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We Did Both

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I am never short on words. Never. But trying to "set the record straight" about what happened on Spelman's campus in April 2004 with Nelly, with the bone marrow drive, and with his video Tip Drill, and why it happened, I find myself feeling like Denise Huxtable when she finally got the chance to meet Stevie Wonder and record with him: "I, I, I, I don't know what to say."

Nelly's interview on HuffPostLive made it clear: we robbed him of the opportunity to keep his sister alive by choosing a conversation about a video over her life. It's a narrative he's told the media over and over again since 2004. And the people who agree with him don't want to hear what I have to say: that Nelly cancelled the drive. That Nelly pulled all of his funding. That Nelly "exploited the opportunity" and took the story to the media first. Or that, less than a month later in May 2004, Spelman held its own bone marrow drive and registered over 350 people for the bone marrow registry. We still are, and will always be, responsible for his sister being gone. He is the victim, we are the aggressors.

The others that "get it" know that: Spelman cared about these issues long before Nelly. That hip hop music, particularly BET uncut, had gone too far and that Spelman could not rob Nelly of an opportunity he chose to take away. They know that Spelman continued its commitment to finding a cure for Nelly's sister, even when he abandoned that effort. They've heard (and listened) to what we've had to say for the last 10 years, and are either tired of hearing it (I get it) or sad that, even with what has been said, not much has changed.

So what's left to say? I really don't know. And, trust me, I'm as tired of talking about the exact same thing as you are of hearing it.

But what I do know is that if we don't move past the semantics of what happened and who said what, when and where, we are robbing our community of a greater, meaningful discourse that needs to take place -- that has to take place ... eventually.

It's the conversation we asked Nelly to have now almost 10 years ago. About how and why black women (and men) are objectified and exploited from within our communities and beyond. How we are often reduced to oversexed, violent, and unintelligent objects not worthy of respect, promotion, or inclusion. About how we view ourselves, how we promulgate these self-destructing images to our youth, and how we project it to the world.

That conversation is not just about a video and it's not even about Nelly. (Go figure.)

What the conversation is about (and was supposed to be about) is creating a space of meaningful dialogue for our community to have tough conversations WITH EACH OTHER about ourselves, and to challenge us to critically think about the impact of our actions on black women, men, and youth. Who are we telling them we are and who they can be? Don't believe me. Then believe Janita Patrick, then only 15-years old, in her letter she wrote Debra Lee in 2009.

It's a conversation about taking responsibility, all of us, as participants in creating and maintaining this oppressive system, of which music videos are just one element -- whether we listen to the music, make the music, buy the music, star in the music video, or as Nelly said "drop it low in the club." It's not about "blaming" anyone.

It's about power and the obligation of those who have it, whether in politics or music or otherwise, to use it to affect positive change in people's lives. To empower the very people who will hear their music or listen to their speeches that they will never physically touch or even know they affected.

It's about understanding the experiences of others and being respectful, gracious human beings. Understanding that these representations shape the way the world sees and interacts with black women (and men) and how we perceive ourselves.

At its core, it's a conversation about exactly what Nelly claims we don't care about: SAVING LIVES.

THAT conversation does not require that we, as black women or as a community, take sides and decide: which one is more important -- Bone marrow or the objectification of women in the media? What it requires is that we come together, acknowledge that both have detrimental effects on our community, and determine how best to examine and make change in both areas because they both matter. It requires us to keep our seat at the table whether we agree with each other about timing, tone, or message, for the sake of finding a solution.

That was and has always been our message.

I am not bothered by Nelly's anger. I understand it. I'm not even bothered that he blames us (or me) for the time he doesn't have with his sister. While unwarranted, I've come to peace with that.

But what bothers me is that he still does not want to have THIS conversation. Because if he ever did, he could no longer reduce us to the opportunistic, insensitive Spelman women that robbed him for "just a video" and have moved on with their lives and are not concerned about these issues anymore, which we are. His narrative would have to change. He would no longer be the victim, and we would no longer be the aggressors.

There is never a good time to have this conversation. I guess that's why, as a community, we have been putting it off for decades, maybe waiting for the glorification of violence and the exploitation of women to correct itself. Or as one (maybe former) BET executive said, waiting for the world to stop demanding this degrading music for them to stop promoting it. Well, we are still waiting.

Now, Nelly wants the world to think they have to choose between a video and a life. Because that's what he did. By canceling his bone marrow drive, he made his choice. And by having our own drive and bringing a national conversation to the forefront of our community, we made ours. We stayed at the table. We kept our commitment to the young girls in the community who were being victimized by his soft-pornographic, exploitative images and lyrics of Tip Drill. And importantly, we kept our commitment to his sister. To finding her a cure.

We. Chose. Both.