Danyel Smith - Editor in Chief, Vibe and Vibe Vixen
One Hip Editor: Danyel Smith, editor in chief of two of the most influential magazines in the urban community, talks about her love for rap music – through the good times and the bad.
By Taylor Mallory
As a child, Danyel Smith spent hours making newspapers and magazines out of notebook paper. Today, the 42-year-old editor in chief of the award-winning Vibe and Vibe Vixen runs the most influential magazines on hip-hop – arguably the most male-dominated music genre and one that critics say may be dying. Music sales are down overall, but after 30 years of growth, rap sales fell 21 percent from 2005 to 2006 – and then 33 percent more in 2007. But Smith says rap is still culturally relevant – and very much alive.
Author of two critically-acclaimed novels, including Bliss (Three Rivers Press, 2006), Smith has written about music for Rolling Stone, Spin and the New York Times in addition to her own magazines. Here she talks to PINK about a subject that makes her admittedly emotional – hip-hop and women.
PINK: Do you think rap music is dying?
Danyel Smith: I feel like sales are down in the music industry. I don't think people are buying records anymore. I don't believe in the album anymore. I don't think [rap is] any less popular than it has been in the last 35 years. It's still the most culturally impactful music in the U.S. It's just so easy to attack. How about acknowledging the fact that hip-hop – like rock 'n' roll before it – is responsible for bringing people of all races together? Hip-hop is way ahead in terms of that. It's the future.
PINK: Why are there so few women rappers?
D.S.: You have to be so tough and so strong to make it in this biz. It's just way more difficult to be a female rapper than a male rapper. Women are often pressured to change their style and lyrics and to wear more revealing clothes. I've seen so many women broken down by this business. They expect to be treated decently and be appreciated for who they are, to be able to say the things they feel. Only rarely [like with Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah and Salt-N-Pepa] does that happen. I'm dreaming of the next female great. I want her so bad I can touch her. I think men want that too – a smart, strong, confident, talented woman who is powerful. But where is she?
PINK: But isn't rap degrading to women?
D.S.: There is always a pressure to shock. Many women feel like if they use sexist words [like "bitch" and "ho"], it will take some of the power away from the men when they use them. Unfortunately those words are common, so they're using the words in their songs that are used in life. Sometimes it's to make a point, to get your attention, to make you listen to what else she's saying that's wiser than that. But there is pressure to shock to sell. It makes them stand out. There's so much pressure to get famous at age 15. You're supposed to be rich now and have a video on YouTube – and that sometimes means saying or, for women, revealing something that no one else is.
PINK: What influence do you think rap and hip-hop have on young people?
D.S.: Is it good for men to call women "bitches"? No. It's tragic and rarely forgivable. But I've been listening to hip-hop since I was 13, and it's influenced me in so many positive ways – inspired me to love myself, to work hard and do my best. At the core of rap is such a do-it-yourself ethic, that you can make it – anything – happen. Yes, you can be a rapper and start your own label. But people also listen to this music on their way to law school, culinary school or boot camp. Or they listen to it on their iPods as they stroll with their kids through the park. I have a master's degree and have written two novels, and I am a product of rap music. And I'm a woman who's in charge of this.
I love this music. I've seen it at its ugliest – and some days I hate it. But I love hip-hop culture, and love is never without a struggle. You don't run at the first sign of trouble. All the bad guys and girls get on the news. There are millions of good people living and breathing hip-hop culture every day, and no one notices them.
PINK: What is your success secret?
D.S.: When all else fails, say exactly how you feel. Women sometimes know that something is right, but we tiptoe around what we're going to say, and so we get milquetoast back. I've learned that when I think I'm not getting what I think I should get, to ask myself a question: "If I wasn't concerned with what anyone else thinks, what would I say?" And then I say it. As an old editor once told me, "No one cares what you kind of think."
PINK: What's the biggest career mistake you've ever made?
D.S.: I first moved to New York for a job at Billboard and hated it. I didn't understand that with a trade magazine, if you didn't have something to say, you couldn't say anything. I'm a critic, and that was terrible for me. So I quit without having another job, and I'd only been in this city for five months. I thought it was a mistake because I was broke. But it was the best thing I ever did because it forced me to apply myself at all mags, not just music. It forced me to write about things outside of my expertise – and to ask for the money I wanted. I promised myself to always ask for more, no matter what they offered. Because I had some serious bills to pay.