As a cultural observer who is sometimes crippled by Lauren Olamina-level empathy for flawed characters, I'm conflicted about "Love & Hip-Hop Atlanta."
I know how I'm supposed feel about VH-1's latest blockbuster reality show featuring damaged black and brown women.
I'm supposed to declare "Love & Hip-Hop Atlanta" a disgrace to my race, la raza and women the world over. I'm supposed to worry about whether racists and sexists will absorb then generalize the outlandish behavior of key cast members such as Joseline Hernandez, an inarticulate former stripper who tweets pictures of her vagina to prove that she is a woman and calls her manager, Stevie J, "daddy" during a business meeting; Stevie J, a three-time Grammy winner who manipulates rapper Joseline with threats of sending her back to the pole; Momma Dee, a mentally unstable former pimp and drug hustler who regrets not putting the woman who jilted her rapper son "on the track"; and Mimi Faust, the mother of Stevie J's child who punishes him for publicly cheating by demanding a 10-percent stake in Joseline's music career.
And if I want to maximize traffic to this post, I'm obligated to deliver a zinger like, "Executive producer Mona Scott-Young is on track to surpass Shaunie O'Neal as the country's top purveyor of stiletto-coonin'."
The things is, I'm not actually ashamed of the women on "Love & Hip-Hop Atlanta." I am sad for them because I believe they're reacting to the underlying economic exploitation so common in the decentralized entertainment industry.
We've all heard the stories of race-based theft of black songs and artist royalties. According to Atlanta-based producer, songwriter and manager A. Jermaine Mobley, today's exploitation is premised on artists--especially black and brown artists--trading their labor for "buzz", and so-called experts demanding fees for face-time.
"There's just a culture here of not paying [artists, musicians and producers] for their music and charging people for basic business functions like meetings," says Mobley, who has worked with Musiq, 50 Cent, Carl Thomas, Lloyd Banks and Jagged Edge. "I've had people tell me that if I'm serious about my business, that if I'm truly a professional that I should charge [artists] for taking a meeting to discuss their ideas."
Even worse, says Mobley, is the boom-bust cycle of music production. "If you're a hot producer, you're supposed to use your position to get whatever you can. The business model dictates that you eat up an artist's recording budget by charging them, say, $150,000 a beat. Then, when you fall off, people expect you to produce music for free, even though you know your value as a professional. Basically, whoever's 'on' is going to abuse their position and punk whoever else is involved. People mistake hustling others for 'work ethic.'"
It wouldn't be fair for me to speculate about the value of a track by producer Stevie J, who in his late-90s heyday was a member of P. Diddy's Hit Squad. What I can surmise is that he, his girlfriend of 15 years who runs a small cleaning business, and his mistress/artist Joseline are banking on the publicity and basic fees they can demand for doing "Love & Hip-Hop Atlanta." I believe the same goes for one-time hit rapper 'Lil Scrappy and his daughter's mother, Erica; K. Michelle, a former Jive recording artist who says that her former manager and lover beat her up and stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from her recording budget; and Rasheeda, an Atlanta indie rapper who is married to her manager.
To be sure, I'm not excusing the ignorant, bullying, disrespectful, sexually irresponsible and exploitative behavior that some cast members have displayed in just two episodes of "Love & Hip-Hop Atlanta." But to see it only through the lens of black and brown female representation is to miss the real story of economic exploitation. I'm not going to focus my ire at these women who are making a living with their bodies and twisted backstories. I'm looking at the network of bottom-feeders who profit handsomely from their financial desperation, emotional instability--and their willingness to act up on national television for a steady gig.