Sara Baartman: Nelly’s Apple Bottom of the Century
The Official Nelly Apple Bottoms Model Search is once again set to kick-off in New York City in July of 2004. The slogan is to liberate and celebrate the Natural Curves of a woman's Body. That seems very propitious but it is hard to divorce the Apple Bottom efforts from the public legacy of its creator Cornell Haynes a.k.a. Nelly. Nelly has become a poster boy for misogyny in rap music.
It's an image he worked hard to create by fashioning himself as a "pimp". On his resume he sports a Pimp Energy Drink, a tentative agreement to appear on a rap album with Snoop Dogg, and plans to produce for Archbishop Don "Magic" Juan, the infamous ex-Chicago pimp. The CD's tentatively titled "Game: General Amount of Money Earned," and all known guest appearances are by rap artists who cultivate pimping ex. 50 Cent, Ice-T and of course himself. Pimping is misogynistic and so are Nelly's videos.
Nelly and his foundation, 4 Sho, 4 Kids, were forced to cancel a bone-marrow drive, April 2nd, at Spelman College's campus in Atlanta, Georgia. Students from Spelman and Morehouse Colleges were planning a protest of Nelly but after hearing of the students' plan Nelly and his foundation pulled out. The students were upset with the way Nelly portrays women in his music videos. This protest was inevitable, young women of color were sick of being saturated with the exploitative images and had already begun to fight back before the Spelman situation.
In February a group of Boston schoolgirls, protested by forming "misogyny free radio". Fed up with the negative jabs that rap songs take at young women, they fought back with their own radio station. Radio-Log whose motto is "where the voices of young women are heard and respected", began broadcasting 3 hours a day from a woman's center with 12 students managing the programming, control panels and microphone. The founders of Radio Log aka R-LOG are 1st generation immigrants from Cape Verde, Haiti and Latin America who live in the tough Boston suburb of Dorchester. All of the girls are college bound honor roll students." We started our own station because girls are portrayed so badly in modern culture. Boys bombard us all day with lines they pick up out of rap songs," said Maria Xavier. R-LOG will broadcast reggae, soul and selected dance music. "Our goal is for girls to realize their worth as human beings and keep it positive. We let other girls know that they are not hoes and don't have to be half naked to fit in. We're also prepared to talk to guys who want to join in the discussions. We hope that talking openly will have guys better understand us more."
In March a Black Women's Magazine aimed at teen girls conducted a national poll that found that, African-American women aren't turned on when today's music artists use sex as a prop. The women's magazine Sister 2 Sister found 42 percent think entertainers should spend more time thinking about how a quick romp on stage or in a video could impact society and less time anticipating what impact it will have on their album sales. Also, nearly 75 percent of respondents said there's too much sex in entertainment overall.
If not for the "controversy", many wonder if the Spelman protest would have received so much attention. The protest was deemed controversial only because Nelly was coming to Spelman, for the worthy cause of Bone Marrow Awareness, to aide his sister.
Spelman Professor William Jelani Cobb explained the would-be protestors perspective succinctly. He said the students were "very clear about supporting Nelly's sister and the need for bone marrow", but the flyers on campus said "We Care About Your Sister, You Have To Care About Ours". He then wrote a supportive essay saying that rappers' treatment of black women in their lyrics and videos is comparable to the way white slave owners treated black women, stating "the sad truth is that hip hop artists' verbal and visual renderings of black women are now virtually indistinguishable from those of 19th century white slave owners".
Move the timeline along to May and Nelly was still maintaining a low profile, outside of an occasional courtside basketball game spotting with love interest Ashanti. It's June and Nelly has to rear his head publicly to promote his Apple Bottom jeans model search in July.
Nelly launched Apple Bottoms, a female clothing line to go with his male label, Vokal. The launch will again, be accompanied by a six-city tour to find "the" Apple Bottoms Girl. It appears that finding this young lady between 20-26 is going to be a yearly adventure. Leslie Ungar, president of the line, said the clothing line is "about the correct fit, in combination with being fashionable. The clothing is designed to fit the woman, rather than the woman trying to fit the clothes." The entire line made its debut in August and Apple Bottoms jeans sold out in the first two weeks of sales. The idea of jeans designed to hoist the curves of women of color was very appealing considering that most jeans had been designed to hoist a smaller Caucasian frame. Women who wear Apple Bottoms say these jeans are not really different. The designs are generic with an Apple Bottoms logo on them, much like Nelly's Vokal line. Even the fabrics are generic. None of the Apple Bottoms designs were original. The TV special in itself was great promotion for the product and the idea was clever and catchy enough that the line had sales of over 20 million and good profits without doing anything creative fashion wise.
The Apple Bottom model search also had the benefit of the Viacom station VH1 televising it internationally, which in turn helped to generate millions in sales for the brand. This year VH1 sees a risk in Nelly and doesn't currently plan to air the program. As the new poster boy of hip-hop misogyny, Nelly has become a moving target. Boycotts of his brand Pimp Juice and protest of his latest public appearances have been an added reason for him to push back his upcoming album, "Sweatsuit", one month until September 14th.
If you saw the original search for an Apple Bottom Girl on VH-1, that ran over 2-3 days then there is good chance that you noticed that this good idea turned into another act of exploitation. Where once again, 'sistas' are little more than the sum of their body parts. To watch as the cameras often cut off the upper torso of the "models" as they pirouetted on command, under the focused gaze of their almost exclusively male "booty inspectors" just didn't sit right with me. Some part of me just kept thinking, this doesn't belong on TV, at least not on this station, and at this early hour. But alas this is where "we" are, or at least where "we've" been taken. Nelly's national search and road tour, for a 19 -26 year old "big-butt" woman is basically the same type of exploitation that happened with another lesser known 20 year old Black woman named Sara Baartman, who was literally exploited to death. Sara was nicknamed Hottenot Venus. I doubt that Nelly knows her story since he does not even realize the meaning of his own name.
Sara Baartman, "the Hottentot Venus", was born in 1789. She was working as a servant in Cape Town when she was noticed by British ship's doctor William Dunlop, who persuaded her to travel with him to England. We'll never know what she had in mind when she stepped on board - of her own free will - a ship for London. But it's clear what Dunlop had in mind - to display her as a "freak", a "scientific curiosity", and make money from these shows, some of which he promised to give to her. No one knows if Dunlop was true to his word and paid Baartman for her "services", but if he did pay her, it wasn't sufficient to buy herself out of the life she was living. When 20-year-old Sara Baartman got on a boat that was to take her from Cape Town to London in 1810, she could not have known that she would never see her home again. Nor, as she stood on the deck and saw her homeland disappear behind her, could she have known that she would become the icon of racial inferiority and black female sexuality for the next 175 years.
She was put on display in a building in Piccadilly Circus, exciting crowds of working-class white men who viewed her with a mixture of morbid curiosity and malice. Baartman had unusually large buttocks and genitalia, and in the early 1800s Europeans were arrogantly obsessed with their own superiority, and with proving that others, particularly blacks, were inferior and oversexed. Promoters described Baartman's genitalia as resembling the skin that hangs from a turkey's throat.
Contemporary descriptions of her shows at 225 Piccadilly, Bartholomew Fair and Haymarket in London say Baartman was made to parade naked along a "stage two feet high, along which she was led by "her keeper" and exhibited like a wild beast, being obliged to walk, stand or sit as he ordered". In 1814 she was taken to France, and became the object of scientific and medical research that formed the bedrock of European ideas about black female sexuality. Once the French got tired of the Baartman show, she was forced to turn to prostitution. She didn't last the ravages of a foreign culture and climate, or the further abuse of her body. She died in 1816 at the age of 26.
The cause of death was given as "inflammatory and eruptive sickness", possibly syphilis. Others suggest she was an alcoholic. Whatever the cause, she lived and died thousands of miles from home and family, in a hostile city, with no means of getting herself home again. But even after her death, Sara Baartman remained an object of imperialist scientific investigation. In the name of Science, her sexual organs and brain were displayed in the Musee de l'Homme in Paris until as recently as 1985.
Several prints dating from the early nineteenth century illustrate the sensation generated by the spectacle of "The Hottentot Venus." A French print entitled "La Belle Hottentot," for example, depicts the South African woman standing with her buttocks exposed on a box-like pedestal. Several figures bend straining for a better look, while a male figure at the far right of the image even holds his seeing-eye glass up to better behold the woman's body. The European observers remark on the woman's body: "Oh! God Damn what roast beef!" and "Ah! how comical is nature."
The Apple Bottom search has turned Nelly into a modern day William Dunlop. Not because he does not pay these women, but because his only actual motive is to exploit. Reading the Apple Bottom Rules and Regulations, there is a clause stating: "Participants understand and agree that Participants may be required to pose and be photographed or videotaped while clothed, partially clothed, or nude for any campaign associated with the Producers." The winners get "prizes", a modeling contract and a chance to star with Nelly in a music video! Tsk, tsk ,tsk as a man who can appreciate the shapeliness of a 'sista', but who recognizes sexism, exploitation, and the objectification of women, this clause says a lot.
When Nelly says "Since I've been able to get into the game, I've had one controversy or another, Fortunately in hip-hop we've been able to take a lot of negatives and turn them into positives." But positive for who? It's obvious that Nelly's "we" only pertains to those participating in the search for the Next Apple Bottom model, and it does not include Sara Baartman or those who would follow in her footsteps. As economist Carl Patton remarked when speaking about Nelly's "Pimp Juice" product, "[it] is producing a damaging effect on the overall urban and African-American brands that will ultimately pay the price on its image. You see, I don't know if your marketing strategists explained this to you or not, but all brands have what is known as core values and perceptions." I think it's the same with the Apple Bottom Model search.
Fore more on the sad tale of Ms. Baartman click here.
Released: June 7th, 2004
The views and opinions expressed herein by the author do not necessarily represent the opinions or position of Playahata.com.