This year’s keynote speaker at the 12th Annual Women’s History Conference was Carmen Ashhurst, former president of Def Jam Records and Rush Communications. Ashhurst’s invaluable perspectives on the music industry gave her an eager audience for the conference’s theme, “The Message is in the Music: Hip-Hop Feminism, Riot Grrrl, Latina Music, and More.”
Ashhurst worked alongside Russell Simmons before the commercial explosion of hip-hop in the early 1990s. A former political activist in Grenada, she began working in the music industry at a time when it was more radical and subversive.
Ashhurst’s talk was rooted in the belief that hip-hop’s most popular acts now foster sexist, racist images and that much of the successful rap music today represents a “profound racial self-hatred.” She emphasized that she and other women executives lost control as hip-hop became more popular and marketed to a mass audience. Ashhurst asserted, “The music business is about selling music, not making music.”
Ashhurst pinpointed a turning point in hip-hop when rapper Luke Skywalker and rap group 2 Live Crew became popular through hyper-sexual language and images. Ashhurst argued that prior to these acts, progressives were at the center of influence. The industry saw how successful young gangsta-style rappers could be and created a formula of conformity to move production. Around this time, larger record companies started buying up smaller independent ones as well.
Ashhurst emphasized the ways in which images have mattered to the structure of the industry. She told how growing up she loved to watch the television show Tarzan, and her family scolded her for watching a program that depicted Africans and African-Americans as inferior and primitive to whites. Through the 1950s to the 1980s, she felt more a sense that people believed that images matter. Today, she told her audience that, “We’ve lost control of our images again.” This commercialization of hip-hop has “returned us to a state of minstrelsy.”
As Ashhurst discussed the structure of the music industry, she continually made the distinction between a star and an artist. Young musicians come to the record companies in the hopes of becoming a star and agree to sign unfair contracts waiving all their rights as an artist. The standard contract gives the artist only 15% of earnings. Additionally, the artist must pay for other hidden costs. Many musicians make another album only because they are in debt to the record company for a previous album’s costs. Ashhurst called this a “plantation paradigm between artists and labels.” Getting a record deal is appealing though, and most are naïve to the process. The record company has an endless supply of young talent who believe a record deal could mean stardom.
Overall, though, Ashhurst was hopeful that the conference would spur more activism aimed at regaining control of images and that hip-hop has the potential to return to its radical roots. With only a few corporations controlling American media outlets, Ashurst is wise to express a sense of urgency.
— Rosamund Hunter