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Rap and Censorship
The beginnings of rap are believed to based on African rhythms which were used as a form of communication by the native peoples. The lyrical component of rap music is thought to have been greatly influenced by Cab Calloway with his repetitive chants and scats, along with his call-and-response technique with the audience.
Rap evolved and gained in popularity in the 1960's when a few revolutionary "DJ's," including Kool DJ Herc, DJ Lovebug Starski, and DJ Hollywood, began to work block parties in the Bronx. They would bring in large speakers, hook them up to a turntable and play two of the same record at the same time, repeating the same section of the vinyl over and over by scratching it. Other performers would chant and yell to the crowd.
In 1979, music companies recorded rap for the first time. Such acts as The Sugar Hill Gang, The Fatback Band, and Grandmaster Flash were among the first to gain popularity. In 1982, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released the first popular politically based rap. Grandmaster's song "The Message" deals with life in the inner city, and the stress of being around violence and drugs. It included such lyrics as, "Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat, I tried to get away but I can't get far, cause the man with the touch-up repossessed my car, don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge…"
The early popularity of rap was hindered by an inability to reach new audiences. After much controversy, MTV began to run videos by black artists. These artists were showcased primarily on the new program "Yo! MTV Raps". The rhythms and the lyrics attracted a spectrum of listeners, from inner-city minorities to suburban upper-class whites.
During the same era, as rap was rising in popularity, the infamous "PMRC hearings" occurred. Tennessee senator Al Gore's wife, Tipper, led the PMRC, or Parents' Music Resource Center. This group, which included a number of other wives of Washington legislators, convinced Congress to hold hearings regarding the placement of warning labels on "offensive" albums. The National PTA also called for warning labels on violent, sexually explicit, or vulgar albums in their yearly address in 1984.
During the Congressional hearings, several ideas were considered including warning labels, a ratings system, and singer/songwriter Frank Zappa's idea which was to publish the actual lyrics of the album and put them on a sheet of paper inside the packaging. Zappa's idea was dismissed, but the ideas of warning labels and ratings were reviewed, with the eventual recommendation that recording companies label their music based on content.
Who determined content, and how, became the issue as demonstrated by the treatment of the 1992 album "Death Certificate" by the "Gangsta" rapper, Ice Cube. This album was determined to be so profane that Billboard Magazine asked merchandisers to refuse to sell or advertise it. Ice Cube's British label, Island Records, then edited two of the album's tracks before selling it and without obtaining permission from Ice Cube to alter his recording. In one of these edited songs, "No Vaseline", Ice Cube raps about his former N.W.A. bandmates with lyrics such as " Yo Dre… you been a dick, Eazy-E saw your ass and went in it quick. "Tried to dis Ice Cube but it wasn't worth it, cause the broomstick fits your ass so perfect."
The language of these lyrics may be offensive to many, but if a buyer or a retailer is discouraged because of the warning label, listeners might also miss out on a song like "Alive on Arrival." In this song Ice Cube describes what it's like to seek treatment at South Central L.A.'s much under-funded Martin Luther King Hospital. "Look at the waiting room, it's filled to the brim like the County Jail day-room, nobody's getting help, since we're poor the hospital moves slow… then I begin the ass-kissin' just to get helped by an over-worked physician."
There is also an apparent inequality in the placement of these warning labels. For instance, Alanis Morrissette's 1994 "Jagged Little Pill" album had swearing and references to oral sex in a public place, as well as breaking and entering. The Dixie Chicks, on their album "Fly" devote an entire song to the celebration of murdering an abusive man. Garth Brooks, in his song, "Thunder Rolls" also describes an abusive husband being killed by his wife. White, mainstream artists performed each one of these songs and none of them received warning labels.
While these labels were designed to inform parents and purchasers of albums about the content many states are now using them to determine which albums minors are permitted to purchase. In some states it is now illegal for anyone under the age of eighteen to purchase a labeled recording.
Government attempts to legislate morality doesn't stop with warning labels. A law drafted in the Senate by Senators John McCain, and Ernest Hollings proposed that "Censorware" be mandatory on all internet-accessible computers inside schools and libraries. This would protect children, according to the senators, from unwanted or explicit words and images. However, along with pornography and other explicit sites containing swearing, sex, death, etc., the official sites for the National Organization of Women (NOW), the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination (GLAAD), and anti-censorship sites such as Rock Out Censorship were also blocked. Also affected were sites containing information about rap music, and mp3's of rap music. When asked to comment McCain said, "The prevention lies not in censoring what goes on the Internet, but rather in filtering what comes out of it."
Fortunately for those individuals who rely on internet-access in libraries or schools because they don't have enough money to own a computer, the Supreme Court unanimously voted to overturn the law.
Not all of government's attempts at censorship are as obvious as "Censorware." In 1997, Governor of Texas, George W. Bush signed a bill that prohibited state funds from being invested in the stock of any company who released "offensive" material through their media businesses. This bill, however, is based on judgements and not concrete qualifications. For example, "sexual deviancy" could pertain to sexual acts with animals, rape, or sodomy, which includes both oral and anal sex. Thus the label of "sexual deviancy" could ban holdings in all companies who release any music with pro-homosexual lyrics.
Other states including Virginia have followed suit by passing the same law. This means that millions of dollars in stock could potentially be removed from companies such as Time Warner if the state decides it doesn't approve of any one album produced by that company. This gives the government a huge amount of power and control over the artistic content of a company's label.
Local governments practice censorship even more often than the federal government. In Detroit, Michigan for example, the Pontiac Silverdome hosted its first rap concert ever, only to have fights break out among the spectators throughout the concert. Concert-planners admitted they were not prepared to handle the large numbers of people they allowed inside the dome, yet the state attempted to pass a bill banning all rap concerts from the area.
In Oxford, Mississippi, the home of the University of Mississippi, two club-owners were arrested for purveying lewd and explicit acts after booking rap-group Two Live Crew. At trial, the Honorable Glen Anderson refused to hear from a single witness for the defense, or to watch a videotape of the concert itself. Then, against even the prosecution's wishes, the judge sentenced each man to six months in prison, for simply allowing Two Live Crew play at their club.
Finally, in an extreme example of the war between disputing groups, was the episode occurring on December 1, 1995 when Boston radio station WBCN played the newly released "Hempilation" album. The album was a compilation by numerous musicians and the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws. By mid-day, Georgette Wilson, the ex-director of the Governor's Alliance Against Drugs, along with several DEA agents called in by Wilson, stormed the station and confiscated the albums.
The private sector, most notably in the form of super-retailer Wal-Mart, has joined the government in the censorship war. Wal-Mart, a largely Christian-based discount chain centered in Bentonville, Arkansas, reportedly sells 50 million albums per year and is the largest retailer of music in the nation. Many of Wal-Mart's customers may not realize however that the chain refuses to sell any album they find offensive, including those with a warning label. Being the largest music retailer in the nation gives Wal-Mart the power to muscle a record company into editing their musical releases.
In some cases Wal-Mart doesn't even let the consumer know that they're buying albums that contain altered words or artwork. If someone walks into Wal-Mart and wants to buy Nirvana's "In Utero" album, they will see the album, but they may not be told by the store that one track named "Rape Me" has now been changed to "Waif Me." Rap groups like Busta Rhymes, Junior M.A.F.I.A., and Da Brat have all been edited.
One of today's leaders in censorship, especially censorship of rap, has become C. Delores Tucker. Working with former Drug Czar William Bennett and assorted congressmen, C. Delores Tucker has made strides to block America's access to "vulgar" music, especially rap.
C. Delores Tucker has a colorful past. As early as 1966, the Philadelphia Inquirer named Tucker as one of the Top 10 Worst SlumLords in the city. She was later named Commonwealth Secretary of Pennsylvania until Milton Schapp fired her for "misuse of public office". Today she is the leader of the National Political Congress of Black Women.
Ms. Tucker and William Bennett successfully raided a board meeting by the leaders of Time-Warner, and used their might to get the company to drop Interscope and Death Row records, two major sources of rap music. Afterward, Tucker bullied Suge Knight, the now former CEO of Death Row Records, into handing the label over to her. Both companies sued Tucker for extortion. During the fight, Tucker threatened Suge Knight, via her attorney, that if Death Row was not turned over to her Suge would spend the rest of his life in jail. Suge Knight is now in jail.
C. Delores Tucker also has sued Tupac Shakur for his "All Eyez On Me" album, which she described as "ruining her sex-life". Tucker then sued Newsweek Magazine for running a story about her lawsuit against Tupac.
Does rap music get an undeserved bad name? Although rap is different from other bands such as Marilyn Manson, their fights are the one in the same. Yes, some rap does promote violence. But as far back as Shakespearean plays murder and deceit have been common in entertainment.
But the worries parents and legislators have are not unfounded. What can one do to guide their children in this world we live in? "Listen to them," says Dana Wilson, one of the leaders of the Crime Prevention Resource Center of Fort Worth, Texas. I contacted Mr. Wilson after seeing a description of his group on a website. The CPRC advises parents and teachers in the Fort Worth community about how to help their children in a world of increasing violence, both in life and media. "Parents need to understand where their kids are coming from," advised Dana Wilson.
In America, one man's opinion is supposed to be just that, an opinion. And with nearly 300 million opinions in this country alone, why should a select few get to choose what the public in general should be able to access?
Rap music and all other forms of media have their places in this world. While some may argue strongly about whether certain types of music are beneficial or even safe for society to witness, their arguments remain their personal opinions. The true fight for free speech lies not in fighting for the right to hear what you agree with, but in fighting for the freedom of those with whom you disagree. When you take away the public's right to voice a differing opinion, either through their music, their writing, or their art you strike at the very heart of freedom for which America is supposed to stand.
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