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Fight the Power and Bust a Move

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Building off of my previous article on freedom of speech, a House Panel, the Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection Subcommittee under Chairman Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), chose to gather today and examine hip-hop lyrics in America. Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther, which is part of the reason why the examination was not carried out by the Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee, led the panel as they assessed “the impact of racist and sexist language and images transmitted via interstate commerce and telecommunications modes.” The panel also looked at, “the perpetuation of damaging stereotypes” and discussed “how best to protect consumers from the increasingly coarse and vulgar language and images that have the effect of undermining important moral values in our society.”

Now, hang on one moment here.

Freedom of speech should not be regulated at all. There should be no FCC, MPAA, or consumer regulations that abridge the freedom of speech and decide what does and does not undermine “important moral values in our society”. After all, your morals may not be my morals, and if I think your morals are wrong, I am not going to uphold them. That’s all there is to it. Also, if the lyrics really are undermining “moral values”, than why not let the people decide by hearing them? Let the people decide whether to buy the product and or ignore misogynistic, offensive, and violent material put out by musical artists. We’re all capable of voting here, right? I think we can decide if something is worth buying or not. Obviously, the artist won’t produce misogynistic violent obscene material if it does not sell because unless the artist is Paris Hilton, the artist needs to make money to survive.

With that out of the way, for your information, the panel that assembled today included Viacom Chief Executive Philippe Dauman, Warner Music Chairman Edgar Bronfman, Universal Music Chairman Doug Morris and Take-Two Interactive Chairman Strauss Zelnick. (Dauman was included because Viacom owns BET and Zelnick because his company is the maker of Grand Theft Auto.) They came together to talk about this topic: "From Imus to Industry: The Business of Stereotypes and Degrading Images.”

I thank the panel for throwing bones to the media bloodhounds because my intuition tells me Don Imus will be all over cable news tonight overshadowing whatever important development in politics or the world happened today that should be paid attention to instead of whether his comment, “nappy headed hos”, is still offending people or not. Even better is the fact that the very title insinuates that Don Imus is an enthusiastic fan of hip-hop or rap music. That notion is amusing to me. Obviously, his words have more to do with culture in America.

Master P and David Banner, both hip-hop artists, appeared before the panel to discuss the lyrics they have used. Master P cleaned up his lyrics recently and for good reason. He doesn’t want his children to hear what he has been saying, which suggests the artists themselves can regulate the lyrics they use without corporate intervention. After all, if the artist can't handle it, the world probably can't. David Banner, on the other hand, does not feel the need to clean up. He, in fact, gives some good reasoning for maintaining his artistic integrity:

"I'm like Stephen King: horror music is what I do...Change the situation in my neighborhood and maybe I'll get better.”

"If by some stroke of the pen hip-hop was silenced, the issues would still be present in our communities...Drugs, violence, sexism and the criminal element were around long before hip-hop existed."

Rather than discuss the source of drug problems, the source of violence, the source of sexism, and the source of the criminal elements surrounding hip-hop (that no doubt has to do with mass imprisonment of African-Americans in this country), the House subcommittee would rather intrude into the lives of the American people. This is nothing new, however.

For anyone who values free expression, the track record of Washington hearings is pretty depressing. From the shameful days of HUAC's 1947 Red-hunting to the Tipper Gore-inspired 1985 rock lyric circus to the 2000 Senate hearings on marketing violent entertainment to minors, previous confrontations have inflamed cultural issues without offering any constructive solutions. Still, politicians keep summoning showbiz titans to Washington.

"Government interference in creative issues has had zero good results, in America or any other country," says Danny Goldberg, a veteran record executive and manager who testified at the 2000 hearings. "I probably agree with Bobby Rush on about 99 out of 100 things, but whether you think hip-hop or video games are elevating and illuminating or creepy and immoral, you can't change the evolution of culture by a Congressional hearing. All you get is a climate of fear." –Los Angeles Times

Danny Goldberg wins the award for the best characterization of hearings or panel examinations such as this. These hearings are by and large lucrative and do little to explain why artists use misogynistic, violent, and offensive lyrics. Hip-hop didn’t use to have such demeaning and offensive lyrics. For anyone turned off, they can listen to what is known as “old school” hip-hop and realize that fact.

Really what this is about is satisfying two crowds. One crowd is the PC liberal crowd and the evangelicals who unite under an umbrella here to cry out against offensive, violent, and misogynistic lyrics; the second crowd is the corporations, who want to make money and understand they must get the nod of approval from the PC liberals and evangelicals in order to continue to reap profits.

Many fans of hip-hop like myself do not like the mainstream music that was the subject of this examination at all because it has no soul and much of the music is largely uniform or to put it simply, every song says the same thing.

From a rapper who supports my feeling that “mainstream hip-hop long ago sold its soul”, Chuck D, the figurehead of Public Enemy, one of rap's fiercest political voices, says, “Corporate America's interest is to separate people, turn people into product, consumers...You got to remember as black folks...we were all sold just like product, too."

Until we tackle the sources of offensive, violent, misogynistic, racist, ignorant, and naive speech in America, the people of America will have to deal with speech that may not fit their values. Until we tackle institutional, systemic, and corporate racism, the lyrics will be heard. And if Americans don’t like it, they can exit stage left or stage right.

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Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure." He was an editor for
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