselves.

That enough is enough of this madness, that it is no longer acceptable to say our culture is just reflecting what is going on in our communities. Art is not just to reflect what is happening. Art, at its best, is also about dialoguing about and correcting the ugliness in our communities. That will not happen if art is just as ugly as real life, if we are at a point where we cannot tell real life from the staged life.

For sure, Ms. Judd mentions this in her book when she talks about 50 Cent offstage, how professional and polite he was, then the moment he took the stage out came the hyper-masculinity, the bravado, the posturing, the manufactured character. Rather than curse out or disparage Ashley Judd, I think we should instead ask ourselves who we are, truly, in these times, and why so many of us continue to have our identities programmed and directed by record labels and radio and video channels under the illusion of keeping it 100 percent real? Real for whom, and at what cost to our communities?

Back in the 1990s, when I was writing for Vibe, I did an interview with the late C. Delores Tucker, an older Black woman who led a crusade against what she thought were indecent rap lyrics. I was so much younger emotionally and in terms of basic common sense, and did everything I could to make Ms. Tucker look like a buffoon in the printed interview. I really regret that because these women, the real leaders on our planet, are right. Why should it be acceptable to tolerate any culture, be it hiphop, rock, jazz, reality tv, video games, or certain kinds of Hollywood films, that create a space that says it is okay, normal, to denigrate women and girls with words and images?

To his credit, hiphop mogul Russell Simmons provided Ashley Judd a space, on globalgrind.com, to squash any so-called hiphop beef, a term I wish we hiphop heads would discard once and for all. Ms. Judd apologized for not choosing some of her words better, but she held firm, as she should have, around the issue of violence against women and girls.

On his Twitter feed Russell said “Real talk, if women were empowered we would protect the environment, the animals and have much less war.” But women’s empowerment, Russell, and the dismantling of male domination, will not happen if we men and boys do not become active agents in ending any behavior that blocks and destroys the natural evolution of girls into the powerful women they ought to be. And, Russell, as you say elsewhere in your Twitter feed, it is not an argument on whether rappers are less or more sexist than their parents or ministers. The issue is that sexism, period, is wrong, and we need to put as much vigor into ending it as we do in battling racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, classism, religious intolerance, or any other kind of oppression and discrimination. Debating degrees of something is just not the way.

Furthermore, any males out there who have a daughter or daughters need to ponder this very seriously. Even if you are not the kind of man who engages in foul language or abusive or violent behavior toward women or girls, do you say anything when it is happening around you, by your male friends or colleagues or family members? And how would you feel if these kinds of things were being said or done to your mother, to your daughter?

We need to understand, finally, that Ashley Judd was someone’s daughter, too, and but for the grace of the universe, some serious healing work, and, again, an insurmountable desire to live, and be, she is able to tell her story and help others. The worst thing we could ever do, as men, as human beings, is to not listen when someone is telling her or his truth.

For in one’s personal truth are lessons for us all.

Kevin Powell is an activist, public speaker, and award-winning author or editor of 10 books, including Open Letters to America (essays) and No Sleep Till Brooklyn (poetry). Kevin lives in Brooklyn, New York. Email him at kevin@kevinpowell.net or follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell

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  32. What a wonderful analysis Mr. Powell. I read the book cover-to-cover and it was a stunning examination of Ms. Judd’s life and her experiences as a humanitarian on behalf of women and child victims of sexual violence. I had the pleasure to meet her and interview her for the Ford Hall Forum on April 8. I reviewed her book, also on my blog, but decided not to focus on the hip hop aspect because others were doing it. The link to my post is http://blog.candelariasilva.com/2011/04/12/all-that-is-bitter–sweet—ashley-judds-memoir-a-review.aspx

  33. lonnie nigel says:

    Very well put Kevin. As a writer an avid hip hop fan, it bothers me that race and violence still seems to be a touchy subject amongst some of us. There was really no harm done in Ashley’s comments. I agree that her words may have been taken out of content, but everyone is surely aware of the point she was trying to make.

  34. [...] male Judd supporter “takes this opportunity” to urge fathers to protect their daughters. Here’s yet another example of privilege at work: Yes, parents are supposed to safeguard [...]

  35. N.S. says:

    Thank you!

    These are the conversations that we desperately need more of. The nebulous, decrepit, hellish, repulsive, dehumanizing nature of these acts requires our attention. Requires us to fend off the shame and disgust long enough to stop ignoring. From family members who knew but said nothing, to those who know they have a problem, but are too ashamed to seek help before they wreak havoc on a young life. This reality crosses all cultural lines – everywhere in our world.
    I agree with a previous response about boys as well. Worldwide, sexual abuse and violence for boys is greatly underreported. So who knows…

    Diologue is the first small step toward prevention. The strongest voices are unfortunately those who have experience. I commend anyone who has the courage to stand and speak openly about something so raw, and anyone who sticks around long enough to GENUINELY hear and take in the message – no matter how disturbing or sickening it may be.

    Anyone interested in learning more about what can be done -anyone who is or has endured sexual violence and anyone who thinks they may have a problem and needs help…. I encourage you to look at STOPITNOW.ORG
    Thank you!!

  36. justice says:

    With all due respect to Mr. Powell and Mrs.Judd the idea of “gender” violence is a fallacy as if rape,abuse and all the atrocities that happen to young girls and women also dont happen to young men and men.Do you believe in the caves of europe,the jungles of Africa or even behind the walls of the white house where Men are taken advantage of the weakest amng us they’re doing these things because snoop said “bitches ain’t Shit”.The idea that entertainment harbors a rape culture and disguises the truth that we were all born into a rape culture where the most powerful always take advantage of the weakest among us either mentally or physically or spiritually.Its the foul nature of man and for her to blanket HipHop with this title when I’m sure rock music and country music is just as misogynistic was wrong.but I guess thats ok in her world,Because I haven’t heard her speak out against those genres.Rascist i doubt it.Racial maybe.

    • Rodcore says:

      As a black man who enjoys everything from rock to country to old school r and b and hip hop (although my current tastes in hip hop lean more toward Jean Grae and the good underground stuff), I can tell you that rock and country (especially the stuff on the radio) do not approach anywhere near the violence, misogyny and racial self hate that hip hop does. I actually enjoy these forms of music because they talk about real feelings and emotions, not the mythical club where all this miraculous sex and drinking and non-stop money is. I would love to see radio dominated by the Maxwells and Jill Scotts and even relevant street music telling how it REALLY is out there…but the sad fact of the matter is that it is a white woman that has the balls to stand up and speak against the rape AND genocide culture of hip hop while black men are staying silent as if their balls have been clipped.

  37. [...] read an article called In Defense of Ashley Judd by none other than Kevin Powell (Real World fame) and while I think the article was an overall good [...]

  38. KendallJ says:

    Thank you so much Mr. Powell. Your words and insights are healing and wonderful. Thank you for standing up for our sisters and for Ashley. If more people like you were in this world it would be a much better place. Godspeed!

  39. [...] KevinPowell.net If anyone had bothered to read pages 58-62 of Ms. Judd’s memoir, then they would know she put [...]

  40. Freddie Lamb says:

    We must fight for truth.

  41. Naomi says:

    Thank you for your words… for standing up for your sisters..

  42. teniba says:

    Even Hip-Hop Head Chris Rock is tired of defending hip-hop http://youtu.be/ZgPcXeO4zn0 @ToureX @justblaze @ashleyjudd @kevin_powel

  43. teniba says:

    Courageous, brilliant and balanced!

  44. I think Mr. Power hit it on the head;

    “You do not move to destroy someone because of what they may not know. You take the time, if you have any sense of humanity, to teach. Always.”

    Being part of Hip Hop culture and Hip Hop as a movement, this is our response as members of the Peace Poets:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cpm2wcg3ySc

  45. [...] Kevin Powell: In Defense of Ashley Judd [...]

  46. Anonimouse... says:

    Thanks for writing such a heartfelt, logical, and balanced article. I didn’t know of “Ashley Judd” before your article, but I respect what she is doing and the criticism she faces largely because she is famous.

  47. Kimberley says:

    You’ve done a beautiful job here. Thank you. All of the points you mentioned, and specifically, those examples of 50 Cent, Snoop with his leashes, and CDelores Tucker, are ones I just mentioned recently on an all black women’s forum. And, just FYI — I belong to a black women’s forum that is 60,000 or so strong and we’ve been having considerable discourse on Ashley’s comments and the majority of us agree with her and you 100%. It’s time to take responsibility. Would that our hip hop artists not be consumed with their earnings, but to instead place progress as their top priority.

  48. Elle Jolie says:

    Thanks, very thought provoking. I really love that you spoke of things that you wish you had done differently in writing one of your early interviews. It shows your growth as a human being. It was a good look.

  49. PLE says:

    Thank you Kevin Powell. You have contextualized Ms. Judd’s comments and misogyny in general with great insight and compassion. I surely hope more iconic figures within and outside of the Hip-Hop community have the courage to stand up for women and acknowledge the truth.

    Peace to you!!!

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