The world is wondering what hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons was thinking when his All Def Digital YouTube channel released a sex tape spoof on Harriet Tubman. He billed the parody as an “off record account of how Harriet Tubman blackmailed her master into letting her run the Underground Railroad.”
In the video, actress Shanna Malcolm seduces her white master, played by Jason Horton. Another slave watches the tryst from a closet, where he suggests Harriet should “drop it like a hot comb.” Simmons tweeted it was the funniest thing he had ever seen. Nearly everyone else with an opinion disagreed vehemently.
The NAACP reached out to Simmons. The man behind Def Comedy Jam said that he had never taken down footage of a controversial comedian, but after talking with them he agreed it was the right thing to do. He has also spoken with Tubman’s descendants, and said they may work together on a project more respectful to her legacy.
Cleaning up the damage may not be as easy as that. In light of rapper Lil Wayne, his insensitive lyrics regarding Emmett Till and the resulting backlash, it’s hard to believe this parody ever made it past the planning stages. Jamilah Lemieux, news and lifestyle editor at Ebony.com, told the Huffington Post that after writing 2,000 words on the issue she’s still speechless.
Hip-hop and the surrounding culture don’t always portray women in the most positive light. That’s bad enough, Lemieux notes. She’s hoping the next step isn’t disrespecting icons like Tubman, who aren’t here to defend themselves.
Comedy’s a tough business. The best comedians, including Dave Chappelle and Richard Pryor, point out the differences in our culture and make us laugh at them. Their comedy deals with uncomfortable subjects such as racism, but points out some truths in the process. That seems like what Simmons and the actors involved may have been trying to do. They obviously didn’t pull it off. For a piece of parody or satire to effect any social change, it must first be humorous. This video failed on that basic level.