The Rap on Censorship

Let me be the first to say it in the language of hip hop: I've been hating on Eminem for a long time.

Yeah, yeah, I know he's got skillz, but so do a lot of other guys whose rhyme dictionary begins with "bitch" and ends with "ho." Maybe it's the fact that I heard the original version of his album, including jokes about raping lesbians, before he cut a clean version and became a crossover hit. Rappers like Eminem made it harder and harder for women like me (who actually listen to the lyrics) to dance to the music we once loved, and many of us have abandoned ship for other music like soul or drum 'n bass.

But when the FCC, led Gen. Colin Powell's son Michael Powell, decided to battle the Real Slim Shady by fining Colorado's KKMG for playing an edited version of his song, I reluctantly have to stand up not in his defense, but ours.

The call to make the airwaves safe for America's children sounds good, doesn't it? The problem is, the approach is all wrong.

First of all, it's a slippery slope.

Just look at who else has gotten caught in the FCC's net: one of the most effective critics within the hip hop movement. Sarah Jones is an actress, writer, and poet whose song "Your Revolution" has given young women a sense of personal freedom. In it, she sings lyrics like "The real revolution ain't about bootie size/The Versaces you buys/Or the Lexus you drives." It gets spicier, and more effective. for that, the FCC fined station KBOO in Portland $7000 on May 14 of this year...for playing the song in 1999.

Frankly, hip hop was a lot less vulgar before it became a crossover hit in white households, and a cash cow to record labels. When the music was an underground phenomenon, DJs and MCs produced party music and more political songs like the anti-cocaine track "White Lines" and KRS-One's black history lesson "You Must Learn." But how many white suburban kids want to listen to a black history lesson? The market quickly devolved into lowest-common denominator blaxsploitation, images of the "real" life on the streets that often bore no semblance to reality.

The reason teens listen to rap is probably twofold: one, to piss off their parents and, two, to find an authentic mode of expression in a world where everything seems shiny-happy-false. Yes, hip hop often presents a false mirror of the gritty and grimy, but censoring it will simply end an incomplete conversation about issues like drugs, sexuality, schools, and aspirations for the future, all of which come up in hip hop lyrics.

But how do you urge the conversation to go to a higher level when market forces are pushing it to a lowest common denominator? The record industry itself is finally beginning to take proactive steps with meetings like June's Hip Hop Summit, attended by moguls including Russell Simmons and artists including Queen Latifah, Sean "Puffy" Combs, and Talib Kweli. Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, who has long set out to have a dialogue with the rap community, stated: "Society wants lyrics cleaned up but it (society) doesn't want to clean itself up." For their part, artists committed to bring more positive content into hip hop without top-down censorship.

Led by a bipartisan group including former Vice Presidential candidate Senator Joe Lieberman, Congress seems set on proposing even more restrictions on pop culture content. But the best reason not to censor musicians like Eminiem is the same reason prohibition backfired -- government repression increases demand. Those parental labeling stickers simply made f***ed-up lyrics sexier to teenagers. Efforts to take songs like Eminem's off the airwaves will create even more of an us-vs.-them mentality, leading people who don't support the lyrics but do support free speech to band with moneymakers in it for a quick buck. Meanwhile, a much better approach would be to turn down the rhetoric, discuss the actual issues behind the music, and make sure the Sarah Joneses of the world are as well known as the Eminems.

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