The issue between Nelly and Spelman College is a complicated one. Nearly a decade after the historically Black college for women held a protest against the rapper for his hypersexualized “Tip Drill” video, their more-bitter-than-sweet relationship remains sensitive. And judging by the Huffington Post interviews, open letters and social media feeds, it’s clearly still an open wound.
As we reported earlier, the hip-hop recording artist told HuffPost Live’s Marc Lamont Hill he would have “kicked somebody’s ass” if he could rewind the hands of time. For Nelly, the protest was about more than just a raunchy video. It upstaged the planned bone-marrow drive on campus and failed to raise awareness for his sister Jacqueline Donahue, who lost her battle against leukemia in 2005.
“I don’t have my sister. And I doubt it if half of those girls are still campaigning for what they quote, unquote took advantage for that opportunity for,” he said. “You [protesters] robbed me of a opportunity. Unfairly, my brother. Because we could’ve still had your conversation after I got my opportunity, but it could’ve been somebody that was coming to that bone marrow drive that day, that was possibly a match for my sister. That didn’t come because of that.”
Whether it was intentional or not, Nelly definitely opened a can of worms with this interview. Spelman graduate and former student-activist Moya Bailey responded with an online “An Open Letter to Nelly.” Protest organizer Asha Jennings Palmer also shared her thoughts in a heartfelt letter. And today, a group of former students, including Jennings, criticized the rapper for failing to take responsibility for his actions and degrading music on Huff Post Live.
“Nelly basically told us as Spelman women that he didn’t have to answer to us and that he didn’t have to justify his actions to our face — which is fair. Every person has the right to not have the conversation. However, we were hoping he would stand outside of his individual situation and understand the broader message that he was providing to the community,” Jennings said. “We are a historically Black, all women’s institution. If there’s anybody that has an obligation to young black girls in the community, it’s us.”
“Our important message was to show the African-American community we shouldn’t have to choose between these issues,” she continued. “They are all equally as important, we can do both. And so we fought, tooth and nail in order to, before I graduated in May of 2004, put on our own bone marrow drive.”
Leona Cabral, former member of the Spelman Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, chimed on the conversation: “[The issues] are all about Black women’s lives. And I think that his unwillingness to engage then and now, 10 years later, is really unsettling and unfortunate.”
Jelani Cobb, a Spelman professor at the time of the 2004 protest, concluded the interview by asking Nelly a serious question. “Man to man to Nelly, who are you to say what these women’s priorities should be? That is not our place. Again, I’ve lost a sibling so I know how painful that is. But, that doesnt excuse being dishonest and it doesnt excuse being misogynistic… and it doesn’t excuse him saying he should have kicked somebody’s ass!”
As this conversation continues, we’ll be sure to keep you posted with the latest information. In the meanwhile, read Jennings and Bailey’s letters in their entirely, below. Share your thoughts in the comment section.
I’ve just watched the Marc Lamont Hill interview and I am very glad that, ten years after we invited Nelly on Spelman’s campus to have a discussion about both bone marrow and the negative images of women in the media, that he finally wants to talk about it.
My concern is that in many areas, Nelly has selective amnesia of how things happened or is operating on false premises that undermine his entire stance on every issue. For starters, HE CANCELLED THE BONE MARROW DRIVE and pulled all his funding which crippled our abilities to fund the bone marrow drive after his cancellation. (We did later go on to partner with V103 in May to have our own bone marrow drive at the West End mall). And further, as Mr. Hill correctly stated, our request was simply to have a conversation. And better for him, none of us at Spelman were going to say a word. It was to be a forum for the kids in the community, in the West End, who were listening to his music and watching his videos, and yes, imitating his actions. It was for them to tell him exactly how his images affect them and shape who they want to be in this world. And why it is so important that, beyond his foundation, he carry his social obligation to change lives and enable people to be their best self, into the most public and influential part of his life … his music.
We agreed with Nelly that someone must be alive to have that dialogue but we couldn’t so easily dismiss that killing someone mentally is any different than them being gone physically. They are BOTH important.
My hope in emailing you is not to bash his thought process or his courage to finally speak on the issue, however, since its my “ass he apparently should have kicked”, I think this is a perfect time to start a meaningful dialogue about what happened and how we move forward from here.
We did not do this for fame or to exploit an opportunity. Hell, who, as a college senior, wants to fight a billion dollar industry that tells you to your face “it must be your ass cuz it aint your face.” I sure didnt. But I had to. Not for me but for young girls around the world who grow up being constantly exploited by the very persons that look like their fathers (likely absent) and their brothers. Who claim to love them but conveniently dismiss them. Somebody had to fight for them because in the last few decades, we’ve failed ourselves and them.
We are ready to have the conversation. We’ve been waiting for ten years. My suggestion: lets talk.
– Asha Jennings Palmer
Guest Post: “An Open Letter to Nelly”
At the urging of others, I am taking a hesitant trip down memory lane. I was a 19 year old junior and president of the feminist group at Spelman College when you decided to hold a bone marrow registration drive on our campus on behalf of your sister, who needed a transplant. Your now-infamous video “Tip Drill” had started airing on shows like BET’s Uncut. It features, most memorably, a scene where you slide a credit card down the crack of a black woman’s butt. My group raised questions about the misogynoir in the video and lyrics, and when we heard that you were invited to campus by our Student Government Association, it seemed fair to us that we could ask you about the dehumanizing treatment of black women while you were asking us for our help. You declined our offer to talk about your music and lyrics. Instead, you chose to go to the press, which made our alleged threat of a protest an international news story. In the time since, whenever asked about the situation, you both mischaracterize what happened and lament not using violence, something you repeated most recently during a Huffpost Live interview earlier this week. Let’s be clear: No student or faculty member of Spelman College canceled your bone marrow registration drive. In fact, we held our own drive after you and your people chose to cancel the bone marrow registration drive for fear that there might have been a protest.
Had you decided to come, to just talk with us, you would have seen fewer than ten “protesters,” all of whom were planning to register to donate bone marrow, despite your refusal to hear us. I say “protesters” because we didn’t actually get to have a conversation. What started as a simple request that you speak with a small group of concerned students about representations of women in your lyrics and videos turned into a national conversation about misogyny, race, and class in hip hop culture. But the dialog our actions started stalled because people remained hung up on the same concerns. People railed against censorship as if our efforts were an attempt to get you banned from the airwaves, when all we really wanted was to have a conversation about the representations you produce and their potential impact on our communities.
Often Black feminists are represented as advocates for censorship. People often portray us as sex-hating, stick-in-the-mud conservatives concerned with respectability. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, we like sex so much (NSFW) we dare to think that women should enjoy it and not be subjugated to images that define our sexuality in limited ways. Music videos and lyrics, including yours, often portray women as silent partners and objects of male attention. This silence, Nelly, is not unlike the silence you expected from us regarding your visit. Women are instructed in many songs about what to do, wear, drink, how to dance and behave to make themselves appealing to men.
The heterosexist and cissexist nature of these images reinforces the idea that women’s sexuality, our bodies, are not our own and are ultimately in the service of men’s needs. “It must be ya ass cause it ain’t your face,” literally reduces women’s value to the attractiveness of their body parts.
As much as we’d like to rid the world, particularly our safe spaces like Spelman College, of misogyny, we know that censoring music and images is not the solution. We also know that at a private institution devoted to the well-being of women of the African Diaspora we can and should cultivate an environment that doesn’t assault our very humanity. These are two entirely different projects and the later is often confused with the former. We have and had the right to ask questions of you, especially when you are asking something so important of us.
It has been ten years and yet here we are. You continue to say that we canceled the drive when your organization decided to stop it. You continue to not so subtly blame us for the transition of your sister even though Spelman still had a bone marrow registration drive–one that actually had more attendees than were initially signed up for your event. All of the “protesters” made the decision to register to ensure that the goals of the drive were honored. A few of us were already on the registry. If after all this we are still to blame for your sister’s passing, can we blame you then for the misogynoir that we face daily?
The timing of your interview and the release of Lilly Allen’s video that borrows so heavily from “Tip Drill” just hurts my head. Solidarity is indeed for white women and Black Power is indeed for Black men. I guess you have a new album to promote so you were willing to be used for clicks and page views through the dredging up of this long passed controversy. All in a day’s work, I guess.
I will say that I did find something compelling in your interview. You are right: We should protest strip clubs, but not for the reasons you think. Any strip club or business that doesn’t provide benefits, unions, safe working conditions, paid sick leave, child care, etc., deserves our collective outrage. We should all be really mad about a lot of people’s places of employment–and what their employers often demand of them. We all deserve better. Women who work on music video sets, at strip clubs in Atlanta, our Spelman sisters and not, Nelly, even your sister deserves better than to serve as the scapegoat for your lack of accountability and refusal to recognize black women as more than bodies to be used as you see fit.
If you want to check my resume and my work, please, go right ahead. Know that this was no flash in the pan for me or most of the Spelman sisters involved.
Glad to know if you had it do over again you would have “kicked some ass.”
Just name the time and place, sir. I’m ready.
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1. Nelly and Ashanti
Remember that old cliche, if you love something, let it go? Well, Nelly and Ashanti took some time apart but are allegedly back together. The couple were spotted party hopping together this past Super Bowl weekend and on another occasion two weeks ago. While there isn’t any concrete proof that the “Good Good” duo are back together, we must admit how much we liked them as a couple.
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Nelly’s 5th Annual Black and White ball in St. Louis (December 2010)
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New Year's Eve at Haze nightclub in Las Vegas
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Court side at a Charlotte Bobcats game in North Carolina
21. Nelly and Ashanti 
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Court side at a Charlotte Bobcats game in North Carolina
24. Nelly and Ashanti 
Nelly’s 5th Annual Black and White ball in St. Louis (December 2010)