His songs are consistently at the top of the rap and hip hop charts. He's sold more than 14 million albums since he launched his career two years ago, and he's been awarded two Grammys, along with several MTV, Billboard, and American Music Awards. His full name is Cornell Haynes, Jr.…but to fans, he's known simply as "Nelly." Recently, Nelly branched out from the music industry, when he marketed a new energy drink that's named after one of his songs. But the drink has touched off a disagreement in the African-American community about rap lyrics…and what some would say are the stereotypes they perpetuate.
Pimp Juice is the title of a song on Nelly's debut album, Nellyville, and it's also the name he's chosen to give to his new drink a stimulating blend of apple and guarana berry juice. Hold a glass of "Pimp Juice" under the lights in most dance clubs, and its contents glow neon green. A "pimp," of course, is a man who makes his living by acting as an agent between prostitutes and the men to whom they sell sexual favors. For that reason, four different groups of African-Americans have organized a boycott of the drink and all of Nelly's albums. News of the boycott is being spread primarily through churches and mosques. The groups organizing it are Project Islamic HOPE, the National Alliance for Positive Action, the National Black Anti-Defamation League, and the Messianic Afrikan Nation, which is headed by Reverend Paul Scott.
"For so many years, in the African-American community, the only roles that we could get in Hollywood were those of pimps and drug dealers," explains Rev. Scott. "So to have an entertainer try to say there's something cool about being a pimp left me outraged."
For many years now, hip-hop culture has been criticized for glorifying violence and demeaning women. Reverend Paul Scott says it's songs like Nelly's…and the energy drink he's marketing…that have provoked the criticism. But he also insists that violent, misogynistic lyrics aren't what hip-hop was about when it first hit the American music scene in the 1970s. Reverend Scott says artists today who glorify violence are doing it because they've been co-opted by Corporate America. He says they're singing about sex and violence, not as a form of artistic expression…but because that's what sells.
"See, we make a difference between hip hop and hip POP. What Nelly does is hip pop, and that is the form that really exploits the culture," he says. "Hip hop is supposed to represent the struggle of the youth in inner cities, and it was like that in the late 70s, through the 80s, and part of the 90s. But corporate America has really exploited the culture."
But that's a naďve and romanticized vision of hip-hop, according the Ralph Watkins, a sociology professor at Augusta State University in Georgia who teaches a class on hip hop and has written extensively on the subject. Professor Watkins says there's always been a violent element to hip hop…because violence is a reality in the inner cities. He's opposed to the boycott, and says it's been launched by people who don't really understand the language of hip-hop, as it exists today. For instance, Professor Watkins says in present-day hip hop culture, "pimp juice" isn't about sex or the exploitation of women.
"You know, 'pimp juice' to this generation means having power, having something that attracts folks to you. It's about being good looking," explains prof. Watkins. "I mean, even girls say they have pimp juice. It's about glamour, it's about fame, it's about popularity. It's not about abuse. It's not about abusing women or abusing men. It's about having loving, caring relationships as they're manifested in this generation."
That's an explanation that has also been marshaled out by Nelly's agent, Demetrius Denham…who did not respond to VOA's requests for an interview. But among racially mixed group of teenagers, hanging out on a New York City street corner after school, the words "pimp" and "pimp juice" have a more traditional meaning…at least for most of the kids.
That last definition of "pimp" may not have been offered by everyone standing on the street corner, but when asked if Nelly is a "pimp", according to this definition, all of the boys said that he was. Three said they had tried "pimp juice," and that they liked it. Only a few were aware of the boycott, and none said he was willing to participate. In fact, several already had copies of Nelly's latest album, Da Derrty Versions, which was released on November 25.